Adventures in the Ozarks – Pt. 1

Back in early December of 2014, I was working in a place relatively devoid of natural beauty (Tulsa, Oklahoma) when I got invited to go climbing in the adjacent state of Arkansas with several college pals. I’m always down for a fun adventure and eagerly agreed, excited with the prospect of getting to use my brand-new (at the time) rope, harness, and other climbing gear (biners, runners, helmet, etc.). Before this trip, my climbing had been mostly Class 3 in the Cascades when I was backpacking last summer, with my technical (e.g. utilizing protection) experience limited to artificial rock walls during my college years.

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The plan was to head out directly from my workplace in downtown Tulsa and rendezvous with the other guys that evening around 8 pm at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. As plans usually seem to go, I got a last-minute request to pick up another college kid and had him carpool with me over to HCR, arriving around 10pm on fog enshrouded roads in the backwoods of the Ozarks. With no cell service, the only way we had to find the rest of the gang was via a pair of Midland radios that I (thankfully) had enough foresight to plan ahead and give them one. After waiting for about fifteen minutes down by the main building at HCR, constantly trying to raise the other guys on the radio, the radio finally garbled to life.

We met up with them and after putting our gear in their tent, we settled in for a cold, drizzly night. I opted to sleep outside in my REI minimalist bivvy among a mattress of leaves and slept snugly through the misty drizzle. Waking up, we cooked a warm breakfast of oatmeal, tortillas, and eggs, and planned out our day of climbing.

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We first broke down the tentsite and registered ourselves at the ranch (paid $5 and signed waivers), before gearing up and hiking to the first monolith, the Titanic.

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We climbed up the 30-35 ft. 5.8 and 5.9s on the Titanic and I was pretty stoked to get up the rock. One of the more experienced guys lead climbed and set up a top rope on the fixed bolts at the top.

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We were joined by one of the ranch dogs, Chili Dog, who decided to plop down on our packs and sleep. So much for being an interested spectator.

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It’s always a unique feeling when you have to put your life into the hands of your belay partner and your gear.

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Our whole gang successfully climbed the first route before several opted to try out the dihedral problem on the northern face of the Titanic. They managed to set up a top rope via a nearby route, but had a pretty tough time figuring out the dihedral problem.

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While they tried it, I settled in for a snack at the overlook and tried to regain the strength in my noodly muscles.

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After a lunch, we hiked over to the North Forty and climbed the 65 ft. 5.8 Green Goblin and attempted the route next to it. Needless to say, as a beginner climber who had never done a route that long, I failed to climb it. Great lesson in how important technique is – my strength was zapped after the Titanic. Rookie mistakes.

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After climbing at the North Forty, we split up as some of us had to head out while two of the guys and I stayed back. One of us tried climbing the dihedral problem again at the Titanic, but the rock was incredibly wet now as night and its companion, dew, had overtaken us. We boiled some Ramen with my Jetboil at the lookout and watched the pinpricks of light in the distance along the North Forty bobbing around as other climbers tried climbing some routes at night. The primal yells of failed attempts echoed across the valley below us.

We decided to hike back to our cars and drive over to Hemmed-In Hollow Falls since we had heard it was pretty neat. After missing the turnoff several times, we finally found our way to the trailhead and began our hike down to the hollow. We hiked through layers of fog and prayed we wouldn’t get lost. Finally, after what seemed like ages, we reached the hollow and although we could hear the water falling, we could scarcely see anything. We put out our sleeping bags and hammock and fell asleep to the sound of falling water and the slight shrieks of small bats fluttering high above us.

We woke up to a glorious sight. Blue skies above. Massive, towering rock walls above. A 230-foot waterfall  of ice cold water was flowing down to a small pool next to us. The pool drained into a creek that was burbling down to the Buffalo River.

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We ate breakfast slowly and enjoyed the view. Then after we each took a quick shower in the waterfall, we donned our climbing gear, left our packs by the creek, and climbed up the sandstone cliff next to the waterfall.

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We traversed the edge of the cliff before it widened out to a nice overlook with fall foliage still on the trees and the distant sound of the Buffalo River as it meandered through the wilderness.

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On the way back to our route down, we could see remnants of an ancient cave formation across from us along the cliff face, but with no way to reach it without using trad gear (which we had none of) or climbing back to the top of the trail, bushwacking to the cliff, and rappelling down from the top (which we didn’t have time for).

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Instead, we climbed around to the shelf behind the waterfall and rappelled off of it, getting slightly drenched as we lowered ourselves into the void.

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The rappel down was awesome and the pictures can barely do it justice. Never before have I rappelled down from behind a waterfall (even though this one was barely flowing)!

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After we all were down, we packed up our gear and followed the trail to the Buffalo River. Two river crossings later, and several miles later, we followed the path to Big Bluff and encountered several horseback riders on their way along the Old River Trail.

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Big Bluff is a large bluff that looks out over the Buffalo River and has a vertigo inducing trail aptly named the “Goat Trail.” We picked our way across it, and ate lunch as we watched clouds begin to roll in from the west.

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We hiked back to the trail junction and after bearing left, we found Granny Henderson’s ancient homestead. Granny Henderson had apparently lived there since 1912, raised nine children, had a herd of cows, and lived peacefully in the Ozarks until the United States decided to turn the area into a National River. Now her home (and the other homesteads in the area) serve as temporary shelters for backpackers during rainstorms.

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We kept going along the Sneed’s Creek Trail, passing by Rocky Bottom (a large rock bed), until we came to Evan White’s House (another homestead). This house is more off-trail and requires another stream crossing. The inside is in disarray as rodents and birds have torn it up and left piles of scat everywhere.

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We left the homestead and decided to hike off-trail along the adjacent rocky cliff faces to see if there were any neat caves. We came across a few, and I made a mental note of coming back sometime to check them out. Soon we passed by a couple waterfalls before crossing the creek and ascending steeply back to the trailhead.

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As daylight was still hanging around, we drove a few miles over to Hideout Hollow (where legend has it that Jesse James and his gang of outlaws sometimes hid out). We hiked the mile down to the hollow, just in time to catch the sunset and snap a few pictures. Then we put on our headlamps and downclimbed to beneath the hollow where the rocky foundation of an old structure used to be (Jesse James’ hideout?).

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We hiked back out to our vehicles and drove towards Tulsa as the night sky darkened, rain poured, and lightning etched its jagged streamers across the highway – a perfect way to end our weekend adventure.

Adventure awaits! Continue on to Adventures in the Ozarks – Part Two.

-JC

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