"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Peak 2266

I saw a man at a gas station in Tofte wearing only torn shorts and knee-high black socks. He was bloodied and bruised and his eyes were nearly swollen shut. It was my reflection in the glass door. How I got to that point involved 17 hours of poor decisions. This is the report.

Traffic was rerouted off Highway 61 into Knife River, where I passed the candy store and thought, "Man, I always want to shop here, but they're never open!" It was 4:30 AM. Timing is everything some days.

The plan had been to climb some 2000 foot peaks, including one of the harder ones. I wanted to be sure of accomplishing something and felt I needed to ease into the hard bushwhacking, so I picked off four relatively easy peaks (one of which was much harder than expected) and then, finding I had forgotten my map of Peak 2210b, decided to attempt Peak 2266, the second highest peak in the state. Waiting until I was tired from these climbs - and in the heat of the day - was a big mistake. It was supposed to be 55 degrees in Grand Marais, as opposed to 90 back home, but I'd forgotten the temperature change one gets when one gets away from Lake Superior and up in the hills.

I knew of at least three previous summits, the most recent being almost exactly a year earlier. That climber had used a route from the north off Forest Road 325 which involved a bridge I didn't know existed - this route would halve the distance of the bushwhack and cut the approach by even more, so though I didn't know just where it was, this was the way to go. There's a snowmobile/ATV route that crosses the road and that should lead to the bridge.
A sign at the ATV path start.
The trail went downhill and became wetter and wetter. Last year, this would've been an easy walk, but this was after the rainiest May and rainiest June on record and there was a couple of inches of water on top of mud and branches that were hard to see and navigate. Half a mile in, the water was almost to my knees and the bridge was nowhere in sight, I recalled that the report had mentioned an area of water under brush after the bridge (who knows how bad that would be now?) and I decided to abandon this approach.

This would later seem a walk in the park.
 Aerial maps had shown that there was a new road by Eggers Lake that would be a good approach from the south and west, as it would be much shorter than the south and east approach. I didn't see it, so I turned around and decided to try the approach I'd first read about and which I had firmly in mind. Now I see that I gave up on this too soon and had turned around just before the road. Another bad decision.

Driving back to the Lima Grade, I looked for Forest Road 1422, which my old State Forest road map said was the one I wanted. This map has never failed to fail me. 1422 no longer exists. Just before the road to Pine Mountain is the only marked road, 1475 (there's also a sign for 1473, which branches off of it). I decided to follow this, as it seemed to follow the route I wanted to take; it is just passable in a heavy-duty truck, but my car was no match for it and a three mile approach doesn't phase me like it seems to do to others (later, I would realise that saving one's energy for the bushwhack should be a bigger consideration).

This particular sign is a mile in, where 1473 branches.
 After a quarter mile of large, but dry, rocks, the road became extremely wet. This became a long, long trudge in mud, swatting both deer flies and horse flies the entire way.

Miles of this.

And this.
 There was one sign of civilization along the way, a reminder that much of the land I was crossing, including the peak itself, was private property.

Bear track and truck track.
After what seemed forever, I got a glimpse of Circle Lake to my right, which appeared to be at a much lower elevation, instead of being even, as my old map showed. The road seemed to bend here, as it was expected to and this meant that I should start the bushwhack, so I marked the spot on my GPS and snapped a photo of where I was going:

Then I noticed that I was 1.66 miles from the peak (still!), which made no sense, as it was less than a mile after Circle Lake to the peak. I wondered if I had entered the co-ordinates wrong or needed to do some reckoning (unnecessary in this corner of the world). I was very tired and hot and not thinking well. Then it struck me that what I'd seen was not Circle Lake, but Musquash Lake and this little bend was not the one I was looking for.

I started thinking about quitting. I hadn't even entered the woods yet! I decided to "suck it up" and went on. The road got much, much wetter. As I got close to Circle Lake, I had to cross Junco Creek, which at the time was just a narrowing of the lake. I was essentially wading, following the clearing of trees that showed the roadway and trusting my GPS. Once clear of all the water, I was finally ready to climb into the woods.

I set another marker on my Garmin and plunged into the (thankfully dry) brush. It's all tumbled-down brush. Each step took forever. The approach goes due north, which makes for a very gradual climb; then, when one hits the ridge, goes northwest to the peak. Previous climbers had taken 4 hours to go the 3 miles from here to the peak and back.

I was out of drinking water already. I had not planned for a trip this long. [Major major mistake.]

An hour or so in, I stepped on a rotted fallen tree that crumbled beneath me and I fell. My body went left and my shin went right. Oh God, I thought, I just tore a ligament in my knee... Suddenly, the gravity of the situation hit me: it might not be possible to get back. I took off whatever clothes I could to wrap my knee tightly. I stood. I walked a few steps. I was going to be okay, if... if.

Do I go on or go back? I was right at the ridge line, where the woods actually open up a bit. I was close to the summit, but there was still a hundred feet of climb and it would get steeper, though easier. I considered how long it would take to return to the car and how much daylight I had (I hadn't brought lights, because the original plan was to start at 6 AM and be done by 11 AM).

I went on. It was slow going and my mouth was dry, so dehydration was a problem. My Garmin read "approaching goal" and I started looking for the actual high point. There was a mini-cairn of three rocks where some previous climber decided the peak was. A short walkabout convinced me I was there.

[I'd stopped thinking about niceties like getting photos.]

Now I just had to get back!

I set the Garmin to find the marker I'd left and headed back. Dehydration was really a problem. I was still sweating, was not turning particularly red or pale, nor getting goose flesh; for me, mental derangement always comes first when dehydrated.

Then I got a pine branch into my eyes. "Is that all you got?! Sick, tired, hot, wet, dirty, injured, half-blind, fly-bitten... you think this is tough? You've been through worse. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO DIE OUT HERE. Move!"

I straightened my back, adjusted my bandage, cleaned as much gunk out of my eyes as I could and marched out twice as fast as I came. When I got to the road and knew I had enough daylight to get to my car, I knew I had this in the bag. I no longer cared about all the water. If need be, I could drink ditch water - giardia doesn't kill, it just makes you want to die. I went straight ahead, not trying any more to stay out of the worst of it. I hadn't thought about the flies in hours.

How could it be uphill this way too?

When I got to the car, it was 17 hours after I had started climbing that day, 8 spent on this one hill. I jumped into the car (and sat on my glasses, bending their frame... of course) and cranked the air conditioning for the first time in a year. My shoes were wet, so I took them off, but kept the socks on, as they were keeping the swelling down in my calves.

Then I went to buy gas for the trip home.


PiccolaPineCone said...

Ta-bar-nak! What a climb report (not to mention, what an actual climb). Very dissapointed about the lack of a self-portrait (though I understand). Amazing how mistakes can cascade. That is indeed how people die on seemingly innocuous outings. One of my orienteering friends always offers this advice: Don't waffle! Stick the route! If you don't, you'll wind up with the worst of both choices.
Anyway well done.
I assume based on your last run of 9 mlies in 1 h 28 that you did not tear a ligament??

Anonymous said...

This sounds like even more fun than ultra running.

John K.

Colin said...

Please be careful!! There are so many ways this sort of thing could go terribly wrong. Reading your account I am far from convinced that you're taking even the most basic precautions (like bringing enough water). You're incredibly intelligent; next time please be smart also!

Carilyn said...

I want a photo!!!! Seriously, that sounded kinda scary. I'm just glad you made it out. I'd have gotten lost even with the garmin. Yikes!

Jean said...

Wow, what a journey! Glad you made it back. Looks like there is still a ton of standing water in the back country!

wildknits said...

Epic venture as always. Probably not too much of a shock to the locals to see you wander in. Wonder what stories they are telling?!

Can understand underestimating water with the unexpected heat.

Glad you made it out alive. Waiting to hear about the next adventure.

Johann said...

What a day! That can become very scary indeed.

SteveQ said...

@Colin: Dehydration is like drunkenness in that it makes you make continuously worse decisions without consideration of the outcomes (and I've been in a drunk tank, so I speak from experience); about 5 seemingly unimportant details became decidedly serious. Consider me chastised.