The Tao of Kayaking

The flow. That is what draws me to kayaking. I love rock climbing and mountaineering, and even though I always manage to get into that particular state of mind known as ‘the zone’ when I am climbing, it is still very much a struggle and a grind. You are constantly fighting gravity, always waging war with the forces of nature trying to slow or even stop you. There is very little of this when you kayak.

I also love whitewater rafting, but this still lacks the feeling of grace and unity with the water that you get when kayaking. My analogy for rafting compared to kayaking is this: Rafting is like driving a school bus through the rapids, it just plows through or over them, while kayaking the same current you are very much immersed in the act; it is more like driving a Ferrari. The big waves either crash over you or you flow over them. You really get an intense feel for the river.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the river, equal to or exceeding the respect I feel for mountains or rocks, except with one major difference. For the most part, high peaks and crags change slowly, certainly mountains change from week to week and even day to day, but they are not constantly in motion like the water is, and that is a huge factor in the danger of river running compared to climbing. I explained it to some of my non-kayaking climbing buddies: Imagine if every hold you were reaching for shifted under your feet and hands.

Even though this makes kayaking in many ways more dangerous than climbing, it is also what compels me. That feeling of smooth flowing oneness with the water is such a bitchin’ rush, a powerful soul-narcotic, a liquid addiction. I have not kayaked nearly enough, and certainly I have far less experience as a boater than as a climber, but I am hoping that this year, especially since I now live on the North Umpqua, will see me gain a lot more knowledge and skill as a paddler. I have gotten out in my hardshell several times already, but since I do not have a skirt for it, I am limited to what I can do. And since I haven’t learned how to roll yet, this also limits my ability to use it in the big water.

This means that I am essentially limited to kayaking with my friends who have extra inflatable kayaks to use, not a particularly bad thing considering that my friend Brandon, whom I have kayaked with the most, lives about ten miles away and is generally available to run the river fairly regularly. My friend Scott, despite having moved to Texas several months ago, visits the area around once each month and he too, has spare boats for me to use.

There is something so magnificent about hitting a standing wave correctly, or choosing the right line for a big drop, it feels so incredibly good when you’ve done it right, and that is what I mean by the title of this blog. Taoism is about unity, but also duality, and that is the essence of kayaking. You are separate from the river, a (seemingly) solid being floating on liquid, and yet neither you nor the river is completely one or the other. You flow together as a unit, and become one. I can feel this so perfectly when I am on the water, and not just when I am crashing through whitewater either. In the flats, with the crystal clear river-bottom moving silently beneath you it is just as apparent, perhaps even more so. Fish dart past, river otters watch you cautiously before slipping below the surface, eagles and Osprey glide overhead, and you just move so easily from scene to scene, immersed in beauty and wonder.

It isn’t all flowing, of course, you have to fight very hard to stay in balance, you have to paddle like a crazy person to keep your boat from being tipped, tomb-stoned or tossed by the massive power of these huge rapids, but even this struggle is not the same struggle one finds in rock climbing. To run the gauntlets correctly, you have to find a line that will allow you to struggle/flow all at once. It is both, and it is neither, and that is another essence of Tao.

Let’s think about what the word Tao means. The most commonly known interpretation translates loosely to ‘the way’ or path or route (the Hanyu Da Zidian dictionary has 39 meanings for the word.) When kayaking (or rafting for that matter), you are taught to ‘read’ the river, to find the appropriate line through a passage of chaos, and I feel like this is where the path of river Taoism is best exemplified. When the water is calm, you can float almost anywhere on the river without worry of consequence, but when the rapids commence, picking the right way through is of absolute importance. You must find that line where you can be unified with the river, or else you will pay the price. Isn’t life the same way? Without some sense of unity and flow in our lives, we are beset by chaos and struggle, but when we find the way, things just tend to flow, and life is easier and more serene, even when times of conflict occur. We move smoothly when we are unified.

I will leave you now with a quote from 365 Tao, a daily reader of Taoist thought written by Deng Ming-Dao: “Therefore, tuning ourselves  to Tao is the basic task. We must make ourselves the perfect instrument, much in the way a beautiful harp has all its strings adjusted. If we are less than perfect, how will we harmonize with the universal music? Once we are attuned, we can become open to Tao. Where it leads, we follow without hesitation. Just as a musician expresses individual talent and understanding and yet blends with the swelling magnificence of the orchestra, so too does the follower of Tao remain human and yet in harmony with the universal.”

Namaste.

The Tyrolean Traverse

Logan Wetherell on the Tyrolean Traverse

It had been a few years since the last time I had been able to take on this epic adventure, the tyrolean traverse between Old Man and Old Woman rocks in the upper North Umpqua river area. Established as an annual tradition by Greg Orton for the UCC Rock Climbing 2 classes five years ago, I was determined to go this time. Last year I missed it because my baby girl Julia had just been born, and the year before…I can’t even remember why I missed that one. In any case, the climbing gods were being kind this year (as was Greg Orton), since the climb would be held the day after little JuJu’s first birthday. I was really pleased to be able to do it again.

A crag near Old Man

For those of you who do not know what a tyrolean traverse is, here is the explanation from Wikipedia: “A Tyrolean traverse is a method of crossing through free space between two high points on a rope without a hanging cart or cart equivalent. This is used in a range of mountaineering activities:rock climbing, technical tree climbing, caving and water crossings. A zip-line is in essence a Tyrolean traverse which is traveled down quickly with the assistance of gravity. In rock climbing a Tyrolean traverse is most often used to return to the main part of a wall after climbing a detached pillar.” ‘Nuff said.

Eagle Rock from Old Man

I woke up at 7:30, got dressed, made some tea, and left an hour later when my friend and climbing partner Harold Hall picked me up. We headed out and met up with Greg at the Glide Store. We left Harold’s truck at the store and got in the bus with the rest of the teachers and students. All told, there were twelve of us going on this trip: 5 students, 6 teachers and Tyler, one of the teacher’s 13 year old son. As we drove up the winding Highway 138 towards the crags, we watched a climbing movie called Front Range Freaks. After half an hour of driving, we arrived at the trailhead, gathered our gears and set out.

I had been sick for the previous four days so I wasn’t sure how much my fitness would be compromised, but I was pleased to discover that I could keep up with Logan, one of the teachers who was in the lead for the hike, and we arrived at the base of the rocks in about forty minutes. We scrambled up the last part of the steep trail and then climbed up the steep, loose gully that takes one to the very toe of the rocks.

We organized our group into climbing teams, sorted gear and then the climbing began in earnest. Almost everyone went up Old Man – 9 of us – while only Harold, Bobbie and the young climber Tyler went up the substantially easier Old Woman.

With a group of this size, it took quite a long time for all nine of us to get on top of Old Man. It is a two-pitch (two rope length) climb, and the the base of the second pitch is a small notch with room for only three people, so it was several hours before I was able to head up, especially since I was running the sweep position, collecting gear and setting up the haul bag.

The view from the base of the climb

I have to make a confession of stupidity here. I had decided to wear my pack while I climbed, which probably had fifteen pounds in it, since I had done this climb before and I thought it would add a bit of challenge to the rock climb. I could have added the pack to the gear-haul line, but oh no, I just had to make it more difficult. As it turned out I would really regret the decision.

Heading up the first pitch was no problem, I made good time, I wasn’t struggling at all, and I felt strong. I reached the notch in just a few minutes. Our rope team waited for about ten minutes before the last person on the team ahead of ours headed up, and about fifteen minutes after that I was tying in the haul bag and then heading up myself. As soon as I got on the second pitch I regretted wearing the damned anchor on my back. I thrashed, I struggled, and for a time I wasn’t certain if I would be able to do it at all. Somehow I managed to get myself up, cleaning gear and freeing the haul bag where it had gotten stuck in a crack. Once more I had the opportunity to attach my backpack, but I am apparently a glutton for punishment.

Dome Rock from the summit of Old Man

A few drops of rain began to fall. Okay, no big deal. Then it began to rain a little harder. Shit. I took a look behind me and saw a wall of water bearing down. You have got to be kidding me. Here I was, last one up, already struggling, and I was about to get poured on, making what was already a fairly difficult climb into a desperate thrash.

The final twenty feet was incredibly difficult. Only rated at 5.7, with a final 5.8 move, I should have flown up the crack, but I really had a difficult time with it. Partly was the weight on my back, but a good deal of the struggle was due to the now-soaking wet rock. I slipped, I slid, I tried one move, then another, with no success. Finally I decided to just pull on the gear I needed to clean, something I ordinarily would not have done, but at this point I just wanted to get it over with. I yarded on the gear, flopped myself into the final, easy gully, and breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled up to the summit, with a few choice words for the rain gods and my stupidity in wearing the pack. Greg had a good laugh when he heard my colorful descriptions of what I had just endured.

Since I was the very last person to get on top of Old Man, the lines between the two towers had already been established (by throwing a rope across the 100 foot gap), and half an hour later Ray (one of the leaders and a really talented climber) went across first. I set up my tripod and filmed as he crossed safely. One by one, each of the students, teachers and even 13-year old Tyler took their turns making the incredible passage. A few of the students asked to wear my GoPro wearable POV camera, so I got some spectacular footage of their turns on the line.

I was one of the last ones to go, and I connected my harness to the rugged pulley system that would guide me across the yawning chasm – it is about one hundred feet across and about two hundred feet high. It was nice to be able to set out without a lot of fear clouding the experience. The first time I did the traverse, five years ago, I had felt terrified standing on the edge of Old Woman, and I really had to psych myself up to step out into empty air, but this time it was no problem. I pulled myself along the rope, hand over hand, still feeling the draining effects of the climb. After thirty seconds I was standing on the opposite side. Now was the fun part. I stepped off, held onto the carabiners connecting me to the pulley and let gravity do the work. I zipped across to my starting point in just a few seconds. It was all over too quickly.

Then, before we knew it, it was 5:30 in the afternoon and time to head down. The lines were dismantled, anchors taken apart and one by one, the students rappelled off Old Man (a spectacular event in its own right).

We gathered at the base of the rocks, packed up and headed out. I ended up arriving home at 9:20, nearly 13 hours after I had left, and 3 hours later than I had told my family I would be home, so I had some irritated family members to contend with, but they eventually forgave me, and all was well again. Nonetheless, it had been a great day, and another spectacular tyrolean between Old Man and Old Woman.

The Ten Best Reasons to take up Mountain Climbing

Mt. Jefferson in Central Oregon.

So, as part of my ongoing effort to be a more productive blogger, I am creating this list in the hope that I can encourage my readers to make mountaineering a regular part of their lives, or to at the very least try to climb a single high peak.

#1: Mountaineering is an amazing, uplifting, inspiring event that you will never, ever forget. Sure, it’s grueling, dusty, sometimes cold, sometimes hot, but the rewards are beyond measure. Standing at the top of some great mountain and being able to see further than you have ever seen before, and knowing that you and you alone got yourself up there is a tremendously satisfying feeling. Even if you do not enjoy the actual climb (realistically not everyone does enjoy such a mammoth effort), you will at least feel pride in your accomplishment.

#2: Climbing big mountains will get you in amazing physical shape. I was sore for a week after my first climb of Mt. Thielsen, but over the years as I climbed more and more mountains per year, I have gone from being someone who could only slowly plod up mountains to someone who can nearly run up them, and I am not yet in peak condition. The first time I climbed, it took me over six hours to get to the summit, and when I returned to that same mountain ten years later, I was able to complete the same climb in 2.5 hours. If you can get yourself up a mountain like Rainier in good time then you could also probably consider running a 10k. Just the simple act of climbing, even on the smallest mountains, takes a ton of physical exertion, so if you do it regularly, I guarantee you will end up in superb shape.

#3 Mountains are spiritual places. There is a reason why so many of the great sages, saints and spiritual leaders would go to the high places of the world: They are spirit centers. You can feel it, you can sense it, these are places to renew the soul and recharge the heart. The silence of the mountains is worth all the words ever spoken by mankind. As John Muir said “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” He also said, after completing the first ascent of Cathedral Peak in the Tuolumne region of Yosemite National Park, “This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California.”

#4:  Beauty.Even if you are not a spiritual person, mountains are still fabulously beautiful places. You will feel better just having been around such tranquil, purified beauty. There is a starkness to the landscape, the trees are often twisted by the fierce winter winds, the rocks have been scoured by ancient glaciers, volcanoes show their explosive past in multi-colored layers of ash and basalt, the lakes and streams are either crystal clear or colored brilliant blue or turquoise by glacial sediment. The sunrises and sunsets in the mountains are justifiably famous, the peaks colored salmon by alpenglow.This austere beauty can stir even the most unmovable hearts.

#5: Solitude. Needing to get away from the madding crowd? Tired of cities, smog, noise and the pollution that comes with so-called civilization? Plan a trip to the alpine. Even if you do not venture far above treeline, the calm and quiet of the mountain world can be a balm for the ragged soul. Just be sure you go to the right mountain. Places like Mt. Hood in Oregon, Mt. Fuji in Japan and the Alps of Western Europe are unfortunately not the places to go seeking wilderness and solitude. There are, however, many many more mountains all across the world where a seeker could find complete emptiness and not see another human being for days.

#6: Climbing Mountains is a huge ego-boost. My own life is a perfect reflection of this. Before I began successfully climbing big peaks, I had experienced mostly failure in my life, I thought I was a loser, I thought I was ugly and stupid, but after years of climbing ever-larger and more-challenging peaks, I began to see myself as a success, I learned perseverance and determination and bravery through the act of climbing, and now, in my early forties, I understand that I was a better person than I ever knew, but it had taken alpinism to show me what I was worth. Now I apply those lessons to the entirety of my life.

#7: You can become a teacher and a mentor. Now this one isn’t something that will happen right away, but once you have gained the knowledge, and even more importantly, the experience of being a leader in the mountains, you can then pass on all of those skills to the next generation, whether it is your own children (as I am doing with my kids) or with a protege. This is really important. The difference this can make in a young persons life is almost beyond measure. The self-esteem and confidence that the young draw from climbing can have a huge impact on the course of their lives.

#8: Travel. Since mountains exist nearly everywhere, developing a climbing obsession can take you to places that you might have only dreamed of. North & South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Antarctica. There are so many mountains in the world that even if you only climbed in one smaller geographic area, like the Western U.S., you could spend your entire life climbing and still not come close to climbing or even seeing all the peaks there. Using alpinism as motivation for travel can take you to some pretty fantastic places. One benefit of the over-developed Western European mountains is that after a grueling climb, one could be back in town for a beer and some amazing food and culture shortly afterwards, while in other countries like Peru, you will more likely encounter mostly rural culture, but either way, taking up climbing can transport you all over the world.

#9: Knowledge. Anyone who has an interest in biology, geology, or even chemistry will discover a huge outdoor laboratory in the mountains. Volcanoes and sedimentary peaks, fault-block mountains, and all of the corresponding ecological life zones that start from their toes and rise up to their summits will give a scientifically-inclined climber volumes of study material in a very real, hands-on manner. Books on the Geology of climbing  have even been written! Don’t forget that glaciologists too have ample opportunities in the mountain world.

#10: Going on a climbing trip will make you appreciate the comforts of home. This one is so true. When I am on a multi-day excursion, by the end of the trip I am often obsessing about a warm soft bed, cotton clothes, homemade hot food, a shower, and the loving welcome of my family. I cannot overstate how much you will rejoice at coming back to civilization. When I was in Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton, after nine days that was all I could think about, coming home. I didn’t want to climb any more mountains, I just wanted to get in the car and come home to my partner and our kids. Of course, a week later I was ready to go climbing again, but such is the cycle of an devoted climber!

Bonus Reason: There is something for everyone! Climbing mountains can entail a wide spectrum of experience, from easy walk-up peaks (even Mt. Whitney, highest peak in the lower 48 of the U.S. has a route where one literally walks to the summit.) to desperate rock and ice climbs where technical skill and knowledge are paramount for a safe experience. So go climbing! You can do it. I have suffered from Fibromyalgia, depression, and Asperger’s Syndrome the entire time I have been a climber, and while there have been occasions that have limited how much I can climb, for the most part I have found the act of mountaineering to be an incredibly healthy and positive part of my life, and it can be this way for you too. If I can do it, you can do it. I hope to see you in the mountains.

The experience of Zen in climbing.

Dragon Bell by Tiberius Dinu.

I first felt the spiritual side of climbing on my very first mountain climb. Mt Thielsen (aka Lightning Rod of the Cascades and originally known as Hischokwolas), which is for the most part nothing more than a steep hike, but becomes quite vertical on its final eighty foot pitch, and it is a bonafide rock climb to reach the tiny, precipitous summit. Many people elect to use a rope for this last section, but on this day (and also on every subsequent climb I have made on Thielsen), we would be forgoing the use of rope. I remember standing at the base of the summit pinnacle, staring up at the final pitch which was swarming with climbers, and feeling tremendously nervous at attempting the climb. I talked to some experienced climbers who were leading the climb for the Mazamas, and they reassured me that I was capable of completing the ascent. They also told me to grab a hold of their rope if I needed to.

After gathering my courage, I set out. What I experienced in the short time it took me to climb up to the summit was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and it would change my life forever. Time stood still. Conscious thought fell away. I became aware of only a few things: where my hands and feet were, and where they were going to go next. Nothing else existed. I was utterly absorbed in the moment. I was completely focused, which for me was a huge, huge deal. Focus has never been my strongest asset, and what I discovered on that climb was that for me to really have that kind of mindless concentration, I need to be at least somewhat scared.

The summit pinnacle of Mt. Thielsen. The climb goes up the left side.

I topped out on Mt. Thielsen, feeling elated but still painfully aware that the climb was far from over. I was standing on a table-sized summit with a no-joke 4000 foot drop on the north, and smaller but still fearsome cliffs on every other side, and after just a few minutes, I decided I needed to climb back down, and the down-climb took me to an even greater state of focus. Once back down, however, a huge sense of elation swept over me, and it would last for over a week after the climb. Probably due to having Asperger’s syndrome, I have always been painfully self-aware, completely locked in my head, and climbing the mountain took me outside of myself for the first time. I finally knew what freedom was, and I was hooked. Before that day, the idea of climbing a mountain was something that seemed like an interesting novelty, something to try because it seemed like a cool thing to do. After that climb, I knew that this would become a way of life for me, a path to follow, a calling.

I experienced that feeling of Zen, again and again, even on easier mountains that did not have technical aspects to them. Just the act of grinding out long miles up steep slopes would put me into that state, maybe not as intensely, but the repetitive motion of one foot in front of the other, over and over again, also can put me into a semi-meditative state. It is what high-level athletes often call ‘the zone’. I feel so fortunate to have found something that just automatically allows me to go there, and that is why I yearn to climb as often as I can.

I experience much of the same state when kayaking. Taking on a huge standing wave or running a six-foot drop transports me outside of myself and yet brings me more deeply inside at the same time. Which is why I have become almost as obsessive about river running as I am about climbing.

In my perfect world, I would climb a mountain on a weekly basis, I would kayak, rock climb and hike on nearly a daily basis, just to find that joy and freedom more often. It is a form of moving meditation, and for me, that is the perfect type of meditation.

Today I will leave you with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful little book The Long Road Turns To Joy: “When we practice walking meditation, we arrive in each moment. Our true home is in the present moment. When we enter the present moment deeply, our regrets and sorrows disappear, and we discover life with all its wonders. Breathing in, we say to ourselves, “I have arrived.” Breathing out, we say, “I am home.” When we do this, we overcome dispersion and dwell peacefully in the present moment, which is the only moment for us to be alive.”

Namaste.

Myanmar, Pindaya: 8000 Buddhas cave by Rene Drouyer

A change of direction

Layered masculine mandala by Patricia Fatta

I am trying to take my writing more seriously, and I have been doing a lot of research, reading advice from other, much more successful bloggers and writers on how to generate more interest in my work, and the one bit of advice that keeps popping up is that for a blog to have more success it is necessary to work on it every day. I haven’t been doing that, I have pretty much been writing only when I have had some adventure to write about, which, given the weather and my (formerly) painful condition, was only occurring a few times each month. The fact is, I have a lot I would like to say about outdoor adventure, but especially when it comes to climbing. I am so passionate about it, I think about it constantly, I read my guidebooks until I have them memorized, and I even dream about climbing on a near-nightly basis. I have been thinking about what aspect of climbing I might be able to write about that would appeal to a broader audience and not just to fellow climbers, and what I have come up with is the spiritual and healing side of climbing and outdoor adventure. Since I have gone through some pretty terrible pain and have managed recently to make my life virtually pain-free, I realized that I really have a lot to offer to other people who are suffering, whether or not they are climbers or outdoor recreationalists. Climbing is my metaphor. It is the very real symbol of what a person can achieve, even if they have depression, fibromyalgia, or any other type of suffering. I have gone through a lot, I have had my share of heartache and struggle, and yet I have managed to keep my dreams alive, I have climbed so many mountains I would have once thought impossible, I have taken on whitewater, rock climbed and snow-shoe’d despite agonizing pain, a crippling lack of self-esteem and I have done it all on a shoestring budget.

From this point on, I expect to write something regarding this aspect of adventure on a daily basis, drawing inspiration from my favorite writers and spiritual leaders such as the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sogyal Rinpoche, Jack Kornfield, Eckhart Tolle and Wayne Dyer in addition to many others. I will also cull information from my climbing guides, and write reviews of the many books and movies I either own or have seen. There is so much to write about when it comes to outdoor adventure, whether it is climbing, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, caving or even swimming. I hope you will join me in this new direction, and even more importantly, I hope to hear from each and every one of you who reads my blog. I really mean that. I am open to anything you have to say, even if it is criticism. Thank you for being a part of my journey, hopefully we will climb many mountains together, with words and pictures being the rope that binds us together. Namaste.

Looking Back.

It has been around three months since my chronic pain issues were miraculously relieved. I truly hadn’t expected to find a medication that would take away my pain. I had been using all sorts of narcotics which, while helpful, only lessened the extreme agony I had been feeling. I felt that the suffering I was enduring was a life-long thing that I just had to deal with, and since it seemed to be getting progressively worse, I could also expect to have more and more limitations to my life, especially physically. For someone who loves to climb, kayak and hike, this was a depressing scenario, to say the least.

So it has been months since the last time I felt anything close to agony. I still feel pain, but only when I forget to take my medication in  a timely fashion, and even what discomfort I feel is nothing too horrible. It is quite amazing to me. Consider the following video, from the last winter, when I was in the midst of a horrible attack:

I looked, and felt awful. Here I am a month ago on Bartram’s Rock:

While the two videos are admittedly different, I think it is still pretty obvious how much better I look and feel in the second one. My mother told me recently that I look like I had shed about ten years, and I think she’s right. My skin looks better, my body language has changed, but I think more than anything, the look in my eyes is radically different. I have had numerous people tell me what a change has come over me. That makes me happy, knowing how obvious the improvement is.

I recently had blood work and x-rays done at OHSU, Oregon’s premier hospital, and they all came back normal except for seriously low vitamin D levels, which I am now taking prescription mega-doses of to restore it to normalcy. So no Ankylosing Spondylitis or rheumatoid arthritis. Looks like Fibromyalgia (what I originally thought I had) is the main culprit. Actually, part of what tipped the doctors off is the relief that Tramadol (the med I started taking) gives me, it works for Fibro patients when nothing else will.

I am now in better shape for this time of year than I have been in ages, maybe ever. Usually I cannot really train or condition during the colder, wetter months of the year, but this year I am already in great shape. Got up Mt. Thielsen in around 4 hours, pretty good considering the snow level. When the blister on my ankle heals, I will be returning to the gym again, and push my fitness even further. I will be happy when I can climb Thielsen in 2.5 hours with snow. Nevertheless, this year is looking like it is going to be an awesome year for mountaineering, rock climbing and kayaking, and all thanks to finding the right medication.

3 Days of Adventure

It began on Saturday, May 5. I accompanied the Intro to Rock Climbing class from Umpqua Community College on their trip to Emigrant Lake in Southern Oregon. Normally I would have gone in the capacity as an assistant instructor, but since I was going to be writing an article about the class, journalistic ethics dictated that I go strictly as a writer, photographer and videographer. We left Roseburg in a UCC van, and began the 2.5 hour trip down Interstate Five. Willie Long, the instructor of the class, used the travel time to quiz the students about their homework from the previous week, which was to find an article about rock climbing to discuss on the trip. The students all had interesting questions from their articles, and the instructors all took turns helping them answer any questions. Soon enough, we arrived in Ashland, and headed east for the short drive to the lake.

I was particularly excited to go on this trip, mostly because I had not climbed at Emigrant Lake before, but also because I would be free to roam and take pictures of the students and teachers in action, something I would normally not be able to do if I had been helping teach.

We parked the van, got gear sorted, and Willie gathered the students for a brief discussion before heading out. Then it was a brief walk along the road before finding the trail along the lake’s northern shore. One downfall about Emigrant Lake is the poison oak — it grows in massive proliferation everywhere, so much so that I am not sure if I have ever seen so much in a single area before. Luckily the trail is fairly wide, and even more fortunate, some considerate souls had come to the crags the day before and cut much of it down.

Students hiking along the north shore of Emigrant Lake in Jackson County, Oregon

We arrived at the cliffs after a ten-minute hike, and I must admit, I was surprised. I hadn’t expected it to be so spectacular. The pictures in the climbing guide made me think it was smaller, less picturesque, and more akin to a roadside quarry than the beautiful, rugged cliff we found ourselves staring up at. Not a huge area by any means, its setting beside the azure waters of the lake while surrounded by the high wooded hills of the Siskiyou Mountains was what really made it special. As soon as we arrived I was glad I came.

The crags and the lake

Once the class had gotten on their harnesses and helmets, Willie went over a brief safety lecture, while the other assistants scrambled to the top of the cliff to set up top-ropes and rappel stations. I accompanied the other assistants, climbing up into an interesting alcove, and scrambling up through a narrow hole to reach the top of the crag. I filmed and took still shots while they set up the ropes, enjoying the freedom of being a writer rather than a teacher. Unfortunately, I had once again forgotten my tripod in my eagerness to go climbing, so I had to make do with hand-held shots. Nevertheless, the footage turned out okay despite some shakiness.

Within a half an hour, the first students were beginning to climb, so I started filming. I had brought along not just my Sony Handycam (which is only 480 resolution), but also my GoPro Hero 2 high definition, wearable action camera, and I asked for student volunteers to put it on as they climbed. A student named Trevor was the first volunteer, and I strapped it to his helmet as he climbed, the first time I had been able record any sort of first-person camera views, and the shots turned out pretty spectacular.

Once the students had settled in and got climbing, Logan, one of the instructors, asked for a belay (the act of controlling the rope) so he could set up another climb, and I volunteered. Once he had led the climb and lowered back down, I decided it was time for myself to climb. Only a short climb of 40 or 50 feet, it took me a short time to complete it. Then it was back to filming.

The beautiful climbing area

During the course of the day, I had made up my mind that this was a place I would have to bring my family. Rock climbing, swimming, hiking, boating, not to mention the quirky town of Ashland (famous for its renowned Shakespeare Festival) nearby. It is a really special place.

The serene beauty of Emigrant Lake from the top of the crags

The day went by far too quickly, and when it was getting obvious that we would soon have to head back to Roseburg, I made sure that I got a few more climbs in. I jumped on a 5.10 route and found it challenging, but I was able to complete it. A short time later I climbed a much easier route in the 5.6-5.7 range, and while I only climbed three routes that day, I got a lot of filming in, and gained some more experience as an outdoor videographer, not to mention that I had gotten to see a fabulous new area.

When it was time to go, we gathered all our gear and belongings and headed back down the path to the parking area, loaded back up in the bus, and headed north on I-5. Half the class was asleep within an hour.

I came home, tired, dusty and happy, but ready for more. I gave myself a short time to rest, but then I had to pack my bags for the next day. I had been planning to climb Mt. Thielsen, “Lightning Rod of the Cascades” for several weeks, and had been already foiled once due to a inaudible alarm, so even though I hadn’t been able to round up a partner for some alpine fun, I had decided to go solo. I packed up the clothes, food and gear I would need, made sure my alarm would work properly this time, then settled down to go to sleep.

I had set my alarm for 5:30, a little later than I would normally have chosen to wake, but considering that I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep, I knew that getting an extra hour of sleep would be more important than leaving earlier. I ended up waking up a little before five, I was so worried my alarm wouldn’t work again. I made coffee, ate a breakfast of yogurt and granola, and headed out shortly after 6 a.m. I headed east on Highway 138, winding along the beautiful North Umpqua river, sharing the road with just a few early morning travelers. I made one stop at the base of Eagle Rock to snap a quick picture, then continued on.

Eagle Rock in the early morning sun

Soon the highway began heading more steeply uphill, the forests of Douglas Firs gave way to Ponderosa Pines, and I knew the mountains were near. I caught sight of Mt. Bailey first, its great rounded bulk appearing through the trees. Then I saw Howlock Mountain, one of the forgotten mountains of the Cascade Range, and shortly after that the unforgettable, towering form of Thielsen appeared, an awe-inspiring sight no matter how many times I see it. I felt my excitement rise. I would soon be at the trailhead.

When I arrived at the pullout for the Mt. Thielsen trail, there was still five feet of snow, and the temperature was a chilly 25 degrees. I got on my warm clothes, sorted my gear, and ten minutes after arriving, I was on my way, happy to find firm snow under my boots.

There had been only one other vehicle in the parking lot, so I knew there was somebody ahead of me, but I never saw them until high on the mountain, nevertheless I still found it reassuring to follow their footprints, whoever they were. At least I would not be the only person on the peak.

Beautiful Mt. Bailey coming into view

I was surprised at how quickly the time passed, and even more surprised when I reached the base of the ridge in a little over an hour. The snow was deep enough that it eliminated many of the switchbacks that would normally have to be followed in summer conditions. The snow also allowed me to head straight uphill in a section of blown-down forest that makes for unpleasant hiking. I was particularly glad to have escaped that part of the trail.

In about two hours and twenty minutes I had reached the base of the final steep ridge, and I was very pleased at my physical condition. If I had not been able to virtually eliminate my chronic pain issues several months earlier, I would have never been able to be in that kind of shape.

Tracks leading up to the main ridge

As I traversed along the beautiful, gently corniced ridge, I could hear the other alpine travelers above me, and soon spotted them climbing about half a mile and several hundred feet above me. I had decided to take my first real rest break before things started getting steeper, so I filmed the two climbers as they moved steadily upwards (I remembered to bring my tripod this time.)

After taking perhaps twenty minutes to eat, drink and recharge, I began climbing again. I followed in the footsteps of the climbers ahead of me, appreciative of their trail-breaking efforts since the snow was much deeper and softer by this time. After about half an hour of steady uphill trudging, I came upon one of the two guys that had been ahead of me. We talked for a short time, and he told me his companion was going to ski down one of the chutes that line the western, upper slope of the peak while he took pictures. I said goodbye, and continued on.

As the angle of the slope increased, the iciness of the snow also increased, to the point where kicking steps was almost impossible, so I found an outcrop of rock to sit down, put on my crampons (the spikes that go on the bottom of a climber’s boots), stowed my trekking poles and busted out the ice-axe. Then I was heading back up.

The lovely lines of the corniced ridge

I had hoped that I would catch up with the other climber (who was actually there to ski, not to summit) before he began his descent, but when I had almost reached the spot where I had last seen him, I heard the sound of skis, and I missed nearly all of his run. Oh well. I continued on.

I reached the point where the actual climbing begins, a two- or three-hundred foot high section of loose, shaley rock that in dry conditions is third class scrambling (the climbing scale goes from 1st class, walking on flat ground, to fifth class, technical climbing) but when covered by rime ice, as it was that morning, is certainly much more challenging. Having crampons on my feet only added to the difficulty. I began scrambling up and around the steep section, and it took me about half an hour to get past it. I was near the summit now.

Nearing the summit pinnacle

I was also close to 9000 feet, and the altitude was slowing me down. There is nothing for it, you just have to keep pushing. I was now traversing around the southern side of the summit pinnacle, on a thirty degree snow slope littered with chunks of ice. As I struggled upwards, more and more blocks of ice fell off the mountain — ahead of me, behind me, all around me — and while none were so big as to be seriously injurious, they were also worrisome in the sense that a surprise hit could easily cause me to lose my balance. The intensity level rose.

My right leg started to cramp, painfully, a real charlie-horse. I was surprised by this, since I have never had this problem climbing before, and it got bad enough that I almost gave up, but I was so close to the summit, and with past failures running through my head, I knew I couldn’t give up that easily, so I pushed through it. At this point, the slope was getting steeper, close to 40 or 45 degrees, and as I headed up, both legs started to cramp. I was getting seriously annoyed at this point, but still refused to surrender. I had a feeling it was due to the steepening angle of the snow, and I could see that if I climbed about 30 feet higher, the angle would relent. I persevered, and sure enough, as soon as I reached the moderate slope, the cramps stopped. I was glad I hadn’t surrendered.

I was really close now, but the amount of ice debris falling off the mountain was getting me downright spooked. I was all alone on the mountain, and I was begining to feel resigned to the fact that I probably would not summit on this day. I wanted, no, I needed to at least get to the base of the summit pinnacle and asses the final, near-vertical pitch before giving up.

I trudged up the final gully, and found myself at 9,100 feet. Only 80 feet seperated me from the summit. I stared up at it, wanting desperately to climb it, and I knew I could, even though it was still fairly covered with rime. As I watched, pieces of ice would break loose every five to ten seconds, over and over again. I thought of my family, my children, my partner, and I knew today was not a day to push it. If I had been up there with a partner, I would have done it, but I was alone. Besides, I have summited five times before, and I would be coming back again, so why worry? This was a training climb anyway. I sat down at the base, took a little break and enjoyed the amazing views, but there was still so much debris raining down, and I was in a vulnerable position, so I only stayed for a few minutes before retreating down the mountain.

On the way down, I met up with several more skiers, one of whom commended me for having the good sense not to summit. I ended up filming him as he hiked up, and then skied down, and later gave him my e-mail address so I could send him the film I took. I got back to the car, and headed back home. Even though I knew I had made the right decision, it still bothered me to have been so close and not summited.

The next day, I woke up, re-packed my bags, and drove twenty minutes back up Highway 138 to the Swiftwater Park Guest House, where I would be meeting Bill Blodgett, owner and head guide of North Umpqua Outfitters. I had asked Bill about interviewing him for an article for the UCC Newspaper, and he had generously offered me a place on board an all-day float down the upper North Umpqua. I have kayaked various sections on our beloved river, but hadn’t managed to take on the most challenging section yet, so I was really pumped about going.

When I got to the Guest House, Bill introduced me to his wife Sharon and the two clients who would be going, Dave and Lynn from Chicago. Dave is an experienced adventurer, having taken many guided floats on rivers all across the U.S., while this would by Lynn’s first experience on whitewater. Shortly after meeting them, our final member of the float, Dale Red Hawk, arrived. Dale is in the guiding program for UCC, and this trip would be some of his final required hours to achieve his certificate. We all changed into wetsuits, loaded into Bill’s Excursion SUV, and headed upriver.

We stopped about half an hour later at the Boulder Flat campground, where the boat ramp is located. Bill took us through a short safety lecture, we got our life jackets on, clambered aboard the raft and shoved off. We were on our way, with Dale and I whooping it up as we began.

Getting ready to take on the North Umpqua!

One of the absolute best aspects of taking a trip with Bill is his knowledge of history, biology and geology of the river. Nearly every significant rock, bridge and cave we encountered had some unique and interesting story attached to it, and it makes the trip a veritable classroom. I have gone on three floats with Bill now, and I have always enjoyed his storytelling and knowledge. This trip was no different.

Soon we encountered our first set of rapids, and as we crashed and splashed through the class III waves (the river rapid ratings go from class I, easy riffles, to class VI, huge drops and dangerous maelstroms), we cheered and laughed. The water in the North Umpqua is incredibly cold though,  and within ten minutes my right hand was pretty much numb.

The first section is kind of a warm up – four class III rapids with numerous class II. We enjoyed the fun, relatively easy-going section,knowing that the real gnarly stuff would be coming after lunch. We paddled in unison, obeying Bill’s commands of “all forward”, and “forward three strokes.” You have to keep your peripheral vision on the person opposite you when you are in the front of the boat so that your strokes match, and it is a fun challenge to try to time it right. Dale and I seemed to match up with each other pretty well.

Paddling with Dale was also a delight. He has an infectious spirit, and his knowledge of the local Native American tribal history was another aspect of this trip I really treasured. He truly loves paddling and guiding, and I was so thankful he was on board for this trip.

The names of the different rapids – Boulder Hole, Dog wave, Cardiac Arrest & Weird Weir, are another fun aspect of any run down the river, and we passed through each with whoops, hollers and a great deal of laughter. That is the one thing I really enjoyed about this trip — the sheer joy we all seemed to feel as we passed through each obstacle, and how much we all laughed.

When we had gone about six miles, Bill had us pull over at Horseshoe Bend, where his wife Sharon had laid out a beautiful lunch for us. We ravenously wolfed down our sandwiches, chips, cookies and soda, and let the sun warm up our chilled bodies. I also took the time to switch batteries on my GoPro action camera, which I was wearing on my helmet, thus ensuring that I would have more than enough battery life to film the second section.

Sharon puts away the wonderful lunch she had prepared

Then we got all our splash wear and life jackets back on, got back on the raft (with Dave and Lynn taking the front position) and headed back out. I was really excited to tackle this section, especially since the most challenging part of the whole river – the class IV Pinball rapid – was in the heart of it.

At first I was a little disappointed to be sitting in the middle for the more exciting section, but later I was glad, since filming it with Dave and Lynn in the shot gave the rapids a better perspective, you could really see the water washing over them. Plus, since it was Lynn’s first whitewater excursion, she really needed to experience it upfront when it got crazy.

The names of the rapids on this section are: Toilet Bowl (III), Froggers I and II (both class III), Rollout (III), African Queen (III), Pinball (IV), Headknockers Moe and Curly (also both class III), and finally, Silk’s Hole (III). Between these are numerous class II rapids, making the seven mile section pretty much continuous rapids for most of its length.

I had been really anticipating going through Pinball in particular, since it is the most famous and notorious of the runnable rapids on the North (there are actually two class V/VI rapids further down, but they are particularly dangerous, so hardly anyone ever runs these.) When we were getting close, my heart started beating faster, and I felt a new energy in my paddling, but when we actually got to the rapid, I was somewhat disappointed. I had expected a rapid both big and technical, but it was mostly just technical. Now don’t get me wrong, I can understand why it is class IV, but it has more to do with being able to paddle like crazy, twisting and turning, dodging boulders and making sure you follow the right line. It is a long rapid, though, and we were all having to paddle nearly all the way through, but in short order, we had dispatched it, and coasted out into calmer waters.

I immediately knew I had to return to take on this section of the river in a kayak. For a long time, I had avoided running it because I felt that I wasn’t ready for it. Now that I had experienced it, I knew I could do it in a smaller boat.

After that, we still had three more class III rapids, the Headknockers Moe and Curly almost immediately after Pinball, and passed through them with more joyful shouts and hollers. Then a while later, we passed the final major obstacle, Silk’s Hole. Soon afterwards, we pulled up to the take out at Gravel Bin, and I had the same feeling I get every time a float is ending: Disappointment. I have yet to make a run down our beloved river where I felt that I had had enough, and this time was no different, despite 13 miles, 9 class III and one class IV rapid. It just never is enough.

Guess I will have to float the Colorado through the Grand Canyon sometime. I bet that will be satisfying enough.

The three days of adventure were through. I had made it, and now I was exhausted. It took me close to a week to recover, but it was so worth it. I would do it many times over if I could, and I found myself reflecting on the adventure with great happiness. This is what I live for, this is what my passion is. It was awesome.