Sunday, December 26, 2004

Searched and Rescued in Plumas National Forest

Snow was in the forecast and on the horizon the day after Christmas but that wasn't going to stop us. My cousin Andy had a new 250cc dirt bike and we were heading for Four Trees Road on Highway 70.
We got there at 2 p.m., parked the truck, unloaded the bikes and took off. The swath of land that sat between us and Oro Quincy highway, split down the middle by French Creek, is a heaven for dirt bikers. Endless fire roads, coupled with Plumas forest solitude, makes for endless fun. We hit snow at the tops of hills and crossed streams down in the valleys. Before we knew it, we popped out on Oro Quincy highway and decided it was time to make a beeline back for the truck. It was 3:30.
Later we were speeding down a curvy section of road, me in front and Andy a few turns behind. I hit each curve with a burst of speed, making my tail end skid and aligning the quad with the road ahead. I thought I felt like I had it down to a science when I came to a sharper corner and tried it. My quad started to tip. I swung back straight and went for the brakes but there was no time. I was off the mountain.
My quad slammed into two trees that were luckily only six or seven inches thick. I shot in between them with cannon ball velocity and cleared the trees below. I was wearing full body protection and I could feel the inertia of my heavy helmet carry me up in a smooth arc, peak, and then come sailing down through oceans of empty air.
My face was to the sky. I couldn't see what awaited me. I plunged back in, through what felt like a dozen kitchen chairs, before hitting a steep section of pine needles and rolling and tumbling and rolling some more. It took me a couple seconds to remember where I was, and a couple more to get over the shock of not being hurt.
I looked up to where my quad was still running in the trees and then above to where I expected Andy's head to pop up at any moment. That's when it hit me, "He doesn't know where I am."
I was probably somewhere in midflight when Andy went flying by on the road above. He wouldn't realize that I wasn't in front of him for quite a while.I tried not to be alarmed. I didn't mind having the time to recover. I figured I'd start working on getting my quad back up to the road for when he returned. It was too difficult and I gave up, but when Andy still didn't show, I returned to the task. Dark was setting in and the wind was picking up and with much doubt I decided to abandon it. I left a big wooden arrow in the road and began walking.
I had just calculated the daunting distance back to the truck when I came across an old fire hose on the side of the road. It was long, it was perfect and it was totally out of place. I took it as a sign that I should try again. For close to another hour I waged war on the 10 feet of cliff that separated my bike from the flat road. I rigged pulley systems every which way and still couldn't get it. I had to give up. In the black of night, I held out my hand and felt the unmistakable ping of a raindrop. I had to find shelter.
I figured Andy had gone to the truck and was waiting for me. Perhaps he thought I'd taken a wrong turn. Not finding me there, he would wait a long while, then call his dad, who wouldn't want him to head back up the hill without him ... I threw that scenario out when I came to an intersection where I made out the word "Josh" and a big arrow that pointed off to the left in the opposite direction of the car. I knew it would lead to the Oro Quincy highway and would probably be shorter than the road heading west - and I almost followed Andy down it - but I knew the way back to the truck and this road was a question mark.
I scratched out Andy's message in the road and left three big arrows pointing in my intended direction. Then I scratched with my foot the message, "JM ON FOOT 7:30." I walked for another couple hours, stopping at any hint of an intersection to leave an arrow. Some I made of branches. Others, when the ground loose, I made the arrow with my foot. I sang songs to keep wild creatures at bay - first radio songs, then made-up songs after I ran out. The lyrics that came to mind were grisly. In one song, I killed myself by a mountain lion. In another, I froze to death a couple hundred yards from where my rescuers were looking. But in reality, I thought my story would had only one possible outcome. My family would find me.
I passed an old abandoned truck at what was probably around 9 p.m. Twenty minutes up the road, I came to a Y and couldn't tell which way to go. I hadn't seen this Y when we had come from the opposite direction. I started up the left fork and turned back. I sat there a while playing out different scenarios in my head, then headed for the truck.
The cab was not inviting but there was a good section of dry needles under the bed. Uncle Joe had given me a heavy jacket for the ride and the full head helmet was keeping me warm. I rolled three-foot sections of cut trees to the sides of the truck, and made more arrows on the road. I made four huge arrows and pillars of wood. I was just getting on my hands and knees to crawl under the truck when I saw a glow of light illuminate a treetop a few hundred yards off. I didn't believe it at first. Every howl in the wind previous to that had been a car in my mind. But there they were - three trucks, bumper to bumper, driving toward me at top speed.
From the first truck piled out Andy and the guys he had met from Berry Creek. From the second came Uncle Hank, Kelli and Cody. From the third came Corey and Bill. I'll never forget that. Andy had tried to retrace his tracks once he realized I was no longer with him but he got confused about which way he had come just short of where I was. With dark coming and under the assumption that I was just separated from him, he took off. He made it out to the Oro Quincy highway where he met this guy and his two teenage sons. They gave him a ride all the way back to Uncle Hank's. Uncle Laurie and Aunt Brenda went down to the truck on the 70, only to find that I wasn't there. They waited till 8:00 before sending the message back to Becka to call Search and Rescue, who never actually got deployed since they were looking for someone else at the time. Shawn Hayes tuned into their radios and said it sounded like they were just about ready to head up to Four Trees Road at 10:00 when I was found. Meanwhile Uncle Hank was assembling his own search party. They came in the way Andy had come out. The first sign they had of me being alive and not dead on the mountain was the message I left at that intersection. Relieved to find this news, they raced from arrow to arrow until they had found me. I had to apologize to them for the worry I caused them. If my experience with losing Jen on the stream that day is any indication, the torment they went through was far worse than anything I experienced during my lonely jaunt in the forest.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Climbing in the Dolomites, Italy

Here's the excitement from two weeks of climbing in the Dolomites. My sister and I nearly got wiped out by a truck-sized rock fall on the 3,000' south face of the Marmolada, on the route Don Quixote, 5.10c. We got hit by a few of the smaller rocks but the bigger rocks passed over us and to our left. We went off route on the 2,700' Fedele on a nearby mountain called Piz Pordoi, and ended up establishing a new variation on the final 1,000', with big runouts on terrain up to 10a. I took a wild backwards fall on Schubert when a rock broke. I burned skin and muscle on my left arm when it got tangled in one of the ropes on the fall. I'll have that scar for a while. We rapped the route and took the day off after that one. The Detassis, our first route of the trip, proved to be a magnificent 1,800' line up the Brenta Alta not far from Verona, a super classic route up a vertical wall with hidden caves along the way. We just barely finished at dark and, because of snow on the established descent, had to find our own rappel route. The manager at the refugio found us some bread and cheese to eat when we got down.

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Ice Ladder on Cima Carega, Italy

I almost got myself killed again, this time on Christmas Eve, probably driven by loneliness. I found myself halfway up the face of Cima Carega in what's called the Piccole Dolomiti, or the "little Dolomites," just shortly after noon when my cable disappeared under a sheet of ice. I was on a "via ferrata" route where you stay clipped into a cable on the mountain. It had been a serious climb to get that far up the route in winter and I didn't want to down climb.

I slammed into the ice with my boots and looked higher up on the wall to where the cable reappeared from the ice. I unclipped and went for it. Those moves, with nothing but protruding pine shrubs and loose snow for holds, seemed. The cable on the other side appeared to move further and further away the more I climbed. Kicking off chunks of snow and ice that crashed down 400' of rock before landing on steep snowy slabs that extended another 2000' below, I made my way to a ledge close to the cables and jumped horizontally to reach the cable.

I grabbed an iron peg and clipped back in. The via ferrata ended soon after that but it left me 100' short of the ridgeline to the summit. Though the ramp wasn't steep, I found, to my dismay, that the snow was rock hard, a perfect slip n slide back down the east face. Picturing myself trying to climb down the face was enough to force me on.

Without an ice axe or crampons, I dug out each step with a rounded carabiner in a gloved hand. Each step took ten minutes to make. Since one bad step could mean my life, I carved with each one with care, ignoring the cold in my hands and the quickly passing time.

Fully two hours later, I was 100' higher and stood on more level ground. Vicious winds licked the runway to the summit. I pulled my clothes tight and wrapped an extra shirt from my pack around my already beanie-ed and scarved head. The snow was no softer than before but I kept from sliding off the mountain by straddling the ridgeline. For the majority of the ridge, I was down on all fours, hugging the mountain like it was my best friend. I came upon the summit suddenly and with it, a view of the easy downclimb on the other side.