Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Inyan Kara

Inyan Kara is a mountain on the Wyoming side of the black hills; its summit is 6368’. My friend Colin had climbed to the top of Inyan Kara when he was younger and had suggested I try to climb it as well when I made my way through the area. The mountain is out away from the hills; an island above the prairie grasses. The central peak is surrounded by a bowl with a rim nearly the same height. Inside the bowl the ground drops to 5600’before climbing up again to the summit. There’s no trail on the mountain and the terrain varies from high grass, to pine forest thick with undergrowth and rotting wood, to rubble piles of loose granite.

The land surrounding the mountain is a private ranch and permission must be secured from the land owners in order to cross their land to climb the mountain. I called the ranger for the area and she suggested I head to the local courthouse to try to find out who owns the land and how to contact them. Colin came through again and found out from a friend that it is the Nussbaum ranch and got me the number for Mr. Nussbaum. I called the number and found out that he had passed away a few years ago but that his daughter, S,  takes care of hikers now. I called her and apologized for the short notice and she reluctantly agreed to let me park at her house at the base of the mountain.

When I arrived she and her dog came out and we shook hands. She took me around back and pointed out some features on the mountain. “Don’t try to go straight over the rim” the rim was steepest behind her house, “you’ll just have to climb down again once you get over the bowl. Curve to the right and follow that ridge around to the south side where the rim is lowest.” She asked if I was there to look for the engraving of “Custer ‘74” at the summit (many people think this is from Custer’s expedition up the mountain when he was looking for gold in the black hills but I’m guessing it’s Custer High class of ’74). I said no, but I was looking for a coffee can that contained a paper with the signature of everyone who had climbed the mountain. “I don’t know…I don’t think there’s any coffee can up there anymore…” she told me.

I set off up through the tall grass breaking off tall, dead weeds as I walked. I slid under the barbed wire cattle fence and headed for the rocky ledge. There are a few old buffalo chips in the grass so I guess the area was used for grazing but isn’t any longer and I notice the grass is higher than what I usually walk through. As I get into the trees I start to climb over old logs that sometimes crumble under my feet and my shoe gets caught. Dry creek beds are especially difficult to cross with soft ground and no logs fresh enough to rely on as a bridge.
I finally reach the rim of the bowl and can see the summit at the middle through the trees. I can also see that I didn’t come over the rim anywhere near the shallowest section like I thought I had. So I start to slide down again into the bowl. The ground is littered with chunks of granite embedded in the dirt. One thing that I realize that I’ve been taking for granted about set trails is that every rock on a trail has been stomped on innumerable times by other hikers; what’s going to break loose under your feet broke loose long ago. Not the case here. I step on large looking protruding rocks to arrest my descent and they fall out from under me and I have to grab onto a nearby tree trunk to keep from following them.
Reaching the bottom of the bowl I try to search around for a good path up the mountain. To my left I see a steep incline covered in pine trees and old wood, to my right I see a pile of crumbling granite cascading down the side of the mountain. I’m tired from slogging up hills with loose soil and decomposing logs so I’d rather climb the rubble pile. Once again I have to be careful because many of the stones I step on in the pile give way and I fall into little holes between the rocks.
At the top of the rubble pile is a gentle slope between the trees before the steep wall to the summit. I wind my way up this and start climbing the exposed rock. The rock is covered in lichen making it very easy to get a hand-hold to pull myself up. Moving side to side I try to stay on ridges that don’t have me hanging over large drops. Nearing the top I’m stuck on a steep wall that will lead me straight to the summit but passes over a 30 foot drop to a pile of rock below. I climb down a bit to a ledge covered in prickly bushes that rims the rock pile and stumble through the bushes untangling my pantlegs from their branches as I go. This safer route leads me to an easy last climb and I see the USGS marker in front of me. Exhausted I lie right on top of the marker and pull my hat over my eyes and rest.
After having some water and a snack I start to search around for the coffee can hoping that S had been mistaken about it being gone. I look all over the flat area around the marker and don’t find anything. As I’m heading back to lay down again I see something white between a juniper tree and a slab of rock turned on its side. It’s the can! I open it up to look for Colin’s name on one of the papers inside. Unfortunately the earliest date I can find is 2006; the old list must not have survived. However, I do find S’s name on one of the papers; she did know after all.
I climb down a wash and make my way to the top of the rim again. This time I’ve miscalculated my position even worse and find myself on the steepest section far from where I need to be. I’m sitting there a little frustrated as it’s getting late and my feet are extremely sore. To my left I see some deer watching me. When I get up to walk again they run off. As I’m walking around the rim I realize that the deer take this path all the time and they’ve formed their own flat path on the incline with their repeated footfalls on the hill. I follow the deer trail looking for fallen trees with the bark stripped off in one spot where they always jump over or crushed plants. Following this trail allows me to move much faster and I come around to a spot where I can descend the ridge back onto the field behind the Nussbaum ranch. I slip under the barbed wire fence and come back to S’s house. She comes out again and asks me how it was and I tell her it was wonderful. I also tell her that I found the coffee can. I say thanks for letting me find it on my own and she just smiles. 

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