The trio is complete
The Valhalla Canyon expedition was the third and final destination for the Posse Trio. The adventure started on the last day of August. We piled into the vehicles and headed for Detroit, Oregon. We stopped and had our fill of greasy food at the Detroit store and anxiously talked about the upcoming event. One of the big hitting topics was backpacks; Aaron has a scale and he weighed our packs. Joseph was in the low twenties while Apolo came in at forty pounds! That was enough to get the crew buzzing. Apolo emptied his pack and was very gracious as suggestions about what to take and what to leave filled the air. It was fun. The items he had in the pack were varied and random. My mind is fuzzy on everything, I believe there was a rubber ducky and a boat anchor. I kid of course. We all were laughing and enjoying the moment. The comradery on Posse expeditions is well worth the sweat and pain endured on the trail. When it was all finished, Apolo's pack was right around thirty pounds.
It's really weird to think that only twenty some miles from Detroit is a very remote, secluded place. So close, yet a whole other kind of world. If you are reading this in hopes of visiting Valhalla, let me throw down some facts. There's no trail. It is very steep and rugged. Cell reception is non-existent. Any small twist of an ankle or crack on your skull has the potential to become a big problem. You are on your own out there. I'm not trying to talk you out of Valhalla. I'm saying, be prepared. The travelers on the expedition were just that. Aaron was our leader in and out of the canyon. He had been there before. Second in command was Dustin. They prepared us for what lay ahead. Somewhat prepared. I say that because what I was picturing in my head wasn't what reality dished up. It's like when you go out dancing and think you're really putting on some moves, when in reality, the display is like a peg legged pirate dancing on a skating rink. The words they used to describe the conditions were accurate my brain movie was not. Enough of the intro; let's journey into Valhalla Canyon.
secluded and remote
We parked along Forest Service Road 4220 and made final preparations. Still excited, yet something more was swirling about. A tone of seriousness, heaviness was present. When you have a trail to follow, there's a clear cut way in and out. No trail, creates an atmosphere of adventure. We started out making our way beside a pond. Two minutes in, the sight of the road or any man made thing was gone. The vegetation was thick beside the pond; it soon changed to trees. The going was slow. Talking about the expedition later, Joseph mentioned that he didn't like how we would stomp and climb over things for quite awhile, then turn around to see we made little progress in the way of distance. The first neat part of the trip was a boulder field situated on a fairly steep hill. After that the terrain became only steeper and more and more fallen trees to navigate.
Once we reached the stream we would follow to our campsite, the going was real slow. The water was swift and there were obstacles all over the place. There really was no bank beside the thing. Dustin took the water route, he used the stream as his trail. The rest of us decided to stay out of the water. Jose later made the point that we should've all been in the water. We had the gear for it, yet we skirted along the edge the whole way to camp. I was following Apolo, and he slipped and fell hard on the rocks. If not for his backpack to break his fall, he may have jacked himself up real good. That was a reality check for me. Any injury can become a major thing in a remote setting. An extra level of focus is needed on a trip to Valhalla Canyon. The scene was really something else. At one point I felt like I was in a jungle. A far cry from an alpine mountain. The whole trip was a sensory sensation.
I mentioned earlier about the laser focus and the need for it. We were nearing our camp location and I stepped on a slick area. Instantly, I was on my butt. My pack padded my fall. Gravity takes over quickly. I was glad when we reached camp. We had traveled only a few miles; it took it's toll. Mountains are difficult because you travel up and then up some more. This was difficult in other ways. The obstacles and the water, the steepness of the terrain. Valhalla Canyon would claim a pound of flesh in one way or another. Two weeks after the trip, Aaron showed me his shins. They looked like a couple feral cats all cheezed up on catnip had jumped in his sleeping bag with him. My legs and arms were scratched too; I had bruises on my knees and arms from flopping around in the forest and creek. The others also paid the price with injuries. More on that to come. This kind of travel was new to most of us. Yet, the whole time everybody was happy and enjoying the experience. Come to think of it, beside our first trip up South Sister, the Peak Posse isn't a complaining group. Could be that we complained enough that day to last a lifetime.
We gave each other trail names on this expedition. Some were names already acquired, others were born enroute to Valhalla. It started when Dustin kept having issues with a compass. It seemed natural that he be called, North. Jose repeatedly requested no low trees to crawl under. He was named Too Tall. Since he was indeed the tallest of the bunch at a mighty five foot ten inches, we named the expedition, "Valhalla and the seven dwarfs"
Not super original, still fun. Vivian was Swede, Apolo was Instagram, Joseph was Karma. Named that because a conversation we had where he said he didn't believe in it. Aaron is Tonka and I'm Billy Goat. Trail names are used on the trail. There is an unspoken code that says you don't use them in the land of the living. It's funny what we consider living, isn't it? Many people spend their downtime motionless and quiet. Interacting with screens is our mode of operation. Once you get into a spot where cell service fails, a nice feeling of freedom floats over you. We spent the afternoon lounging and munching on food. It was a bit weird because we would check the time and it seemed like it was moving so slow; we didn't have anywhere to go but we were restless. I believe it was because time was moving us toward the next morning. The slog up the creek to the canyon was a big question mark. We wanted night to arrive; we didn't want the night to arrive. We trapped ourselves in a time dilemma and time got freaked out and slowed down. Can I prove it scientifically? No, Bigfoot can. Soon night did fall and we scuddled into our tents.
The gates of valhalla
Let me start this section by giving mad props to Dustin. He had been to the canyon before and he maneuvered us through the maze of log jams, thick brush and slick rocks like a pro. We left camp and made our way a mile up the creek. The banks on each side were steep and as we approached Valhalla the sides closed in. Most of that mile was spent in the water. Slippery rocks are one thing; slippery rocks with a thirty pound pack is another. Your weight and balance are thrown out of wack. It's as if I'm walking through a banana store carrying a prize bunch of banana's when all the sudden an escaped monkey from the zoo climbs up my back and starts peeling my shirt like a banana. Curious George on a mean streak. I was slipping and flapping my way up the creek. I felt like an old hobbit with my helmet on with my baggy waterproof pants and jacket. The others looked all sleak and cool. Not really. We all had a special fashion statement going on. That made the expedition feel different. It gave it a fun vibe. We couldn't take ourselves too seriously dressed as we were. So our group, which is always corny and giggly was dressed corny and giggly but acting more serious than other expeditions. The balance was maintained. I really started to get a sense of togetherness during this part of the trip. It was there the day before, more intense now. The initial anxiousness of forging up the creek was gone; a building excitement for the Gates of Valhalla took it's place. A mountain is open and the feeling is expansive. In the creek and then the Canyon, it was confining. Everything was wet and green. The constant sound of the creek, was like a confession being whispered in my ear during a heavy metal concert. I felt some unease being in that place. We were allowed in a private spot for a temporary visit. Barely welcomed, tolerated visitors. I didn't feel unsafe though; I did feel alone. Not alone physically, of course, it was the spirit of the place. Alone is not a negative thing; sometimes being alone is the best place to be. A mountain allows everyone to see it. Valhalla is the opposite of that. Therein lies the beauty of this place.
From the pictures, the creek looks small and harmless. For the most part, it was, some places, it was pretty swift. The log jams were tense at times. A slip and fall could end badly on a log jam. The creek had mood swings. One second, calm and cool. The next, raging like a kid that just had his xbox controller taken from him. The water that was swirling around our legs had been in Valhalla and now we were approaching. The final obstacle was the biggest log jam of them all. Climbing over it, I was taken back by the force the little creek must posses during spring meltdown. There are some giant trees being bullied by the water during the melt. My mind took me to that spot during the spring thaw. Fear gripped me. All that water forced inside a little canyon would be fierce. I was standing there, and even though the water wasn't at that state, I could sense it's merciless nature. Heavy. I have to admit that by the time we reached Valhalla, I had enough of stumbling through the creek.
When we reached the Gates of Valhalla, it seemed surreal. It was like being in a picture. The place was unassuming, the water moved through it as it has for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Not many people have stood there. That thought entered my head. That's not what makes it different, special. Humans don't give or take the essence of a place like this. Even if thousands saw it every year, it would still be cool. I picture Valhalla as it is now or as it was the minutes before we rounded the corner to first see it. It was not changed then or now by us being there. I was and still am changed by it. Sitting here typing this story, a part of me is still standing in the water, green all around. My memory isn't static, it's alive. Imagine reaching down and picking up a rock from the creek. The cold water entombs your hand. The slippery texture of the rock makes your grip tighten around it. For those of us that made the trip to the canyon that day, we can go back to Valhalla riding on a memory. It's the gift that special places give us.
When I go out into the wilderness with the Posse, I learn things about myself and also about my fellow travelers. This expedition was no exception. The journey out of Valhalla was something else. It was so intense that I had to put off writing this tale for a few months because standing in the canyon was insignificant in my short term memory compared to the events that took place on the way home. I had to let the dust settle on this whole thing.
We made our way back down the creek 'bout an eighth of a mile. Then we lost the water sandals and donned our trail shoes. From there, it was steep terrain to reach a flatter section of forest. Standing at the creek you could see a rocky section just underneath a cliff. The goal was to climb up to the bottom of the cliff, skirt around to the left and continue up in a very steep valley. It was much steeper than the route into the canyon. The reason for a different route out was to be able to get above the canyon and walk along the edge and see some of it that was inaccessible from inside. Aaron had prepared us for the steepness and had a rope for the steepest areas. It kept getting steeper and steeper. As we entered the valley, we started to fan out to find the best route up. This was the first time that I realized that to get to the top would require putting ourselves in harms way. Jose and I moved to the left and upward, it looked promising. A very steep, dirt slope that made its' way onto a ridge. It was steep and the handholds were roots and branches. Jose continued more left and I climbed straight upwards. Above us, it turned into basically a dirt cliff. Aaron and Dustin stayed to the right, in fact Dustin was already at the top of the climb. He had made it without a rope. It did look promising initially moving toward the left. Hindsight said we should have followed Aaron. As Jose and I moved upward, Apolo, Vivian and Joseph followed. I kept climbing, hoping, I was past the crux of the thing. I was wishful thinking. It kept getting more and more dangerous. By the time I realized I was in a bad spot, I had been in a bad spot for quite some time. It's intriguing how quickly things go from good to bad. It's mental more than anything. I was at a point where I could go no higher. Believe me, I tried different routes. It was here that I almost lost my grip and was about to take a serious ride down a very mean, steep slide. It was unnerving. Apolo, Joseph and Vivian had changed course and followed Aaron.
I was keeping tabs with Jose. I couldn't see him, he was on the opposite side of the ridge. We were talking in short sentences to each other. Plus the others were checking up on us with yells. making sure we were ok. This communication was invaluable to me. After I had my near fall, I was shaken up. The Posse asking me if I was ok and my having to reply helped calm me back down for the descent back to the other route.
As I started down, which was more difficult than up. Jose popped up on the ridge to my left and above me. I'm not sure if it was me projecting my fear; it seemed he was pretty shaken up, by the sound of his voice. I don't know what he encountered to make him turn around, if it was similar to what I had ran into, I understand why he would be fearful. He thought he could take the ridge and reach the top. It was really very close, thirty to fifty vertical feet. He felt coming back down to me was a tougher proposition than going up. The ridge was very narrow. A few feet. It was dirt and loose. As I watched him move upward and saw the looseness of everything around him, I felt a dread. If he slipped, he would be seriously injured at best. His fall down to me would be thirty feet of sheer cliff. Then hundreds of feet of very steep tumbling. I started to get a bit shaky. I had made it down past the steepest section and was resting, and watched Jose. At the steepest section, he reached up for a handhold and it crumbled in his hand. I said, "Don't try to go up, you have to come down." It was agony watching him downclimb. He reached a spot right across from me. Just below him was a drop and between us was steep terrain with no handholds. I'm not sure how he did it, he made it look easy. He traversed over to where I was. I felt relieved. By this time, the others had all made it to the top. The whole time they kept asking how we were doing. We made our way to the right. Aaron was waiting with the rope for us. If we had just followed Aaron, everything would have been so much easier. I already said that, I know, thinking about that day again makes me see so clearly the mistake made.
We climbed up and stood on the trunks of some trees. It was so steep that as the trees grew, they went outward at an angle and then grew up toward the sky. This makes for a nice place to stand, rest. Aaron was directly across from me waiting with the rope. In between us was twenty feet of steep dirt, with a few roots for hand and footholds. I was uncomfortable with the situation. I felt like I would slip trying to get over to where he was. Doubt was living inside.
We were again, thirty to fifty feet from the top. I asked if I could have them pull my pack up using the rope so I could make the climb without it. I attached the rope to the pack and they pulled it up. It was a relief to have thirty less pounds pulling me backward.
As Dustin was pulling my pack up, a rock close to the top dislodged. I heard him yell, Rock!" I was looking above Aaron and the rock was moving very fast in the short distance it had traveled. I thought it would head in my direction but move downward before reaching Jose and myself. I was wrong. I watched it go by Aaron and it bounced off the ground directly in front of me. The only way I can describe it, a death fly-by. The rock flew past me about chest level. I didn't have time to turn my head to see it travel down the hill, I heard Jose scream out in pain. The rock had hit his knee. Thankfully he didn't get knocked off his spot and take a mad tumble down. We were all so fortunate that this didn't end much differently. Someone could have not come down from that mountain that day.
My first thought after the rock hit Jose was how to get him down to safer, more level ground. The size and speed at which it was moving, had caused serious injury, so I thought. After a few moments, Jose was able to stand and bend his knee! When the rock hit him, he must have rolled with the punch, so to speak, and the damage was minimized.
Once we determined he could go on up, we saw a route that took us straight up rather than to the right and up toward Aaron. Without the pack, it was easy for me. Then Jose made his way to the top as well. What was a hairy situation, ended as quickly as it began as we stood on level ground. I thank God that we were safe. Clear sailing lay before us all the way to the trailhead. Clear as a small boat called the minnow as it set out on a three hour tour.
We were all very happy now. A few miles of victory hiking and we would be at the vehicles. Jose was limping, but moving. The relief that we were floating on was taking us on a whimsical journey. We were all talking about the climb from our own point of view. I was very impressed with how we all kept a very positive attitude on the trail. The whole thing had tired me out. I came down off the adrenalin high. We still had miles to cover and the setting was still as remote as ever. It didn't take long and we were in the middle of another situation. Have you ever started eating some very tasty food and once you get into the belly groove you keep stuffing and gorging? You finally reach a point when you stop for a second to unbutton your pants; you realize that the hours coming up are going to be uncomfortable, to say the least. You have gone and pigged yourself out to the max. As you sit or lay in agony, you think, never again will I put my skin and bones through this kind of punishment. We were past the appetizer and on to one of the main courses on the road home.
I was walking alongside Apolo, when all the sudden he grabs my arm and pulls me to the right. "Run, it's bees!" That's when I start running and noticed that Vivian and Joseph up ahead were doing a mix of running and some kind of strange trail dancing. Joseph tells me that he's not a dancer; the moves he was putting on amongst those trees makes me believe differently. There was jumping and slapping and screaming. I was running still, thought I had cleared the danger zone. I felt a fire light on the lower left side of my back. "They got me!" I screamed out. Not really. I wish I had. That would've been dramatic and cool. Instead I started doing my own slap dance. It was more fun watching Joseph shake his groove thing, less painful too. Those yellow jacket stings keep on burning. Come to think of it, they kind of look like feisty little Michael Jacksons. It's the jacket that gives them that vibe. No wonder they inspire dancing. I wouldn't be surprised if they have Beat it playing on their little boom boxes down inside their nests. They sing along, "Beat it, beat it, here comes a human let's sting it." Vicious things!
Dustin was in the front at the time and he escaped the wrath. Joseph, Vivian, Apolo and myself, took the brunt of the onslaught. Joseph got the worst of it. A sting on his hand made it swell up almost to the point of elephant man. It took days for his hand to return to normal. He found out he is allergic. It could have been really bad if he was highly allergic. We were miles from help and no cell service. Again we were fortunate that this didn't turn into a serious problem.
One thing that I still haven't figured out, but have a good guess. After we all cleared the nest, Aaron comes sauntering through the "kill zone" unharmed. What! I believe that when they saw him, one of the them said, "Hey! Here comes another one. Let's get him!"
One of the others' said, "No man, that's Tonka, he's cool. He's cool."
Did I see Aaron High fiving some of those Michael Jackets as he went by? Maybe I did, maybe I didn't.
So we are on the other side of the stingfest and everybody is joking and moving along. I can't tell you how important that was. We were all getting tired, Jose had a knee that was swelling and Joseph was dealing with his stings. For the group to band together and collectively keep a positive attitude was a testament to the character of the individuals. It's a good thing, we weren't in the clear just yet.
We arrived at a huge, steep, boulder field. Again, there were cliffs at the top of the thing. We started up and just as before it became steeper and steeper. It was a replay of the scene we had already been in. I sure didn't want to relive it, we decided to go back down and find another route up. It was here that we had to do something you never want to do on an expedition. One of the group separated from the rest of us. Dustin had no choice, he was up ahead and, sure enough the route became a climb on a cliff. We couldn't see him, there were trees blocking our field of vision. We could communicate with him. He was unable to climb down safely, the plan was he would make the top, then follow the cliff line to the right. We would go down and right, find an easier way up and meet at the top. The separation happened.
We trudged our way down and then prodded over the boulder field, looking for a favorable way up. It was afternoon, being on the exposed rock was draining. Our conversation died down. We all withdrew into ourselves a bit. The whole thing had taken it's toll on us. The size of the climb before us was substantial. Still, no complaining. As we made our way into tree cover and out of the rock field, Joseph was walking with me. It was steep again. We started talking about water. I had very little. Jose and Apolo were out and Aaron had some, not a lot. I may be wrong on Aaron's supply, it's what I believe he had. Joseph and Vivian had the most and they gave a very good amount to Jose and Apolo. It was Joseph who brought the topic up with me. He was looking out for the group. Very cool.
We finally made it to the top of the climb, it was a doozy. I was in the lead by quite a margin. I couldn't see the others, we were yelling back and forth. I wanted to see if this route made it to the top without having to climb a cliff. If we had to turn back again, I didn't want the rest of the group to waste the energy only to turn around. Thankfully, we were able to walk up, no rope required. When I yelled down to them that I was at the top, I could tell it lifted their spirits. It sure lifted mine. Some good news.
The bad news, no Dustin to meet us. I downed the remainder of my water and as the rest of the group made the top, we rested. We decided the best plan would be to get everyone to the cars, hopefully Dustin would be waiting for us there. We were still an hour and a half to the cars and we were tired out. It wasn't long before we came upon a small creek. For a few moments I thought, " I don't want to take off my pack and filter water, too tired."
It felt like my soul had been put in a wringer and wrung out. It was sloshing around in the bottom of the mop bucket. So what took only a few minutes to fill my bottle, was seen as a chore. Being in a challenging situation let's you understand how easily it is to make dumb choices, or at the least have dumb thoughts. That fresh water was good. Good for my body and good for my sloshy soul.
As we made our way out the mood was heavy. We kept calling out for Dustin and Aaron was blowing a whistle, still no response. I had thoughts of Dustin lying there all broken up from a fall or even worse. It wasn't all morbid thoughts. I believed he would be at the cars when we arrived too. We had already had two serious incidents on the way out, this last one was making me consider things a person doesn't want to have to. All the joy from this trip had been sucked right out of me on a very short trip out of the canyon. We had covered only a few miles. This was the first time I had met Dustin. Aaron and him have been friends for years, Aaron was very heavy of heart. We topped yet another hill and found that the road to the cars was still a bit away. I could feel a drop in our moods as we stood on a plateau and looked out across the forest. The best thing to do in a situation like that is keep on moving. That's exactly what we did.
We climbed over more rocks and pushed our way through thick trees and still no road. No Dustin. When the road did appear, it was suddenly. Thick forest, wow, here's the road. Aaron took off ahead of us to see if his friend was at the cars, chillin'. When we reached them, Dustin was not there to meet us.
Aaron was already in his truck. He would drive up the road and see if he ran into him, while the rest of us piled into Joseph's truck. We would make it to Detroit and call search and rescue. It was already past five pm.
One thing I have to mention. About thirty minutes from the cars, my phone started ringing. It was my wife. I was able to talk to her and then the others used my phone to call family. Those calls helped us out. Nobody mentioned that Dustin was missing. Maybe we thought that by not talking about it, it was going to be ok. Once somebody outside the group knew, it became different. It would be more real. It would start to affect the world outside of our group.
Jose's knee was swollen up and Joseph's hand was swelling too. That wasn't the concern on our minds. Night was only hours away and one of the group was unaccounted for. We were living in one of the worst outcomes of a foray into the wilderness. Again I thought about what Dustin was dealing with. The drive to Detroit was the longest 20 miles ever.
At the Detroit store, I called 911. Soon I was talking with a search and rescue officer. He gathered details and told us to hold tight; he would be with us in twenty minutes. I went inside the store to get a snack. Joseph bursted in the door of the store as I waited in line and told me that Dustin had called Jose. Snap and smile, that's the news we wanted to hear. When I had went into the store, everyone was somber. Rejoining them outside, we were one happy bunch. The officer arrived and we told him the news. He wanted to speak with Dustin personally on the phone before he was satisfied. We asked him questions about his job and experiences he's had. He talked about the area we had been in. He said it's so remote and the terrain is such that when they have to do a search there, outside agencies better equipped than the local office are called in. Plus it's not a matter of hiking in, a command center of sorts is formed and then the search begins. This means that in most cases, the lost person or persons are looking at an overnight stay. Something to keep in mind if you ever visit a back country spot.
When Aaron arrived with Dustin, it was a great reunion. Hugging and laughing. What started out the day before in the parking lot of the Detroit store, ended there. Thankfully we were just as happy when it was all said and done as when we started out...
Thank God we made it out in one piece.
I didn't mention Vivian and Apolo much in this story. These two were straight up business during this whole thing. I could see them struggling on the way out, but they kept truggling along. When you struggle but don't let it get to you, you are truggling. In case you were wondering. Vivian loved this expedition and Apolo was up for what came his way. This was only his second Posse adventure and he has become a fixture already. His sense of humor and willingness to listen to the more experienced members, makes him a great trailmate.
At the end of this story is a video of our trip to the Canyon. Here's some bonus footage of the voyage home.
The most important lesson I learned from Valhalla is that these expeditions are inherently dangerous. When my boots hit the trail, there's a chance I could fall, twist, strain, sprain, cut, smash, break, dislocate, bruise, freeze, dehydrate, burn, something along the way. To think, "It won't happen to me." Is simply ignorant.
Before I fill my backpack, charge my gopro batteries of anything else on the long list to prepare for an expedition, I am going to accept the facts. If I start packing, I am willing to live with the outcome of the trip. I suggest you think really seriously about things too because adventure and danger walk hand in hand. This Peak Posse stuff is fun; it's also hardcore.
I know a song called, "Never come back again." The songsmith talks about wanting to sail the ocean, climb a mountain, fall in love so he can know what it feels like to never come back again. At first listen, one may think that he actually wants to leave and not return physically. What he is actually singing about is experience. There are things that we do that are substantial enough that once we have lived through it, we will never come back again. It changes us from the inside. We will never be the same thanks to the event. An interesting thing about it is that we have to surrender ourselves to the experience. We allow the thing to change us, we welcome the change, for better or worse. It's the spirit of an adventurer. I have climbed several mountains this year and they have changed me. This expedition into Valhalla was no exception, I am grateful for it. There are members of the Posse that didn't go on the Valhalla trip, I am very glad they didn't make it. I'm glad they were out of harms' way. As for me, now that I'm on the other side of it. Safe in my house, writing this story. I wouldn't change anything about it. Sure we could go back in there and take a more safe route out. Safer doesn't mean better. I don't think any expedition to Valhalla Canyon could top the one I was a part of with Dustin, Aaron, Joseph, Vivian, Apolo and Jose.
A month after the events of those days, we held the Posse end of Summer BBQ. It's a great evening of food and fun. The highlight for me is the story circle. We take turns talking about the Trio expeditions we held that year. It's really cool to see how each place forms bonds between the travelers. Mt Mcloughlin and Middle Sister were fantastic and unforgettable. When it came time to tell our Valhalla stories, the atmosphere in the room changed. Listening to each person talk made me realize that these places we visit and the people that embrace the challenge, it creates something I would describe as unique. Possibly because the Canyon pushed us to limits the others didn't, the energy, the intensity of the bond was palpable among the seven of us. Even though there were some present that didn't go to Valhalla, and they were listening to the stories. There was a current flowing through the seven dwarfs that words can't capture. It's something that is ours and ours alone. Thank you Valhalla Canyon and thank you, you six beautiful souls. I know what it feels like to never come back again.