August 28, 2023.
10.7 mi | 3320′ ele. gain | 8 hrs.
If you are looking for a route description for the Van Patten Butte scramble, this isn’t it. Check out these resources from Oregon Hikers, Summitpost and Peakbagger. This is a story about how to take a straightforward, half-day route into an all day, nail-biting adventure. I would not recommend, however I feel that if you are a person who likes testing creative routes in the mountains at all, some of your days will inevitably turn out like this. I’d say about 85% of my exploratory adventures are neutral to good, 10% are excellent and 5% are gnarly. This was one of the gnarly ones.
We were back at the Anthony Lake Ski Area for a few days so Aaron could get some work done. Since Van Patten was such a short route, I decided to hike to the trailhead from the parking area 3 miles away to begin the day’s adventure. It was all downhill, meaning an easy approach but nothing to look forward to at the end of the day.
The night before, I’d read through all the resources listed above. I eyeballed the topo map and Google satellite images. It was my usual prep routine. I thought I’d take the suggested route up the mountain and circle back down a different ridge, then either rejoining the route in or bushwhacking to the road to cut off some extra walking. On the hike down to the trailhead, I studied the landscape, trying to visualize what would make a good route back. I felt ready for a fun day in the mountains.
Once I reached the trailhead, I had a short, steep climb to Van Patten Lake. The lake was pretty, but the water level looked pretty low. While having a snack, I pictured how gorgeous it would be when it was full. I found a pair of sunglasses sitting on a rock near the lake; lately I’ve been finding these on nearly every hike.
From there, I walked around to the north side of the lake, where I followed an inlet stream up the vegetated slopes. As I climbed, I was presented with more and more options. I chose to follow a line where giant boulders occasionally punctuated the forested canyon walls. The route required a little bit of poking around, but it was generally straightforward and safe. Along the way, I found another pair of sunglasses that were hung up in a tree; they must have fallen off of someone’s head as they were scrambling the route. Once I gained the ridge, I had to navigate around a few obstacles to get to a wide, flat saddle. From that point, the summit of Van Buren was just a quick and easy walk away.
The highpoint, a pile of sloped boulders surrounded by thick and twisted trees, was not a great place to hang out. So I tagged the top and wandered around the high ridgeline, looking for a nice place to sit and paint. There, I also scoped out my options down. None of them looked good. My original plan, which looked okay on paper, most definitely did not look possible in real life. This sometimes happened, and I knew this was a possibility. The NW ridges looked mostly do-able, but there were enough narrow, loose and cliffy sections separating the good stuff that made it unsafe. That was out. The NE ridge was very knife-edgy, atop sheer cliffs. That was out. Even the gullies looked too loose and steep to want to attempt solo with no gear. My last option was to retreat the way I came.
I started along this path, the best and most intelligent choice. But then I got the idea to follow the ridgeline adjacent to my ascent route, the one that would take me right back to the lake! That seemed like a good idea. I veered off the beaten path and on to the ridge.
Just like the NW ridge, this one consisted of a jumble of tall, impossible boulders choked with vegetation, making it difficult to see far ahead. I poked along very slowly on and near the ridge, mostly on the west side to avoid the intimidating cliffs. The terrain was mostly loose and steep, with a mixture of rocks, dirt and trees. Occasional cliffs became frequent cliffs and my options were very limited. I was really struggling to find a line that would go.
After much frustrating zig-zagging around, I found an escape gully leading to a giant talus field. It was steep and loose, but with enough firm footing and trees to hang on to in order to be safe enough to descend. Without knowing what happened in the trees below the talus, I decided to just go for it. I needed to get off that damned ridge.
Once safely on the pile of rocks below, I sat down for a while to let my nervous system calm down. I ate some food, drank some water and thought about options from here. I was so annoyed with myself for making the stupid decision to try a different ridge despite having a perfectly good way to go down and also knowing that all the other ridges were too rugged for me. (So why would this one be any different?)
But, being annoyed with oneself doesn’t lead to better decision making. I had to snap back into rational problem-solving mode and I could berate myself later.
Below that talus, I could hear running water. No problem, a little stream. Unless that stream turns into a waterfall. Can you guess? Of course it did. I was having flashbacks to last year’s debacle getting off Chief Joseph Mountain, where it took hours to go less than a mile through similar terrain. I cut right away from the creek, where I began traversing a steep, forested hillside. But I kept getting cliffed out. Each time I reached another cliff, I could feel my heart race and my breathing get shallow. This was clearly type 3 fun.
As a strategy to move safely and efficiently, I settled into a way of movement that felt a lot like bouldering. I tested each hand and foothold before committing weight to it, I only moved when I felt in balance and I hyper focused on the task at hand. I was not (literally and figuratively) out of the woods yet.
Even though I had made it below the ridge and “just had to get through the woods,” the landscape was relentless. I desperately sought paths of least resistance through rocks, creeks and soggy hillsides. Once I finally reached the road, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and chugged some water. Then, I had nearly 3 miles of walking uphill on the road in the hot afternoon sun to wrap up this debacle.
On the return hike, I passed by what looked to be a promising huckleberry patch. I dropped a pin on my GPS app so I could come back another day. A silver lining, perhaps.
Lessons learned? I fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy. The further I traveled down the terrible ridge, the more committed I felt to that route. At any point (especially early on), I could have backtracked up to the saddle and taken my original route back down the mountain. Even though it would require going back uphill, it would have been faster, safer, easier and way more fun. A reminder that nature is indifferent to our hopes and dreams. And that respect and humility in the mountains is paramount to help ensure you can go back and explore another day.