A Day in the Wichitas

The first time I came to the Wichitas, technically known as Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (WMWR), was also my first time outdoor climbing since the few climbing trips I’d attended as a boy scout. Having spent the whole eighteen years of my life nursing a Texan ego up to that point, I was amazed to find that Oklahoma was more than just a dusty, flat-as-a cookie-sheet desert. Where I had expected a wasteland, I found a haven, full of rambunctious creatures and gorgeous views. Best of all, the Wichitas featured some of the best climbing and hiking in all of Oklahoma, less than two hours from OU.

That first trip, just last spring, was a blast. A single day on the rocks with my friend and ranger extraordinaire Sam introduced me to the small but priceless joys of outdoor climbing. He taught me the basics of belaying and top-roping, a skill I’ve used countless times since then as a climbing wall attendant. We tested our limits that day, from our skills to the quality of our shoes, and eventually the patience of his manager as we sped back along the highway to catch his shift at our local pizza place. The adventure set a special place in my heart for the Wichitas.

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Rappelling down the Zoo Wall before my first climb with Sam.

The beginning of summer found me again in the Wichitas, this time with several companions, prospective guides on the 2015 Outdoor Adventure trip hosted by the Honors College. Late spring weather had cut short both plan A and plan B for our guide outdoor training trip, leaving us with only a day trip to our closest available hiking destination. We set out, backpacks loaded, for Crab Eyes, a unique rock formation a few miles into the park and arrived in good time. After a short, triumphant break we set forth again, in a vaguely homewards direction before realizing we had lost all semblance of a path.

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Our hopeful team along the path well before Crab Eyes

Several of the more opinionated members of our group decidedly opposed themselves to returning along the path we had used to reach that point, and so we spent the next five hours bushwhacking over sun-cracked ridges, along steep slopes, and through vegetation-choked waterways in hopes of finding the promised trail. Several shins were bloodied by slippery rocks or buttocks poked by unfriendly plants, and several times the young men of the fellowship had to ferry the packs of some of the ladies over particularly treacherous paths. More than once, my experience with bouldering came into use. As the sun began to set, I spied a paved road within an hour’s hike, but our crew insisted on locating the path. We found it just as the last rays of red broke the horizon and began our trek back through the dull glow of summer twilight. By our luck, this “path” was much more treacherous than our initial way forth, with a section whose giant boulders could easily result in a badly-balanced jumper falling into a hole well over the size of a full-grown man. Near the end, the trail fed through a stagnant stream deep enough that I eventually slipped and, exasperated and water-logged, simply trudged through, splashing mightily, much to the amusement of the girls who had found the higher path.

Somehow we eventually found our starting point. Without so much as a word of consideration, we began packing our belongings back into our vehicles. One of our leaders halfheartedly remarked, “well, at least we know you all can hike through hell, now.” No hint of further outdoors skills was taught that day, but I like to think that the grit and determination shown that day surfaced again to ensure that every participant on the actual trip in August made it through relatively unscathed. For a bunch of hardly-trained young adventurers, we held our own.

By the way, if you liked this section of the post, you’d probably love hearing about the actual adventure stories of a blog I follow, Tandem Trekking. They post frequently about their wild hiking trips, living the kind of life so many outdoors lovers can only dream of. If hiking isn’t your cup of tea, but you want to hear more about climbing, read on! My latest experience with the Wichitas has been my best climb yet. (Now that I think about it, that’s not such a grand accolade. As of today, I’ve climbed twice in the Wichitas and once, bouldering, in an off-region of Fontainebleau, home of the Font bouldering difficulty scale.)

I had been planning this trip with my friends, Claire and Garrison, for about a week, but I still nearly missed our 7:30 departure time due to something of a post-finals video gaming binge the night before. I woke up at 7:35, threw on enough layers to over-heat a reptile (I was not about to spend a whole day shivering too hard to hold on to the rock), chucked my harness, shoes, and chalk in a bag, and ran outside to meet them. Claire had brought the car, Garrison the rope and all the trad gear, and myself only my charming, half-prepared self and all the camaraderie I had to offer. We had to stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere so I could pick up something for lunch later and cash for the old-country burger place we’d eventually go to for dinner.

All our climbing for the day took place on Mt. Scott, the lone-standing mountain away from the majority of the Wichitas. Our arrival was greeted by a troupe of cheery grown men cycling up and down the mountain road like it was a walk in the park and a morning fog so dense that my pee disappeared as it sailed over the cliffs (except when the wind picked up and threw it back at me… if you’re going to let fly in nature, do so with the wind.)

Fortunately, the wall we were climbing first was away from the wind, so we spent the first hour climbing a cute little 5.6 crack as the fog gradually lifted. It was inexplicably warm for a mid-December day, perfect for climbing if the rocks weren’t sweating in the humidity. This route, though simple, relied entirely on the crack, such that I had to toe-jam with some already-uncomfortably aggressive bouldering shoes. It was a good warm-up, but with one round each on a top-rope we were more than ready to move down the mountain to some more traditional routes and less fog.

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Garrison the Mountain Man just before High Anxiety

IMAG0847So we drove down the mountain a ways, saying hi to the cyclists who looked nearly as impressed with our outdoor resolve as we were with theirs, and set up a top rope for the most popular route in Oklahoma, High Anxiety (5.7). Claire, Garrison, and I each climbed it once as the fog lifted, with Gary and me doing most of the belaying. Claire belayed for the first time over as I ascended, and I was admittedly thankful for my own skill as I paused often on the route for Gary to instruct her. The belay down at the end was expectantly choppy, be we were all excited for her first successful belay.

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Sometimes we forget just how beautiful our surroundings are when we’re focused on the rock.
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Yum!

Somehow after each of us trying just one route each, it was already 1 p.m., so we broke for lunch. I devoured my little gas-station sandwich in no time, but both Claire and Garrison had the heart to share their well thought-out meals with their stray pup of a friend. Claire had brought some carrots grown from her home-garden, and I had never tasted anything so delicious until Garrison brought out his own home-marinated beef jerky. I couldn’t believe my luck. Garrison, ever the Eagle Scout, had even brought his own MSR stove to heat some trail rice and tea, to my and Claire’s amusement. For me, the unprepared the beggar, the whole meal felt like an outdoorsy feast. (Thanks again, guys.)

 

Bellies full, we hiked back down, and Garrison prepared to climb High Anxiety as a trad route. Yet he moved with a calm confidence up the route as I nearly broke my neck gazing up at him while lead-belaying for the first time. If anybody asked Claire, she would have said I was the one under high anxiety. Gary topped out without a single fault, having only called down “watch me” once at the crux of the route. I tied my ATC to one end of the rope so that he could pull it up and use it to rappel back down. Claire cracked up when I described the movement of the ATC up the textured rock as my little goldfish swimming away.

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Clipping into the cam just before the crux

Then came the highlight of my day, and therefore my entire experience with the Wichitas to date. As Garrison came down the cliff, he removed the rope from the protection but left it all up so I could sport climb on his gear. Not long after he descended, I chalked up and, adrenaline pumping, began my first sport climb. Somehow, with the little instruction he gave me and the occasional piece of protection exactly where I wanted to put my hands, the ascent went without flaw. I had conquered my first ever sport climb! I rappelled down on my ATC, feeling like a million bucks as I removed each protection as if I had done it a hundred times before. Upon touching the ground, I had a dangerous, exhilarating thought: “If I really wanted to, I could free solo this route.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how beautiful our surroundings are when focused on the rock.

Needless to say, I quickly shook that thought out of my head. It was enough for me that I made my first lead ascent when I shouldn’t even be climbing: I had injured my middle finger recently while climbing and I was supposed to be wearing a finger splint this whole time, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this. I’ve got my splint on today and for the rest of winter break to compensate, even though the finger feels almost 100%.

After our experiments with High Anxiety, we tried a 5.11b which turned out to be a 5.6 once we climbed it far too easily. We ended our day just as the sun was setting, and celebrated our adventure with a burger and peach cobbler at Meer’s Burgers, consistently rated one of the top 10 burger places on the nation! The peach cobbler was much better than the burger, but who’s counting? Returning home found me passed out in minutes at the ripe early hour of 9 p.m. Here’s some of the best photos from our adventure!

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