The Situation is the Boss, Man: A Grizzly Tale
We’re continuing along in our The GRATEFUL DEAD documentary "Long Strange Trip" inspired series that featured a noteworthy quote from Steve Parish–perhaps their most infamous roadie. He was an active crew member during the "Wall of Sound" era that featured the PA and speaker system that was the size of a small town. He reflected on the chaotic and unhinged ordeal of transporting the equipment from place to place and getting it set up by showtime, and how when the police, venue managers, etc. asked the inevitable question, "Who's in charge around here?", their response was always, "THE SITUATION IS THE BOSS, MAN." We couldn't help but wonder how many times the adventurers in our orbit have felt the same way in the situations they've found themselves in. Here’s the latest addition to stories with this theme, from our friend Tina Haver Currin.
Words & photos by Tina Haver Currin
Buck Mountain, an 11,938’ peak in Wyoming’s Teton Range, is the first summit I ever attempted sans guide. It was also the inaugural trip for my first Hyperlite pack, a crispy white 3400 Southwest, which I bought after my last guide told me my style of lashing and stuffing was derisively known as “Christmas tree packing.”
I’m a southern girl, raised on television and takeout and the occasional watersport. The fact that snow sticks on some American peaks deep into the summer—a time I associate with swimming holes and swarming mosquitoes—is something I learned in adulthood. The fact that much of this snow peels away from the warmer rock, causing deep fissures to form between the mountain and the route, is something I discovered on this trip. And the fact that grizzly bears not only survive but thrive in the Tetons, well, we’ll get to that.
Like the rest of the range, Buck’s distinctive, cone-shaped peak cuts abruptly through the surrounding landscape like a jagged tooth. Located southeast of the Grand’s iconic shark-fin summit, Buck sits approximately 1,800 feet lower. On paper, this fact makes the mountain seem much more accessible. I was going out on a limb, sure, but I wasn’t going out on the tallest limb. Plus, I no longer packed like a Christmas tree. I was ready.
The hike occurred on a bluebird day. Most of it was spent alongside my husband, Grayson, clambering through stately boulder fields or trying to somehow slip up slopes of scree. After hours of navigating what felt like a floor covered in marbles, we emerged onto a steep, snowy slab that had melted away from the warmer mountainside, itself a precarious section of rock with several class four moves. The fissure was conveniently located right between where we were and where we needed to be, and I suddenly felt like I was wearing a concrete coat. We stood for several minutes, trying not to slip and pondering what to do. Without much prior rock or exposure experience, we decided to retreat 400 vertical feet from the top.
I was exhausted but enthusiastic when we began the surreal experience of carefully picking our way back down the mountain we had just worked so hard to climb. I felt proud of the accomplishment and for prioritizing safety over the summit. But after nearly 15 miles of hiking, we were drawing on late-afternoon caloric and emotional reserves. I shredded my knuckles on the rough ice, splattering a not-insignificant amount of blood across the white ground, and Grayson unintentionally glissaded down a steep gully until he was unceremoniously stopped by a rock.
An hour later, we realized that our bear deterrent—a bright orange canister of supercharged pepper spray—had fallen off of his hip during the fall. Now, we had a choice: Risk climbing back up through the snow on exhausted legs to look, or carry on, unprotected, for the last few miles of our trek. We vowed to pick up extra litter as penance and kept walking. What were the odds of seeing a bear, anyway?
We began the three-mile descent back to camp as dusk settled in the meadow. The sun cast a pale orange hue over the pink and yellow wildflowers, which dotted the ground like glitter. I sang random fast-food jingles to pass the time. But when we stopped to cross a deep stream pulsing with ice melt, I saw it. A brassy clump of fur, ambling through the brush about 50 yards away.
“Coyote,” I announced.
More of the body emerged from the scrub.
“Bear,” I corrected.
And then I saw its face, tan and round like a satellite dish. My eyes darted toward the shoulder blades and located the distinctive camel-like hump. A surge of adrenaline shot through my veins, and my hands began to prickle. My body was preparing to sprint.
“Grizzly bear,” I managed to choke.
I was overcome by a deep-rooted instinct to flee. I had never experienced something so eternal, so hard-wired, and I called upon every fiber of my being to override the part of my brain that was installed eons ago. I planted my trembling legs and began to make a racket, clanking my ice ax so hard against the nearby rocks that I put dents in the metal. The hulking bear, which was headed vaguely up the mountain, turned back towards the source of the commotion. That’s when I knew that this could go very, very wrong. We were barely qualified to be up here (alone!), and we had no bear spray, no protection.
Now, we were faced with another choice: Retreat back up the mountain and set camp in grizzly territory or push forward, directly past the bear and onto the trail. To make matters worse, the bear had dipped under thick tree cover and out of sight.
A streak of bad luck got us into this situation, but good luck would help us out. We hadn’t spotted a soul or a cell signal all day, but somehow, we conjured enough service to ring the backcountry line. A ranger took our information, and calmly assured us that being loud was the right thing to be. But if the bear kept coming toward us, well, they had our names and next-of-kin.
That’s when I spotted it again: Hundreds of pounds of cinnamon-colored fur, five feet up an evergreen, adjacent to the trail several yards ahead of us. The limbs bowed so much under the shifting bulk that the needles swept pebbles across the ground.
“It’s in the f***ing tree,” I sputtered to Grayson, hardly believing the words coming out of my own mouth. “In. The. F***ing. Tree.”
On the phone, the ranger jumped. We had treed the bear, a submissive, if slightly unusual, act for a griz. It was likely young and spooked, and if we ever wanted to see hard-sided shelter again, it was time for us to move.
Without hesitation, I plunged into the swift blue stream that seemed so unwelcoming just moments before. The icy current carried us around the trail—and, critically, the bear—before reconnecting a half-mile away. We washed up waterlogged and covered in surface scratches but elated. I power-walked the final two miles to camp with focused determination, never breaking stride. Our gear, by the way, stayed dry.
Buck Mountain taught me a critical lesson about redundancy that day—We’ll each carry bear spray next time! No hip holsters! —but, perhaps more importantly, it left me with an unassailable commitment to celebrate the unpredictable victories that nature hands you. Some days you knab the summit; other days, you tree the bear.
Tina Haver Currin is writer, activist, and outdoors enthusiast based in North Carolina. From 2016 - 2018, she lived in a Sprinter with her husband, two cats, and a dog, climbing as many mountains, running as many trails, and seeing as many National Parks as humanely possible. Whether climbing in the Rockies, bushwhacking through Arctic backcountry, hiking deep within the Grand Canyon — or, most recently, thru-hiking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails— she discovered the variety of experiences one can have in our wild spaces and the joy of sharing what she has learned with others. Tina currently spends her time writing, hiking, eating, and working as a ranger in the Blue Ridge Mountains.