Saturday, November 28, 2009

2009 - Boys Only Campout in the Wichitas - Day 1

Every year for the past 7 years, my sons and I, my brother-in-law and his sons, my father-in-law and other brother-in-law have taken a trip to the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge (WMWR) near Lawton, Oklahoma. On these trips, we generally spend 2 days hiking, bouldering and rock climbing. This year, for the first time, it was just my oldest son (12), myself, my brother-in-law and his son (11). So, this time we felt we'd be a little adventurous. We got more than we bargained for!

For those who have never been to the WMWR, it is an extremely rugged piece of property near Fort Sill outside of Lawton, Oklahoma. The mountains are small compared to most ranges in the Rockies and even the Applachians, but there are few maintained trails and the terrain is generally covered with very large chunks of granite strewn about. You must keep a watchful eye on the trail at your feet to avoid twisting an ankle or stumbling and doing a face plant into the 10 grit sandpaper-like rocks.

This year started off like others, leaving early out of the Dallas / Fort Worth area around 6:00 AM and driving Northwest through Wichita Falls, TX and then North towards Lawton, OK. We arrived at the WMWR around 10:30 AM. We had several options for our first day. We originally thought about top-roping The Atomic Knee Drop just below the top of 2,464 foot Mt. Scott. We had all done this a few years prior. It is fairly easy to set up a top rope and has a 5.6 difficulty rating, so for our sons and myself, it is a challenging, but not extremely difficult. There is an added difficulty climbing on Mt. Scott as the winds generally howl as you are probably 1,000 feet above the surrounding land. Just beyond Mt. Scott is a large wind farm, harnessing these forces of nature.

On this day, we called an audible and decided to make an assault on Elk Mountain via the 5.6 Great Expectations route on the Elk Slab, but first, we made a brief stop at the Doris Campground and set up camp. Next, we made the short drive over to the Sunset day use area parking lot. Prior to setting out on our hike, we had some lunch, filled our backpacks with water and trail snacks and prepared to leave. By this time it was about 11:45AM. Due to the excitement and anticipation, we weren't even thinking about this possibly being a bit late to start the hike.


From the parking lot, we headed west about 1/2 mile toward the Charons Gardens Wilderness Area to a dry wash and then head due south about another 1/2 mile into the Valley of the Boulders. This boulder field is littered with granite behemoths the size of small homes. Below is a picture taken a few years ago with us standing under some of the boulders in the boulder field.


You must boulder-hop probably another 1/2 mile through the Valley of the Boulders. The Valley of the Boulders is bordered to the east by Elk Mountain and to the west by Charons Garden. While in the boulder field, you will see one of the many iconic rock formations in the Refuge, the Apple and the Pear shown here.


Just beyond the Valley of the Boulders, the trail divides into three directions east, south and west. West takes you into Charons Gardens and towards Crab Eyes, a distinctive rock formation that we plan to visit on our second day. South takes you towards Indiahoma and the Treasure Lake Job Corps Center. East takes you around the south side of Elk Mountain and into Fawn Creek, which is our chosen path for today.

After about a 1/2 mile of attempting to follow the vague resemblance of a trail, we bushwhacked up to the base of Elk Slab to start our climb. A short scramble up a drainage puts you on a small ledge where my brother-in-law began setting up the ropes for a multi-pitch lead climb. My brother-in-law is an experienced climber and has spent around 25 years climbing in the Wichitas. He led me and my other brother-in-law on our first climbs 10 years ago on this very route. Prior to that climb, I had never attempted to climb even a rock wall in a gym. Since then, I've climbed pretty much every year in the Wichitas. I've also climbed in several rock gyms, but still consider myself a novice climber.

It took a little longer than expected getting to the base of the slab and getting set up. We did not have everything ready to climb until around 2:30 PM. Being on Standard Time, we were expecting it to get dark around 5:30 PM, but felt we could complete the route in about 3 hours. We were fully expecting to hike down the east side of Elk Mountain in the dark, but were prepared with our head lamps.

One critical detail we were forgetting was that we had 4 people on the climb and only 2 ropes. This meant that we would need to shuttle ropes at each pitch. My brother-in-law would lead climb and set up protection with me belaying him from below. At each pitch, he would clip into some form of bomber protection and then begin top-roping each of us up. The second and third climbers would tail a rope that we would use to pull the top-rope down to the next climber. As the fouth and final climber, I would remove the protection and meet up with everyone that was clipped into the protection and we would start the proces over again through three pitches. This is a picture of my son heading up the first pitch. Note the rope he is tailing.


We were between our second and third pitch when the sun dipped below the horizon. As it did, we could see Crab Eyes off in the distance. With the sun below them, it gave the appearance of the eyes glowing. All four of us were huddled together, clipped into a bolt with a piece of webbing each holding us from sliding down about 300 feet of granite. Unable to dig into my backpack for our headlamps, we finished our climb with the assistance of a bright half-moon glow, one-by-one feeling our way up the rock.

Once we were at the top of the climb, we still needed to navigate our way through another boulder field and then find the trail down to the parking lot in the dark. It took us around 1 hour of trial-and-error searching to get through the boulder field. Then, we walked around for another hour looking for the trail. At this point, we stopped and took a break. It was nearing 9:00 PM and we still had not found the trail. The temperature was beginning to drop and were expected to plummet into the upper 20's over night, so it was imperative we find the trail and get down. I pulled out my map and compass and determined that we needed to head due east to find a ridge which would then lead us to the trail. Within about 15-20 minutes, we found the trail and headed down.

As with most of the trails in the WMWR, this trail is not extremely worn or well marked. Navigating them in the daylight is sometimes a challenge, in the dark with headlamps adds a high degree of difficulty. Getting off trail multiplies that degree of difficulty by requiring bushwhacking through scrub oaks and briar bushes while avoiding large boulders that cannot be downclimbed or navigated around forcing you to backtrack occasionally. It took us an hour and a half to get down, emerging from our journey precisely at the parking lot where the truck was parked around 11:00 PM.

We were all extremely cold, hungry, thirsty and tired, but we were safe and glad to be down. We first headed to town to see if we could find some grub, but everything was closed, so we turned around and headed back to camp and crawled into our tents and bags until morning. My brother-in-law had to fight off the racoons who invaded our camp taking off with most of our breakfast including about a half pound of bacon and a half pound of ham. It would be eggs and toast for breakfast.

2 comments:

  1. You have had lots of good family experiences. You are so right about the eastern trails like the Appalachian Trail. Out west your trails are wider with usually smaller rocks. The Blue Ridge mountains are older and much more worn down compared to the western mountains. I have hiked the CDT and loved it. I could hike longer and cover twice as many miles. You keep up the good work.

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  2. You can't beat the Western US for outdoors activities. I'm currently planning front country trips for this summer to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon with the whole family, then a back country trip with my wife and two oldest children to the Inyo National Forest in California along the PCT. You gotta love the west. Big, clean and clear.

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