October 14, 2012

Lost near Rooster Rock? Naahh. I prefer to call it “misdirected.”

Rooster Rock with Mt. Jefferson in background
Summer had withdrawn and autumn crept in, carrying a full bag of tricks as the weather is concerned. Early snow had already fallen on the Cascades as low as 4,000 feet, and I wanted to reach some jagged spires I had studied during the summer while exploring the area near Table Rock. In late October, Noia and I set out to explore the outcropping called Rooster Rock, named by a prospector in the mid-1800s.

"With a little imagination I guess you could say it looks something like the comb on a Rooster's head," I said to Noia as we hiked the faint route from Table Rock toward Rooster Rock. A featureless, gray sky hovered over us. Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson, usually within view on a cloudless day, could not be seen. We knew it was cold enough to snow, but we had yet to see any moisture coming from the clouds.
A portion of Rooster Rock on a nice day
When we arrived at 4,663 foot Rooster Rock, we hunkered down at the base of the rock and pulled lunch, cook stove and utensils out of our packs. Noia proceeded to cook lunch while I explored the spires for possible climbing routes. Had we made this hike a month earlier, a sea of red and orange and yellow vine maple leaves would have greeted us. Instead, I waded through a thick tangle of mostly leafless limbs surrounding Rooster Rock’s base.
Rooster Rock
When I returned to our little kitchen, Noia and I huddled beneath the rock formation and ate lunch. Light snow began to fall. By the time we finished our meal, the mesmerizing flakes were starting to accumulate rapidly on the landscape. We watched the flakes swirl about and eventually land until some common sense tapped us on the shoulder. Not prepared for such heavy snowfall, we figured we better start back down the trail.
Noia in the kitchen before the snow started to fly
We quickly packed our daypacks and scurried back toward the trees, searching for the faint forest trail we had entered the area on. Beneath the thick second growth we could see for quite a distance, as the forest canopy continued to collect most of the snowfall. But beyond the trees, our one landmark - Table Rock - was hidden behind winter's white veil.

We found a faint trail that I would later discover was a short path leading through the wilderness's southeast section and on to Peachuck Lookout. Noia and I looked at each other, fully aware of the question we were both contemplating: Which way do we go?

Vine maples at Rooster Rock turning color
After a brief debate, we agreed on a direction and began hiking, examining the trail for the footprints we had laid down during our walk in. After a few hundred yards we stopped. Our wilderness instincts, still in their infancy, told us we were heading in the wrong direction. The snowfall was now finding the forest floor.

I felt a twinge of panic, but we were young and thought of ourselves as somewhat invincible at the time. A mix of machismo and ignorance had gotten us into this predicament. Some clear thinking would be needed to get us out of it.

Despite standing only about 3 1/2 miles from the Table Rock trailhead, where we had begun our hike, we were reduced to guessing in what direction the trailhead lied. We turned around and hiked back in the opposite direction. Again we stopped after a few hundred yards, unable to recognize the forest we were walking through.

I asked myself, "How could we possibly get lost?"           

"Let's stop and think about this for a minute," I told Noia, aware that what little experience I had in the mountains was still more than he possessed, and that, after all my visits to this wilderness, I should be responsible for delivering us back to the trailhead. But with the heavy snows now falling, I knew that even if we eventually reached the pickup, we may still be stranded.
Rooster Rock

That day I learned some valuable lessons.

People do strange things when faced with adversity - one of them is discovering some way to pull themselves out of a predicament. There was no doubt we needed a new plan of action. Backed up into a corner, having exhausted all other options, at least those we knew of, I decided to approach our predicament a little more analytically.

First, I looked up toward Rooster Rock. Unable to see its spires through the trees and snowfall, I still knew where it stood in relation to where we were standing and was able to picture in my mind what it looked like from where we had eaten our hasty lunch. Using that picture in my mind, I compared it with the view of Rooster Rock from Table Rock, which I had studied from the summit of Table Rock on numerous occasions.
Rooster Rock
Using past views of Rooster Rock from Table Rock and taking into account where we stood in relation to that view of Rooster Rock, we made the necessary adjustment to acquire the correct direction. At least we were 51% sure we were headed in the general direction of Table Rock.

Three hours later, after trudging through deepening snow, we stood cold and wet at the Table Rock Trailhead, having made our way to Table Rock and on to the Table Rock Trail from there. The road was deep with snow, but not enough to keep my pickup from finding our way home.
Noia that day on the approach to Table Rock
Now most folks might say we were "lost," as we ping-ponged back and forth along the trail at Rooster Rock, trying to locate something familiar from which we could gather our bearings. However, I prefer to say we were “misdirected.”Seriously though, the best way to keep from becoming “misdirected” is to know your surroundings. That is an easy task in the high mountains, where numerous landmarks and a good map allow one to gather their bearings.

It becomes more difficult when you’re in thick forests at lower elevations or the weather is hiding landmarks. So, of course, a compass or GPS system is always good to have – just in case. Another general rule I have, if I ever get lost, is to travel downhill. Canyons often have roads, and if not, canyons lead to other canyons that might have a road. I figure at least I’ll eventually end up at the beach or Badwater Basin in Death Valley.
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