Leaders: Mars Bonfire, Virgil Popescu
Apparently news of world class incompetence travels faster than the scream, "Rock!" echoing down Chokecherry gully. For of my eleven participants only three desperately peak-deprived hikers, eager to risk all for a few more sign ins, dared show up. Unwilling to accept this negative assessment of my abilities, I consoled myself with the rationalization that perhaps it was the rain, snow, and unusual cold that kept the others away. I'll never know.
So who were willing to chance this unlikely adventure? Well there was, of course, my evaluator, Virgil Popescu - ever patient and always encouraging -- along with Ray Wolfe, Janet Yang, and George Wysup. All experienced and enthusiastic hikers. I would have no problems with this crew. The only uncertainty was the weather. After explaining what we would encounter and getting a sense that this was acceptable to the group we set off. But how did I know what we would encounter? Let's back up a day. The unstable weather concerned me enough to cause me to leave early on Friday and do Tecuya, Peak, and McPherson to get an idea of the worst and best we might find and to take a look at the northern side of our mountains from McPherson. There would definitely be snow - I experienced it on Tecuya and could see it on the Big Four from McPherson - and there was a storm forecast for Sunday. Sound like an interesting beginning for a backpack?
Since they all knew this was a provisional and since there's not much to do on a 10 mile road walk but talk, they immediately began to mess with me by asking probing questions about leading. Questions like: "How does a leader screen participants?" Knowing Virgil was within earshot I chose my words carefully, eager to make a good impression: "In order to meet my high standards and ensure a safe trip I have developed a double hurdle that people must clear before I will allow them on an outing. First - Do you have a pulse? You do. Great! You're half way there. Second - When you answer the telephone do you have difficulty determining which end to speak into? You don't? Congratulations! You're on the trip." Am I being overly cautious? Perhaps. But a quality experience is important to me. Virgil seemed relieved that I was finally beginning to take my responsibilities seriously.
How time flies when you are deep in thoughtful conversation and before we knew it we were at the base of infamous Chokecherry gully. How would we get up without splitting each other's heads open with dislodged boulders? With valuable and seasoned input from Virgil we decided to stay in the center of the ravine, single file and close together, until we reached a point about half way up where the gully fans out and we could spread out to avoid being one above the other. We reached the use trail at the top without so much as a pebble being launched on anyone. We were soon hiking in snow which necessitated good step kicking across the open gullies on the east side of Samon ridge and careful hand and foot placements as we traversed the rock outcrops and slabs. Around half way to the summit the use trail crosses over to the west side of the ridge which was mostly clear of snow but dense with buckthorn, yucca, and scrub oak... to the point where the trail was almost nonexistent. I scouted Samon on 3/10/1999 with Hugh Blanchard and we put in ducks on the vaguest parts of the route which helped us now. After the occasional uncertainty between equally miserable options we gained the register housed in bright yellow nesting cans. The return to the top of Chokecherry was uneventful. Because control is more difficult on the descent than on the ascent we decided to fan out until the gully forced us towards the center, assume stable positions, and then proceed one at a time to the road. It worked well and again no one was hit with anything harder than an oak leaf.
As we hiked towards Madulce saddle we began plowing through deeper snow and the storm predicted for Sunday came in early and began dumping new snow. Crunch time! I started to suspect that a change of heading by about 180° might be in order. We could check out of this adventure now or stubbornly persist and perhaps check into the next world. After mulling over the alternatives for a few nanoseconds consensus was reached: "What's up with this? Let's get the hell out of here!" Ah the delightful feeling of having gravity on our side... of losing elevation quickly and easily.
Peering through the falling flakes we thought we saw something large moving towards us. A bear? Where's my pepper spray? No wait ... it was human ... with strong resolute steps and carrying a backpack ... no casual hiker .. this must be the front man for a search and rescue team. Were we being rescued? And what was that beside him? ... a dog! ... probably specially trained to track people in snow and pull them out of drifts. We were being rescued! And was that a flask around its neck? How romantic! The Forest Service, noticing our cars below and realizing there was a storm on high, had sent in an old fashion Swiss Alps rescue team to rescue us. It seemed a bit much. Would we have to pay for this? We were far from needing a rescue. But wait! Just what was in that flask? Whiskey? Then a rescue was entirely out of the question. But what if it were, say, unpasteurized Guinness at room temperature? I'm not above being rescued. I might even enjoy paying for it.
What fantasies a weary mind can generate from misinterpretation. The hiker turned out to be Jeffrey Roth, a late arriving member of our party, with his canine partner, both trying to catch up to us. And the flask? Merely a large collar. We descended together and expressed our resolve to return under easier conditions to enjoy these peaks.
So what was the point? You might well wonder, since I had foreknowledge of the situation and the others strongly suspected as much or worse, why even bother getting out of bed? Well we did do Samon, the hardest by far of the four peaks. We devised a successful plan, appropriate to group size and experience, for getting up and down Chokecherry gully safely and realized that in spite of its bad reputation it can be negotiated. We got in some practice at moderate non-technical snow travel and we enjoyed a wintery vista not usually associated with a scheduled outing to those peaks. And the difficult conditions gave us a chance to fine tune our gear. In my case I was trying out a pair of over socks which the ads had me convinced would keep my feet absolutely dry. It's probably not appropriate to mention the brand name here so I won't say anything to give it away but its interesting to note that it rhymes with veal shinns. It turns out that just as whether or not Bill Clinton committed perjury depends upon what your definition of is is, whether or not these things keep feet dry depends upon what your definition of dry is. If your definition of absolutely dry is very moist you'll love these socks. It's better to detect such discrepancies between advertising hyperbole and real world performance on the margins of danger rather than in the center of it. And, most importantly, we got to experience a reasoned turnaround. If we were only to hike in the best of conditions then one day, against all the odds, we might get hit with unexpected dangers and having never done a turnaround and perhaps associating it with failure we might ignore the signs and carry on beyond the point of recovery.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, but was it a success? Did we fail? Are we just not worthy? Should we hurl ourselves naked through police car windows in an effort to get it over with now before we bring further embarrassment to the HPS? Success is measured by achievement of goals. There can be many optional goals on a hike - some great pictures; a rare sighting of wild life, plants, or historical items; to climb a certain peak by a certain route and sign in a register a certain number of times - all worthy yet optional. There is, however, one bottom line goal that is never optional: To hike safely and live to hike another day. We achieved our bottom line goal. Success!