Split Mountain

September 19, 2022 Comments Off on Split Mountain

From the back yard you can see Split Mountain. It looks nasty. Craggy, jagged, strewn with huge boulders, slashed by ravines, cut by outcroppings, trail-less, stark, and pockmarked from bottom to top with “Don’t even think about it.”

But since it’s visible from most of the 360-degree viewing angle, and since it dominates all the back yard hikes that lead up into the hills, it cannot be ignored, and you can’t help but thinking, “How in the world would you ever climb that thing?”

Actually, I can help thinking that. But Kristie can’t. She made her first frontal assault over a year ago, before the fire had burned away the brush and she came back looking like she’d run into a raiding band of wild razor blades. She was pissed. “It’s so brushy and hard to climb. Let’s try it together next weekend.”

Seeing someone with giant cuts from their face to their ankles, shredded clothing, and purple bruises from the back-swing of large limbs didn’t make me want to do anything the following weekend besides take a leisurely walk and eat. Or the following weekend Or the next one.

But Kristie is persistent like a bad case of the shingles and she kept reminding me that “we” needed to climb Split Mountain, even though every single time she’d asked me if I wanted to climb it I had said, emphatically, “No.”

So we tried a second time and it was horrible. I don’t like rock climbing or bouldering or bushwhacking, but since the brush was gone lower down all I had to do was rock climb and boulder and hike. For almost eight hours. Kristie had on her climbing shoes, a tattered pair of pink, lightweight Nikes with holes in the soles and untied laces. I had on my terror and it worked flawlessly. I quit about a quarter of the way from the top, after five hours of relentless and frightening climb-scramble-hiking. She left me to drink water and eat oranges while she scouted the best route to the top. I saw her shrinking and shrinking and realized that however frightening it had been to have her leading the way, I didn’t know the way down any more than I had known the way up.

No trails of any kind, of course. We had gotten that far with her scouting, memorization of the topography, and dead reckoning. I broke out in a cold sweat atop my hot one. “What if she can’t find me? I will never make it down from here.”

That wasn’t an exaggeration. The route down was filled with dead-end gorge drops that, once you were in one of the ravines, you couldn’t possibly climb back out. Make that “Seth” instead of “you.”

She reappeared. “We almost made it. Want to try for the top? I can see the route.”

“I want to try for home. Now.”

“Okay,” she said. She was disappointed but not too much. It had been dangerous and we’d gotten scuffed and scratched to hell, enough to call it a partial victory in her mind.

Many long months went by with incessant reminders that we hadn’t gotten to the top and that she thought there was a better approach.

“How could there be a worse on?” I asked, firm in my determination to never approach Split Mountain again with anything more adventurous than a pair of binoculars.

So of course two days ago I was following her on a new route, this time up the back side of the mountain which was green and not nearly as jagged. “Don’t be fooled by the brush,” she said. “It’s just covering up the same treacherous stuff that you can actually see on the other side.”

We followed a trail to its end and began more bushwhacking and bouldering and climbing. My second-favorite memory of the day was crawling on all fours along a ledge about four feet wide, with a sheer drop on the left to certain death and a giant juniper on the right with big, springy branches that tried to push you off the ledge as you passed. “Be careful,” she said. She meant it.

We got to the top of the ridge and saw that we still had another hour of climbing to get to the actual top of it, then we’d descend into a ravine and be at the base of the mountain, where the real climbing would begin. It was 11 o’clock and we’d been at it for almost three killing hours. Worse, our trajectory was towards the actual split in Split Mountain, instead of the gentler peak on its left. The split is simply two smooth granite faces about 200 feet tall.

“We can go to the right and up that ravine,” she said.

“We can’t. You can.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Go home. Now.”

“Okay.” And she started off on a different route down.

“Why aren’t we taking the way we came up?”

“It’s too steep and dangerous.”

“We went up it okay.”

“People don’t usually die going up. They die going down. And that is too gnarly for you.”

We descended quickly down a steep slope, scrambled over a small boulder field, and came to a sheer 10-foot drop down the narrowest of defiles. She threw her backpack down and climbed down the slot. “Okay,” she said. “It’s not too bad. There are tiny footholds like a ladder all the way down. Just brace your body against the walls and make sure you grab the little handholds.”

By “little” she meant “invisible.” I sat on the ledge and literally quaked. I hate rock climbing and although it was only ten feet, imagine falling off the top of a basketball goal onto the court, and the court is covered with giant rocks that will kill you or maim you. I lowered myself until I was wedged. No way up and only two ways down, one of them too terrifying to contemplate, so of course I sat there wedged and frozen, contemplating it.

Finally I made the move, the irrevocable forward motion that will either result in a successful landing or a very bad one. My foot caught the tiny step and my hand, which had anchored my body, lost its grip. I felt the momentum begin to take over, like a piano starting to slide out of control down a staircase, and with my left arm I grabbed with all the strength I owned, forcing my legs out and my shoulders up against the rock to hold the fall. I didn’t care if hands broke, shoulders cracked, knees sundered, it was the complete effort you only muster when you see your life in the balance. Fear taps a wholly different reservoir.

That’s when I felt something under my other foot. I looked down. It was Kristie’s hand. She had raised her arm and opened her hand to make a human stairstep. “I’ve got you,” she said. “You aren’t going to fall.”

I did the arithmetic. I wasn’t big but I’m not nothing. 150 pounds and 5′ 11″ of meat and bone mass aren’t going to be held in check by a girl’s palm. Then I looked again at her arm. The big muscles were taut, tying into ripped shoulders, the neck of a defensive lineman, and a tensed back that looked broad and strong enough to carry Hercules. I put my weight on her palm and it was like stepping onto an escalator. I relaxed myself out of the wedge, found a grip for my hand, and found a cleft for my other foot. In a second I was down.

My whole body shook. I wanted to vomit but I knew that I’d probably need it for the next awful thing on the menu, so I pushed it back down and stood there, twitching.

“Good job,” she said, acting like it was nothing, shouldering her pack, and stomping down the trail.

I followed until we hit a creekbed. “I was looking for this,” she said. It was choked with dead trees, giant stones, and thickets of brushy oak that scraped and cut. At times I was on my hands and knees, but most of the time I was simply cursing and trying not to trip. Even though the certain death was past, a trip or fall at any point would have broken several somethings.

“Here it is!” she said after an hour of the most painful bushwhacking. My legs were so fatigued from going into a complete squat over and over I could barely walk. But then on the trail, I could.

The whole ordeal took less than five hours, and the most pathetic thing about it is that I did it at the same time I’ve been reading “Comanches: The Destruction of a People” by T.R. Fehrenbach. What we had just done was nothing to the nth degree compared to a day in the life of a horse Indian. We had walked a few miles over rough country, THAT’S IT.

And the pathetic thing is that our bodies are made to walk a few miles like that times two every day in half the time, never get lost, and still be able to ride a horse for twelve hours at night with nothing more than water and some dried beef. Oh, and at the end of the ride you have to fight and kill other people with nothing but a bow and arrow. Then ride 500 miles home by memory in the dark with no trail to follow of any kind. However weak and lame you think you are, you’re so much worse than that.

All of the bending, crawling, squatting, reaching, and scrambling left us both scratched, cut, and wrecked. Two days later I am enjoying a training effect of sorts. I’m stronger and feel a little, just a little, more confident about death and its avoidance. And yes, I know, that’s typically the precursor to something really awful. We sat down to a marvelous dinner spiced up and flavored with the taste of having survived. I was kind of proud of myself even though she’d babyproofed the entire route, again.

“We did our best,” I said. “I guess some mountains aren’t meant to be climbed, at least by us.”

She chewed thoughtfully, looking past the yard up at the peak. “I think I finally see a route that’s doable,” she answered.

I stared at my plate. Dinner didn’t taste so good anymore.


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