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Artist Adventure Series, No. 5

Erin Shares a Few Harrowing Adventures

Sunday, October 20, 2013

During a lifetime of exploring the outdoors, it seems that the most exciting times are also the most dangerous. The sudden pump of adrenaline you get when you have to act quickly to remain alive makes you feel great, like you are fighting for survival and winning! I want to share a few of the more harrowing adventures I've had hiking or rock climbing, while gathering material to inspire later oil paintings. These stories don't have a much of a lesson, other than: it's fun to go on adventures!

The Burbank Mountains

I live at the top of the Burbank mountains, overlooking the valley and Downtown L.A., and behind my house is the un-tamed, mini-wilderness of the Burbank mountains. One day last October, I decided I should explore my own little wilderness area that I was lucky enough to have right in my backyard. I brought my camera (always looking for an inspiring tree or composition to paint), plugged in my earphones, and started jogging up a narrow trail. Before too many turns, the trail narrowed, and it became obvious that I was the only human to have tread this trail in some time. The dry, prickly brush started encroaching over my legs, and I was glad I had worn some light pants. After about forty minutes, the city had disappeared from sight, and I was several layers deep into the mountain range. I was surprised at how many valleys and crests there were between my house and the top of the mountain, since it had always looked relatively flat from my perspective.

After another few bends, I was feeling pretty alone, surrounded entirely by empty, scrubby brush. I was rather startled to see, abruptly peeking around a cliff, the bright white color of a capital "B" that brands this mountain as Burbank's. The letter was huge, much larger than I expected, and I hadn't realized it was so deep in the mountain range. Distracted, I dropped my phone, the headphones ripping out of my ears.

Bending down, my fingers brushing my phone, my blood suddenly ran cold. I froze, an icy feeling washing over my body. Covering my pants, and crawling upwards at a mad rate, were a few hundred ticks. Each tick was oriented straight upwards, as if they instinctively knew that if they could only make it to the top of this Erin mountain, they would find warm blood. My skin crawls as I write this, and I can feel little imaginary tick legs crawling in my scalp.

Trying to remain calm, I carefully covered one hand with the sleeve of my windbreaker, and then I started sweeping the ticks off my body in long strokes, then shaking my arm wildly as they clung to my sleeve. The first hundred of the little triangular bugs were brushed off, and I started aiming toward individual, entrepreneurial ticks that had maneuvered elsewhere. I kept remembering all the tick lectures my dad had given me, growing up hiking in the San Gabriels, the careful tick searches after every hike, and all the fright stories about Lyme disease. And here I was, a grown adult, absolutely covered in the creatures.

After plenty of shaking and brushing and stomping, I felt freed. I took a breath. And realized that I was an hour deep on a trail that was so overgrown with brush that I hadn't seen open dirt on the trail in twenty minutes. I think here I officially panicked. I imagined myself hiking all the way over the back side of the mountains and getting rescued by the side of the 210 freeway; I imagined daring helicopter escapes; I imagined camping out on the giant Burbank "B" to be free from the ticks. At last I realized the only way to safety was to run as fast as I could down the trail, keeping my hands covered in the jacket, and then getting checked for ticks as soon as possible. Once decided, the only thing to do was run.

Leaping like a gazelle, I trumpeted down the mountainside, pausing briefly a few times to brush ticks from my legs. I reached level ground in less than 10 minutes, and at that moment felt a sudden piercing bite on my left hand. There he was, the only tick to make it through, plotting and planning his route until he could bite my warm skin. I shrieked, my nerves already on thin ice, smacked the tick away, and then ran into my house with shrill sounds emitting from my mouth. Needless to say, it was some hours before my skin stopped crawling. Later, when I checked in the internet to see what they had to say about ticks in L.A., it blithely noted that everyone knew October was infamously tick season in Los Angeles.

My First Helicopter Ride

Seven years ago, I was antsy for adventure. Camping in the Cleveland National forest in Orange County seemed too tame, so I decided I would park at a trailhead, backpack for two days, and arrive in the campground at the end of the second day. I had my topo maps, my GPS unit, and my cell phone. What could go wrong?

The trail started out in a strange compound or retreat that looked like it dated from the turn of the century. Handmade huts and benches lurked among the trees by the dozen. The entire compound was deserted, although there were strange markings in the ground and stone piles that I avoided. Strictly speaking, I was trespassing, since I did not have a backcountry pass, but the map clearly stated that the trailhead was just past the compound. Luckily, not a whisper of a sound confronted me, and I gratefully found the trailhead without much trouble, although not without a sense of creepy foreboding.

The trail started off cheerily enough, bright dappled sunlight sparkling through the trees, a bubbling brook chattering and laughing to one side of the trail. I rather started skipping along the trail, clambering over a boulder or two that got in they way, and quite glad to be outdoors.

As the day drew on, the trail seemed to be confused about which side of the stream it was supposed to be on. Luckily the stream was narrow and I could cross it with minimum dampness. Finally, as late afternoon hit, I ran smack into an impassable rock waterfall. Spiky, unfriendly trees and poison oak loomed on either side of the rocks, and the waterfall itself was slippery and unsafe. I attempted to climb it, but ended up having to turn back. Still feeling optimistic, I decided I would just skirt around the waterfall and re-join the stream in a little while. The valley I was in was maybe a 1/4-mile wide, and it seemed impossible to get lost.

I never found the stream. All I could find after I circled around was a wide bed of stones, very dry stones, without a trace of water. The day had rather abruptly ended, and it must have taken me longer to circle around than I had thought. It was already getting dark, and I knew I would have to call it a night. I set up camp right along the dry creek bed, so I wouldn't lose my way in the morning, and had a rather unsettled night sleep on the rocky ground.

When the sun came up, I could see that I was in a wide valley floor. My compass and senses told me that I needed to follow the canyon north and it would run right into the distant campground, about five miles away. My topo maps agreed with me, although my GPS unit seemed to be DOS-based and was very unhelpful. So I started hiking.

By noon, the canyon had narrowed steeply, and I was surrounded on all sides by thick, dense manzanita. Someone had once told me that this mountain range had much denser scrub than the San Gabriels, where I was used to hiking, but I had laughed it off. I wasn't laughing now. Stubborn and committed to making it to this campground, and afraid I would get lost if I turned back, I kept doggedly on up the narrowing canyon. The wide stony creek bed, which earlier had stretched on either side of me like a rock quarry, was now about twelve inches wide and only recognizable by the occasional rounded stone. The unyielding manzanita pressed me lower and lower to the ground, until I was quite literally pulling myself forward on my hands and knees. All the camping goods I had tied to my pack were ripped off by the sharp trees as I forced myself through the brush, flat on my stomach, for the next few hours. Occasionally I could just make out little clearings to either side of me, luring me to them like the lights in Mirkwood, but I was terrified that if I left my tiny creekbed I would lose my way.

Once, in the afternoon, I managed to find a spot over my creekbed that had enough room for me to sit up in. I gratefully took off my pack and ate some food. And then I realized, to my sudden horror, I had no idea which way I had come. I could not remember if I had rotated right or left to sit up, and all I could see was identical looming brush on either side of me. The sky was completely obscured, and I couldn't even tell which direction the sun was coming from. After a few minutes of panic, I decided my odds were as good as a coin toss for going in the right directly, and I got back on my stomach to crawl once again into the brush.

I hadn't crawled for more than ten yards, when I saw clear evidence of dragging footprints in the ground in front of me, leading back to where I had ate. So, clearly I had gone the wrong way. No worries, I would just turn around and go the other direction. After awkwardly turning around, I went back the way I came, passed the little opening in the trees where I had ate, and continued crawling. Once again, about ten yards later, I saw tracks in the sand in front of me, clear evidence again that I had traveled this route before, going in the opposite direction. I turned around again, retraced my steps, trying to get past the obscured marks and into un-marked sand. I crawled for ten minutes. And again saw the tracks leading towards me. I had already been there.

I will be honest with you. Up to this point, I was still pretty much my optimistic self, not doubting that I could get myself out of any trouble I would run in to. But at this moment, after crawling for hours and hours on my hands and knees, scratched, confused, and thoroughly daunted by these contradictory tracks, I panicked. I believe this is the only time in my life I went hysterical. I yelled and I shouted, I cried, I gave up all hope of ever escaping this nightmare land of manzanitas.

Nothing, however, lasts forever. I finally dried my eyes and decided all I needed to do was climb up the slope of the canyon, get to the top of this mountain, and I would be able to see where I was! I then proceeded to spend the next four hours trying to push my way through the bramble and up the slope. I no longer tried to follow the creekbed; my only objective was to attain the top of the mountain at any cost and so get a good view of my surroundings. Time and time again I would make it fifty feet up the canyonside, only to be brutally halted by impassable manzanita. This was not at all the manzanita I had grown up around: little scraggly trees that could be crushed with a boot heel. These were monster manzanita, their trunks as thick as my waist, their branches hard and gnarled.

When at last I made it to a small clearing at the side of the mountain, near the top, it was late afternoon, and the sun was dipping towards the horizon. Standing up there, looking over the miles and miles of homogeneous brown scrub surrounding me, I realized there was no way to confront going back into that manzanita maze. There were no trails around me, no clearings as far as I could see in the surrounding mountains, not a hint of human life. There was only one ray of hope - I had one bar of battery life left on my cell phone, as well as some intermittent reception from the height I had gained. So I called the one person who knew where I was, and told him to call the ranger and send a rescue mission. The park department soon called me directly, and I managed to glean from my GPS unit what my exact numerical location was. They told me they were sending men on horseback and helicopters directly.

And so I waited on my lonely mountainside, picturing gallant men on mighty steeds coming to rescue me. About an hour passed. The sun was nearing the horizon. I had spread my tarp across the nearby bushes so I would be more visible. Then, far in the distance, circling a mountain peak about 10 miles away, I saw a helicopter! It circled the mountain a few times, then widened its circle, crossing over and over again that distant spot. For almost an hour the helicopter flew around, with me waving and flapping my tarp, but I was miles too far away to be seen. With my last battery juice, and a sudden inspiration, I called the ranger back, and asked what GPS location they were looking for. They were off by one digit.

Soon afterwards, I heard the chest-thumping beat of a helicopter overhead. Minutes later there were shouts as two men came running down the mountain and helped me up into the helicopter. As the helicopter took off, I could see, through the last rays of the setting sun, just over the peak I had nearly climbed up, the smoothly reflective asphalt of a paved road, and, not fifty yards away, the open clearing of the campground I had tried to hike to.

While I quickly recovered from being lost, my embarrassment still lives to this day that I had to get rescued by a helicopter within a stone's throw away from concrete and civilization.

My Least Safe Moment as a Rock Climber

My last harrowing adventure for today's reader took place after I had moved back to Los Angeles after living and rock climbing in Las Vegas for two years. While in Vegas, I was lucky enough to climb with some extremely experienced climbers and mountaineers who put safety first and having fun second. I learned a lot about redundant safety measures with them, and I was never in serious danger while climbing. Until I decided it would be fun to climb with some newbie climbers out at Joshua Tree National Park.

After a long day of crack climbing, my new friends took me out to a crag where they assured me had some fantastic new routes. I had never climbed before without a guide book, which tells you how much rope to take, where the anchors are, what type of anchors, and what protection is needed (i.e., all the gear you use to fasten the rope and your body weight into a granite crack). This new climbing area we hiked to was desolate and alone, and the rock was crumbly and dirty looking, with scraggly plants growing out of the cliffside. I can't think of a good excuse as to why I geared up and started climbing that sketchy looking rock face. Erin Hanson hiking in ArizonaAs the lead climber, there was no rope holding me from above, which means if I fell, I would only be caught by the protection that I had placed in the crack below me.

The route was terrible. The rope was bent at sharp angles, was dragged across edges in the rock, traversed wildly right and left - everything you don't want when climbing a trad route. I knew I was being stupid, but I adopted the famous trad climber's policy "just don't fall." Anyways, I made it safety to the top of the climb... only to find that there was absolutely nowhere to anchor at the top. I cursed my stupidity for climbing randomly out in the wilderness. I was a sport climber who had been spoiled by pristine climbing routes back in Red Rock Canyon, and I was definitely not a mountaineer. However, I had been trained what to do in this situation, and I planned to use a large outcropping of granite rock and rappel to the ground.

When the lead climber sets up a rope for other climbers to climb after him, he usually creates a smooth pulley system at the top of the route, which allows the belayer (who is standing on the ground) to carry the full weight of the climber, who is tied to the other end of the rope, and to lower him to the ground when needed. However, in my situation, there was no way to create a pulley at the top of the route, so my only way to get back to the ground was to remove the rope entirely from all the gear I had placed when climbing up, swing the center of the rope around this outcropping of rock, put both ends of the rope through my rappel device, and lower myself to the ground without the help of my belayer.

After ten minutes of arranging the rope and getting set up to rappel, I was finally hooked into both sides of the rope, with the center loop of the rope encircling this armchair-sized outcropping of rock. I threw both loose ends of the rope far down below me and watched them hit the ground. I was pulled tight into the outcropping, my hand holding tightly to the two pieces of rope that extended from the belay device at my waist. I took a deep breath and started to edge along the outside of the boulder, keeping my weight on my feet, my face against the cool sharp granite. Finally I was at the furthest point around the boulder, balancing delicately on a two-inch ledge, the rocky desert floor dizziingly far below me. I let out some rope, and then leaned back into open space, my legs straight out in front of me, the rope stretched taught from my waist to the boulder now four feet from my face. And the boulder started to move.

I believe this is the closest I have ever come in my life to sudden death. This suddenly-not-so-large boulder was obviously rotten inside from rain and plant growth, and had only needed a gentle push from me to decide to roll down to its brothers at the canyon floor. I reacted immediately, without thinking, using my body's momentum to swing back up to a crouched position, without pulling on the rope, which would have only caused the boulder to roll over on top of me and flatten me into an Erin sandwich sixty feet below. Once I was precariously balanced, awkwardly crouched beneath the boulder (the boulder now relocated to cover most of my previous ledge space), I carefully, oh so carefully, eased my way back around the boulder, gently, gently. If the boulder had decided it would be more fun at the bottom of the cliff, I would have been dragged along with it, since my rope was still tied around it.

Flat ground had never felt better when I made it to the other side and unhooked my rope. As you may guess, I took the long way back, hiking down the back side of the rock face. I have never climbed with those people again.

I am going backpacking again in a few weeks, and it brings me pleasure to contemplate what adventures I might encounter on the path ahead. If I wanted to lead an ordinary life, I would not have chosen to be an artist.


Erin Hanson ArtistERIN HANSON has been painting in oils since she was 8 years old. As a young artist, she worked at a mural studio creating 40-foot-tall paintings on canvas, while selling art commissions on the side. After getting a degree in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley, Erin became a rock climber at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Inspired by the colorful scenery she was climbing, she decided to paint one painting every week for the rest of her life. She has stuck to that decision ever since, becoming one of the most prolific artists in history. Erin Hanson's style is known as "Open Impressionism" and is now taught in art schools worldwide. With thousands of collectors eagerly anticipating her work and millions of followers online, Hanson has become an iconic, driving force in the rebirth of contemporary impressionism.

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