Friday, November 8, 2013

Big Southern Butte ID - Part 4

After climbing ridiculously steep uphill and gradual uphill and everything-in-between uphill, I looked up and to the right and although I couldn't see anything that conclusively proved my belief that we were close to the top of Big Butte, I instinctively knew that we were.
We had left the truck three hours earlier, and although we had seen beautiful, wonderful views throughout our trip, both LC and I were ready to just "get there".
To know that the effort had been worth it.
Actually, I already knew that it had been worth it for me, but I had dragged my Mountain Boy all the way up here and I wanted it to be worth it for his sake as well.
A zoomed-in and consequently faded out picture of the Twin Buttes.
The base of Big Butte is 18 miles from Atomic City, and the twins are 12 miles beyond Atomic City.
So about 30 miles away.............
Continuing to climb and flatten out, and then climb and flatten out some more.
When I was racing, RD's (Race Directors) were notorious for setting out checkpoints in the most ungodly and difficult places to reach (I once had to hoist 3 mountain bikes about 12 feet up the side of a boulder to my waiting team-mates, who grabbed and pulled them up and over the rest of the way while I scrambled to find hand holds to get myself up and over).
This in the middle of the night on an extremely windy October in the mid-2000s, after having pushed our bikes who-knows-how-many-miles on a tight dirt single track around a ridge-line that kept sliding out from underneath our feet.
RD's were also notorious for picking race locations that were the most mountainous regions on the right side of the country, and for forcing teams to follow routes that were the most hilly.
West Virginia only has three feet of flat pavement in the entire state.  The rest is all hill.
Or so it seemed at the time.............
We tried to get smart at one point about 3/4 of the way up, and took a "short cut" across a hill, hoping that we would cut off 1/2 mile of hiking.
We found a trail again alright.  
The wrong one.
LC heading back to the correct trail, and so much for short cuts...........
I took this picture because I found the root system of this tree interesting.
I remember being mesmerized by the gnarly, twisted root systems of trees that we found out on BLM land in Cody.
Regardless of the high winds (that forced the tree trunks and limbs to grow in warped and tortured positions), regardless of the soil quality or the preponderance of rock or the lack of water, they somehow found a way to live.
This tree was another example.
Growing in loose dirt on the side of a hill this tree (in the wide open and therefore frequently battered by high winds) had somehow found a way to survive and obviously thrive............
Holy cow.
Did these switchbacks EVER end?
There were many things I found compelling about adventure racing.
One of those things was that the fastest, youngest, most athletically talented teams were often not the teams who won the races.
I remember getting ready for a 72 hour race in Virginia.  One of the teams were a 4 person (3 man / 1 woman) team from Annapolis.
Yes.  THAT Annapolis.
They were young and strong and in better shape than I could ever have hoped to be in.
Right before the race, as all the teams were making final preparations, I remember looking over at the team and one of the guys was on the floor on his knees.
Counting his straight lines and straight rows of Power Bars.
You could almost hear him doing the math in his head - 1 bar every two hours divided by 72 hours.....
I won't explain why in this blog, but I knew in that instant that this team may very well not finish the race.
They didn't.
About an hour into the race (which started with a mountain bike ride at midnight) I heard a stern man's voice behind me.
As he and the female of this two-person team passed us I heard him talking to the woman.
Rather he was talking "at" her.  She had obviously screwed up something and he was obviously berating her in very specific terms.
I knew in that instant that this team may very well not finish the race.
They didn't.
A couple of years later I was racing with three guys in North Carolina.  
One guy had navigated for 12 hours and then handed the maps over to another guy.
We had been on our bikes for 18 hours (had started at dark and now it was dark again) and we missed an important turnoff to head towards the river and the kayaking portion of the race.
We would have to bike an hour back the way we had come to pick up the road, and then we still had a lot more biking to go before making it to the paddle.
They wanted to quit.
It was unspoken at the bad news but I sensed it in the guys immediately, and as team captain I spoke first.
I wanted to turn back and go find the road.
I sensed that the guys were toast.  We had pushed, pulled, coasted, ridden, bike whacked and napped on the side of the road with our bikes during the greater part of a day, and two of my team were exhausted.
Mentally and physically, and so I spoke first, hoping to influence them.
We ended up quitting the race right there in that spot of lonely country road and getting a ride back to town with the race photographer.  
Teams over the years didn't finish races for untold numbers of reasons.  
Some teams self-imploded because of bad team chemistry.  Or they quit because of illness or injury or mechanical failure, or bad food or clothing or equipment choices, or they got so lost that they couldn't rebound.
I have seen teams that have spent so much time on their bikes that they just look at each other at some point in the race and go "That's it.  I can't stand one more minute on this bike.  I'm done."
Or "I can't hike one more hill.  That's it.  I'm done."  
Their bodies don't give out.  Their heads do.  And when that happens, their race is over.
I thought about that during the last few hills we climbed because at this point in our hike the endless uphill was getting a little old.
I hadn't done climbing like this since I raced, and as I continued to hike uphill I remembered the lessons I had learned over years of racing.............
I love this picture.
Not specifically for the beautiful views (although they are), but because that one little puffy white cloud threw a shadow over the desert that amused me.............
By this time we had seen the microwave tower at the top of the butte.
We were actually, really-this-time, almost there.
We debated briefly whether we should stay on the trail we had been on ever since we left the truck a few hours prior, or whether we should take the right fork at this place and head up what looked to be a jeep trail.
The jeep trail was visibly steep.
We couldn't see what was beyond the trees up ahead (probably steep as well).
The devil you know vs the devil you don't know.
We decided to stay with the road.............
It wasn't just about known vs unknown devils.
I am instinctively drawn to pine trees..............
Even though LC's shaky and tired hands snapped these pictures slightly out of focus, I posted them anyway because I like them.
Unposed and ungooberish............
Charlie Brown's tree just in time for Christmas.............
Although we passed by a number of deer and elk prints during the hike, we never saw one animal all the time we were up on the butte...............
As suspected (and by now EXpected) the trail was steep.
It was worth it.
It was totally worth it..............
As we climbed higher and higher into the butte, I had become increasingly aware of the fact that this felt like an entirely different world from the one in which we now lived.
We lived in the desert.
In the Snake River Plain.
I was used to endless flat desert that was filled with sage and volcanic rock.
I was used to seeing the mountains in the distance - first partially covered due to the smoke and haze of summer wildfires, and then increasingly snow-covered as winter slowly and methodically settles into the area.
For hours I had been walking higher and higher into what is officially called a butte but which is effectively a stand-alone mountain.
Steep canyons.  Endless hills.  Endless pine trees.  Evidence of abundant snow melt.  Endless views of muted desert colors.  Large buttes that looked from this vantage point to be small buttes.  A complete fortress of mountains surrounding the entire Snake River Plain.
An entirely different eco-system
An entirely different world................
And then..........we were there.
We had made it.
To the top of Big Butte.
The first thing I noticed were 3 work men.
After spending the past few hours not seeing a sole, it was surprising to see people - particularly at the top of Big Butte.
They were in t-shirts and were setting a fence up around the microwave building and tower.
Snow could happen at any time (the butte had already received dustings of snow over the past few weeks).  But the for-real, stick-around-for-months, close-up-the-road snows could happen at any time.
The second thing I immediately noticed was the sign.
Distances were all wrong, so I had no idea what it was doing sitting at the top of the butte.............
As LC talked to the guys for a few minutes I wandered further onto the top of the butte, trying to get the lay of the area.
The fireplace was unexpected.
So was the long, rock retaining wall.
I had seen something a while back about a run-down Forest Service structure, but it was not here.............
As I continued to wander around the large, flat, dirt parking area, and as I was taking in the 360 views around me, I heard a noise.
Turning I smiled, lifted my camera, and snapped this picture.
He was messing around doing the Rocky-thing, but in truth I was proud of my Mountain Boy.
If it hadn't been for me, I don't think that LC would have ever felt a nagging compulsion to try and walk Big Southern Butte.
It was hard and tiring work, but at some point early on we both had this unspoken understanding that LC had accepted the challenge and now really, really wanted to do it.
So he did............
The large parking area gave way to a narrow point at the end of the summit, and LC and I headed in that direction.
With shaky legs and very strong cross winds, neither one of us was ambitious enough (or fool-hardy enough) to wander to the very edge of the summit.
This was close enough.
Gratefully and unceremoniously tossing packs down to the ground, we found large rocks on the side of the trail and began digging for sandwiches, Cokes, water, cookies, bananas and apples..............
As we ate we looked around us, basking in the success of the hike.
It was almost anti-climactic in truth.
The summit was small.
The views were very beautiful, but we had been looking at very beautiful views for hours.
To me none of that mattered.  Hours ago I had already decided that it was worth the effort.
That old expression about life being a journey and not a destination also applied to the way I had viewed this hike, from the moment we locked the doors and walked away from our truck in the cold shadows of the morning.
I looked at LC and said " you think it was worth it?"
I don't remember his exact words, but it had something to do with "a long way to go just for bragging rights" and he would rather have driven the truck up here so that there would be lots of energy for exploring when we got here.
Different outlooks on the same experience.
I understand his perspective.
I think he understands mine..............
I snapped this picture while stuffing my face with ham and cheese sandwich with one hand, and trying to steady the camera in the wind with the other hand.
This little Charlie Brown tree was right beside me as I balanced on the edge of the rock I was sitting on............
As we sat and ate, LC and I began to speculate about how much longer the work crew would be up on top of the butte.
We had planned the hike, carried through with the hike, made it to the top.
It wouldn't break my heart to try and catch a ride back down this beast.
As we stuffed leftovers and sandwich bags deep into my pack we decided that we would ask them how much longer they would be working.
It sounded like a fine plan.
Only by the time we walked back to the microwave tower the guys were gone.
Are you kidding me??
We had only sat down 20 minutes ago, and work-dudes left in that time??
Good naturedly rolling our eyes, shrugging our shoulders, and in wonder at our lousy timing, LC and I immediately moved our brains back into hiking mode.
Whether we felt like it or not we were walking back off this thing..............
We snapped very few pictures on the way back down the Beast Of A Butte for a couple of reasons.
It would be dark in a few hours, and although we had emergency supplies with us, neither one of us wanted to spend the night up on that mountain for any reason.
And LC was not feeling well.  I had seen it in more races than I could count - exhaustion, cramping, mental fatigue bordering on disorientation.  I had been on the "giving care" end for sick team-mates, and had also been on the "receiving care" end when I was the one who was sick.............

We carefully and quietly and methodically made our way back down the butte, one switch back after another after another.
Things went smoothly until we hit the canyon section of the trek, about a mile from the truck.
I had remembered the lesson of downhill hiking.
But there is downhill and there is Big Butte downhill.
As steep as the climb was on the way up the butte, is was just as steep going downhill on the way back down.
So steep that quickly my knees were complaining.  And then screaming vulgarities at me.
To add insult to the situation, the dirt and gravel on the winding downhills was loose, and LC and I were continually balance checking and catching ourselves as a foot would slide out from underneath us.
It was a lung-screaming hike up.  
A quad-screaming, knee compressing hike down.
Not far from the truck LC caught himself and immediately felt a twinge in his back.
Shortly after, I caught myself and immediately felt a sharp twinge in the knee that I had blown out a couple of years ago, that required surgery.
We made it back to the truck tired, but high-fiving ourselves for the long and challenging day.
It took us 3 1/2 hours to climb Big Southern Butte.  It took us 90 minutes to climb down (about half of that time was eaten up in the last mile).............

Days later now, my knee no longer is swollen.
Days later now, LC's back is still sore.
I think that I'll wait for a while before I ask him again if it was worth it.............
How can you explain that you need to know that the trees are still there,and the hills and the sky?  Anyone knows they are.  How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and the season instead of the hour and the minute?  No, you cannot explain.  So you walk.............. Author unknown, from New York Times editorial, "The Walk," 25 October 1967


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