Sunday, June 3, 2018

CDT Part 4: Chama to Lake City

Well, the San Juans were everything they were cracked up to be. I expected beauty and misery and got both, in spades.

I entered the range on May 15, and it showed. The next eighty miles were almost entirely snowbound. Each morning, I walked on frozen, hard snow. Any steep terrain quickly became a treacherous affair. Each afternoon, the snow softened and I spent hours postholing - sinking in snow up to my knees, waist, or even deeper with nearly every step.

Decisions, decisions: I've never been more grateful for the avalanche education I've received over the past several years. The actual avalanche danger was quite low in the San Juans, but avi education has provided me a good framework for decison-making in the outdoors. The San Juans were safely navigable, but it took every tool in my metaphorical toolbelt to do so. I had to make the right decision, every single time. I took multiple alternate routes, frequently walked the ridgetop rather than the trail, timed my days to avoid steep and icy sidehills, etc. I can say, with a certain degree of pride, that I stand behind every single decision I made in the San Juans. Of course, you can make a thousand good decisions, and only one bad decision can still end you up in trouble.

Waiting it out: After the first eighty miles, I reached Pagosa Springs and had a good long think. While I could certainly keep going, I judged that doing 12-mile days simply wasn't worth it. So I hitched to Durango, rented a car with three other hikers, and took off to the desert of southeast Utah for a week. We did a nice three-day backpack - one that I had done in January and thus had information for already. Of course, all that information resided solely in my brain, but we were still able to find a bunch of Indian ruins in the cliffs and ledges of the canyon system. We made a few other stops to visit Monument Valley and Hovenweep National Monument. I enjoyed the chance to return to a place I consider home - and to see other people experience this magnificent landscape for the first time.

Round two: After a week off-trail, I got back to the CDT and continued north. The decision to wait it out was immediately validated - while there was still some snow and ice left, it had melted out considerably in the past week. I didn't use my ice axe a single time in the next 120 miles. By time I neared Lake City, the mountains were nearly snow-free, even at 13,000 feet. I mailed my snow stuff home in town... we'll see if it comes back to bite me!

Staying high: The stretch from Pagosa Springs to Lake City only dipped below 11,000 feet once. I camped above 11,800 feet every night, hiking as high as 13,200 feet. There's not too much oxygen up here! Hiking 20 miles per day does wonders for cardiovascular fitness - hiking at altitude takes it to the next level.

What's next: theres about 20 miles of high terrain ahead of me, including the opportunity to climb a fourteener. After that, the trail dips down into a lower area with a lot more roadwalking. The miles should go a bit quicker for the next several days. And each day, more snow melts. I've made it through the worst of the snow. There's more tough stuff ahead. But so far, so good. Onward!

Monday, May 14, 2018

CDT Part 3: Pie Town to Chama

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned. It has been several weeks since my last blog post. Not that this was unexpected or anything.

Yesterday I crossed from New Mexico into Colorado. I spent 33 days in New Mexico, hiking about 700 miles. New Mexico was a mixed bag. The Gila River was quite pretty. The high plateaus and mountains in the extreme northern part of the state were beautiful by anyone's standards. Yet the CDT through New Mexico also featured hundreds of miles of road walking. I love hiking and am glad I did the New Mexico section. But I can't help but think that the trail thus far is just a warmup for Colorado. And boy, am I excited!


Hiking the LBT: For years, the CDT has had a reputation as a difficult trail to navigate. Getting minorly lost was a common occurrence. This is a bit anachronistic in the GPS age though, as 90% of people use an app that gives them idiot-proof directions to Canada. There are a few of us holdouts, though, who navigate with map and compass. I'm not interested in removing the challenge from the CDT, and wouldn't have the same sense of accomplishment if I blindly followed a little red line all the way to Canada.

Up until recently, I had remarkably managed a 100% navigational success rate. A few days ago, though, I failed to pay enough attention to my map and went several miles down the wrong canyon by mistake.  When I checked my map, I realized my error, but not before I wasted a couple hours getting back to my intended route. It's almost inevitable that something like this happens from time to time, and though not at all dangerous, I felt pretty dumb. Sometimes you hike the Continental Divide Trail. And sometimes you hike the LarryBoy Trail.

We didn't start the fire: New Mexico has been historically dry this year. Wildfires have already broken out in places, and all the fire towers have been manned for a month now; they aren't normally manned until the end of May. Several fires have started because of unattended campfires. I found one in the Gila and put it out. The entire state is under fire restrictions; in many places you aren't even allowed to operate a chainsaw between 1pm and 1am because fire danger is so high. I'm glad to be leaving the state before it all goes up in flames.

Snow, snow, snow: I'm part of the first wave of thru hikers to hit the high terrain in northern NM and CO. I started early and have maintained a steady, if not fast, pace. It's a historically dry year in southern CO. Normally I wouldn't even consider entering the San Juan range for another month, but I'm poised to go up there tomorrow. Such is 2018. Thus far, I've seen patchy snow above 10,000 feet with widespread snow above 11,000 feet. In the SanJuan's, I'll be above 12,000 for extended periods of time. I've got my microspikes and ice axe and am ready to go. The trail rumor mill is buzzing with tales of horrific postholing. Are the rumors exaggerated? Only time will tell.

What's next: The San Juans, as described above. I expect beauty. I expect misery. This might be the hardest thing I've ever done. This might be the most rewarding thing I've ever done. I've got a cautious risk mindset and a good crew of people to team up with. Onward!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

CDT Part 2: Silver City to Pie Town

A whirlwind week and a half. The Gila river section was quite lovely. I soaked in three different hot springs and spent a full half-day pestering the poor ranger at the Gila Cliff Dwellings with questions on the site and the people who once inhabited it. She seemed to enjoy the fact that someone was really interested in the site though, and asked questions that were at least slightly informed. And I got a chance to let my nerdy intellectual side run off-leash, a rare treat out here.


Actual mountains: I climbed to nearly 10,000 feet yesterday, and have been above 8,000 feet pretty consistently since leaving the Gila. It's cooler up here, the views are lovely. I expected New Mexico to be mere "filler" before getting to the good stuff farther north. I've been pleasantly surprised.

The Sword of Damocles: The injury bug has been hitting people right and left out here. Lots of people taking multiple rest days in a row to heal up, several people ending their hikes early, and the majority have some sort of large, disgusting blisters on their feet. Some are understandable - it's their first thru-hike, they're carrying large and heavy packs, or they didn't start in great shape. Plenty more, though, are experienced hikers, in shape, doing everything right... and they're still hurt. It's tough to see people get off trail. And it also humbles me - if it can happen to them, it can happen to me. Even for the most competent hiker, there's always a chance.

Feeling strong: I'm probably approaching the apogee of my trail legs. I'm at about 700 miles for the hiking season (which my shoe let me know in dramatic fashion by having the entire toe rip out in the middle of the Gila River) and am consistently doing 20-25 miles per day. Yesterday I did my first 30-mile day ever, albeit unintentionally. There was no legal places to camp, so I kept hiking, well after dark, until I got to the lovely hamlet of Pie Town. There's a delightful hiker hostel here, a rare treat. And I'm about to dig into a large piece of Almond Joy pie. Yum.

LarryBoy on the Lam: Just south of Silver City is a brutal 12-mile roadwalk on a busy paved highway. About halfway through, I stopped for a quick snack break on the side of the road. Twenty minutes later, I was back on move. An hour later, a state trooper pulled me over - supposedly someone had seen a vagrant in an orange shirt "laying in the grass" and phoned it in (at no point was I laying down). Supposedly the cop was just doing a wellness check on me, but his inquisitive line of questioning suggested otherwise. Maximum Hikertrash Status achievement unlocked... in the first two hundred miles.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

CDT Part 1: Mexico to Silver City

Two trail towns. A hundred and fifty miles. So far, so good.

My 22-hour Greyhound adventure was, predictably, an adventure of the first degree. The first bus was more than three hours late, resulting in me sitting on a curb outside a Texaco station until 4:15AM. The bus driver on the next leg issued a stern warning to the entire bus, prior to the first stop, not to purchase or consume drugs/alcohol during the rest stop. The wonders of Greyhound. According to other thru-hikers I talked to, this was a pretty standard experience. One hiker was two days late getting to the southern terminus because of Greyhound troubles. Sigh.

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC), hte non-profit advocacy organization for the CDT, runs a shuttle to the southern border. It's a 3.5 hour journey over rough jeep roads to get to the border - only a lifted Ram 250 pickup is up to the task. By 10:45, I was hiking.

The southern section was probably the easiest terrain I've ever hiked. Most of it was flat, with only a few minor climbs. Although much of the route was cross-country, occasional CDT markers helped provide direction. I quickly learned not to worry if I didn't see a marker though; trust your map and head in the right direction. Eventually there will be a trail or some sort of marking.

Finally, a couple days ago, I encountered the first real climb on the CDT, up to 8,000' atop Burro Peak. Actual mountains - how I've missed you! The trail continues to be spotty - sometimes it's well-blazed along a constructed footpath, sometimes it's a dozen-mile roadwalk along a paved state highway. The former, needless to say, is quite a bit more pleasant.


Temperatures: The Bootheel of New Mexico is a hot, hot place. The highs for the first few days were well in excess of ninety degrees. I took a nice long siesta during the heat of the day. Thankfully, the terrain was easy enough that I was still able to do 20-25 miles per day, even with the break in the middle. With hot temperatures and humidities hovering around 5%, I've drank more water in the past week than in any of my previous desert travels.

Wind: The wind out here is crazy. We had a major windstorm move through last week. At one point, I crested a small pass and the wind blew me right off my feet. There's another wind storm moving through today, but I'm comfortably in town for this one. I think I'll take a day and let a couple of minor aches and pains recover while it howls outside.

People: About 10 hikers per day are starting at the border. I'm definitely one of the earlier hikers, but not unreasonably so. Southern Colorado had a record low snow year this year, so I'm hoping to make it into the "real" mountains farther north earlier than normal. I saw exactly one other hiker between the border and Lordsburg, the first trail town. Between Lordsburg and Silver City, I saw several other hikers, mainly huddled around the few available water sources. While it has more people than the Hayduke (zero), the CDT definitely promises to be a more solitary experience. And that's just fine with me. Enough people to form friendships, enough solitude to have as much quiet time as I want.

Southern Border Shennanigans: One can't wander through southern New Mexico without encountering the constant presence of Border Patrol. Their trucks are everywhere in town, and on faint dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. And for good reason: I was camped a quarter mile away from a road one night, and heard a bunch of ATV's rolling through around midnight without their headlights on. Two hours later, a couple pickup trucks rolled through, also sans headlights. I heard mutterings and mumblings of voices in the distance. Whether either group was border patrol, drug runners, or immigrant parties, I have no idea. But that desert is a surprisingly active place.

Water: I still haven't seen a single natural water source. The CDTC caches water for hikers who use their shuttle service for the first 85 miles. Although not necessary, strictly speaking, the water caches do make things nice and easy for the first few days. After that, the training wheels come off. Thankfully, ranchers maintain occasional wells for their cows to drink from, generally wind or solar-powered. So I've drank from various cattle installations in varying degrees of nastiness for the past week. I haven't encountered anything truly horrid yet, but I suspect I will at some point.

What now: I'm currently hanging out in Silver City, NM with a good friend. Resupply, update the blog, replace the bashed-in tips of my trekking poles. The usual.

What next: The next section promises to be a big change-of-pace, as I follow the Gila River north, fording it several hundred times (no exaggeration). I'm preparing for wet feet and, finally, plenty of drinking water. Onward!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Leaving No Trace: Ignorance and Recklessness

I've been thinking a lot about outdoor ethics recently. And a couple of specific incidents have brought the topic to front of mind. 

The Uninformed:

I camped in the NPS campground a few nights ago. The campground host on duty gave me a sweetheart deal, even though the facility was fully booked. He jammed me and a few other late arrivals on a larger group site. A young couple from Las Vegas showed up well after dark. After unsealing the box their tent came in (clearly using it for the first time), and futzing around trying to set it up for about an hour, they finally got everything in order. And then proceeded to build a fire, not in the designated firepits (the site had two of them) but just on the ground in the middle of the campsite. I wandered over and, very nicely, asked them to let the fire die and not add more wood - campfire ash is a terrible polluter, is highly acidic, and kills grass. They replied that yes, of course, and sorry, they didn't think about that.

I don't fault them much. They were clearly new to the game and were trying to do the right thing (they saw ash in that spot on the ground already and figured it was ok). When confronted, they were agreeable. Not perfect, but nice and conscientious. I'll take that.

The Willfully Reckless:

When I got my permit for the Narrows, the ranger on duty was adamant - she would not issue me a permit unless I had a full drysuit lined up (they can be rented at several places in town). The water was 46 degrees, and the river would include several sections where swimming was necessary. She furthermore stressed that Thou Shalt Not Walk On The Banks Of The River, or walk on existing social trails on said riverbanks. The only permitted place to hike was directly in the rivercourse. She went through all the regulations - use of wag bags was required, no campfires, etc.

Fast forward a couple days. I was packing up my stuff at my designated campsite, when three young men came crashing through my site. None of them were wearing dry suits - as a matter of fact, two of them were wearing sandals. They were weaving and bobbing from riverbank to riverbank, walking on all the social trails, creating trails where none existed, in an attempt to avoid the cold river water.

I saw them again, a few hours later, and they were continuing to erode the banks of the river with their path. I said something to them. One of them, the self-appointed spokesman, said that they weren't prepared, like I was, and didn't want to get their feet cold. They'd keep doing exactly what they were doing, thank you very much.

I've never been one to tattle. But their actions and attitudes incensed me enough that I filed a complaint with the Wilderness desk when I got back to the Visitors Center. The ranger on duty noted to me that they had claimed they planned to rent dry suits and all the rest.

In summary:
  • The were warned by the ranger about the conditions they'd face in the hike and the necessary equipment
  • They lied to the ranger about their level of preparation and their willingness to comply with regulations
  • When confronted by one of their peers, me, they were brazen and unapologetic
These kind of people are who ruin it for the rest of us.

What can we take away from this?

The ignorant need to be educated, and the informed need to be held accountable. Ignorance isn't a problem - we can change that with a little education. But those who know better and simply don't care? It only takes a few of those to undo the good done by hundreds of other people following the rules. That's why I took a (nasty, grainy, zoomed-in) photo. And that's why I'm publishing it here. Because people who trample public lands, without shame or remorse, need to be called to account. Publically.

Our words must be seasoned with salt. I used a couple of unkind words with addressing our three willfully reckless gentlemen. If I'm going to call other people to account, I need to first pry that speck out of my own eye. I should have communicated the same message, but using kinder language. That's a sin. I repent of that. 

There is no middle ground. Each of us, whenever we're in the outdoors, are either making things better, or worse. There's no neutral position. Either we avoid those social trails and let the land heal, or we use those social trails and damage the land. So with no middle ground, every day we have a decision to make - am I going to make things better, or worse?

These lands belong to all of us. These are public lands. All taxpayers and citizens own these lands. When we abuse these lands, we aren't harming The Government, we're harming our neighbors. And for those of us who spend a lot of time on public lands, who identify strongly with creation - those lands are home for us. Gentlemen, you're trampling our home. My home.

Hayduke Trail: The Wrap-Up

I descended the crudely paved pathway, back and forth along a series of a million switchbacks. Below, I could see it. The parking lot. The end of the Hayduke Trail. And I felt... nothing, really.

When I reached the parking lot, no celebratory crowd greeted me. No sign marked the western terminus of the Hayduke Trail. People scarcely paid me notice at all, as they herded kids and pets and Uncle Frank up the trail.

It was the perfect end, really. A Hayduke-style end. The Hayduke isn't like the AT, the PCT, or even the CDT. No one knew or cared that an 800-mile backpacking route, the epitome of "wild and remote" in the lower 48, ended right here. When people asked what I was doing, I told them that I was out hiking for a month. Just that. Hiking for a month. The Hayduke flies under the radar.

I didn't hike the Hayduke to get 'likes' on Instagram. I didn't hike it to impress friends, or because it's a bucket-list goal in an otherwise well-rounded life. I hiked the Hayduke because I love hiking, love adventuring, love wild places, and love the desert Southwest.

I hiked the Hayduke Trail.

And that's remarkable in a way. Because I'm a very, very average person. I'm no backpacking guru with ten thousand miles on my feet. I'm no superhuman busting out 30-mile days. I'm the guy who always was the last one picked for games of playground kickball. And in terms of trails hiked, I came with only the Appalachian Trail under my belt. Presupposing that hiking the AT prepares you for hiking the Hayduke - that's like saying that operating a Sea-Doo prepares you for piloting an aircraft carrier.

And yet I hiked the Hayduke - in six trips over four years. Am I not blessed?


Section 13 - the brutality: The Hayduke has a reputation for being brutal and tough and demanding. I found that to be an exaggeration, for the most part. However, Section 13 is an exception. Those miles are every bit as brutal as they're made out to be. Saddle Canyon - it's a heinous bushwhack, a steep and exposed ridge, and then a series of ice-cold plunge pools that you have to jump or slide down slippery limestone chutes into. Those four miles took me five hours. And I was lucky. Other hikers, much faster and stronger than me, have taken up to nine hours. And after Saddle Canyon, you continue with the 1-mph terrain, boulder-hopping down a rocky watercourse, fording swift and deep water. And then an endless rockhop down the banks of the Colorado River. And then up Kanab Creek, crawling over, around, and sometimes even under huge blocks of sandstone in an attempt to avoid the deepest pools of water. I called it the Thirty Miles of Chaos before I started the section - it lived up to its billing.

Section 13 - the beauty: I wasn't expecting it. Saddle Canyon was amazing. Thunder River is a huge spring, an entire river, gushing out of a random rock wall - as if Moses had spoken to it and/or hit it with his staff. Deer Creek Narrows were phenomenal. And Kanab Creek blew me away. Wow, wow, wow.

Humbled: While descending the sketchy ridge in Saddle Canyon, my right side water bottle pocket got bumped, sending a bottle tumbling and careening several hundred feet down, off a cliff, into who-knows-where. While not an immediate concern, I suddenly only had four liters of water storage capacity - and I was facing a 41-mile waterless stretch a few days down the line. While survivable, those miles promised to be extremely, extremely unpleasant on only 4 liters of water. So I swallowed my pride and shamelessly begged a group of river rafters I saw the next day for an empty Gatorade bottle. They didn't have an empty disposable bottle, but they had something else. And that is how I, having constantly ridiculed heavy waterbottles over the years, ended up rocking a radioactive green Nalgene bottle. Lesson learned, thank you God, and thank you rafters!

Hi, my name is LarryBoy and I'll be your Tour Guide today: I've never been asked so many questions in my life. Part of it is due to the fact that I went through two popular National Parks, but even still. The tourists (California plates, sorry Uncle Steve and Aunt Karin) who stopped me on the road in the Vermillion Cliffs - to ask me where the cliffs were and how they could get there. Look up folks! They're here - they're all over the place! Or the tourists who stopped me several miles down a very rough 4wd right to ask me if they were on the right road to a popular overlook at the Grand Canyon. Nope, sorry, you're thirty miles away and headed in the wrong direction. Or the endless parade of people in the Grand Canyon who asked me the same question about the same water sources. I've memorized my answer. Slate and Turquoise Canyons have nice potholes, I think there's water in Sapphire, and some other people said there's water in Ruby but I didn't see it for myself. Next question, please.

What are the chances: I met a very nice couple in the Grand Canyon out for a 25-mile dayhike. That in itself piqued my interest. We started talking, and I admitted that I was hiking the Hayduke in sections. They referenced an AT section hike, which began in 2013, the same year I hiked the AT. I pressed them for their start date - February 28, the same exact day I started. Turns out they were the Four Montanans (two humans, two dogs) whose shelter log entries I had read the whole way up the trail. They were a little faster than me, and so despite starting on the same date, we'd never met - until a random day in the Grand Canyon, five years later.

What now: I've been hanging out in Zion National Park this week, doing all the Zion tourist classics. Angels Landing, Emerald Pools, the famous Narrows of the Virgin River. It's been fun enough, but I'm sick of the tourists and the smalltalk and the lack of happy brain juices that come with hiking 20 miles a day. And this town is outrageously expensive. I've only paid to camp one night, but I've needed to get very creative/obsequious to achieve that end.

What next: Twenty two stinking hours on a Greyhound bus from St George, UT to Lordsburg NM. After that, Lord willing, I'll start the Continental Divide Trail on April 10 at the Mexican border.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Grand Canyon... Impressive!

I didn't expect to be surprised by the Grand Canyon. I mean, it's a top flight National Park, and judging from the hordes of international tourists, definitely deserving of the "Seven Wonders" sobriquet it's often given.

But at the same time, I've hiked quite a bit through similar landscape over the course of several years. Besides being bigger, could the Grand Canyon really be all that special?

Yes, apparently! Walking on a narrow bench 1500 feet above the Colorado is absolutely magical. Everything is just so vertical here. I almost skipped this section of the Hayduke for geographic reasons. I'm so glad I didnt.


Weather: pretty bad by desert standards. Camped in rain nearly every other night. Wind has been a constant - a little unnerving when you're walking narrow ledges with quite a bit of exposure.

River crossings: hitched a ride with a raft group, who spotted me a cold beverage. Score! Not too many river trips going on yet though; had to wait half a day for the first boat to come by. I've got one more raft ride to catch in a couple days; hopefully I have more luck this time.

Water: not too bad so far. I ran out of Aquamira though, so I had to drink unfiltered from the Colorado. Yuck. If I come down with diphtheria in two weeks, you know why.

Pack weight: 10 day food carries, back to back, are brutal. My pack is going to weigh 42 pounds leaving tomorrow. Yikes!

Photos? Nope, I'm too dumb to figure out how to get them from my camera to my phone via Bluetooth. And I don't have good enough internet to Google it. Next time, maybe.

Where next? The most brutal miles of the Hayduke await. I'll be spending the next week back in the Grand Canyon. After that? Marching to Zion!