We pull up to a sandy beach at 3:30 in the afternoon June 8 2013. Our 2nd day rafting down the Tuolumne River in California, just outside the limits of Yosemite National Park. It is a 110 degrees and the sun is in baking mode. We have been running rapids all day – class 5 first thing this morning and everything else in between since. We found our spit of sand to camp the night but I feel restless.
Directly opposite us across the river is a somewhat steep, rocky, barren sun-drenched mountain that is enticing me to climb. On its false summit is a sizable rocky outcrop that appears to have a magnificent view of the Tuolumne River and its valley both east and west. I search out a line that I think I could climb up and down in about 2 1/2 hours. Lacking common sense, I am reminded of the blasting heat, still I decide to ‘go for it’.
Hal tells me to bring a second liter of water but I don’t listen and strike off with 1 liter, a small pack, headlight and jacket. I intend to be back for hors d’oeuvres before dinner and certainly long before dark. It is 4:30pm as I head up this unnamed mountain. The going is good but I notice the earth is quite sandy, super dry and crumbly. Only dead straw-like weeds have grown on this sun-baked slope and there is no root system to hold it all together. This is rattlesnake country and I tell myself to beware every step. I make good progress and foolishly get sucked-in to a new line straight up the mountain instead of my original traverse.
Sometime after half way up I am starting to doubt my direct route to the summit. It has got a lot steeper to about 55° and the ground even more unstable. Fortunately on the rocky sections I can make fast progress because the footings are solid and there are many hand-holds, but elsewhere the ground breaks up underfoot. I soon realize I need to conserve my water realizing ¾ is already gone.
I am now probably 2/3rd up and I can clearly see the summit rock. However, I realize I’m in trouble. The slope is nearly 60° and I am definitely dehydrated. It has become way too dangerous to down climb on this sandy soil since any slide would be unstoppable to the river hundreds of feet below. I see a lot of what I imagine to be rattlesnake dens. I need to use my bare hands grabbing earth full of thorns to move up. I am horribly dehydrated and my mouth feels like the Sahara desert. The sun is still belting down hard. I can feel my heart racing to pump thick blood through my veins. I need to calculate every step to stay alive. One miss-step and I am gone.
At about 7/8’s up I see what appears to be a great line to a traverse left under the rocky summit outcrop and then on a steep but manageable ridge to the top. Several times in the last ½ hour I’ve found myself on dicey sections partially trapped but always maneuvered somehow to figure a way out. I was already jaded enough to know picking a line can be deceiving and you better get it right because down climbing is no-go. Perhaps blurred by dehydration, 110° F heat, approaching darkness, this line looked right and fast. I tediously scrambled up a short earthy section to a narrow ridge expecting to traverse left to solid rock and my safe final passage to the upper easy ridge. To my wretched astonishment, the 1st four feet of the ledge traversing over to rock was only 4 to 5 inches wide on unsupportable earth. After that it was about a foot wide and likely ok. I had to plant a foot on the sandy earth to cross but the risk was outrageously high. What else? On my right hugging the rock wall I could squeeze up a narrow section to a 90° slab. If I could find hand-holds I could possibly get one foot up about 2 ½ feet onto some rock and then pull myself up and over the top to a flatter section. Four times I tried but I lacked one extra rock hold to twist myself up and over. There was only flakey earth that pulled away by the handful.
I dropped back down to the ledge and wedged myself behind a protrusion of rock to stay safe. I saw no way out. I would have to spent the night here and hope for helicopter rescue tomorrow. I was trapped. I was dehydrated. I was overheated. I had to think straight and focus. At least the sun was going down. In all my climbing and outdoor adventures over the years, I have never needed rescue. It was not a happy moment.
All of a sudden I saw the obvious. There was a 3rd angle. Not left, not right, but in the middle. In my clouded judgement I simply didn’t see it. What a relief. I got up, over and to the summit. I figured the safest way down was on the north side of the mountain that had trees. There was perhaps another half hour or so of daylight so I hurriedly tried to find a way down. It was really steep but I could hold on to the branches and trunks and scramble down. The lower I got the more vines and thick vegetation I needed to push through. I knew I was encountering poison oak, but I had no option. You only saw it after the fact. This side of the mountain was the total opposite of the other barren desert sun-baked side.
I reached the river bank in the dark. I could hear its roar as I approached. It was such a relief. I immediately washed my arms and shirt to remove any poison oak oil. It felt so good and cool. I thought my ordeal was practically over.
I followed up the river in the direction of camp. The last bend before arriving opposite camp was a rock wall blocking passage. The strong current of the river passed right up to it. In the dark there seemed no way around. I decided to try climbing up and over and around to get back to the shore. The higher I got the steeper it became and once again I was on this mushy sandy earth. In the black darkness I just could not see where it started and ended. Going forward or going back was risky, but going back at least I already knew. Again I was resolved to spend the night, but this time in a safer and more comfortable setting on the shoreline.
At last, I decided to try one last thing to get around the wall by plunging into the river current and finding any rock handholds for balance. It worked and the distance around the wall was less than I had expected. Soon Jordan met me with the raft and ferried me back over the river to camp. Wow, water (drinking liters of it) food, a beer, campfire, friends, tent. It was 10:30pm, 6 hours later, a little discombobulated but alive and ready to sleep it off.
PS: Poison Oak reaction 9 days later.
Fairhurst’s Caper termed by Huntington Beach friend John Dahlem