By Charles Chandler
This is the final installment of a compelling story of challenge, change, rappelling, risk and redemption.
It’s a good read with an interesting twist at the end.
And below are links to the first two segments in case you are just discovering this tale of mountaineering mixed with a modicum of mysticism.
Redbud Valley is a unique geological and cultural area east of Tulsa Oklahoma. You can spend a lifetime discussing the geology of Oklahoma but it is a waypoint in this rambling story. Oklahoma has, forgiven the pun, been underwater in more ways than one. Over time, the seas rose and fell and created a layer cake of limestone, shale, and sandstone. In Oklahoma, the topsoil is quite thin in most places and this layer cake of hard stuff is often exposed. Redbud Valley is such a place. The top layer around Redbud Valley was limestone, locally called the caprock, followed by alternating layers of softer sandstone, shale and so on. In the Redbud Valley area, this formation was cut through by a small river called Bird Creek.
The action of creek over eons allowed the exposed layer cake to weather and create smaller side valleys and large bluffs. These exposed bluffs eroded and the softer sandstone did so faster than the harder limestone creating large overhangs.
The paleo and historical native Americans used the overhangs as rock shelters and temporary hunting camps or hideouts. Followed by outlaws, cattle rustlers, homeless dust bowl hobos, and moonshiners using these remote, deeply wooded ravines and rock shelters for their nefarious purposes. In this setting, it is a public place where families could hike, birdwatch, and explore the interesting geology. It was a nature lover’s paradise with a variety of trees and flowers.
It was also my gym.
The hilly remote road through the valley was an excellent place to do conditioning runs and the bluffs and boulders included many short free climbing pitches. There were several huge overhangs where soon I would be practicing my repelling. Now all that was needed was a good climbing rope and a few pieces of gear.
It was a delight to get the REI Catalogue and begin agonizing over the many features and choices of ropes and rappelling hardware. After much dithering, it was a 10 mm 60-meter dynamic dry rope in a jazzy red and yellow pattern. The hardware included the standard super 8 belay device, descender rings, and a GRIGRI. I also ordered some one-inch webbing and 5 MM Perlon cord. The 5 MM cord would soon be my demise. The REI order came in around noon on a Saturday. It was late February but it was Christmas all over again. I examined each piece of hardware and felt the weight and texture of my new beautiful climbing rope. You have to be a gearhead to understand the excitement and joy that a new batch of sporting gear can bring. Overcome with excitement there was only one thing to do. Head out to Redbud Valley and try this new stuff out.
The sun was shining and it was in the mid-50s so what the heck let's go for it.
Let's also pause for a moment and recall the Canon Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills that was my nightstand reader. It contained page after page of technical instruction about every aspect of Mountaineering including practical safety precautions.
One such directive was to always let someone know where you are going and when you expected to return. Another was a caution not to repel without a partner. There was one more that should have been followed.
My wife was away shopping. She was very familiar with Redbud Valley and would have advised on waiting until the next day when she could have gone with me. Or to call one of my buds and go one evening the following week. As I was stuffing my new gear in my day pack, I knew that I could be out, try the new gear and be back before she came home from the Mall. Therefore, no note, no harm no foul. Heading out the door, I should have listened to that music playing in my head, it probably would have been something like the theme song from the movie "JAWS"
Arriving at the Redbud Valley parking lot about midafternoon I grabbed my pack and a water bottle and hit the trail over to the bluffs. Walking out on the highest overhang with the greatest drop I took a few minutes to enjoy the view. There were three people below. Over on my right and along the trail under the overhangs there was a man and a little girl. It appeared that the little girl was playing in one of the small springs and seeps that flowed from under the bluffs. I smiled because I had watched my daughter play in that same spring. On my left and closer was a young man that was standing and looking down over the valley toward Bird Creek.
As I recall he was dressed in an army surplus field jacket and for a moment he kind of reminded me of that young man that had fallen on the Hogsback ridge on Mt Hood. The one with the concussion that we had walked back down the Mountain. I turned to the task of setting up for my first repel, selecting a strong Oak sapling, looped on the webbing slings, locked on the descender ring with two carabiners and uncoiled my brand-new beautiful climbing rope. I slipped it through the descender ring and then walked to the edge of the overhand and dropped it down. It touched the jumble of scree below with plenty of lengths to spare.
I took a quick look down and around. The man and little girl on my right were gone and so was the young man on my left. I had the world to myself. Next steps, buckle up my climbing harness, secure the trusty figure 8 to the rope and my harness and back over the edge of the overhang. I paused for a moment, to be extra safe and put the Prusik hitch on as a backup brake. Before leaving home, I had cut a length of the 5 MM cord and tied it together with two fisherman's knots making the Prusik.
This is where the "JAWS" music gets loud.
Clipping in the Prusik I backed over the edge of the overhang, felt my weight settle in the climbing harness and began the long-awaited and first repel. I was looking down at the scree and cobble rocks below anticipating the smooth landing when my descent came to a hard stop. My feet were dangling and I was facing the center of the overhanging block of limestone.
What could be the problem?
I checked the figure 8 to see if the rope had bound up. Nope, good there, and then looked up and the Prusick was doing what Prusiks do. It was locked and the hitch was on the rope just above the edge of the overhang.
About that third thing, I mentioned a few minutes ago. The passage in Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills states that if you use a Prusick ensure that you keep your hand on the hitch and slide it down the rope and don't let it lock up as you begin your repel descent. In baseball that would have been three strikes and you would be taking the long embarrassing walk back to the dugout. Except that I couldn't walk because I was hung up on a rocky overhang in Redbud Valley. Well, embarrassment aside, I figured to get out my trusty Swiss Army knife and cut the ever efficient Prusik and let it be a lesson well remembered. A quick check of my pockets revealed no knif and the last time I remembered seeing the knife was lying on the kitchen table where I was cutting the 5 MM cord to make the stupid Prusik.
I can do this, I said to self.. I can get myself out of this stupid mess. I will reach up to grab the rope, pull myself up and loosen the hitch with the other hand.
Now I don't know if you have done many one-arm pull-ups but they can be a challenge. The first try I realized that the knot was set tight. I had to hold myself up with one arm long enough to slack the climbing rope and loosen the Prusik and slide it down the rope. After several repeated tries, the results of my efforts were that my arms were spent and I was wet with sweat. I hung my arms down by my side to let some blood flow and give them a rest, now knowing that I had to think my way out of this situation. My legs were starting to complain because I had been sitting in my climbing harness and the leg straps were starting to impede circulation.
As I was resting, I looked to my left and saw that the overhang tailed off and intersected with the adjacent bluff face. At that intersection were a good crack and some rough protrusions and small pockets in the face of that adjacent bluff. Now I knew my way out. I could easily lever myself along the overhang, reach that intersection and like a good climber get a handhold in that crack and a toe on one of the rough places and get up and over. After resting a bit and getting a little chilled it was time to extricate me from this situation.
To move along the overhang, I had to do a little push out from the face of the overhang.
Starting this maneuver, it immediately became apparent that my new rope would have to take my weight and slide along the edge of the overhang. The edge was rough and sharp in place and would abrade if not cut the rope. To prevent this, I would use one hand to hold the rope from the rough edge and one hand to push out and increment myself along the face of the overhang to the nearby crack and my exit. This was a great idea on paper. It required me to do one-handed push off while at the same time pulling back on the rope against my weight and trying to move down the overhang. This maneuver required all arm strength because my legs were dangling. The problem was now compounded because I was a pendulum and gravity was trying to pull me back to the center. Soon it was back to my original position with arms shredded and my right hand bruised and scratched from trying to do one-handed pushups. Sitting there that first little niggly bit of fear started to creep in.
It had been in the 50s and the sun was shining when I started this little ill-fated adventure. Now it was late afternoon, cloudy and my cotton shirt and jeans were damp with sweat. I was starting to get chilly. There was no one around and no one probably wasn't coming out to this remote spot so late on a Saturday afternoon. My wife was probably home from shopping, but the genius of the family did not leave the recommended note. By the time she became worried and called the police and reported me missing it would be well into the night or next day before search and rescue began looking. There were plenty of clues lying around, boxes from REI, and pieces of stupid 5 MM cord and probably my favorite swiss army knife. The problem was going to be making it through the night. It was Oklahoma and it was February and weather can change in a heartbeat. There was only one thing to do, start yelling for help.
I knew this was a long shot because there were no houses around, I was deep in a wooded Valley with bluffs on three sides and under an overhang. As loud as I could I yelled help three times and waited, nothing, not a bird, not a cricket. Three more times and wait. Then in what felt like an hour, I heard a clink.
In rocky country, a clink only means one thing, something or someone had kicked a rock loose and it had hit another rock. Same as a twig snapping here in our Michigan woodlands.
Please, I thought. Please let it not be a stupid deer. Please let it be a someone.
Then down below on a small rough trail through the bluff that young man I had seen earlier appeared. I said out loud ‘Thank you, Jesus. ‘ and yelled down and said “Hey I am really glad to see you. My gear is hung up and I am in a mess here and I need your help.”
Why I don't know but I asked him if he knew anything about repelling gear and he said no. Then I asked him if he had a knife and he again said no. Then I asked him if he would come over to the scree down below me and find a rock with a sharp edge and pitch it up. He did and the first one went a little wide. My arms were so weak I couldn't react or reach. The next one was right on and I caught it and quickly sawed the stupid Prusik into. This released me and I descended smoothly. However, rather than landing on my feet, I crumpled into the scree on my butt. My legs were almost numb from lack of circulation. I was never so glad to be sitting in a pile of rocks. After rubbing my legs and getting a little circulation and feeling back I grasped my rope and with an effort pulled and stood up. "Free at last."
The young man was standing there watching all this and I stuck my hand out and offered a weak, sincere handshake. He shook my hand and I looked at him and said,”You just saved my life.
No one knew where I was and if I had hung up there all night I would have died of hyperthermia.”
He looked at me a little strangely and didn't say anything. I was starting to recover and the embarrassment of my foolish selfish action was setting in. I was prattling away because of the total joy of being rescued. I unclipped my rope and took my harness off. I pulled my rope down and started coiling it up and laughed. I was hung up with my new rope and this is the first time I had used it. I again told the young man thanks for rescuing me and that I was going up on top of the overhang to get the rest of my gear and head on home.
Hesitating a minute, I asked him how he was doing and if he was a nature lover and out hiking around and enjoying Redbud Valley. He looked at me and said,”Do you mind if I tell you something?'' In my egocentric mind I thought now what, hope it is not something weird. I have had all I can take for one day.
In a soft voice, he said “my life has just been so ordinary and I have never done anything worthwhile and don't see anything worthwhile in my future either. I had reached a point where I didn't think my life was worth living. I had come out to this remote spot and was going to commit suicide. I have my pistol in my pocket and was going to shoot myself. While I was up there in the woods walking around, before I did, I asked God to help me. If my life was worth living then show me. Show me something big. Not some birds singing or a funny cloud or a flower, something big so that I would know for sure. Something like saving someone's life. It was a few minutes later I just barely heard you yell. At first, I thought I was hearing things and then you did it again.”
We looked at each other and I shook his hand again and said, “Well, you sure did save me today.”
Wanting to get on home I picked up my gear and started back up that trail that he had come down. On top I pulled my slings and carbineers from the Oak, stuffed them in my pack and headed toward the parking lot and out of Redbud Valley.
Our lives and our situations change and we adapt and move on. My last event with the Mazama's Mountaineering Club was in 1986. It was a week-long outing in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. On this trip, we summited Gannett Peak, the highest mountain in Wyoming. It was an arduous technical climb and an experience of a lifetime. I made some lifelong friends on that outing. My last climb with these Mazama friends was on Mount St. Helens in Washington on September 9 and 10 2001. The next day on the 11th (9-11-01) we met and had breakfast at the Portland Airport. About an hour into my flight down to Dallas the plane banked and returned to Portland. On that day like now, we said goodbye to an American way of life that would never be again.
Last year I took a trip back down to Tulsa to attend the annual Oklahoma State Homecoming.
While I was there, I had time to take a retrospective drive out to Redbud Valley.
It had changed some in the passing years. There was a huge Native American Casino a few miles up the Port of Catoosa highway and a housing addition at the beginning of Redbud Drive. When I arrived at what used to be the unattended gravel parking lot and trailhead to the bluffs there were some nice surprises. Now it was the Redbud Nature Center and Preserve. There was a visitors' center with proper signage, hours of operations and abundant ground rules.
You can google the place and find endless photos of the bluff and kids have lots of fun hiking and exploring. I parked and carefully started working my way up the trail to the bluffs and the overhang. Thankfully someone had left a walking stick that I used to assist my ole runners' knee and support my additional years and weight. Finally reaching the overhang. I stood and looked out over the Valley and reflected on my hanging day. I still get a lump in my throat and shed a few tears when I think about that event. Of course, there were some recriminations about all the stupid mistakes made. I kept running the scenarios through my mind on what could have been done differently.
Although it is a challenge because of ego, I understand at a deeper spiritual level that this story was never about me. I was just a stage prop to move this play along. Whether you believe in Divine intervention, synchronicity, coincidence or blind luck you can interpret this story as you will. There are many, many similar stories like this one out there. What I do know is that I lived this one and a bazillion things with perfect precision had to fall in place for me to be hanging by my new rope at the very time that young man was in Redbud Valley contemplating ending his life.
Letter to the Editor Policy
Near North Now welcomes original letters from readers on current topics of general interest. Simply fill out the form below. Letters submissions are limited to 300 words.