A Three-Leaved Reminder

We had already gone up the wrong trail once. In trying to find the wall with a five-pitch climb called Itchy Scratchy (I’ll let you guess why), my climbing partner and I had already crossed a steep talus field, scrambled around the side of a rock wall with a decent drop off, and finally retraced our steps upon discovering we’d gone the wrong way.

On attempt number two, we crossed an open field, switch-backed our way up another rocky slope, and continued to follow the trail through pine trees and up into a side canyon. We finally caught sight of the route, a 400-foot climb up a gently sloping quartzite cliff. It was also at that point that I looked down at my hand, inches from a plant that I suddenly realized was poison ivy.

Quickly withdrawing my hand, I paused and looked ahead. My partner had already nearly made it to the base of the route, but in between us lay a thick carpet of the offending plant. This couldn’t possibly be the trail, I thought in a panic. The description of the climb’s approach stated that the poison ivy could be “easily avoided” if you know what to look for. Gazing out over this verdant obstacle course, that did not seem to be the case.

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A carpet of poison ivy.

My first instinct was to turn around. But I hadn’t just bushwhacked my way up here only to go back, and the base of the cliff was less than 20 feet away. I looked around for alternate routes, but the easiest way forward was clear and it went straight through the patch.

Not knowing if I’d already tromped through other plants without noticing, I quietly resigned myself to my potentially itchy fate and hopped my way through the plants on scattered rocks. Once we arrived at the base, the actual trail (100% poison-ivy free) became instantly apparent on my right. We had missed the turnoff somewhere and arrived the wrong way.

But there we were, and if we now had urushiol oil all over our legs, there wasn’t much to be done. So we set down our packs, pulled out our gear, and flaked out the rope, ready to climb.

Four pitches of climbing later, the stupid poison ivy was still rattling around in my brain. There’s nothing you can do about it now, I kept telling myself, to marginal effect. If you end up with rashes all of your body, at least it’ll be due to doing something hardcore, I told myself as I imagined showing up at work on Monday a red, blotchy, itchy mess.

Looking out from the wall and peering down over 300 feet of rock below me, I tried to calm the slight panic arising from the exposure. Down below, mini cars snaked along the curving road, the river pushed its white water toward the valley, and the sun was just beginning to crest over the wall we were precariously perched upon.

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View from the top of pitch 4

Poison ivy rash or not, this was an exhilarating experience, and I felt grateful to my climbing partner who had gotten us both up there on pretty run out terrain. It was exactly the reminder that I needed to be in the present moment, instead of rehashing how I’d have done things differently if I could travel back in time to the trailhead.

In the grand scheme of things, an irritating rash isn’t that big of a deal, especially when compared to this incredible view and the confidence that comes with doing something difficult and scary.

The next day, we compared stories of vigorous scrubbing and late-night phantom itches, and in the end, we were lucky to escape without any red, bumpy reminders of our outing. Which lends itself to another good reminder: why waste time worrying when you don’t need to?

(Though, I did learn something useful in my research post-climb, when I suspected I might still have poison ivy oil on me. Apparently, scrubbing the affected area with a wash cloth and soap is the best way to remove it, and if you do this soon enough after exposure, you may be able to avoid having a reaction at all. The more you know!)

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