Sunday, May 21, 2017

The First Chapter



"WARNING: Your route-finding and navigational skills must be impeccable in order to proceed. If you have any doubt about exactly where you are at at all times, follow Indian Creek upstream to the paved road east of the park. Not too many people are going to want to come looking for you out here if you get lost. If, however, you've been to the middle of nowhere before and liked it, scramble 1.2 miles south up the ridge..."

Welcome to the Hayduke Trail.

The Hayduke is a trail that's not a trail. It's a route across the Colorado Plateau from Arches to Zion, via the Grand Canyon, pioneered by a couple of guys with a big dreams and a lot of guts. It connects most of the scenic gems of the Colorado Plateau in one hiking route, often forsaking the most expedient or logical paths. It's 800+ miles of twists and turns and alcoves and arches and mountains and canyons. The Hayduke is amazing.

Along the way, the Hayduke uses old jeep roads, canyons, wash bottoms, cross-country routes, and, very very occasionally, established hiking trails where they already exist. It encapsulates perfectly the Western experience of land management - the constant tension between grazing interests, resource extraction interests, and preservation interests. Water is an extremely scarce resource, and what water exists is often fouled by cattle crap, mine tailings, or agricultural runoff.

Several years ago, I decided to hike the length of the Hayduke, in sections, over the course of multiple years. In April 2015, I set out to hike a 140-ish mile stretch of the Hayduke - from Moab, UT to Lake Powell. It was tough. It was beautiful. It was rewarding.


Day 1

On Saturday evening, my ride (a fellow Hayduker, Beau, who I nominate for "Trail Angel of the Year", considering how far he drove out of his way to help me on my hike) dropped me off just outside Moab. As I walked down the dirt road, ATVs, trucks, and dirt bikes roared past me. Those things were loud. Where was the solitude, the quietness of the Hayduke that I was told to expect? I would soon find out. Finally, the the ATVs and trucks quit tooling around, and silence returned late in the evening. I threw my tarp down on the side of the road and tried to get some sleep. It was raining. A few thunderstorms had rolled through, doing nothing to dissuade the folks in their mechanical contraptions, but cooling things off, and, I knew, recharging the water sources along  the next stretch of trail.

Day 2

The morning of day 2 dawned with a mixture of sun and clouds, a very watery sunshine indeed. I was up and hiking by 6:15, and for a few hours I might have well been the only person in the world. All the weekenders were sound asleep in their RV's. I went over Hurrah Pass, a low spot in a large ridge of rock that separated the Kane Creek drainage from the Colorado River. I found a surprise water source and filled up, rather than having to drink from the muddy Colorado. As I continued along dirt roads, the sun rose and the heat grew more intense. But with each passing mile, I got more and more remote. I saw just a handful of adventurous souls that day, people who had drove their ATV's the 20 miles from Moab. For the first time I was experiencing what the Hayduke was really like.

Miles passed quickly. First I walked on improved dirt roads, then unimproved dirt roads, then jeep roads. I had done "twelve by twelve", a dozen miles before noon. I stopped at an ephemeral pothole for lunch and watered up. By time the next day rolled around, it would certainly be dry. I hiked up a canyon, and around a rock formation on a bench above the Colorado. The views were outstanding. Thanks to the clouds and occasional sprinkles, the heat didn't get too bad, and I was able to hike all afternoon. Finally, after about 25 miles, I finally got off the dirt road and headed down into a canyon. I hiked a couple miles and set up camp, shortly before sunset, on a bench overlooking the canyon.


Turns out the rain wasn't done. Shortly after dark fell, a thunderstorm moved in. Rain and wind whipped my shelter. I used every trick in the book to keep myself warm and dry, a challenge considering that my stakes were pounded in some very soft ground. A hundred feet below me, I could hear rocks grinding and crashing against each other as a flash flood ripped through the canyon.

Day 3

The next day dawned bright and sunny. The front had moved through, and sunshine would be abundant for the rest of the trip. I hiked along the bench, following a cattle trail for a couple miles. I found the bleached bones of a long-dead cow, which i turned into an "HDT". Seems fitting for this trail, that the only "official" sign would be made out of cattle bones, off-trail, in the middle of nowhere. After dropping into Lockhart Canyon, I came to my first water source in about 20 miles. Water on the HDT is a challenge. It's infrequent, and where it does occur, it's unreliable, and not the best quality. This was a fairly alkaline spring. Alkaline water tends to cause, ummm, intestinal distress, so it behooves you not to drink any more of it that absolutely necessary, as it can dehydrate you. I grabbed a couple liters, hoped not to use them, and kept moving.

As I hiked through Lockhart Basin on a few dirt roads, the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, and it got hot. Very hot. The forecast for Moab said highs around eighty, but temperatures in the basins and canyons were easily fifteen degrees warmer. I took a long siesta in the shade that afternoon, and only hiked for about 45 minutes at a time. It's simply too hot to hike during the heat of the day. Other than two ATV drivers who I saw on a brief dirt road stretch, I encountered nobody the entire day.

Finally it was time to leave the dirt roads. At a random bend in the road, the guidebook to said to head "generally southwest" for several miles. There wasn't one particular route down into Rustler Canyon - this was choose-your-own-adventure hiking at its finest. After negotiating a fairly spicy pour-off, I made it down into Rustler. There was water, but everywhere it left traces of white sediment - it was too alkaline to drink. I was surprised to find a few human footprints in the canyon. From what I've read, nobody other than Hayduke hikers has been known to traverse the canyon. A few miles later, I reached the junction with Indian Creek. Indian Creek is a substantial body of water - an obviously perennial stream with a large sediment load and a squishy bottom. I had to walk carefully to avoid getting stuck knee-deep in muck.


Here, my navigational senses went into overdrive. I counted every twist and turn of the canyon, to my departure point a mile upstream. There was exactly one way out of the canyon, and I had to find it. I climbed out just as the heat was starting to recede for the day. I found a pothole still filled with good, clean water. Purifying four liters as a tedious process. I scooped tiny amounts of water at a time from the half-inch deep depression. I found a cozy cowboy campsite, high on the canyon wall. A light breeze blew across my face, but I didn't care. I had battled the heat, exhaustion, and sore legs for several days now. The trail had also taken a mental toll on me. I had seen very few people, had to pay complete attention at all times, and had zero latitude for making mistakes. Still, I fell asleep happy and contented, gazing at the stars that twinkled down on the lonesome desert landscape.

Day 4

It was an early morning again. I was learning my lesson - I had to beat the heat. I continued on my Seven Miles of Chaos, which had begun when I climbed out of Indian Creek. I followed my map and triangulated landmarks across a narrow ridge between two vast canyon systems. The rising sun transformed the slickrock into a glowing, almost neon spectacle. I hiked rather quickly across the landscape, pausing only to navigate.


The Seven Miles of Chaos continued with a drop down into a new canyon system. Like the ascent out of Indian Creek, there was exactly one way, and I had to follow it. The guidebook recommended lowering one's pack with a rope, or handing it down to one's hiking partner. As I had neither, I was slightly concerned. As it turns out, such fears were overstated. I took off my pack once, and that was probably unnecessary. After descending into the nameless canyon system, I picked my way through deep sand and confusing drainage junctions, and reached the end of the Seven Miles of Chaos.


Somewhere in there, I had entered Canyonlands National Park. There were no fences, no signs, no landmarks to alert me of this fact - just the serpentine winding of canyon walls, which could not be contained by an arbitrary line on a map. But as I kept hiking, I saw the periphery of human society. I was walking on well-graded dirt roads. I saw a family picnicking under a juniper. I arrived at the Needles Outpost, possibly the loneliest business establishment in the country. It offered camping, meals, showers, and gasoline - all for outrageous prices. The proprietors had a terrible reputation, and showed a particular disgust for grungy, tired hikers. Stopping there was not advisable. Less than two months after my hike, the Outpost would be shuttered for good.


But I wasn't stopping anyway. On a hike like this, indulging in the comforts of civilization would be inappropriate. I crawled under a barbed-wire fence and past an "employees only" sign, hiking as fast as I could to get back to my comforts - the comforts of the wilderness. The sun was once again blazing hot, and deep sand made my progress slow and tedious. But I was on home turf now. I had hiked this stretch of lower Salt Creek four months before, and for the next twenty miles I could zone out and follow the canyon upstream. I threw my sleeping bag down under a juniper and immediately fell asleep.

Day 5

I moseyed up Salt Creek, enjoying the coolness of the morning and the cheery stream gurgling through the grasses. I stopped briefly to wash out my sweat-soaked socks and kept moving, passing landmarks which I recognized from my previous hike in the canyon. For the first time on my trip, I allowed myself to zone out. Prayer, philosophy, even singing aloud - the wilderness is a wonderful place for the unencumbered mind to explore the nooks and cranies of human experience. My mind wandered as I walked along. And so did my legs, apparently.

At some point, that still small voice in the back of my head started to pipe up. I didn't remember this part of the canyon. I sat down and checked the map. I could be anywhere. As long as I check my map regularly, navigating in canyon country is fairly easy. But I hadn't checked my map in a good two hours, and now it was a useless piece of paper. Still fairly confident that I was on the right track, I pushed forward.

The canyon continued to get narrower and narrower, and I sensed that the elevation was increasing much too quickly for a major canyon system. Finally, I admitted to myself that I was off-course. I pulled out my phone, and it confirmed what I already knew - I'd spent the last three hours hiking up a random side canyon. I sat down and just about cried. I had plenty of time to complete the route, but I had just spent the best three hours of the day going nowhere, and had to hike three hours back, just to get back to my route. And it was only getting hotter. I filled up on water, gritted my teeth, and prepared for the misery.
The afternoon was just as hot as I feared. I spent fifteen minutes of every hour sitting in the scrappy shade offered by stubby trees, which did almost nothing to cool me off. The miles were easy but slow. I saw a couple backpackers and briefly said hi to them. They would be the last people I saw for four days.

As the sun set, the trail improved. The canyon continued to wind upwards, and the stream began to carve a deep gorge with high, vegetated banks. The route turned into a proper trail now, following a beautiful footpath (by Hayduke standards) on the banks. I came upon a waterfall and below it, an ice-cold plunge pool. I was ecstatic. I dropped my pack and immediately jumped in, the freezing cold water nearly taking my breath away. It was a short swim, but a good one. I may not have been any cleaner than before, but I felt better. Clean is a state of mind, not a state of body.


I hiked past several Indian ruins and pictographs, echoes of a culture almost a century old. The Anasazi had lived on the Colorado plateau for centuries, only to suddenly disappear around the year 1300. It's impossible to say what happened to a society in its pre-literate years, but the archaeological record suggests severe drought, crop failure, warfare, disease, and even cannibalism. Not a pretty picture. Edward Abbey, the patriarch of the desert southwest and often-crazed environmentalist, would predict the same future for our society. With thoughts of the mortality of civilization rattling around in my head, I settled down for the night under a rock overhang. Those thoughts soon quieted, and yet another day, a day of highs and lows, was in the books.

Day 6

The sun rose entirely too early once again, and I reluctantly crawled out of my sleeping bag. Mice had visited my camp last night, but the makeshift bear bagging job I had done (with the help of my trekking pole) had kept them at bay. I packed up quickly and the miles flew by on the solid trail. At the very last opportunity, I filled ever water container I had. The next reliable water was 35 miles away. I expected to find water somewhere in there, but the only good water reports were based on someone's memory from nine years ago. Not exactly solid intel.

Burdened down with six liters (and another liter in my stomach), I left the beautiful trail, and the National Park. I headed up a drainage, westbound. There was supposedly a trail somewhere, but I never found it. Instead, I followed the drainage, then headed overland, navigating by compass. Sooner or later, there'd be a road.

In theory anyway. It was very apparent that nobody had driven the road in at least two decades, and it couldn't really be considered a road anymore. As a matter of fact, I often couldn't even find it. The first potential water source was dry. Good thing I had brought enough.

I hiked and the sun grew hotter and hotter. I scrambled down a series of ledges, off a ridge into a big, open basin. Judging from the number of cow patties I found, the name "Beef Basin" seemed to fit. But the crap was at least a decade old; again, nobody comes this way.


On the other side of Beef Basin, it was time for another stretch of pure cross-country. Head overland, through a mess of scrub and juniper, drop into a canyon, follow it a ways, and then climb very steeply out of the canyon, across another ridge, and down into a feeder canyon leading to Dark Canyon. Seems simple, right? I took a few minutes to study the map closely. And boy I'm glad I did.

It was slow going. The terrain was steep with lots of ups and downs. Branches tugged at me as I ducked over, under, and around them. I stopped to check the...

MAP. Where's the map?

It was on the lanyard around my neck just a few minutes ago. But now the lanyard was broken, dangling mournfully around my neck. And that map pack was nowhere to be found. I attempted to re-trace my steps, but it was impossible. It could be anywhere. I walked a mile back and forth, looking for where it fell. Nowhere.


I sat on a fallen pinyon trunk and tried and compose my thoughts. I had no map, 40 miles from the nearest paved road. I had downloaded a backcountry mapping program onto my phone, but had cell coverage to access the topo for this area. However, even though I didn't have topographical data, I still had a GPS track of the route saved on my phone. A blue line through empty space. I had no choice - try to follow that line - and be cognizant of the remaining battery.

I knew that, as long as I made it into Dark Canyon, I'd be home free. I expected to see backpackers in Dark Canyon and in the worst case scenario, I could hitch a ride back to my car from them. The challenge was getting there. I aligned my phone to north with my compass, shot a bearing, and started following my compass, overland, south-southeast. I had to go three miles and end up in the right canyon system.Messing up was not an option. 


An hour later, I saw it - the canyon system below. I pulled out my phone to check my location. Making my way down into the canyon, I discovered running water and a bunch of cow crap. This stuff appeared rather fresh. I set up my tent, and only then did the relief start to wash over me. I was halfway there. Tomorrow, I'd hike over the steep ridge and down into Dark Canyon.

I slept fitfully, in part due to elevation (I was at 8,000 feet), but mostly due to stress. I knew that I wasn't home free - not yet. I was still miles from civilization with squiggly line in empty space and a depleting battery. I arose gratefully at first light and got an early start.

Day 7

I climbed up, past Indian ruins perched on the side of steep buttes. A couple of moves edged into class IV territory. While climbing, I reached up to grab a ledge - and got fifty cactus spines stuck in my hand in  the process. Ouch.

It was a long, slow, hot climb onto the ridge - and it's not easy walking once on the ridge. But presently, I crossed a rough dirt road, and arrive at the Trail Canyon Trailhead. A small sign marked a maintained path down into Dark Canyon. A trickle of water appeared along the way and I stopped for a break. Another wave of relief washed over me. I'm in Dark Canyon. I'll be alright.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. More deep sand, more blazing hot temps. I had no appetite and no energy, due to not eating. It was a tough day. I developed a blister (my first one since the Paleolithic) and my shoes started falling apart. Perspective: I could be wandering, lost in the desert. Instead, I was following a canyon downstream toward water, people, and cold pop in Hanksville.

Day 8

I slept like crap again, this time because of the incessant desert wind (camp sites are almost non-existent around here). I got up, happy to moving in the right direction. The travel proved slow, this time over boulders and rubble rather than deep sand. Soon I hit traces of water- then a solid stream.

And then everything turned magical. The ever-increasing stream cut deeper and deeper into a gray slate layer. I walked on benches, sometimes 20, 30, or 50 feet above the water. There are excellent swimming holes, and I took advantage. The water was a beautiful clear blue, the kind that sparkles in the hot desert sunshine. I found a large rock to jump off of and had more fun than a kid on a diving board. Later in the afternoon, I ran into a couple of lovely young ladies, the first people I've seen in four days. I mumbled something to them and they continued on their way. It's amazing how quickly the brain re-wires itself. Awareness, concentration, survival? Finely honed. Conversation? Atrophied.


  

I ran into more backpackers as I near the lower end of Dark Canyon. They were overloaded with stuff - bulky sleeping pads, heavy tents, Nalgene water bottles - all strapped to the outside of their huge packs like a vagabonding garage sale. They tramped through the canyon, I danced. Light means fast, delicate, low impact. They're camping; I'm traveling. Still, I couldn't begrudge them for enjoying the outdoors in their own way. They were part of the few who get out and have adventures. And they formed the backbone of the movement to protect of this priceless landscape.

I ended the day with a ridiculously steep ascent up the Sundance "Trail" (which fades in and out of existence at random). I lost the trail from time to time but I wasn't concerned. Map or no, I had begun to "get it". I knew where I was going.

I camped under a rock overhang, looking down into Dark Canyon below. The sun began to set. I took a few minutes to reflect on the adventures of the past week. I'd seen God's hand at work. I'd seen his care for me. I'd seen the beauty of the canyons and the barrenness of the high desert. I'd drank sketchy water, but at least there was water.

 
Day 9  

I had got fifteen miles to do - and in short order, if I wanted to beat the heat. My destination: my car parked at Hite - an old, semi-abandoned marina well above present high-water that had once thrived when lake Powell was more full. It's a very Hayduke place - a lasting testament to man's folly. With the floodwaters came the people, and when the waters receded, so did the people. But the land remains.  

These are the last fifteen of my first 140 miles. Lord willing, I have another 700 miles to go. The beauty, the adventure, the challenge inspire me to return. This is the last page of the first chapter. 





Saturday, May 13, 2017

Two Strikes Against Me


It didn't go as planned.

For a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with work, I had minimal time to prepare. I managed to shop for food, do laundry, research my route, and pack up my stuff in less than two hours. I patted myself on the back for my efficiency and experience. Pride cometh before the fall.

Friday is Good Friday - a holiday for the financial industry. On Thursday night, I headed down to Capitol Reef National Park - by far my favorite park in Utah. I ended up working late and got stuck in horrendous traffic headed south out of Salt Lake. Twilight crept in as I drove through the Saddest Little Town in the Whole World - Sigurd, Utah. I cruised out of town in the growing darkness and crested a small rise...

DEER!

I slam on the brakes, but there's nothing I can do. I hit it with my front grill, the grill clattering to the pavement. By time I comprehend what has happened, the deer is long gone (I think). I pull over and assess the damage. The grill has been torn off and the hood is dented. Other than that, the Bu is intact. And I'm fine. I breath a quick prayer of impassioned thanks to God. The 911 operator informs me that as long as I've got less than $1,500 in damage and the car is drivable, I don't need to wait for a cop to show up. The damage is mostly cosmetic, but the lack of a front grill makes me nervous. Strike one.

The rest of the drive proves much less eventful. About half an hour later though, I realize I've forgotten something important - my shoes. My rushed and incomplete preparation has come back to bite me. Strike two.

I've got my old trusty sneakers in the car. My two options - turn around and waste a couple tanks of gas and some precious time away from Salt Lake - or press on, hiking in my sneakers. I opt for the second option. They're old and falling apart anyway; it doesn't matter if I ruin them.

Just outside Capitol Reef, I find a quiet dirt road and pull off to spend the night. While getting ready for bed, I realize that I've forgotten my down jacket. I'll be warm enough without it, I think - but just barely.

I wake up the next morning, cruise through the small town of Torrey, and drive to the Capitol Reef visitors center. Capitol Reef is a small operation - almost a mom-and-pop kind of place. The ranger at the desk seems surprised at my proposed itinerary - hiking the upper and lower parts of Spring Canyon in a one-night trip seems, as he puts it, "energetic". He's cool though - he says with a knowing grin, "and I take it you'll find a way back to your car somehow?" I respond affirmatively, and before I leave, he wishes me good luck with my hitchhike.

I drive my car to the lower end of Spring Canyon, where it dumps into the Fremont River, and hitch to the upper trailhead. The route into Spring Canyon is moderately obscure. I follow a creek for a few miles and climb up a greenish-purple hill to a bench above. I hike along the bench and climb through an improbable notch in the Wingate Sandstone cliffs. I follow a steep gully down to the bottom of Spring Canyon. The first couple miles pass slowly. Black volcanic boulders frequently block progress. A couple of dryfalls require short detours. After an hour or so, a large tributary joins from the north and walking becomes much easier.

Red Wingate walls line the canyon for the next eight miles or so. The walking is relatively easy, albeit sandy. A handful of ephemeral springs flow for a few hundred yards before disappearing back into the sand. It's Good Friday, and as I walk along, I sing all the Lenten favorites and pray quietly. I run into a set of cousins visiting from Vermont - they're friendly enough and we chat for a few minutes. I gently point out that they may want to move their tent - it's directly in the bottom of the wash. If a flash flood sweeps through during the night, they have little chance of survival. Afternoon clouds notwithstanding, rain doesn't seem likely - but are they willing to stake their lives on a weather forecast?

My shoes are holding up better than expected, although for the first time in ages I've developed a blister on my big toe. An hour before sunset, I find a sandy bank and throw my sleeping bag down. I eat supper and relax in my sleeping bag, birds chirping their last song of the day as the stars come out one by one.

More fun awaits in the morning. I encounter a short section of narrows - bypassed by a slightly-sketchy trail on the north side of the canyon. The trail is about six inches wide and the dropoff to the right is steep and unforgiving. A fall here would be bad news. The red clay makes for decent footing, though it would be treacherous when wet. Returning to the bottom of the canyon, I poke around in the narrows for a few minutes. It's Holy Saturday, but as I walk downstream, I can't help but breaking out the Easter songs a day early.


The scenery in the lower canyon becomes even more dramatic. Navajo sandstone has replaced the Wingate layer. Navajo is ligher in color and tends to form dramatic arches, towers, and domes. Some of the formations stretch the bounds of plausibility. That sometimes-stream makes a few more appearances along the way. The lighting is harsh and my camera isn't equipped to capture it all. It's beautiful, yes. But this trip is more about the quietness and reflection - indeed the gratitude - of Holy Week. What started off as a chaotic and disjointed adventure has become an opportunity for devotion.

I reach the Fremont around 10:30 AM. I've kept the trusty sneakers dry this whole time, but there's no way to cross the river without taking the plunge. The river's barely knee-deep. I reach the other bank and walk a few hundred yards to my car - safe and sound after the trauma of Thursday night. After a quick burger in Torrey (to be honest, it didn't meet my expectations), I drive back to Salt Lake. No sign of that deer along the roadside.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Wind Rivers: Criss-Crossing the Divide


 
The first pass. Texas Pass. More than two miles above sea level, towering a thousand feet above the Cirque of the Towers below. It's a big pass, but it's not the biggest. It's off-trail, but heavily used. No big deal.

CRACK. I turn around to see Zippy sitting with a bemused expression on his face, holding the two pieces of his trekking pole that's just snapped. We're down to three trekking poles between the two of us, and we need three poles to set up our two shelters. This is not exactly an auspicious start.

Zippy and I were on our second day of the Wind River Fun Route, a route that we created to traverse the length of the most beautiful range in the Rockies, the Wind River Range. Other people had created routes before and we gratefully drew on their work for inspiration. But this was our project. We'd planned it for months and spent countless hours pouring over maps. This was going to be amazing.

Day 1

After a car shuttle, we hiked what seemed like an eternity - a full day, close to twenty miles, just to get into the heart of the range. It was all on-trail, with only occasional glimpses of the alpine terrain that lay ahead. We bumped into an amazing couple - Derek and Michelle, who were doing a different variant on the same route we were doing. It was a fun day, but we knew that the main act had yet to arrive. We camped a mile below the world-famous Cirque of the Towers and watched the sun set over the ridge. The Cirque would be the next day's project.

Day 2

The fun had finally begun. Cirque of the Towers amazed us. Rock spires pierced the sky like a hundred massive spears. Pingora Peak towered sternly over the shimmering waters of Lonesome Lake. And the Cirque marked the true beginning of our hike - off-trail, crisscrossing the Continental Divide, the roof of America, as it were. The weather held up and the sun blazed intensely at this altitude. We crossed Texas Pass and learned the hard way that carbon fiber trekking poles just aren't cut out for adventures like this. We meandered around three massive alpine lakes and took a trail northward - our last trail for a long, long mile. It was a long day but our energy was high. We toured past Pyramid Lake around the north end of the East Fork basin. The East Fork basin, lesser known than Titcomb Basin or Cirque of the Towers, is no less spectacular. Twelve-thousand foot peaks dot the sky in all directions; blue lakes frost the basin bottoms. Oh, and annoying talus guards the slopes of Bonneville-Raid Col.

Bonneville-Raid Col was a sign of things to come. An hour of talus hopping between washing-machine sized boulders slowed us down and soured our attitudes, but the payoff - the view- was more than worth it. On the way down the other side, into Bonneville Basin, we downclimbed a very steep pitch. Zippy knocked a large rock loose, and it tumbled down a little too close for comfort.


Since our energy was still high, we passed the Bonneville Lakes and climbed yet another pass - our third of the day. Steep but grassy, it proved far easier than Bonneville-Raid Col. But scrubby willows choked the lake on the far side of the pass and travel became a little unpleasant. It didn't help, of course, that I was exhausted, probably from not eating enough during the day. We crawled into our shelters on the shores of Lee Lake and fell sound asleep within minutes.

Day 3

The night was cool and starry, and the day dawned perfectly clear. After thrashing our way through more willows, we climbed a steep hillside to Bewmark Lake. While a trail was depicted on the map, we never found one. We passed through another vast alpine basin and climbed to Photo Pass, crossing the Continental Divide for the second time on the trip. We were entering the Wind River Roadless Area, a part of the local Indian Reservation (permits required). If the trail on the south side of the pass was nonexistent, the trail on the north side was really non-existent. We soon dropped into the trees and were tasked with off-trail navigation below treeline- not an easy task. We ended up detouring around a bit, but soon found our bearing and traversed up a series of ramps and shelves, past a couple of cute glacial tarns, to the ridge overlooking Europe Pass.


The ridge was easy walking, but the winds were fierce. At one point, the westerlies blew me off my feet. Faced with another five miles of ridgewalking in high winds and billowing afternoon clouds, we decided to drop back down to lower elevations to avoid the weather. At Europe Pass we headed northward, onto more Reservation Land, following more non-existent trail, to the Milky Lakes.

As we walked down the valley, we dropped in elevation - down under 10,000 feet briefly, the only time on the trip that we were below 10k. Thick underbrush and irritating boulders frequently choked our way, and our below-treeline navigational skills were tested once again. The sun was fading on the western horizon, and this time it was Zippy's turn to crash and burn. We set up camp at the bottom of a valley which is rarely, if ever visited by people. Alone, very alone, in a vast, vast wilderness. I love the Winds.

 
Day 4

We hadn't slept particularly easy overnight. That was partly due to the fact that we had both of our shelters set up on a piece of ground the approximate size of a dollar bill. But in addition to our cramped accomodations, we knew that a navigational challenge awaited - more below-treeline fun.

We packed up and hiked westward up a steep valley, following animal trails and dodging the worst of the underbrush. We paused to admire a series of cascades that tumbled down a charming creek. Had anybody seen this waterfall before? Had anybody stopped to appreciate God's handiwork?

Soon enough we arrived at the top of the valley. We splashed across a lake and found - for the first time in two days, an honest-to-goodness trail. Following it northward, we passed Golden Lake, Lake Louise, and the oh-so-cleverly named Upper Golden Lake. After another mile we reached an unnamed lake, in the shadow of Douglas Peak. We had a choice to make - up and over Douglas Peak Pass, or a detour around.

The only person we knew of who had gone over Douglas Peak Pass is Andrew Skurka - and calling him a "person" may be inaccurate. He's a hiking machine, by far the world's most famous hiker and among the most elite. And Douglas Peak Pass looked steep and, frankly, terrifying. Zippy was game to try it, but I wasn't so sure. We opted for the detour.

In retrospect, the detour was certainly longer than the pass, and not much earlier. We reprised the hopping-over-giant-boulders thing, but this time up a steep hillside choked with trees. Our day did not get easier after lunch, as we entered the much-maligned Alpine Lakes Basin. Wind River hikers apparently talk in hushed tones about Alpine Lakes Basin, and it quickly became apparent why - hours and hours of endless boulder hopping along the shores of three large lakes. Throw in some Class III scrambling, and you have a recipe for half-a-mile-an-hour slogging.

We met a group of people, a rare sight in the Winds, who mentioned that the east side of the upper lake was easier. We had routed ourselves around the west side due to beta we found online, but this group had done it with a dog apparently, so how hard it could it be?


Bad idea. We crossed some sketchy steep talus that threatened to plunge us into icy-cold lake water if we slipped. We traversed several snowfields. And then we hit the crux - a low-end Class V traverse along a tiny shelf with a straight vertical drop into the lake below. We turned around. Two hours - wasted.

Those two hours would have been valuable too, as a storm moved in right as we turned around. Rain, lightning, wind, snow - the whole enchilada. The nearest tree was miles away, and the nearest soil wasn't much closer. Here in the basin, there were just rocks- everywhere. We found the most sheltered spot we could - without much success - and set up camp for the night. We anchored our tent stakes with rocks and built windbreaks with more rocks and hunkered down for a long night, our lightweight shelters flapping in the stiff breeze.

Day 5

It rained and snowed throughout the evening, but eventually overnight, the storm broke up. Another bluebird day was forthcoming. The west side of the lake wasn't easy, but it certainly wasn't as hairy as the east side was. Lesson learned. We filled our water bottles with some glacial meltwater and climbed over Alpine Lakes Pass, our first time over 12,000 feet on the trip.


The scenery blew us away. Glaciers clung to the slopes to our west. Forested valleys, miles away, lay to our east. Smoke from wildfires to our west turned everything a little more whispy, a little more experience. The breeze was pleasant and our spirits were high, having conquered the dreaded Alpine Lakes Basin. We descended down the pass, up the tiny remnants of a glacier, and down a steep grassy hillside. The walking was easy and pleasant.


Then came more uphill. It wasn't hard uphill, but my right Achilles tendon started to tighten up. I tried to ignore it but it grew more painful as we walked farther. I rested it at lunch and loaded up on Vitamin I (for the uninitiated, that's Ibuprophen), but to no avail. By time we descended to the North Fork of Bull Creek, it was howling. It was only 2pm, but I couldn't go any farther.


If there's any place you want to be laid up with an injury, it's the North Fork of Bull Creek. It's got a rotten name, but it might be the most stunning location on the entire route. A panorama of glaciers surrounded us as we looked west, streaming out of the highest peaks in Wyoming. We had a relaxing afternoon, and we'd need it - because tomorrow's objective was Blaurock Pass.


Day 6

Blaurock Pass is daunting on two ankles - on one, it's downright scary. But there was no way to avoid Blaurock - it was the only way out of here. So up and over we went, over (you guessed it) steep, giant talus. A rock jungle doesn't prove particularly pleasant your ankle emits waves of searing pain. We made our way, slowly, to the top of Blaurock. We sat down and enjoyed the amazing views of Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest point. We had a decision to make.


My ankle was only getting worse. We had the time to complete our route, but the next fifteen miles were all above 11,000 feet, exposed to the weather, and featured glacier travel. There's no way I could do it on one ankle. We had, of course, made backup plans, and we knew that at the bottom of Blaurock Pass we could follow a trail all the way out if we had to. So with great reluctance we headed down the pass and onto the trail. Our lunch break confirmed our decision - it stiffened up as we sat, and I could barely hobble on it.

It's never fun having to bail. Gannett Glacier, Grasshopper Glacier, Pedestal and Yukon Peaks, Downs Mountain - these were going to be the highlights of our trip. And instead we were stuck two thousand feet below on a trail - beautiful in its own right, but not the wonderous scenery we were looking forward to.

Day 7

We followed trail the whole day. I moved very slowly, but steadily. Zippy, to his credit, managed not to pull out too much of his own hair over my slow pace. We passed through a massive burn area - dead trees littered the bare ground. Some of their dead cohorts remained standing - for now. We passed several alpine lakes and crossed a massive high plateau - more plains-like than mountainous, its 11,000-foot height notwithstanding. Our backs now to the high peaks, we trudged down an endless series of switchbacks, losing elevation quickly.


One of the benefits of mindless miles is the chance for conversation. We discussed food, gear, food, occupations, food, family history, and food. I still wasn't moving quickly but by end of day, my ankle was feeling a bit better than it had the previous day. We still made the right choice.

Day 8

After a windy night, we got up early the next morning and made a (slow) beeline for the trailhead. As we arrived at the trailhead, we noticed a note under Zippy's windshield wiper - it was from Derek and Michelle, who had arrived at the trailhead the day before. They had traversed the section we skipped due to my ankle - and it apparently was everything it was cracked up to be. The weather held up and allowed them to do the very exposed walk atop the Continental Divide. What a treat!

We piled into the car and drove down to the beginning of the route to complete the car swap and get a cheeseburger in town. As we ate, we reflected on the route that we had just walked - a hundred miles, a week in the wilderness. The most beautiful place either of us had ever been. The most demanding terrain, the most remote, the most magical. I'll be back.


  



Monday, December 19, 2016

2016 - In Review


It was a different sort of year.

Short but Sweet

For various reasons, I didn't have the opportunity to take as many trips in 2016 as I did in the past few years. I don't regret my choices in the slightest (overall 2016 was a terrific year, and not just from an outdoor perspective), but because I took fewer trips, I had to make them count. 

Routes versus Trails

Over the past few years, I've gravitated toward a different sort of hiking. Rather than following defined trails, this choose-your-own-adventure style of hiking uses trails, canyon bottoms, dirt roads, friendly ridges, and cross-country travel to get from Point A to Point B.

2016 was the banner year for this kind of travel. Of the 11 overnight backpacking trips I did this year, only two of them followed trails the whole time. Another two followed well-defined canyons and common travel routes. The remainder, the majority, involved cross-country travel, route-finding, and general exploring. This sense of exploration, the next step in my development as a hiker, has been extremely rewarding.

Not just Backpacking...

Lest you think I'm a one-trick-pony (ok fine, I'm totally a one-trick-pony), I had a very enjoyable year's worth of non-backpacking activity as well. Whether it was finally knocking the Triple Traverse day hike off my list, taking a backcountry avalanche class, car camping in the desert with some friends, I had a great time.

The Measurables

Gear:
  • Hiking shoes destroyed: 3 pair
  • Shoelaces snapped in the backcountry: 6
  • Trekking poles retired: 1 pair (finally - bought them prior to the AT in 2013)
  • Dorky floppy hats worn: 1
  • Fishing rods acquired: 1
  • Fish caught: 2

Trips:
  • Overnight trips: 11
  • Sleeping bag nights: 34 
  • Nights spent under the stars: 14
  • Day hikes: I have no idea
  • Wasatch peaks (10,000+) summited: 12
  • States visited: 3
  • National Parks visited: 2
  • Solo trips:7
  • Trips with friends: 4 
  • Permits required: 2
  • Permits acquired: 1

Highest/Lowest/Fastest/Slowest:
  • Highest point: Granite Peak, 12,799 feet
  • Lowest point: Escalante River, 3800 feet
  • Highest point (metaphorical): Cirque of the Towers, covered in early-season snowfall
  • Lowest point (metaphorical): slipping and sliding through treacherous, sticky mud in Zion National Park
  • Most days spent without seeing a human: 5 
  • Longest waterless stretch: 20 miles
  • Heaviest packweight: 34 pounds (Hayduke Trail)
  • Lightest packweight:7 pounds (Death Hollow)
  • Longest Day: 21 miles, Leidy Peak Loop
  • Shortest Day: 5.5 Miles, Beartooth Fun Route

 Number of times...
  • In zero-visibility situations above treeline: 2
  • Hailed on: 3
  • Snowed on: 1
  • Spat on: 1 (by a llama)
  • Above 12,000 feet: 4
  • Hitchhiking: 6 
  • Picking up hitchhikers: 4
  • Disturbed by goats: 2
  • Disturbed by humans: 1

Enough of the bloviation. Photo time!

In January, I enjoyed a subtle but beautiful hike in Zion, and some treacherous and not-so-subtle mud.


In May, I visited Death Hollow, an instant favorite in the Escalante area.


In June, I completed a loop over Delano Peak in the Tushars of central Utah.


In July, I hiked a sublime route in the eastern Uintas...


 ...and another beautiful route in the central Uintas.
 

In August I did a quick overnighter in the western Uintas...


...and the most amazing trip I've ever taken, the Beartooth Fun Route.

 
In September, I hiked a loop around/over Wind River Peak...


...and a quick-hitter around the perimeter of Brighton Ski Area in the Wasatch.


In October I hiked a section of the Hayduke trail through south-central Utah...

 

...and in November I hiked Little Death Hollow. 


I'd say it's been a good year. I am blessed beyond what I deserve. Happy New Years!