Monday, May 27, 2013

Tick Heaven

Posted By on Mon, May 27, 2013 at 9:59 AM

How many ticks does it take to thoroughly absorb the minds of a hiking party? Just one, especially if it's found in someone's hair during the first hour of the walk. The next couple of dozen after that seem rather unnecessary.

Grooming behavior appears common to all primates.
  • Matt Gibson
  • Grooming behavior appears common to all primates.

Four the four of us who scrambled up Sheafman Point over the Memorial Day weekend, that first tick set the tone for seven more hours of hyper-vigilant fixation on any and all dermal sensations, real or imagined.

Every time our companion Jeff Shryer found one, which was often, he'd announce that he'd sent it to tick heaven. An interesting notion for a faith group, I thought, and envisioned an iconography comprised of bloated blood-suckers swarming a cruciform savior. Surely, I thought next, I am damned. Or at least slightly dehydrated.

We'd set out from the Cow Creek trailhead earlier in the day under the guidance of esteemable Rocky Mountaineers trip leader Alden Wright. The route to Sheafman Point starts almost right at the valley floor, making the modest 7,830-foot peak an outsized ascent of over 4,000 vertical. The first mile passed through lovely meadows of lupine, wild hyacinth, death camas, penstemon and balsamroot. And of course, ticks. As the trail approached the precipitous cliffs overlooking Mill Creek, we started up in earnest, following a visible climber's path.

An impressive vertical face above Mill Creek
  • Matt Gibson
  • An impressive vertical face above Mill Creek

The route follows the ridge for the duration, with spectacular views into Mill Creek. Outcrops and deadfall prompted us to skirt a couple of spots right along the crest, but the route is only moderately rugged. I unwisely joked that I'd be handing out evaluation forms to rate Alden at the end of the day. He cunningly put me out front rest of the way, letting me make all the wrong turns instead. Fortunately, it was a mostly a cinch. The massive fires of 2000 scorched the entire east face, leaving the slope wide open. It's littered with deadfall but easily passable.

Looking west from the summit
  • Matt Gibson
  • Looking west from the summit, with the Mill Creek and Sheafman Creek drainages on either side

At about 7,000 feet, the ridge takes a small dip before the slightly steeper summit pitch. The aerobic grind up the last 1,000 feet or so distracted us from the ticks, though not for long. Heather Nielson, who's visiting for the summer from Grand Cayman, discovered that her long hair served as an unusually effective advertisement (ad-VERT-is-ment, I think they pronounce it in her native U.K.), beckoning eight-legged vagabonds to crawl in and pitch camp. But she was a champ and clearly the star of the team, going from sea level in the Caribbean a week ago to a strange town in the States to the summit of a Bitterroot peak, wearing boots she bought the day before, and in the company of three iffy dudes, all with consistent good cheer. She's obviously got an expansive comfort zone, and even the bugs couldn't throw her off.

Despite forecast thunderstorms, we encountered just a brief flurry of snow in the early afternoon, something Heather said she hadn't experienced for a long time. Conditions were really ideal: cool, a few clouds, plenty of sun, no rain at all. We spent perhaps 30 triumphant minutes enjoying the summit. And checking for ticks.

Alden Wright, Heather Neilson and Jeff Shryer on the summit of Sheafman Piont
  • Matt Gibson
  • Alden Wright, Heather Neilson and Jeff Shryer on the summit of Sheafman Point

Alden reported later that night that when he undressed and turned his clothes inside out, six of the little nasties were hiding out. Two days later, I'm still worried I'm going to find one biding its time. And if I do, I'm sending it straight to heaven. Being the least of God's creatures, they're surely deserving.

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