• Rock Rolling



    This short article involves the revelation and confession of activities that are, as a minimum, in violation of the rules and policies of the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and, in addition, are highly offensive to the Sierra Club. At their worst, they constitute blatant criminal activity; even though the statute of limitations has long passed.

    There is a little known male gene in the genome strand. It’s the RR Gene; evolving from the earliest caveman who delighted in power, speed, spectacle, noise, and destruction. It’s the Rock Rolling Gene – a gene that causes Man to uncontrollably initiate the rolling of large boulders down any slope over thirty degrees. The more Neanderthal the man, the more prominent the gene. As RR activity begins, endorphins are released, blood pressure increases, vocal volume raises to over 120 decibels, and feelings of excitement are comparable to the first time you snuck your dad’s car and ran it up to 100 mph. Eventually the shout of “There She Goes” rings out as a boulder starts its downward journey.

    Who are these Rock Rollers? Basically it’s any one, group, or mob of guys who like hiking. The mob were my grade school and high school buddies – twelve in all – minus one who has departed, unfortunately from heart failure rather than a rock rolling accident. We were always on the lookout for a good selection of large rollable rocks, a long steep slope, and a 180-degree vista. At times the entire twelve of us were engaged in denuding a steep slope of its most viable mineral deposits.

    Real rock rolling connoisseurs such as ourselves want a slope of at least forty-five degrees, a boulder that is a minimum of eighteen inches in diameter, some short cliffs for bounce effect, and an unrestricted field of vision. Desirable are other rocks downhill that can join in when hit, and a sprinkling of trees for unintentional targets. There are no upper limits on pristine stone size, only that they can be set in motion – and no restriction of mechanical help, including dynamite.

    The steeper the slope, the better; unless the view is restricted by large drop-offs. We generally only rolled when we knew there were no other hikers below; but if there were, we figured the first roll would bring forth a very concerned shout – and they would move smartly out of the way.

    So lets look at a highly favorable example –Timpanogous Mountain, Utah – off the trail, along the ridge on the north end. Good Slope of around 55 degrees on both sides – lots of prime aggregate, a 1000-yard view, laurel, oak and pine for near misses and an occasional direct hit. A symmetrical 2½ foot diameter boulder is a prize to be cherished. Usually takes at least two grunters to get her really rolling. There is some artistic question as to whether a solid granite or limestone rock is best – those won’t split – or a shale type boulder that will burst with enough impact. I prefer the solids’ myself because of the ability to start others in motion and the explosive effects of hitting a tree. Also the really big solid ones have incredible leaps into space and smash into their fellows resulting in a rock avalanche – I have seen the entire mountain look as if it is moving as hundreds of stones leap and dance, just from one big one that started it all.

    Going back to elementary Physics, we all remember the F = MA with F is force, M is Mass/Weight and A is acceleration. So the ideal rock roll would be a very large rock, say three feet in diameter, weighing 600 pounds and accelerating up to 100 feet per second. That would give us a force of 50,000 foot-pounds after a few seconds. When even twenty-five foot tons hits something such as a tree, other rocks, snow, or just dirt, all hell breaks loose. The force after a cliff free fall or good steep bounce of fifty yards or so trampolines the hoony even higher as it careens with ever-increasing speed. What you get are fantastic jumps of sometimes a hundred yards or more with speeds topping 120 mph. Trees less than twelve inches in diameter simply explode. Larger trees will have lifetime marks, and look as if they have been trimmed by a helicopter crash. Really big conifers give; bend double, and then rebound the rock away at interesting and entertaining angles.

    The start of a rock’s roll is all-important – these are heavy masses, and as Isaac Newton would tell us, have a tendency to remain at rest. A solid granite boulder weighing 300 pounds takes only one revolution to get moving if the slope is steep enough. Usually three burley guys use hands, legs, backs and the odd metal device to start the motion. A narrow, flat, rounded slab of granite requires that the rock be tilted up on its side, and then rolled like a wheel down the slope. Sounds easy, but with a 300 pound rock, not so. Several discouraging events can take place – the rock falls over and stops despite repeated launch attempts, or more seriously, someone lets go a bit early and the stone falls over, crushing hands, feet or any other appendage in the way. The worst position is right below the rock tugging it downward. It does make for some serious jumping and deflecting. Eventually we were forced to use our father’s metal-toed boots from the steel plant.

    Frustration with a failure increases exponentially, especially after about the 3rd attempt without getting downhill traction. After about the fifth try we generally gave up, left inventive curses, and moved on to better locales. Many of the most memorable rock rolling days had both blood and skin traces on the bounders as they began their journey.

    Climbing down slope at the end of the day, we were always amazed as we traced the paths of these gigantic stones long after they had left our sight – altering the landscape more than a million years of erosion had done.

    The wheel type rock does bring back a successful rolling memory. Driving up along the Snake River on the way to Jackson Hole/Yellowstone, we had stopped along the Gorge – maybe it was fate – but I believe we had stopped to water the fauna along the roadway. We looked over the edge of the precipice to the river far below – maybe 300 yards. A couple of fishermen were on the bank on our side. About this same moment we discovered some large telephone cable drums across the road against the mountain. Most were wound with wire, but two that were bare down to their wooden centers.

    For seasoned RR’s like us the temptation was too great. We did however bellow to the fishermen – I believe Richard hollered “Incoming” as fair warning. We aimed the seven-foot high wooden drum a bit upstream from the anglers, but like rocks, the drum had a mind of its own and hit the river with a satisfying splash less than fifty feet from them. There were immediate cries of distress, followed by Marine Quality Profanity, which was highly offensive to us, since no one had actually been disturbed. The second drum was now ready. We to the fishers to watch out. More screams, but we believed that our aim would improve. As we tilted the drum over the edge, it was satisfying to see both fishermen jump into the river fully clothed. We waited until they were swept into the current and then pushed the drum down the side. No bounces, too steep, but we were rewarded with a tremendous splash as the drum skipped to midstream, starting its own down river journey. The cries of the fishermen became fainter as they floated away- I’m sure the water was not cold enough to stop a heart, plus they could always hang on to the drum. We did, however, repair rapidly to my 56 Ford Hardtop and made our getaway.

    We were all pretty young when the rock rolling started on Timp – maybe 8 or 9, and each summer the rocks got bigger, the hike altitudes extended and the drops longer. The winters were bummers, although if you could get high enough on a mountain, there was a minor chance of starting an avalanche or at least starting a snowball on a very steep slope. It would pick up additional snow, but unfortunately not go far, and would quietly split when reaching a certain size.

    Besides, struggling up a steep snow laden slope was work, and snow does not create spectacle and destruction that we so appreciated in boulders. We did haul a toboggan up on a near vertical slope, immediately lost control, and after mowing down several trees, hit one that was six inches in diameter. As we were launched off the sled, my hand hit the tree as I roared by, breaking three of the metacarpals in my right hand. Gary also tried to saucer sled down a 70-degree slope and ended 10 feet up in a pine tree upside down. These misadventures sort of brought winter activity to a halt.

    But winter finally waned, and one night shortly after receiving our learning permits at 15 1/2, four of us were driving around at night looking for intellectual stimulation. In a small town like Pleasant Grove Utah, this could be a problem.

    As we meandered along we spied a kid’s tricycle along side the road. Ben said, “Hey stop, lets see how fast the three-wheeler will go”.
    Translated that meant holding the trike out the window, three wheels on the gravel road and accelerating as fast as possible. At about sixty mph Gerald was overcome with strained arms and let go of the handlebars. The trike ran on a few feet before cart wheeling, and then disintegrating – parts flying over a two-lawn area. “Whoa”, we all exclaimed, “We need to find more tricycles”.

    However none presented themselves and despite a two-hour search no other wheeled vehicles appeared. The evening was young and since it was garbage day, there were plenty of galvanized metal cans on the sides of the road covered by round lids. We tried the lids first, but really, they were too light. You get the same picture we came up with – hold the garbage can outside the car window, get to max speed and then launch. Sparks, garbage, noise and a tumbling garbage can was the reward. This continued pretty much on a weekly basis after that – garbage being picked up once a week. A permanent halt was called after a two-sided double drop down a hill right in front of a police vehicle. Being law-abiding citizens, we quickly doused the lights on the car and made a series of turns before hiding in a driveway as the flashing lights went by.

    This was sobering for a day or two and we vowed that the danger of incarceration was too much to continued with galvanized metal. What to do, what to do? No trikes, no garbage cans, snow still covered the rocks; was there another alternative? What was somewhat round could be held on the outside of a car without tearing arms from their sockets, and, where we could view the resultant chaos? The idea hit all of us about the same time. Discarded tires. We knew of a huge pile in one of the apple orchards; burned during the early spring to keep the buds from freezing. It was an instant success. The tires rolled true, the distance much greater, and on a downhill grade, the tires gained speed rather than slowing like a garbage can – no sparks, but you can’t have everything. But they had to stop eventually – normally this happened as they hit a fence, wall, tree, or house.

    Night after night we went out finding virgin runs on steep hills. It’s hard to imagine the spectacle of a tire launched at seventy mph. Once we tried a tractor tire, but the destruction of personal property was astounding and frankly scared the hell out of us – plus it took two guys to hold it out the window. We eventually went to launching normal sizes from all doors and out the back of Gary’s Dad’s station wagon. We quit encouraging the driver to also launch, due to a near rollover of the car. You really needed two hands to swing the tire away from the launch vehicle. We had seen a couple of tires bounce off parked cars, and that was of concern – mainly because we were afraid of getting caught – a mud covered license plate was helpful.

    But the coup de grace of our tire rolling came one night as we were launching down Pulley’s Hill – a half-mile grade with fenced fields on each side. It was dark, no moon, and we were running with the lights off – a full launch – three from the doors and two out the back. At 60, launch one, 65 two, 70, number three, and finally at 75 mph the fourth and fifth. Tom launched the fifth, a medium truck tire out the rear, but just a bit late. As the car slowed we could just see the side tires rip through the barbed wire, one nicely whacking a fence post. And one of the rear-launched tires came roaring by us. But then, Wham, we were struck from behind. Hoisted on our own petard by that fifth tire. The black roller made somewhat of a dent in the back bumper, jumped in the air and then rolled up over the roof of the station wagon with substantial collateral damage. Hmm, this looked like another father and son meeting for Gary. Unfortunately once again he was banned from using the 1955 green ford family wagon and our tire-rolling era came to a permanent halt.

    But these launches of trikes, garbage cans, and tires, were like taking an aspirin compared to mainlining real rock rolling. The shear power, destruction, noise and speed of a 300-pound boulder are memory-searing experiences. We rolled rocks behind Snowbird down to the slopes of Silver Lake in Mineral Basin. Basically, Glenn, Stan, Steve and I destroyed the pillared south slope of North Piney Lake in the Salt River Mountains of Wyoming. The entire lake had turned murky as huge chunks of cliff splashed down into its crystal waters.

    Cleaned every available rock on the west face of Mt. Nebo, east side of Provo Peak, and both sides of Cascade Mountain. Along with the East Face of Timpanogous some almost reached the Provo Canyon Highway. Mark and I tried our rolling skills down the Baldy Shoots’ at Alta, down climbing the cliff to get into the narrow notch. At 80 degrees we could barely stand – there was no stable footing for leverage. Our weight alone got the entire twenty-five foot narrow slide moving, somewhat of an unnerving experience with a whole section of the mountain rumbling beneath you. Another time on the face of Mahogany Mountain, Dave had lagged behind and was climbing the steep slide below us when we decided to test his agility – we gave him warning each time a rounded mineral was started, and were rewarded with nimble actions and cries of distress. Some pretty close calls, and he called up names that questioned our parentage, but it made for a good story.

    The premier rolling however was really on the west face of Timpanogous. Each Memorial Day we would climb straight up the face, to the Saddle just North of the Devil’s Staircase. There was a ribbon of snow all the way down, to be skied at day’s end in our combat boots. But the main activity was Rock Rolling. Glorious Spring Days, fifty-five degree slope, endless large rocks and an unrestricted view.

    We rolled magnificent boulders every few minutes – leaving twenty-foot gouges in the snow. The sweet smell of ozone rose hot in the air from rock smashing rock. Massive boulders running all the way down the face, until finally out of sight, just the crashes echoing. Hours were spent; hundreds of rocks started, backs strained, trusses tested, curses shouted, and yells of success rang in the cool air. We would find the occasional 500-pound round pebble, but then it was half buried or at an angle that seemed impossible to start.

    But like the Urban Legend of the father rescuing his child by lifting a car off of her body, the testosterone flowing in our teenage anatomies enabled us to perform herculean feats – sometimes taking six of us to get a monster moving. There were times when we found the cream de la crème of rocks, seemingly ready to tumble at just a slight touch. But no movement; all of us digging like badgers to find the base. The further we dug the more we realized that this was just the top of a spire that was part of the main structure of the mountain. And here we were with no dynamite. Tears filled our eyes at the thought of this majestic pillar remaining stationary. But then it was quickly on to the next. Summer after summer, year after year – finally slackening only when girls began looking more interesting than a perfectly shaped boulder.

    The power, the fantastic spectacle, the leaps into the air, the horrific collisions and near death experiences became lifelong memories. The twelve of us went up on Timp many, many times, for the hike, the beauty, the view, but most of all to roll those gigantic stones. Life at its best on the mountain fifty-five years ago.

    But now on occasion, with old age on the horizon and the reaper in the distance, I get restless with my memories. I hike and look for a prime piece of limestone or granite, perched just so on a steep slope. The overpowering desire comes upon me once again. I do check a little more carefully for anyone below, but then its quickly digging at the base, rocking the boulder and then a final shove with feet or hands. The breath shortens, the adrenaline pumps, the lungs fill with a ready shout and a “There She Goes” echoes across Timp once again.

    October – 2008

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