Crossing to Safety

From beginning to middle to end and back again, one adventure leads to another. So hold tight—it's a long ride

Outside

Outside    

While Ken's downriver I climb clear to the top of the cottonwood thinking it might be possible to Tarzan from the uppermost branches over to the cliff. It's not. The limbs stop in midair. I shimmy back down.

I get out the five-millimeter cord, slings, and biners for the first time. I hitch one end of the rope to a 12-foot-long log and reclimb the tree with the other end. Using one sling and two biners, I rig a crude winch in the tree, clip the cord in, and drop the end. Then I wait for Ken, swaying stories above the crashing rapids. He returns in half an hour and spots me up in the tree. He knew that's where I'd be. He didn't find a ford. I was hoping he wouldn't.

"All we need to do is lift the log up into the top of the tree," I yell, "drop one end into the highest fork," I point to a limb way above me, "and swing the other end over onto the cliff."

"That's all?"

For the next two hours we're like kids building a tree house. Using carabiners and knots, me crotch-to-crotch up in the tree and Ken down on the ground, we slowly winch the log up into the cottonwood. We have to reset our rigging several times, once almost losing the log, but eventually we yard our bridge into the sky. With the cottonwood rocking in the wind, the log swinging dangerously in midair, Ken muscling the cord from below and me precariously balanced in the arms of the tree, we gently guide the log into position. Closer, closer...

"Drop it!" I bellow.

Voilà. Only six inches of the log rest on the distant lip of the cliff, and the log shifts with each gust, but we've done it.

It was my idea, so I go first. Ken gives me a belay from the ground; I loop the cord over a limb and step out onto the log. I gingerly walk the plank. The roar of the river fills the empty air. I can feel the dark water rushing far below. Step. Step. Forget where you are, focus on where you're going.

When I reach the cliff, relief forces a wail of delight from my lungs. Down below, on the opposite bank, Ken is giving me the thumbs-up and silently yelling.

After we send the packs and skis over, Ken ties into the cord. He methodically climbs the tree and, with no hesitation, like a trapeze artist without an audience, tiptoes across our suspension bridge. When he reaches my side he practically knocks me over in a bear hug.

While I coil the rope Ken builds a cairn and writes a note to put beneath the top stone: "Cowboys beware, this is not a horse crossing."

We heave on our packs and head down the trail. In one hour we hit the car; in two, the Lander Bar, where, naturally, we meet three Kenyan mountain guides working for NOLS. They're listening to the band, watching cowboys trying to two-step to the blues. We pull up stools and one of the Kenyans, in an elegant East African accent, asks why our faces are so sunburned.

Ken buys pints all around and settles in to tell the story. I push back, relax, close my eyes, and listen to his voice meld with the music. Suddenly I see him. It was just yesterday but it already seems like months ago. He's out in front of me, silhouetted on the horizon, a tiny black figure gliding into an enormous white landscape. I watch him stop, take a bearing, and then, in total silence, continue to glide onward—self-contained, self-confident, unknown and unseen by all but me, a friend.

It occurs to me that the trips you hear too little about are the ones that work. The journeys where no one dies, no one gets hurt. Friends get together, make a plan, execute the plan, have a grand time, come home. The competence and acumen of the participants match the aggression of the elements and the challenge of the landscape. Uncelebrated adventurers are making such journeys every day, all over the world.

When Ken finishes his tale the Kenyans share one of their own about the rescue of some fools on Kilimanjaro and another about the death of a novice who fell into a moulin, a hole in a glacier, and was never found. We swap stories until last call. The Lander Bar is closing, our trip is over, the end.

Ah, but the end is never the end, it's the middle too. There is no finish line in the outdoors. Adventure is not a race, it's a life. Cross one stream and there's another one just ahead. As we're walking out one of the Kenyans grabs my arm.

"I know another place difficult to get into," he tells me. "It too is high and remote, but it's in the middle of Africa. Would you care to go to the Mountains of the Moon?"   


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