Mistakes in the Backcountry

Wellllllll, helllllooooooooo, everybody!!! How are you this fine Monday morning? I hope you got outside this weekend. I know I did. Mountain biking in Moab and Fruita was friggin amazing. I’m sure you’ll see all about it if you’re following me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. While this was my first time ever mountain biking in the desert, the weekend went off without any problems. It’s not always like that. I’ve been known to make a mistake or two, and I’m not just talking about forgetting an extra pair of underwear. I’m talking about BIG stuff that alters your plans or trip entirely.

Today I’m going to let you in on two of my dumbest mistakes I’ve made in the backcountry. If you find them hilarious, there are several other people writing about their mistakes as well, and you can find them all linked from Sierra Trading Post’s Social Hub. And if you want even more, join in on the Twitter chat at  6pm EDT/3pm PDT this Thursday. The entire Twitter nation will be sharing funny stories and how to avoid these mistakes in the future. Be sure to tag your tweets with #STPLive.

Anyways, let’s talk about how dum I r.

Winter Summit of Mt. Elbert

You might remember that I’ve already written about this one, but I’m going to give you the short version here.

Elbert and Massive TrailsI had planned for weeks and weeks for this trip. At this point, I had lived in Colorado for 4 months and still hadn’t done anything extreme or awesome or extremely awesome. This was going to be that thing. In preparation, I read Summit Post. I read blogs. I checked the weather everyday. I plotted my route on Google Earth, and I made sure I had the map downloaded on my phone’s GPS app for when I lost cell coverage. I was ready. I was gonna do Colorado stuff.

And then I wasn’t.

First, the weather said, “ummmm, why don’t you take a seat right over there. I’m going to be cold, cloudy, snowy, and relentlessly windy on Friday. Why don’t you come back on Saturday?” So that’s what I did. I drove to the trailhead at 7:30pm on Friday evening with the plan of sleeping in my car, and then pushing for the summit early Saturday morning.

And then I couldn’t.

I turned off the main road, onto the Forest Service road, and made it about halfway. I drove through a few snow drifts with no problems. And then I hit the one that stopped me. At 10:00 pm, I was digging my car out of a snow drift, and I still had 4.5 miles to get to the trailhead. I had no idea how often the road was plowed and the wind was still blowing more snow.

And then things got better.

I was able to get my car out and turned around and thought I could spend the night in a parking lot, go talk to the ranger in the morning, and maybe I would have a chance to get back there later on Saturday. It was likely that I wouldn’t be able to do Mt. Massive, but at least I’d still get Elbert.

And then it got a lot worse.

All of this didn’t matter: the planning, the forecasting, the digging, the doing everything right (except not bringing a snowmobile with me)…

I forgot my jacket.

Yup, not an insulating layer, jacket. My real jacket. The Gore-Tex, waterproof, insulated, super awesome jacket I was going to need to combat the -30+ windchills and blowing snow. It was sitting at home in my closet.

At 11:15pm, I accepted defeat, turned around, and went home.

Summiting Mt. Elbert
I went back in June. It was still snowy and a lot easier.

Up a Creek without a Life Jacket, with a Grease Fire, and kind of a Motor

This one is a LowGravityAscents original. I think. But, I still have to reach back to somewhere around 2008 or 2009 for this one.

Mat and I (one of the original Dudes with a Tent) wanted to do a weekend river fishing and camping trip about an hour and a half north of our hometown in Northern Wisconsin. We knew that stretch of the river had plenty of fish and campsites along the way. We also knew there were some Class III rapids. No biggie. Our little rowboat would have a 6hp engine on it, and we could just motor over to the portage if we needed to.

The first day was pretty awesome. We caught enough fish to eat for dinner. We caught more fish to throw back. It was a very warm June day so even when it started to drizzle a little bit, we weren’t too upset. We noticed that the river was pretty high that weekend, and that made the smaller rapids and rocky areas we went through a little angrier than usual. We navigated them ok, and at least we didn’t have to get out and push through the really shallow areas.

Grease fireEventually, we found where we were going to camp that night. We pulled over, got the boat situated, I started to build the camp, and Mat started cleaning the fish. 30 min. later, the tent was up, a fire was made, and the fish were clean. We put a pot of oil on the fire (to deep fry the fish and onion rings) and stepped away to gather more wood. When we got back, there was some smoke coming off the oil that had been heating up. I turned my head for one second to look out at the river and the poof! Apparently grease is combustible. There was a moment of panic, but I eventually I realized I could still pull the cast iron off the fire. The grease fire continued to grow and grow until it was almost 6 feet tall. In the end there was nothing we could do but sit there and watch and be ready in case the earth started on fire. Luckily I grabbed a picture when it was just starting.

And that’s not where this story ends.

We had enough leftover oil that we could try again, and this time we got it right. We had perfectly fried fish and onion rings for dinner that night.

The next morning we woke up to blue skies once again. We packed up camp in our little boat and the rods ‘a firin’ again.

A couple hours later, we encountered a very questionable rapids. We pulled over and sat and pondered it. We talked to a party that was camped right next to it, and they said some other people went through earlier and dumped one of their canoes. However, they also chose the dumbest possible way to go about it. We hmmmm’ed and haaaaaa’d over it, but ultimately decided to make a run for it. I pulled up the engine, got the oars ready, and went for it. Sadly for Mat, there’s nothing he can do during rapids navigation but hold on for dear life and help me spot rocks, hoping I don’t dump us.

Shore lunch fishIt was an intense 5 minutes, and our hearts were racing, but we made it! We got back to fishing and enjoying our day.

An hour or so later, we realized we still hadn’t come upon the BIG set of rapids yet. We started talking about portaging or going for it before we ever saw it since the last set was so stressful. Ultimately we decided to do the same as the last one. Get close enough with the motor so that we could bail if we had to, or go for it if it looked safe. ::shrug:: Seemed legit.

By this point, the fishing wasn’t going so well. We didn’t catch much the second day. We were basically motoring between spots on the shoreline that looked like they’d hold fish. We’d fish a hole, get skunked, and then motor to the next one. It was during one of the times we were fishing when I looked downstream as far as I could, and I said, “Mat, does it look like the river just drops off up there or is it just because it turns the corner?” The accepted answer was that it was just the corner.

We didn’t pull anything out of that hole either so I started motoring down river again. All of a sudden, I was pretty certain I saw water splashing above the water line that was supposedly just the line that meets the water’s edge and curves. I was right. We were heading straight for some ANGRY Class III rapids and because the water was higher and faster, the motor wasn’t strong enough to pull us back. We had just enough time to pull the motor, get the oars in, and point straight. I picked the best possible place for us to go over a 3-4 foot drop….in a rowboat.

There was a whole lot of panicked looks and “HOLD ON!!!” as we went over. And all of a sudden….

THUD!!

The bow of the rowboat bottomed out on a huge rock once it made it over the drop. It’s a 12′ rowboat so the back half was still on the upper part of the falls! It pivoted around so fast that I don’t even remember it happening, and then all of a sudden….

THUD!!

Now the stern of the boat is hung up on a giant rock!! It might actually have been better if we could have been able to spin completely around and get off the rock we were originally stuck on. But now, here we sit, completely perpendicular to a 3-4 foot waterfall, with waves slamming into the side of the rowboat.

Amazingly, we hadn’t flipped yet. We were actually semi-safe and secure in this position as long as a rogue wave didn’t overflow the side of the boat facing the drop.

So now we’re both standing with pale faces and huge “WTF DO WE DO NOW?!?!” looks. Being that we were “safe”, we tied down as much as we could, and then I grabbed both oars, handing one of them to him. The flowing water was pinning us against the two rocks that were holding us in place. There was no spinning off either of these rocks (which is the common get out of trouble tactic). Our only choice was to decide if we should try push ourselves forward or backwards, scraping the boat along the way.

In this situation, it’s a no-win. It was very unlikely we were going to be able to move at all, but if you go forward, that means the back-end gets freed first. Which would then pivot your back around, probably free the front, but then the momentum would slam against the rock that originally hung up the stern. If you go backwards, you’re likely to submerge the back end since the transom only sits 3-4 inches above the water.

Dudes with TentsWe chose forward. Because at least if we got off one rock safely, we could deal with whatever came next. However, if we submerged the back, we’d be screwed right there.

We each put an oar in the water, down to the bottom of the river. We quickly got a refresher lesson in the First Law of Physics because just buy bracing the side of the boat against the stationary oar, something had to give. Our boat rocked effortlessly towards the falling water and almost came over the sides.

“HOLY SH*T THAT WAS CLOSE!!!”

So then what?

I just looked at Mat and said, “I don’t know.”

I told Mat to hold on and be ready for anything because I was going to try push us from the back. Nope, not happenin. The next logical choice was to have him try push from the front while I kind of jump-scooted the back in sync. It worked!!! Kind of. I think we moved an inch. We did this a couple more times and then SPLASH!!!!

I have no idea what happened, but one moment I was in a boat and in the next I was underwater grabbing fishing poles, oars, and tackle boxes. One of the fishing poles grabbed me by embedded a hook into my hand, but I didn’t care because I was also trying to keep my feet up in case I ran into any rocks.

The boat was floating upside down, and the propeller was doing no good as a helicopter blade sticking straight up in the air.

I looked over at Mat and he was doing the same thing I was: trying to stay afloat and grab as much stuff as he could.

In all that time planning. In all that time trying to figure out how to not die, we forgot the single easiest thing we could have done: put on our life jackets. This thought was really driven home when my ass slammed into a rock.

We finally made it alive down to some calmer waters. I grabbed all the gear that Mat had in his hands while he drug the upside down boat over to the shore where the rest of our stuff and cooler were collecting. Before flipping the boat over, I spotted an oar drifting past as if it were on a lazy river, mocking us as it went by. As if it were looking at us saying, “what’s your guys’ deal? Just relaxxxxx.” What a dick. Anyways, I asked Mat if he should go get that (he was closer). He said, “nah, it’s going to run into short right up there.” I went along with it and we flipped the boat. I started bailing out the water and noticed the oar didn’t stop. Mat finally decided he should go after it while I took care of everything else.

He took off, and I started taking stock of the situation. We had everything but one of the fishing poles my dad lent me. Great. That thing is at the bottom of the river somewhere, and I’m out $150 to replace it. Oh well, nothing I can do about it now. I finished bailing out the water and got everything packed up. And then I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. Where the heck was Mat?!

About 45 min. later, he reappeared. On the other side of the river. Buahahaha! He said the oar made it downstream about a mile and he had to swim across a not-so-narrow river to get it. Of course, he had to swim back to get to me, which means he had to walk upstream of me so that when he swam back across he wouldn’t end up 400 yards away.

He made it, and we were on to our next challenge. There was one of only two boat landings, besides the one we put in at the day before, coming up. But we told my dad, whom was coming to pick us up, that we’d be at the second, not the first. And those two are about 5 miles away. Our options were to take out at this first boat landing, leave one person there, and have the other start walking/hitchhike down to the second to get my dad when he showed up. However, what takes 5 miles by water, takes 15 miles by land. And if a car never showed up to hitchhike, we’d be pretty screwed.

That alone pretty much guaranteed we’d chose Option 2, which was to just row the entire 5 miles down to the second boat landing. Seemed like a good idea actually considering the water so high and fast. Until it wasn’t.

We got about a mile down river when all of a sudden it wasn’t a river anymore. It was a full-blown lake. And the water was hardly moving. GAAAHHHHH!!!!!

It was a long day, but I managed to row the rest of the 4 miles. We met my dad. And we got the heck out of there.

Now, which part do you want me to say was the mistake?





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2 responses to “Mistakes in the Backcountry

  1. You mean canoes aren’t meant to go over rapids? Huh.

    Also, we had a friend come to visit for snowboarding – he left his jacket hanging in our apartment and ended up buying a new one in a resort town. Not as exciting as your mistake, but probably more expensive!

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