“The Big Day” is known well by Steens Mountain Campers as a day of endurance; an opportunity to, as Harland Yriarte says, “overemphasize to trivialize”. Campers are led on a 28 mile journey down, through and out of the glacial cut gorges on the Steens Mountain. For many of them it allows an opportunity to be pushed to the edge of their boundaries, mentally and physically. The experience undoubtedly shapes participants for the rest of their lives. I know this adventure and ideal has shaped my life significantly. Every few months I get out in the mountains, alone or with friends for a “big day” of my own. Here is a brief account of yesterdays.
Nearly asleep in each of our sleeping bags, I realize Ghelfi and I both threw down our bags in the middle of the parking lot right next to my car… Realizing that late night campers could be driving through the lot, we quickly moved to a slightly more out of the way area…once we were finally settled down a heinous odor become quite oppressive and we realize the trail head pit toilet was about 10 feet away… needless to say decision to stay put led to a restless night of sleep.
We got up in the morning, packed quickly and hit the trail running. 30 minutes in my head lamp burnt out…Luckily my night vision has improved greatly since Waldo 100k, and a full moon helped guide my feet. 10 minutes later Ghelfi’s head lamp went out… After both taking some big spills we decided to simply hike until the sun came up. Just as the sun began to come up we arrived at the creek that we planned to follow up to the top of the ridge line. With no trail on the map and thick underbrush ahead, it was clear that a major bushwack was in store.
The underbrush was thick and climbing the slippery rocks up the creek bed was a struggle to say the least. I know we both took a few big falls. Shins, knees and elbows all have the marks to prove it.
Needless to say by the time we reached the granite rock band where the creek bed petered out we were ready to do some real climbing. And we got more than we anticipated. Luckily the cliff band was pretty low skill and we were able to muscle our way over it.
After finally getting to the top of the ridge we descended into the beautiful granite basin below. More sliding and falling, and all things that go with falling. This is the point where things got tough. Backtracking was a very unappetizing option, it was clear that the Sawtooth we intended to climb was above our pay grade for the day and the route we hoped would lead us to the top was more technical than anticipated. We decided to climb the ridge, to the right of me in this picture, and attempt to loop behind the Sawtooth mountain and drop down a steep rockfall into L Lake, then hopefully pick up the Canyon Creek Trail and head 9 miles back to the car. This was all a big hope… a granite cliff could easily force us to abandon the entire loop and have to head back down the way we just came.
Here Ghelfi and I decided to abandon the summit attempt of Sawtooth (pictured dead center)
We descended the rocky ridge line about 1000 feet before the entire boulder field became choked out in thick underbrush…picture above is the route we plowed through… Ghelfi deemed it, “A great route! Basically a highway” Clearly we have different opinions of what a “great route” is. Unfortunately this picture doesn’t show that this “path” of rock and brush is actually quite steep.
Relieved to be back on an actual trail, and not totally sure how we just got down the section I’m looking at. Its amazing how much security a simple path of dirt provides after blazing our own trail for the past 6 hours.
Finally we came to a clearing and picked up a bit of a trail which took us about a mile and a half down to the Canyon Creek Lakes. After swimming, eating and getting water we headed 9 miles down plush alpine single track through alpine meadows and past some stunning fall colors back down the trail to the car.
The wilderness is a place of major risk and major reward. Untamed land provides a canvas on which exploration, struggle and freedom shape who you are, in a way not possible in the flatlands. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the fathers of wilderness Aldo Leopold, “…I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.” This land is out there, open and free for you. Explore it.
If you want to read another account of the day here is Ghelfi’s Blog ryanghelfi.com