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Sunday, May 31, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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If Columnist Falls In Woods, Does He Make A Sound?

With his bear spray in a handy spot on his pack strap, Outdoors editor Rich Landers hikes through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. (Sott Wolff)
With his bear spray in a handy spot on his pack strap, Outdoors editor Rich Landers hikes through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. (Sott Wolff)

Haven’t you always wondered what it would be like to go on a backpacking trip with Rich Landers, outdoors editor and all-around mountain guy?

Well, let me tell you something. It’s a lot like going backpacking with Ranger Rick, Sir Edmund Hillary and a yak, all rolled into one.

The man is an animal.

I’m not exactly in the same class as the people Landers usually treks with - climbers, mountaineers, third graders named Hillary. I’m a humor columnist. I’m the theater critic, for crying out loud. Whose bright idea was it to stick the outdoors editor and the theater critic together on a high-country march?

Well, ours, I guess. Which is how Landers and I found ourselves hiking a mud-slick trail at about 9,600 feet in the middle of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area a couple of weeks ago. It was rugged, forbidding country, but with Landers as my hiking companion, I had nothing to worry about, except of course, dying horribly on the rocks. Little did I know that the first crisis of the trip came when I almost killed him.

We were both descending a sloppy, rocky trail with full packs when I slipped on the clay-mud and went sliding into Landers from behind. I knocked him off balance momentarily, but he didn’t go down. I thought sure he would give me a stern lecture about the vital importance of maintaining a safety zone between hikers. He gave me a lecture all right, but not about that.

“Hey!” he complained. “You got mud all over my legs. Now my legs are all dirty!”

Like I said, the man is an animal.

But he is an animal who knows how to cook. When it was his turn to cook, he suddenly turned into Julia Child, assuming Julia Child can hump a pack up above timberline.

“How does pizza sound for dinner today?” he said one evening.

“Great,” I said. “I’ll call Domino’s, although I doubt seriously whether the 30-minute guarantee will be …”

“No,” he said. “I’m going to make it myself.”

And he did, using an ingenious hood-like device that turned his backpacking stove into an oven. That night, we had a delicious pesto pizza with a topping that Domino’s doesn’t even offer: dead mosquitoes.

One morning, he even made quiche for breakfast. Real men don’t eat quiche, but this was the kind of quiche that only the toughest of mountain men can eat, by which I mean it was quiche with a Nov. 1996 expiration date.

“Hmm,” he said, looking at the package. “I guess I’ve had this longer than I thought.”

To recap: For safety reasons we refused to drink untreated glacial water, yet we happily bolted down egg products that had gone bad sometime around Thanksgiving.

I cannot escape the feeling that Rich was disappointed in me, not because I couldn’t handle the hike, but because I was a poor model when it came to photography. Once, when I caught a good-sized cutthroat, I yelled at him to come over and shoot a picture of me landing it. He shot a few desultory frames, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.

“What’s the matter,” I asked.

“Well, the 40 feet of fly line tangled around your feet tends to dilute the impact of the picture,” he said.

Photographers. They’re all so fussy.

Rich spent most of the week regaling me with stories of his many adventures, such as the time he rode his bicycle all the way across country, and the time he spent two weeks floating down a river in the Alaskan Arctic. Soon, however, I began to notice a disconcerting theme running through these stories. Sometimes, there was a, well, catastrophe involved.

There was the time when a Mount McKinley blizzard trapped him in a tent for three days; the time he developed pulmonary edema; the time he had to be airlifted off of a Canadian glacier.

“Let me ask you this,” I said. “Do you ever arrive home more or less, alive?”

So I was in an apprehensive mood one day when we headed off on an exploratory trek high above timberline. There were no trails, and often we had to make our way over fields of tumbled-down boulders. Some of these granite chunks were the size of refrigerators, and we had to take great care not to slip and twist an ankle.

In the middle of one of these boulder fields, we came upon a startling sight: a dead horse. A foolish packer had apparently tried to take the horse through this treacherous terrain. The horse had probably broken a leg in the rocks, and the packer had been forced to shoot it.

I looked at that horse thoughtfully.

“Rich,” I finally said. “If I were to break my ankle in these rocks, what would you do? Would you be forced to, you know, shoot me?”

He paused for a moment.

“No,” he said. “I didn’t bring a gun.”

, DataTimes MEMO: See related story under the headline: Angler’s high

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jim Kershner The Spokesman-Review

See related story under the headline: Angler’s high

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jim Kershner The Spokesman-Review

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