"Don't go past the point of no return", orders Tom. I ignore him and keep picking my way down the rotten-rock, almost-vertical slope, figuring there's no point of no return - climbing back up would be easier. Besides, I need to give the knee brace the ultimate test.
We're Tom and Jerry, brothers, age 60ish, tackling an off-trail but easy pair of namesake mountains. As best we know, this Tom and Jerry mountain pair, in the Sky Lakes Wilderness area of the Rogue River National Forest in southern Oregon, is the only such pair in the US connected by a short, high ridge. We've just summited Tom Mountain and are on that ridge toward Jerry Mountain.
Alas, one cannot tell from the topo map that there is a sheer 30-foot drop on the ridge, between Tom Mountain and the ridge col, nor did we suspect anything like this after talking with two forest rangers in the area. So we hadn't brought a rope, and hence our options are limited. Peering over the edge of the drop reveals smooth sailing below and the rest of the way to Jerry Mountain. But how to get around this drop?
The left side of the ridge here is also impassable without a rope. But on the right it seems to me that we might be able to work our way down enough to worm around the drop. So down I start - I want to traverse that ridge if possible, rather than backtrack and use a different approach. Tom, sensibly perhaps a bit apprehensive of the poor footing on the steep slope, and obviously questioning his older brother's sanity, shouts that order.
I have worn the cartilage off the inside of my knee and, without a brace to off-load that side of the knee I can barely walk a couple of miles on level ground. This is a new brace, not yet tested in such conditions. But so far we've gone four miles on this jaunt, some over pretty rough ground, and the knee is doing fine. I'm enjoying this. After I've worked my way down about 20 feet, Tom declares "OK, that's it - I'm coming too." And so together we inch around the drop and soon hit that smooth sailing. The brace has survived the test with flying colors.
From the col it's a steep but uneventful cruise to the summit of Jerry Mountain. On top we savor success, with spectacular views of Union Peak far to the north and the craggy south summit of Tom Mountain just a stone's throw away to the west. In all other directions are distant ranges of the southern Cascades, silhouetted against the bright blue sky.
At 9am that morning we had left the trailhead, with my spouse Jean in the lead, on Tom and Jerry Trail. At 11am, about 3.2 miles and one snack break later, we reached the saddle between Tom Mountain to the north and Mudjekeewis Mountain to the south. Tom and Jerry Trail goes by both Tom and Jerry mountains, but up neither - both are over half a mile off the trail. Here Jean leaves us to return to the trailhead (later she said that alone she could travel faster without us - guess that brace slows me down), leaving Tom and Jerry Mountains to Tom and Jerry.
Except for the occasional blow-down, which gave the braced knee some trouble, off-trail was a delight in beautiful open woods on a beautiful day. We had planned to skirt along the western base of Tom Mountain and climb it from the less-steep northwestern side. But the ridge up the southern side was so inviting that we just kept going. Near the top it got pretty steep, but not bad, and soon we hit the south summit of Tom Mountain.
It was open on top, with great views. Jerry Mountain, slightly lower than Tom, loomed in the east. An almost level "knife-edge" ridge lead to the obviously slightly higher north summit of Tom. The ridge between Tom and Jerry mountains was in clear view, though trees partially obscured the surface detail. Behind those trees was a hint of a challenge. "Looks like we could have a problem over there", I remark.
Traversing the knife-edge to the true summit of Tom was a joy, and the north ridge of Tom down to a plateau above the drop was one of the prettiest I've seen. And the plateau was idyllic - "Here's where we put the cabin", we both chimed. And then came the drop-off.
Now, after surviving that drop, we've had lunch on the Jerry summit; it's 1:45pm and time to head for home. "Let's go down from the col", suggests Tom, "and follow around the base of Tom and join the trail where we left it." "OK with me", I reply, "blaze any route you want and I'll follow" - I'm pumped and ready for anything, even going back over/around that drop. Tom leads a delightful route along the base of Tom, and we indeed hit the trail just where we had left it.
At 3:59pm we emerge at the trailhead. "You're a minute early", observes Jean, "I expected you at 4:00."