Monday, January 13, 2014

Meeting My Maker on a Sunday Night - My Aron Ralston Near Miss

"The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts."
-Yvon Chouinard

I am so glad you are reading this blog entry.  Let me rephrase that, I am so glad I am sitting at my computer on a Monday and am not presently buried beneath dense foliage in a ravine with a broken leg, or worse.  It was a rough night, last night...
NOT A THROUGH TRAIL - that sign is for other people... not for me!
I've been running my whole life.  I have come to develop an identity problem which is to say, I can't imagine myself not running.  I can't even imagine identifying as something else.  My wife Kate is struggling with that identity challenge right now (she broke her right leg and had surgery in November), and I'm doing all I can to support her emotionally and physically through it (stopping just short of running way less myself so she's not confronted by that reality).  It is one of the greatest challenges we've yet faced as a couple.  Sometimes we're both worn down emotionally, and we get into a fight over absolutely nothing (bear with me, this sets something else up).  We have recently fought over navigation, missing part of a hockey game, leaving the house on time, and an online GoPro order.  Seriously folks, these fights might have had a deep undercurrent of something else, but they were fights about absolutely nothing of substance.  Nothing essential, nor important.  The last two fights we had were back-to-back nights (Friday & Saturday) and combine with that my not running nor working out since Thursday, come Sunday I was in a bad, overly emotional, and mentally dark place.

So I went out for a run Sunday mid afternoon.  I didn't know how far or for how long I'd be gone, but I knew I needed something long to clear my head.
Backbone Trail selfie, almost one of my last photos...
***FLASHBACK***
Last bit of sunlight fades away... this is getting interesting.
It's around 4:45pm, Sunday, January 12, 2014.  The sun has long since disappeared over Temescal Ridge & Cathedral Rock, and I'm buried in a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, part of the north splintering of Rustic Canyon.  I have taken a horribly wrong turn.  Wandering up a creek bed I thought was part of the old (and heavily overgrown) Bay Tree Trail, I got stuck where landslides have boxed the creek in, so I start to climb out & around it.  I find myself on the side of a crumbling rocky hillside utilizing plants & branches to not fall down the steep slope.  At one point, every brittle, dry piece of chaparral is breaking off in my hands, no matter how thick or deeply rooted it seemed.  The rock starts to crumble under my trail shoes and I notice that there's nothing to catch my fall before about a 4-story (60 foot?) drop into the rocky creek bed below.  Looking off into the distance, I'm probably 3/4's of a mile from any real trail.  I don't have my cell phone.  I don't have a light.  Nobody knows where I am.  "Genius, Jimmy! Absolute genius,"  I say to myself.  My last bit of ambient daylight is fading like a K-mart beach towel.  I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  I must start carefully calculating every movement, and at the same time, if I stay in the same spot too long, the hill will crumble beneath my 180+ lbs. and give way to big air.  I force myself to keep moving and mentally brace myself for the worst.

Trying not to achieve a similar fate, unsettling at best.
Thankfully, I'm not panicking, but I am acutely aware that if I fall, I'm very likely going to be too injured to crawl out, in a place inhabited by at least one mountain lion (I've discovered lion scat and deer skat on the game trail I'm now crawling up to get to the ridge).  After crawling sideways and upwards for at least 45 minutes, breaking branches to climb towards the ridge line, I end up in a clearing (relief).  With two large sets of bones (relief just left the building).

"When I've lost my way or when I am confused about a path to take, I remember that most answers I need I already possess – deep inside. I am naturally creative, resourceful and whole. If I consult my invisible compass, I’ll know what to do."
-Steve Goodier

Estimated route = GREEN / Incidents = YELLOW
The sun is now gone but atop this ridge I'm getting a little light from a relatively full moon (full moon is 3 days later).  I start to realize crawling through this game trail at dusk (in darkness) probably isn't a great strategy anymore.  I can see the lights of the San Fernando Valley about 1.5 to 2 miles to the north, but would have to drop into another canyon/ravine to get there.  I resolve to keep climbing and to stay standing as much as I can to avoid looking like the prey of a cougar.  I climb through multiple brier patches and stop occasionally to pick a half dozen to dozen thorns out of my hands.  I'm still not panicking, but I'm wondering if I should hunker down and wait for daylight.  I have half a bottle of water left, a 200 calorie granola bar, and my legs are starting to cramp from the fatigue of forcefully climbing through (and over) dense vegetation.  After what seems like 2 hours, but is probably in reality 75-90 minutes of dusk, I reach the ridge line above Fire Road 30 (a single track trail we jokingly call Flyer Road 30), one of my favorite lesser known paths in the Santa Monica Mountains.  I am overcome with emotion.  Not really joy, but rather, a profound relief that I'm not hurt, and I'm not spending the night facing the fears I was just crawling out of a canyon with.  I dump the rocks and dirt out of both shoes and start to piece together how I'm going to get home.  At the very least, I feel safe again.
***END FLASHBACK***
First photo after crawling out of the unknown.

Looking homeless, dirty, cut & bruised.
I have always had a rule to not drink when I'm upset, angry or depressed.  I have a new rule now to not go trail exploring when in that same space.  When I went running yesterday, I didn't know where I was going to go.  I didn't know for how long, nor how far I was going to run.  As I ran up Sullivan Ridge, I made up my mind to do a loop that dropped into Murphy's Ranch, climbed J-Drop then the section of the Backbone Trail known as Rogers Road, take Temescal Ridge to the Hub Junction, drop down Fire Road 30 to Bent Arrow connecting to Dirt Mulholland, then run that to Sullivan Ridge, and drop back down to my car.  I estimate this loop to be something between 15-18 miles.  When I reached the upper part of Rogers Road, there's a drop down trail back into Rustic Canyon called Bay Tree.  I've always wanted to explore it, and know 2-3 people who have.  I thought, "I know there will be some bushwhacking, I know there's not much daylight left, but what the hell, it's only a couple of miles!"  I had a secondary intuitive sense that said, "this is gonna be an adventure" and I thought, "hell yeah, I'm ready for an adventure!"

My skin is gashed and bruised all over, this is one small sample.
This was the part where I greatly erred.  I ignored my intuition which said, "this is shaping up to be a bad idea.  Ooh, sounds like a fun bad idea!"

RULES I ALREADY KNEW (AND PREACH)
*Whenever possible, don't run trails alone
*When running alone, let someone know your planned route
*Have a planned route
*Carry a cell phone, in case you get stuck and need to alert someone
*Carry a light if there's any possibility of getting lost or running after dark
*Carry more than adequate fluid & calories in case you get lost
*If you get to an impassable patch of trail/creek bed, turn around and retrace your steps, don't be a hero
*Let someone know your planned route (restated for it's importance)
*Help others learn from your most boneheaded mistakes (check)

A NEW RULE
*Just like drinking: when you are upset, don't go seeking "adventure" on the trails, just go run a super intense speed workout on a track or treadmill or something like that

GENERAL LIFE SIDE NOTE
Consider for a moment the last thing you said to your loved ones.  Would you be okay with that message if it was the last you ever delivered to them?  One of the things that haunted me, maybe what I was afraid of the most out there, was if the last things Kate & I said to each other (prior to my misadventure) were etched into eternity as the final exchange we had.  I got home and we immediately put it all behind us.  You have an opportunity to say things to the people you love, from love, each and every time you're with them.  I encourage you to utilize every opportunity to do that.  For your own sake.

Thanks for reading this.  I appreciate you (even if we don't know each other), no matter where you stand.  One more parting thought:

"If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning."
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