Scrambling Like a Monkey

Bushwhacking in the air

One:  from Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), recounting an adventure in Spring 1923, age 17:

One weekend [while working as a solo trail patrolman for the Forest Service], I was above Lake Chelan [Washington] with Glacier Peak far off across a steep canyon to the west. It didn’t look particularly near. I was not deluded by the distance, but I was deluded by the apparent ease of access. I started off Friday night down the canyon with no experience of the dense understory of the Puget Sound rain forest. In a short time I found myself hopelessly entangled in a jungle of down timber, vine maple, devil’s club, and blackberry bushes, all growing on a surface at the steepest possible angle. Sometimes I would descend for a hundred feet scrambling in and out of branches like a monkey without ever touching ground. My shirt got torn and my knuckles barked, my eyes smarted with lashing branches. I kept on because after I had gone a little way it was impossible to get back up. I reached the river at the bottom of the canyon after about three hours. The climb up the other side, although steeper, was not so difficult and I got to the broad meadow on the western side of Glacier Peak the afternoon of the next day. It had taken me several hours to cover an airline distance of a little over a mile. 


Two:  from Smoke Blanchard (1915-1989), recounting an adventure in 1969, age 54:

At Cape Perpetua [Oregon] the Pacific Coast Range drops directly into the sea. I balanced my bivouac on a ridge-crest elk trail aimed at the ocean. Four elk, bounding seaward at dawn, slammed on the brakes and skidded to a surprised stop only inches from me. I also was surprised.

…There is no way I could have done justice to all the glories of the southern Oregon coast in less than a century. Some day I must return with full mountain gear to explore some quarter-mile-long beaches I bypassed. It would take a rappel descent and a piton-assisted climb up the opposite wall. Cliffs, dunes, bays, rivers, forested mountains, grass-covered mountains — the south coast parades all the manifold environments of the continent’s edge.

…Fighting the toughest brush battle of my life [while hiking on a mountainside near the Seven Devils Recreation Area on the Oregon coast not too far from Coos Bay], I became almost used to being suspended far from earth on slender swaying branches as I bulldozed my way near a cliff. Once the lacing under me thinned, so I glanced down to judge my height above the ground and saw the sea!


Three:  from American anthropologist, author, and explorer, Ian Baker (b.1957), relating Tibetan adventures with friends in 1986, age 29


referencing adventures of:

Tibetan Lama Lelung Shepe (Shyepé) Dorje (1697-1740) in 1729, age 32

British Lt-Col. Eric (Frederick Marshman) Bailey (1882-1967) in 1913, age 31

British botanist-explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958) in 1925, age 40,

together with Scots-Welsh gardener and peer, Lord Jack (John Campbell) Earl Cawder (1900-1970), age 25.

It was raining, and banners of mist drifted through the trees. The swamp was infested with Rhododendron irroratum, bloodred flowers spilling into the bog. Beaded strands of Spanish moss hung like nets from the sodden branches. When the pilgrim lama Lelung Shepe Dorje entered the bog in 1729 he described how his feet “sunk the length of a forearm” into the oozing mud. We crossed the marsh and entered a thick tangle of rhododendron worthy of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. We broke for tea under the dense canopy of leaves and smooth looping branches drenched with epiphytes. Afterward we forged our way through the forest and trudged through lingering banks of snow toward the 10,450-foot pass which would lead us into Pemakochung. As we crossed the saddle, the massive peaks of Namcha Barwa appeared through a window in the dense tangle of branches. Glaciers poured down its northern slope and disappeared into jungle. Kingdon Ward [passing through in 1925], had referred to this view as “coldly menacing”: “The snow peaks enclosed us in a ring of ice. . . . Dense jungle surged over the cliffs. . .a maelstrom of river, forest, and ice fighting dumbly for dominion.”

Hidden amid the swamps below us lay the ruins of Pemakochung’s former monastery. We made the steep descent through rain and fog, clinging to branches and swinging our way down through a wet, bramble-filled forest. It as at this point that Lord Cawder [1925] had written of porters falling through “a net work of roots, another time into a big hole. . . .The jungle was very thick—huge trees, masses of rhododendrons, with an undergrowth of tall ferns. Even at this time of year a great deal of verdure comes above one’s head, and everything is crawling with ticks and leeches—What it can be like in the rains, I can’t imagine—God! How I loathe all jungles.”

As we descended toward the abandoned gompa [hermitage] a vast amphitheater opened around us. The pyramidal peaks of Namcha Barwa soared above us, and a granite wall—snow clinging to its upper slopes and red-flowered rhododendrons advancing up the slabs—framed the valley from the west. Great torrents poured off Namcha Barwa’s glaciers into the marshes and forests. We proceeded through leech-infested swamps to a small hillock where the crumbled walls of the old monastery were slowly sinking into the earth. A pomegranate tree laden with overripe fruit spread above us while a headless statue of Tara, a female deity, sat perched on a moss-covered wall. Bronze butter lamps and a pair of broken cymbals lay amid the ruins. As the porters strung prayer flags between two fir trees, Ken, Eric, Jill, and I set up our tents, using cut bamboo to lift them off the sodden ground. When Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Bailey traveled into the gorge in 1913 he had referred to Pemakochung as an “abomination of desolation” and “one of the world’s dead ends.” Taking in the rain and mud and leeches, I reflected that little had changed.




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