Before the Fall

What is that they say about most accidental deaths occurring in the home?  About people drowning in a couple inches of bathtub water?

Here I was, fresh off of an 11 hour hiking adventure in backcountry where I wandered desert miles from the nearest humanoid.  I was “training” for a solo backpacking adventure at Powell Plateau, North Rim.  A friend had told me about a pretty fun route he runs up to the top of a mesa in Durango with great views of the San Juan Mountains, the city and Lake Nighthorse.  Figured I’d try it out.

I’d brought 2 quarts of water and decided on some flimsy running shoes since it was to be a quick hike.  The going up the trail on State land was more vertical than I imagined as I’d surveyed my route from the trailhead.  Going up’s always like that.  Steeper.  Hotter.  It had the kind of modest elevation change I was looking for to prepare me for a 900 foot drop into Grand Canyon at Muav Saddle, followed by an assent about the same number of feet up.  The temperatures were what I wanted too.  Water would be a problem on dry Powell Plateau, so I’d need to conserve there in midsummer heat.  I needed to make sure I was ready.

I made it to the top and enjoyed emerald views of Lake Nighthorse, along with the big snowfields in the far off mountains near Silverton.  I took in in the nearby La Platas and the Durango metroplex before deciding that I’d head right down to see if I could make it up and down on one sole quart of water.  That was my mistake.

I wasn’t paying attention to the route.  I decided (half- deliberately) that I’d abandon the trail and take any old route down.  So I haphazardly left the trail and started bushwhacking.

I couldn’t remember the last time I encountered brush so thick: oak brush and cliffrose, mostly.  Thanks God there weren’t any thorns.  I stumbled blindly down steep slopes of loose soil and rock and through angry branches and shrubs.

Branches constantly clawed at the ropes on my fannypack and held me up.  I kept tripping over branches.  My bare arms died the death by a thousand cuts.

I tried making it down to a lower saddle and figured I’d jump down off a few rocks onto a gentler gradient, but the scarp was too steep.  I had to turn aound and abandon about 45 minutes worth of hack-and-slash route finding, done as much with my hands anr arms as with my feet.  I held onto branches and got so close to the scarp face that I cliffed out.  I ended up crashing through the thickest brush I’d ever encountered just to get back to the trail.  What a mess.

“Mr. Just, you are getting too big for your britches,” I heard Mrs. Snelson, my 7th grade teacher, warn me.  Like some Grand Canyon hikers who get too big for their britches, I overestimated my ability and it got me into a minor amount of trouble.   Despite hundreds of hikes, my route-finding prowess was not first rate.  The people who get into trouble get cocky.  Pride goeth before the fall, and I was falling right now!

I found my reaction interesting:  I didn’t panic, but I didn’t keep a cool head either.  I kept calling myself names.  Self-flagellation.  That was the name of the game.  Anger at myself, and a little at the sharp cliffrose that kept tripping me up and snagging my pack.  Underneath that anger, I was afraid.  I felt confident that I’d make it back, but I caused myself some unnecessary trouble, simply because I was unconscious in my choices.  I kept calling myself  ‘stupid.’  I tell my therapy clients that as long as they were calling themselves names, they couldn’t take responsibility for their choices and choose once again.

The irony?  I was still in Durango.  I could see houses and hundreds of cars speeding up and down Highway 160 and I could see the Mall of Durango.  I could even see my little matchbox Toyota parked way, way below at the trailhead.  It felt like drowning in a couple inches of bathwater.

I kept my head enough to survey a corridor that probably contained the trail, and after more swearing, I calmed down, found the trail, and made it back.

I reviewed the choices which had landed me in discomfiture:  (1) hubris, and (2) lack of any kind of awareness, had allowed me to think I didn’t need a trail.  After all, I’d scrambled for the most part of 3 days in the desert last weekend.  Like a biker I know says:  “You usually end up with some road rash right when think you got it made and won’t wreck no more.”

As far as training for Grand Canyon through radical water conservation?  Well, I ended up drinking both quarts of water, and my toes cramped up because I wore thin-soled running shoes instead of my usual hiking shoes.  I felt foolish and unready.  “‘Training.’  What a load of crap.”  I recalled a line from the movie,  Peaceful Warrior, the true story of a formerly cocky aspiring gymnast, Dan Millman, who asks his mentor what happened to his life, to his gymnastics training, after he becomes crippled in a motorcycle accident.  His mentor, Socrates, replies:  “The accident is your training.”

Going off trail, underestimating the steepness of the hill, the thickness of the brush, overestimating my own ability, and being lulled into a false sense of confidence because I could still hear the traffic of Durango below.  That was my training for the Grand Canyon.

I had to dump the dirt from my pants pockets after I got home.  And, oh yeah, I almost fell in the shower, my feet were so dirty from the trail.  Better now than at Grand Canyon.