I started out hiking near a young couple with two young children. I passed them, and then they passed me while I fiddled with my new camera. It seemed they were always nearby, and the point was to get away.
Pretty soon, though, I approached a massive outcrop of 50ft tall columnar basalt, sheer on every side but one, where a curtain of steep boulders reached to the very rim. I scrambled up to the base of the talus. A trail to the top suggested itself – at the very least, it was the beginning of a route – and my eye followed a line up the rocks and along the columns to the top. But I was alone, and at that moment I recalled a story I’d read of a climber’s death in a similar, albeit larger, boulder-field, and I thought about Aron Ralston, the guy who’d been pinned in a Utah slot-canyon and amputated his own hand to free himself. I thought about spraining or breaking a bone and having to negotiate my way down the boulders while injured. I visualized the loose boulders shifting without warning, crushing or trapping my leg or arm, or avalanching downhill with my body cushioning the fall of half-ton rocks. Hell, it would hurt just to fall on that surface.
Finally, I thought about the brilliance of placing my hands out of sight on top of boulders where rattlesnakes might be sunning themselves. One last look and I turned around, picking my way back to the trail.
Then that same family, kids and all, appeared below and started to hike a small game trail towards me. I spun around, walked back to the talus, and began to climb.
At first the going was easy and I felt that if it got harder, I could just turn around. But I was quick and balanced, sure-footed, the boulders were more firmly entrenched than I’d feared, and I never had to put my hands where I couldn’t see them. I reached the basalt columns. The route continued up a little until it ended at a five or six foot wall that was easy to pull myself over. I was on top.
I was on top, and I’d been here before. An ancient pine, silver and shattered, lay across the rock. A young ponderosa, squat and bushy, shaded a field of hand-sized stones covered with dusty orange and chartreuse lichen. Grass waved in the wind and I had a 360 degree view overlooking the Labyrinth and Catherine Creek, with the Columbia stretching east towards The Dalles, and the gorge stretching away west. All of this was familiar: I’d eaten lunch or taken a rest on many an outcrop such as this, and I knew that at the opposite side of this particular outcrop, the ground sloped gently down to meet the rising hill, and a game trail led back to the main trail. Breathing hard and pleased with myself for not giving up on the climb, I turned and looked down the talus. It was clear I’d misjudged the height by a factor of two – the family sat in the grass far below, perhaps a hundred feet or more, and the steepness of the boulders in the full sun was dizzying.
I backed away from the edge and found a place to sit for an hour. I poured a cup of tea and soaked up the expansive view, then ate lunch in the steady breeze. Afterwards I wrote in my hiking journal:
Climbed to the top of a great stone
outcrop, wind gusting ecstatically,
clouds old friends scattered in the sky –
rare blue, pale egg color fragile and new.
Across the river small fires burn.
One spark leads to spring.
Not even good for a first draft, but promising on a still-winter day when it was almost too windy to write. I stowed my gear and got ready to head down.
A fifty foot drop. Vertical basalt columns. Air and space, filled with wind. No gently sloping hillside, no game trail, not even a pile of rock to down-climb. I was wrong. There was no way off the top of this outcrop except by the way I’d come up.
Hurrying back to the talus, I thought of all the things that could go wrong on the descent. And I quickly discovered I hadn’t paid enough attention during the ascent: I didn’t know where I’d climbed over the top.
When I came up, a series of natural hand and footholds had aided me. I’d intended to use them on the way down, but things looked really different from above. Dropping a few feet from a hanging position isn’t dangerous, unless it’s a drop onto rocky, uneven ledge six inches wide at the top of a 100 foot fan of boulders sitting at the angle of repose.
At this point I wasn’t scared. Obviously climbers came up and down this route, and I’d come up it with no problems. But going down was far harder than coming up. I studied the cliff until I was sure I’d found the line, and that led to where I needed to drop over the edge. I carefully lowered myself over, finding footholds and descending until I stood at the top of the boulders, and I cautiously moved to the columns, scouting the least steep route down the boulders. The problem was, it all looked far steeper than on the way up, and once I committed, I discovered that the boulders were not, in fact, wed in place, but were all loose and shifted under my weight.
If I faced the slope, I put too much weight on my hands while testing my footing. If I faced out, I put even more weight on my hands. Nothing felt right, or sure. Even though I moved slowly, always with three points of contact, every time a boulder shifted I froze, willing my body to balance. I thought about what would happen if I knocked a boulder loose, or what I would do if I felt the burning sting of a rattlesnake’s bite. I pirouetted down the slope, sometimes facing out, sometimes in, never comfortable, always nervous, in a heightened slow-motion dance with gravity and growing fear.
It took forever but I made it to the bottom. My quads burned with lactic acid, my knees felt weak, and I was cold in the sun. I covered the last few yards to the game trail, sipped some water, and took a deep breath. It was still early in the day and I was on solid ground. Before heading off deeper into the Labyrinth, I looked back at the solitary ponderosa on the rim, high above the boulder field.
It didn’t look that steep. Not really.
Distance: 5.8 miles roundtrip