Ever since I ripped open the pages of "New Sch!uff," the supplimental rock climbing guide to Smith Rock, Oregon, I had wanted to visit the Koala Rock. The climbs just looked yummy. There was even some fun, easy multipitch and some moderates for us to flail on. The problem was always getting out there. No one wanted to do the hike out. I didn't think it looked all that bad. For almost two years, I begged and snivelled about the lack of Koala Rock, or absence of Koala Rock in my climbing diet.
Finally, in moment of drunken warmth and happiness, Joel agreed to finally go out. He even spoke of a shortcut he knew across the river. I was rather doubtful about the shortcut because Joel had a way of turning a new way he wants to try on you as a "shortcut." Shortcuts in Joel's book are never really shortcuts, they are just something he saw once and thinks you should be able to go and shave time off your journey. He files it away, sometimes for years. They grow slowly, insidiously into an idea and then acts upon them.
We sobered up the next morning and got a nice jump on the morning by arriving at 11:00 AM. The sky was cluttered, but breaks in the clouds promised some blue and sun. It wasn't cold but it wasn't warm. Their was occasional dribbles from the sky above, but nothing that seemed like it would be buzz kill. It was the kind of drizzle that the desert doesn't allow to collect on a jacket enough to form a drop.
We pulled into the parking strip and saw it was loaded with people hanging out in their cars. There was equipment laid out, lounging bums and junk cars idling calmly in the desert. No one appeared to be moving down the trails to the cliffs. No one appeared to really be doing anything. They were being pussies. Joel and I knew the real men were going to be the ones who made it out the the rock. It wasn't wet enough to call it.
Joel brought up the shortcut again. I, reasonably, asked where and what it was. He explained that we would drop down to the eastern parking lot, drop down to the river, cross the river, head up the side of the canyon and hike up to Koala Rock. This sounded reasonable listening to it, but I knew, deep down, that I was in for a screwing. But I knew that arguing about it would offend his sensiblities and make him cranky. When Joel get's it in his head, you just go along with it. This is true even when you think their may be a moderate amount of suffering.
We dropped down to the river on a nice easy trail, but I was very apprehensive about this river crossing waiting for us. Joel seemed very confident about the location and was even more positive when he saw the water level was down. I was watching the river and wasn't seeing the distance to the other side decreasing much. I commented a few times on this fact to Joel who grumpily told me it was up around the bend. The trail dissappeared into bushwacking on the side of the river. The bushwack dissappeared into a boulder field. We were in for a nice scramble around large rocks with heavy packs on. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a little work to have fun, but I'm a rock climber, not an alpinist. I'm lazy. I only want to sweat on the rock, not getting to it.
A short mile later, we pulled up to a small section in the river. I was a bit tired in the shoulders already from the climbing we were doing with full packs. A short skip across some boulders brought us to the other side of the river. We were probably already into this hike longer than the entire trip would have taken had we walked the normal canyon path. We walked up the canyon passing Fight Song on the Student Wall. The entire lower and upper gorge area is great climbing...for those who like to climb on glass that people had spit on. Most people visit Smith Rock and never even climb on the basalt. I try to avoid climbing on basalt whenever possible. It's not a purist thing, it's a "this rock sucks and I am no good at it" thang.
As we topped out onto the dirt road about half a mile from Koala, the wind picked up and the first drops of moisture hit us. The other thing I noticed is that it had gotten a tad nippier than it was down in the gorge. As a matter of fact, mixing the dropping temperature, the wind drawing itself into gale force winds and the rain, it was going from crisp to shit-almighty cold. I understood it was October...in the desert, but I wasn't dressed for winter yet. I was wearing a t-shirt, light jacket ,shorts and Chocos. I had left all of my cold weather clothing at home. Walking up the road with us was a couple of guys and behind us a couple of female types. I could see them starting to quicken their pace. Joel and I silently passed the look that this little bit of moisture wouldn't amount to anything and we needn't to hurry anywhere.
The damnable part was we were both starting to get a bit chilled from the rain that was now starting to come down into a decent downpour. I was pretty much soaked at this point and was starting to have to lean forward into the wind to keep my balance. My backpack isn't exactly aerodynamic and the strong gusts were starting to kick me back a bit. The canuks were in a full cant headed towards koala. Joel and I were scanning furitively for cover, a cave, a boulder, an overhang or even a tight juniper copse. But there was nothing, the rocks were verticle or sloped, no large boulders. Nothing. Except for koala. Up a small scree patch. Chocos in small scree is just not cool. Especially with the indispensible toe-loop. They get under your feet, and if you have flat feet, like me, you can't get the rocks out without taking the chocos off. The ankle-flip - loose-foot maneuver doesn't work.
We both broke into a jog at the point where the wind knocked me completely over. The rain was pounding us now, hitting the ground with enough force to explode and create a foot high cloud of semi-solid water. The ladies and the canuks were running up the scree-slope to the south side of the rock to a shallow overhang. We didn't really care at this point whether there was enough room, there was going to be enough room, for me and mine at least. I am not saying I would have gone all Mad Max inside the cave, but I was going to share in that shelter. My feet were getting incredibly cold and the rocks were grinding against the soles of my feet and toes as we made a mad scramble up the scree-slope. The shelter was filled and I got to sit on the edge of the overhang with the wind sapping every bit of strength and heat I had. I sat in the shelter hugging and shivering into my backpack for over two hours. The rain and cold continued with very little let-up for that one-hundred and twenty minutes. We knew at some point we were going to have to head out. By this time, my feet and hands were nearly icy, stiff and hurting. I knew the scree-slope was just going to suck. It was extremely steep and I would be bearing all my weight onto the straps of my chocos and my toes. It was going to hurt.
We took off about fifteen minutes after the canadians and ladies from Seattle had taken off. We wanted a little time in between dashes. I slid down the first part of the scree-slope, sinking six inches at a time in the loose rock and sliding, scraping and banging against larger rocks. The backpack made me stay on my heels. I don't believe my feet had ever taken a beating like this, even The Narrows wasn't this bad. I was falling over, banging my hands against the rocks and bleeding freely from at least four to five different areas. I am absolutely not kidding when I say I had rarely taken a thrashing like this in my life. I had to stop constantly, wringing the rocks from my sandals and found that sliding on my butt was actually easier than trying to walk. I plowed through the scree with an island of scoop between my legs and my butt scrunching back and forth to slither my way down the rocks.
I hit a slightly steeper part and began to slide on my own. I was on a moving carpet of scree with ten feet above and below me moving freely down the hill. At first I thought I had hit the jackpot, but looked and saw to the left a little drop off of about six feet and I was heading right for it, picking up speed even. As I began the descent to the drop, I realized I was going to go off of it if I didn't get off this sliding sheet. The only thing I could see was a nettle bush on the right. I figured I was bleeding from enough places already a few more wasn't really going to make a difference. I lunged off the moving rocks and grabbed the nettle bush, having to dig in with my elbows and kicking with my feet, forcing the nettle bush into my face and hair. The rocks went off without me and fell off the drop. I had cut my knee open and had two fistfuls and a facefull of nettles and thorn bush. I was bleeding from my feet to my hands and I was still shivering like a dog crapping razor blades.
We got down to the road. Joel was giving me the stink eye for being such a bitch, dissappointed at my lack of hardiness. I tried to explain to him that it had been an unbelievable ordeal, stressing each smack and scraping of the rock. He looked up the field and failed to find the noteworthy cliff I almost fell off of, and other than the blood, I don't think he really believed me much. And after all this, I still didn't get to climb on Koala Rock. I had been denied again with extreme prejudice. It eludes me like a simultaneous orgasm. I am beginning to believe there exists a Secret Society with the sole purpose of denying my ever gaining a bolt-hold onto that small rock at Smith. I can sometimes still hear them laughing. But the tin-foil hats keep the laughter away...keeps the laughter away...keeps the laughter away...