A Mountain Adventure
As a kid growing up in Iowa, I read every book in the library that had anything to do with Mountain Men. Though many of the stories may be more folklore than fact, it was all fuel to the fire for my young imagination. I was fascinated by the lives of legendary scouts and fur trappers such as Jeremiah Johnson, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. I still own an old paperback book about Jeremiah Johnson, the “Crow Killer.” The legends say he acquired his nickname after a hunting party of Crow Indians murdered his wife and unborn child, and he took revenge by waging a personal war against the Crows. He is said to have earned the nickname “Liver-eating Johnson” due to his habit of cutting out and eating his victims’ livers! The Crows believed that intact body organs were necessary for entering the afterlife, and Johnson wanted the Crows to know he meant business.
As John Muir famously wrote, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” I moved to Utah in the fall of 1976. Salt Lake City is surrounded by mountains: the Wasatch Range to the east, and the Oquirrhs to the west. Just a few hours drive south are the Canyonlands area and the red sand desert. If you know where to look in the desert, you can find undisturbed petroglyphs carved into the rocks by Native-Americans hundreds of years ago.
Soon after arriving in Utah, I went exploring. I awoke early one morning and packed a small backpack and my fishing pole, and drove to a trailhead just below the “S” curve in Big Cottonwood Canyon. It was hours before sunup, but a brilliant full moon lit up the trail. I didn’t even need a flashlight.
Just off the trail, under the aspens and evergreens, it was dark and deeply silent: the wind in the trees, the gentle gurgling of a mountain stream, even the sound of one’s own footsteps have a way of deepening the silence, reminding you that you’re just a tiny creature in a vast, dark wilderness. And as I hiked up that moonlit trail in the cold mountain air I realized something:
I was a Mountain Man. I was Jeremiah Johnson. My boyhood dreams had come true.
And then suddenly, just a few feet away in the dark woods, something began thrashing about. It was big and loud and it was terrifying, and fear shot through my veins. It was a bear. I just knew it was a bear. It was an angry grizzly bear that hadn’t eaten for days, probably an entire herd of grizzly bears bent on tearing me to pieces and eating my liver.
I did what any mountain man would do: I screamed “YAAAAAA!!!!” at the top of my lungs and I kept on screaming as I ran as fast as I could up the side of the mountain until I was out of breath and I couldn’t run any more. I stopped, heart thumping in my chest, blood pounding in my ears, listening for the sounds of pursuit.
Thankfully, the mountains were silent again, only now the silence was a little less romantic and a little less nostalgic. Oh, and it was probably just a little mule deer.
So, I calmed down, and continued hiking towards my goal: Cecret Lake, near Sugarloaf Peak. I had taken the long route to get there, from mid-way up the canyon instead of the shorter route through Albion Basin Campground. I was ready to sit on a rock by the lake and catch some fish.
The sun was rising, filling the mountain basin with purple light, but the wind had picked up and the cold breeze blowing across the lake had a fierce bite to it. I thought I might find shelter in the rocks and build a campfire to stay warm until the sun was higher in the sky, but I decided instead to continue upward to the peaks. I re-attached my fishing pole to the side of my backpack and started walking.
I walked for a couple more hours. When I finally crested the last hill, I looked down and saw Snowbird Ski Resort several hundred feet below me. I was on the edge of a high cliff, and I could see, on the road below, tiny vehicles the size of Matchbox cars. I was at the top of the world, and the view was breath-taking. I sat down and ate the lunch I’d packed at home, and reveled in the glory of the mountains: deep blue skies, giant white clouds, and tree-covered mountainsides as far as the eye could see.
After lunch I began thinking about the long hike back to my car. At this point, I had already walked for about five hours and I was getting tired. Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea: I would climb down the side of the cliff and hitch a ride back through the canyons to my car! I peered over the edge of the cliff: I could see lots of easy handholds and footholds and it wasn’t any more than four or five hundred feet to the ground below....I got pretty excited, thinking of how I was probably the first mountain man ever to have done such an outrageous thing. I hefted my backpack onto my shoulders, looked over the edge to map out my route to the bottom, and started climbing.
It’s a funny thing about mountain climbing: when you’re at the top looking down, it looks real easy. You see all the handholds, you picture yourself prancing nimbly like a mountain goat from ledge to ledge, perhaps waving to admiring spectators on the road below. “Look at him!” they exclaim. “He’s like Spiderman!”
But it’s really not like that. I started down, moving slowly from rock to rock, handhold to handhold, side to side, carefully planning my route ten feet at a time. It was easy at first, until I came to places where the cliff curved inward and I had to lower myself into empty space, searching with my toes for a foothold. I couldn’t lean back and look below without letting go of the rock that was keeping me from falling. I realized I‘d bitten off more than I could chew. “Well,” I thought, “at least I tried.”
When I looked back up above me, I started to get worried. From the top looking down, the handholds were clearly visible, but looking up from below it all appeared to be smooth stone. I wasn’t sure where to go. I thought for a while, mentally retracing my steps. OK, no problem. I leaned into the mountainside, and pushed up with my legs….
….and something pushed back….
…..and my fingertips began to slide off the rocks and I started teetering backwards.
I somehow managed to get stabilized, but I was completely bewildered. What had just happened? I’d never experienced anything even remotely close to being pushed off a cliff, and I don’t think my mind was able to process it. I began thinking it was just my imagination, so I calmed down, gathered my thoughts, and tried again. I leaned into the mountain and pushed upward…..
….and again, something pushed back, firmly and aggressively. I teetered backwards, my fingertips digging into the rocks.
The earlier incident with the imagined grizzly bear was frightful, but what was happening now was sheer terror. I’m a good climber. Most of my childhood was spent in the tops of elm trees in our yard. The kids in my neighborhood had contests to see who could climb the fastest. I was fairly confident in climbing, but no one had ever tried to push me out of a tree. Now here I was, three hundred feet up the side of a cliff in Utah, and something was trying to kill me.
I looked all around me; above, to the sides, and back over my shoulder, and there it was: my fishing pole. Earlier I had fastened it to my backpack and it was sticking up over my head. When I leaned forward and pushed upward, my fishing pole got caught on the rocks above and forced me downward.
So now I knew what I was dealing with, and I slowly and carefully made my way to the top. Whew…
I don’t remember anything about the long walk back down the mountainside. Maybe the emotional crash following the “fight-or-flight” adrenaline release anesthetized me. I got to my car, drove home, and went straight to bed. I think I slept for most of the next day.
But what an adventure! I wouldn’t trade it for anything.