Monday, December 19, 2011

15 Dec 1967 - ordeal enough for me

kw: personal experiences, ordeals, hiking, climbing

The date 12/15/1967 is significant to me for several reasons. One is that, from late afternoon until late evening, I found myself fighting for my life on a mountainside.

I enjoy walking, and hiking even more, and when I was living in Pasadena in the late 1960s I often hiked partway up the old Mount Wilson road. I never went all the way to Mount Wilson, which is eleven miles, but usually stopped at Henninger Flats after four miles before returning. The 8-mile round trip made for a pleasant afternoon's walk. I nearly always went alone.

On this occasion I was early, and decided to try a shortcut down the mountain. In this overview of part of the area, the Henninger Flats Ranger Station is at upper right. Top center you can see a turnout in the fire road. It is at the head of a small canyon down which I decided to hike. At extreme lower left is a cliff that interrupts the canyon, and brought about my difficulties. Actually, my ignorance and arrogance brought about my difficulties. That, and the lack of a topographic map, which might have led me to a safer route.

I took my time going down the little canyon, and it was easy walking for the half hour or so it took me to go about half a mile. Along the way I hopped down a couple of little dry waterfalls that were five or six feet high. Then I came to a twenty-footer. I managed to clamber down that one, which shows in this relief image as a chute to left of center.

I was walking along, thinking, "I'm glad I don't have to go back up that one". Then I came to the cliff/waterfall at bottom left. What shows in this image is a fifty-foot sheer drop. The drop is followed by very steep going for another hundred feet. Measuring with Google Earth while compiling these images, I figured the total drop is 154 feet.

I had no climbing equipment. I am not a very good free-climber. I was stuck! Nobody knew where I was. Although I knew I was within a mile of the ranger station, I didn't think they would hear me if I yelled, because of the ridge intervening. I was a couple weeks past my twentieth birthday, and wondering if it might be my last.

I decided to climb the canyon wall to my southeast (the right side of this image). I walked back up to the 20-foot dropoff and began climbing there. To my dismay, this was a north-facing canyon wall, so it had more vegetation than the opposite side. Most of the vegetation was thorny. Zigging and zagging to miss the roughest patches, and just plowing through where I had to, I climbed from sundown until after 9:00 PM, almost four hours.

When I attained the ridge top, I was just about center-right in this image, where a fire trail goes along the ridge line. From there I hiked half a mile to the Ranger Station. The ranger on night duty kindly gave me some water and called my parents to let them know I was OK and would be home in a couple of hours. I looked in a mirror, and was surprised that I wasn't the bloody mess I expected from all the thorns. My shirt was a total loss, but had protected me.

I hiked back down the four miles to where my car was parked and went home. It is the last time I have hiked alone, or without mapping the route beforehand! Those principles stood me in good stead in graduate school; I hiked a few hundred miles of the trails in the Black Hills getting my studies there done. I always made sure there was a safe route to the places I needed to go, and didn't deviate. I also usually carried a topo map.

I am thankful I didn't actually have very far to go, when I got stuck, and even more thankful I was in good physical shape for a 4-hour climb. I'd have been really embarrassed if Search and Rescue had to come out to get me. It is said, "You have to know your limitations." Sometimes it takes a bit of foolishness to find that out. Glad I lived through it.

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