Solitude Is the True Mirror

The thing about a solo climb is that it is all yours. You are not forced to share it. It’s naked. Raw. The fullest extension of the climbing egoist. It is also a way of exploring oneself. A solo climb is like a big mirror. One is looking at oneself all the way up. If it is a way of showing off, of proving something , it is also a test, a way of finding out what one is made of.

Royal Robbins, 1969

Deep in the canyon, a trail crosses the river on a suspension footbridge. About midday, The Logging Road Cyclist glided beneath it. His gashed knuckles had stopped bleeding a while before, but the bow of his boat was still smashed up like a pig’s nose, and leaking. It could have been much worse, he thought. He had stayed in his boat, and didn’t swim and lose it. Nothing else was broken or dislocated, body or gear. His head was above water and he was breathing. Equally important, his mental state was holding.  He was still paddling well, loose and aggressive. He would need this ahead.

“Hey!” A shout from above startled TLRC and shook him out of his thoughts. He looked up in surprise and saw an equally surprised face looking back down at him. “Hey! Are you alone?” TLRC nodded, still adjusting to the fact of another person down here. A dog’s head, a puppy looked over the edge of the bridge too. “Are you stopping?” “Yeah” TLRC answered, “I’ll pull out down there.”

TLRC paddled over to the first eddy downstream and got out of his boat. Man and dog arrived. The man looked younger than TLRC’s 30 and the dog looked a couple of months old. “Where did you come from?” the man asked…

In a large auditorium at The University of British Columbia, the mountaineer Alex Lowe was finishing off his lecture about various nearly unbelievable ascents, when, almost as an afterthought, he put in some slides of a solo ascent of the North Face of Pumori in the Himalaya. Climbing alone, he was very fast, and seemed to take the extreme dangers in stride. TLRC was inspired and spent days mulling over projects in his own sphere that might mean to him what Pumori must have meant to Lowe.

TLRC had been told by his long-time paddling partners Heathcote and R.  about the Middle Fork of the Feather. Above the famous Bald Rock Canyon was the “standard” run, 32 miles in a real wilderness canyon, a class V classic, so they said. TLRC pondered a map of California in one of the geology classrooms he frequented, found the run and wondered if he had the nerve to go in there by himself. Throughout the winter he found himself drawn to the map again and again. Gradually, without a word to anyone, he was committing himself.

TLRC was no stranger to solo boating, and had done it since the beginning, back in ’72. He had recently done a couple of solo class V first descents up the road near Whistler. He had taken heat for it too. For some reason, it had become an ironclad rule: Never Boat Alone. TLRC’s favorite dressing down had happened just a few months earlier, across the way in the parking lot at the Capilano River take-out. TLRC was wandering after his run, looking to get a ride back to the put-in, when a woman paddler caught sight of him in his sweater, gym shorts and bare feet, walking around in the 40-degree rain. Finding out he needed a shuttle because he’d just done the run alone, she unleashed a torrent of self-righteous abuse on TLRC, lambasting him for being an irresponsible boobie who was going to endanger the sport with his stupidity. Well, she didn’t know TLRC (or her ass for that matter) from a hole in the ground, so TLRC smiled and looked around some more for a ride.

To be honest, TLRC didn’t think it was that big of a deal. In his experience (which was a lot), when something really bad happened, people weren’t much help anyway. If you got pinned in a river, there you were, and it wasn’t like anyone was going to walk on water and pull you out.  It was a matter of not letting anything happen in the first place, and if you didn’t boat like that, sooner or later your number was up, people or none. TLRC had suffered three bad pinnings, bad in the sense of being helpless and underwater until  Something Happened and out he popped through no agency of his or anyone else’s. He might as well as been on Mars. He had been lucky to get out, and stupid to have gotten in.

On April 4, 1984, TLRC looked his last on BC in his rearview mirror. Degree done, he was going home, and glad to do so. With his earthly belongings stuffed into his Corolla sedan, he headed to his parent’s house and squirreled it all away, took care of some business and headed back up to the Klamaths where he had an appointment with Heathcote and some others. Arriving early, he ran the Scott and then headed over the pass to the Salmon, where he hooked up with Heathcote, The Satyr and L.

They ran the Salmons, Main, North, and South, where Heathcote was almost drowned in the Matthews Creek Gorge, then dropped down to Burnt Ranch. It was Easter Sunday, and they had to beg a gas station proprietor to open up for them as a couple of their cars were almost empty. They ran the New River through the gorge into Burnt Ranch, then all of  Burnt Ranch at high water, where TLRC missed a ferry above the Middle Falls and blew through the Showerhead backwards. They headed to the North Trinity and picked up Il Duce, who never made a train run on time, but did make a lot of money on car racks. Near the bottom of the run, TLRC was feeling frisky and fought his way into the lead. Misjudging the 6 foot drop just above the Cataract, TLRC got pounded into triple-vision anoxia in the hole at the bottom and just barely stayed in-boat. It was cold comfort to watch the others take a long time to work up the nerve to follow with all the speed and push they could muster.

They dropped Il Duce, and crossed to the Sierras, picking up R. and running Mill Creek, as steep as advertised, but too low, so they got out halfway. Stopping in a little town, three of them replaced tattered boating shoes with “Flights”, runners with all-velcro fasteners, very modern, and then put in on the truly horrifying Indian Creek. Part way down, TLRC sat in an eddy mustering the courage to turn and run the next drop, when he noticed his hands were shaking, and hard, but he couldn’t tell if it was from the fear, or from the polvo that he, Heathcote and The Satyr were using for the bravery. It didn’t matter. A ways down, he pulled into a tiny eddy in a pounding rapid, where Heathcote stood onshore, helping folks out of the river with a grin on his face while saying: “If a man was to miss this eddy, he’d go over a 40′ falls!” and it was true.

They took a rest day along the North Feather, and in a riverside bar TLRC got his one and only viewing of the American Sportsman Stikine tape. R. left, L. left, and Heathcote, The Satyr and TLRC went to Bald Rock.

Heathcote hadn’t been down since 1980, and that was at dead low flow. Now, based on Heathcote’s records, the gauge, and conservative linear extrapolation by TLRC, it was pushing 3000 cfs. Heathcote was going anyway. TLRC pointed out that he, Heathcote, had made the declaration any number of times that it was flatly unrunnable above 1500 because Atom Bomb Falls would be unportageable, and anyone stupid enough to go in there would sit until the water dropped. Heathcote was going anyway, and TLRC could drive the shuttle. TLRC looked to The Satyr, but he was just grinning like a Labrador awaiting his master’s orders. Having been down this road before, TLRC just gave in.

It was not that hard, if not pushed. TLRC wasn’t scared, and vowed to keep it that way. True to his word, Heathcote found a frightening way around Atom Bomb, one that involved climbing down into your boat from a 2 foot high rock into swift water. Not too bad, except that if one fell into the water, he’d be sucked down into the depths of a boulder strainer.

The time had arrived and the stars were aligned. TLRC would likely never be this tuned up again, Heathcote offered a shuttle (!) and The Satryr a breakdown paddle. All that remained was to put in and run it.

But the night was unkind. TLRC had nightmares and waking nightmares. The reality of what might happen pressed upon him like a lead apron. Pinnings, dislocations, lost or broken boat, the list went on. In the morning, exhausted, he told the others he was not going. The Satyr said nothing and took back his paddle. Heathcote, as expected, gave a dismissive smirk. The group was splitting up for a week or so, and they arranged to meet in Oroville on the way out.

On the road, TLRC changed. He had put too much of himself on the line to just abandon this, and in Oroville he took back the paddle, Heathcote his smirk, and they went their ways.

The drive past Quincy to the put in seemed endless. TLRC stopped and left a message for R. and his wife explaining what he was doing, when he expected to be out (he gave himself 4 days) and who to call if he didn’t show up. He tried to call his mother a few times as it was Mother’s day a couple of days hence, and he was concerned lest he not talk to her again.

Finally at Nelson Point, TLRC loaded up, and again it seemed to take forever. He carried sleeping bag and pad, food and a small pot. His boating clothes would do on-shore. On his person, in case of disaster, he had a section cut from a Forest Service map that covered the run (still hanging on a wall at the TLRC Forest Estate), a lighter, Swiss Army knife, a couple of chocolate bars and a lot of money in a match case, the last to bribe a shuttle with. When done, he locked his car, hopped in his boat and sprinted away before he could change his mind again.

It was late afternoon and TLRC carefully worked his way down as the sun lowered. His plan was to take it easy, scout anything blind, and walk anything that he found himself pondering more than briefly. Afternoon wore into evening and TLRC stopped at a huge bar to camp. He pulled his boat well up and started to look for a comfortable spot. Twenty minutes later, he realized he had walked the length of the bar twice and was just fidgeting, so he just went back to the boat and set up.

The morning was bright and beautiful, as was the canyon, as was the river. TLRC waited for the sun to warm him, then took off. The paddling was superb, challenging, but not scary. He felt very much in charge and his solitude did not weigh on him. Time was lost.

A largish rapid appeared, and TLRC started to boat scout. The center looked big, bigger than he had been dealing with, so he started to work his way down the right bank, hoping for a sneaky way around so that both scouting and portaging could be avoided. It looked like a class IV-ish route was feasible, so TLRC pushed over the first drop and stopped dead as his bow caught in the drop, then flipped as his boat slewed wildly to one side. He heard the unique, sickening hollow thump a plastic kayak makes as it hammers home into a pin, while the knuckles of his right hand exploded into pain. Instinctively he had gotten himself into roll position so most of the impact was taken on his lifejacket and his face was safe. He could look up beyond the loom of the hull, through the foaming water into the light above, that, in his rising panic, he knew might now be out of reach.

TLRC was born to hang, it seems. He washed off before his breath ran out, perhaps because of his struggles, more likely just advantageous pressure somewhere on body or boat. Righting himself in the serendipitous eddy below the drop, he shook the water from his eyes, took a breath, and finished the rapid. Below, he took stock. No skin on his right knuckles, bashed in bow of boat with a couple of leaking slices in the plastic there for good measure.

He went on, not allowing any thought for what had happened, or the significance of it. Just an incident on a run, nothing else. To have it another way would have meant more problems ahead, so it was as far behind him now as any other bad thing on any other river  had ever been. He couldn’t be any more careful than he was without paralysis, which he simply could not afford…

At the beach below the bridge, TLRC looked up at the man and the dog and said “Nelson Point, I put in at Nelson Point yesterday afternoon.” “A long way” said the man, “where are you going?” “Milsap Bar.” “Are you hungry?” “I have some food, want a chocolate bar?” “No, I had something better in mind.” He took TLRC fishing. Glad to be out of the river, and have it out of his mind, TLRC and the man caught trout, cleaned them, fried them up and ate, had a chocolate bar for dessert  (TLRC having been raised to be polite).

The hardest section, Devils Canyon, lay ahead. Being cautious has it’s price. One drop, apparently very steep and big disappeared through a notch in the bedrock and there were no eddies to scout from. TLRC did an extremely touchy exit from his boat onto a ledge about three feet above the water, gingerly wedged the boat in (dropping it was just unthinkable) and climbed up a difficult gully to see the rapid, a nice class III wave train.

The well-known long portage was easily recognizable, less easily done, but TLRC knew he was making good progress. Difficult rapids in the steep canyon continued, and TLRC scouted and ran them as comfort dictated, the morning’s events almost gone from his mind.

Finally, within what TLRC figured was a couple of miles from the end, the river banks turned into impassible granite cradling a serious rapid. The only way through involved a big (perhaps ten foot) drop nestled in whitewater above and below. TLRC viewed this from a perch high up on the left bank. There was simply no way to portage, and this rapid was considerably tougher than what he had generally chosen to run so far. He must have stood there for a half an hour trying to find any possible portage around or sneak through this thing that he really did not want to run. He finally gave up and resigned himself. Memorizing the route, he headed back to his boat, saddled up, took a deep breath and turned into the current. In the event, his face stayed dry. At the bottom, he howled for all he was worth out of relief at both this, and because he knew it was in the bag now.

At Milsap Bar, he sat in his boat and had a serious think about running Bald Rock again. That didn’t last too long, and TLRC soon found a local who for $20 drove him up to the hamlet of Brushy Bar, where he sat huddled over the wood stove in the little bar there, drinking Coors from the can at $1 a pop late into to the night, mystifying the locals who generally kept their distance from the be-sweatered, barefoot, haunted-looking TLRC, who honestly couldn’t quite believed he had pulled it off. And the real boating season in the Central Sierras still lay ahead.

Over the years, TLRC didn’t talk much about this run, mostly because he wasn’t around people who got what it was. He only once got praised, but if it was to be only once, this is the praise he wanted. TLRC and Heathcote had a reunion trip on the Salmon Forks in 1998, the last time they did a river together. After doing them all, Heathcote was going to hang out with some friends he had there, and TLRC was going to run the South Fork from Matthews Creek to Forks, a run he had never done over all the years. Heathcote’s friend expressed concern about TLRC paddling it alone and Heathcote just smiled at her, turned to TLRC and said “Oh, he’ll be fine. After all, he ran the Middle Feather by himself, didn’t you Mikey?”