Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017 - In Review

Call it the Year of the Thumb. I think nearly every trip I took involved some hitchhiking. Not on purpose, mind you. Perhaps I've just become more open to considering routes that involve hitchhiking. But hitching allowed me to see some pretty cool things this year.

For the first time, I actually did more trips with friends than I did solo this year. I didn't intend to do it that way, it just kind of happened. And they were great trips! Great friends and great scenery are an unbeatable combination.

On to the stats!

  • Shelters acquired: 1
  • Shelters used: 2
  • Cameras purchased: 1
  • Shoelaces broken: 4

  • Overnight trips: 9
  • Sleeping bag nights: 41
  • Nights spent under the stars: 23
  • States visited: 4
  • National Parks Visited: 5
  • Solo trips: 4
  • Trips with friends: 5
  • Slot canyons hiked: 6

  • Highest point: crest of the Uintas, UT (12,600')
  • Lowest point: Lees Ferry,  AZ (3,400')
  • Highest point (metaphorical): Cruising a ridgeline in the Bear River Range and glissading down a snowfield with friends
  • Lowest point (metaphorical): Discovering that a bear had rendered all my food inedible in the middle of the wilderness
  • Most days spent without seeing a human: 4 (Hayduke Section 7)
  • Longest waterless stretch: 33 miles (Hayduke Section 7)
  • Heaviest packweight: 33 pounds (Hayduke Section 7)
  • Lightest packweight: 7 pounds (Hayduke Section 1)
  • Longest Day: 24 miles (Trans-Zion Traverse)
  • Shortest Day: 7 miles (Spring Canyon)

Number of Times:
  • Picked up while hitchhiking: 11
  • NOT picked up while hitchhiking: 1 (we finally caved and hired a cab) 
  • Car shuttling with friends: 2
  • Packed a stove: 1
  • Packed bear spray: 1
  • Packed a gun: 0
  • Stormed on: 3
  • Drank from a polluted river: 1
  • Got sick from a polluted river: 0
  • Got a suspicious rash from a polluted river: 1

Wildlife Spotted:
  • Moose: 2
  • Bear: 0 (but I heard one)
  • Bison: Hundreds
  • Sasquatch: 1
  • Elk: Dozens
Photo time!

The hiking season got off to a slow start. I didn't take my first trip until March, a quick hitter to Spring Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.

In April, I hiked the first section of the Hayduke Trail, making sure to camp just outside the boundaries of Arches National Park.

In May, I hiked the Trans-Zion Traverse with friends...

...and in June, hiked what I call the "White 'n Bossy Route" in the Bear River Range.

July brought a quick overnighter in Little Cottonwood Canyon... 

...and a wonderful ridgewalk in the east-central Uintas.

In August, I spent the night at White Pine Lake in Little Cottonwoood...

...and embarked on a 12-day trip to the Absaroka Range in Wyoming.

September turned to October while I was hiking Sections 7-9 of the Hayduke Trail and the Paria River.

It was a busy year. In a lot of ways, it was a tough year. I didn't get outside as much as I would have liked. But somehow, I think that will change in 2018. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

In Which a Grizzly Shares My Lunch

The Absarokas don't get a lot of love. To the south lies the magnificent Wind River Range. To the north, the Beartooths. And to the west, Yellowstone National Park.Although the largest single range in the Rockies, the Absarokas often are overlooked, even by people "in the know".

Over the course of three summers, 2015-2017, I explored the Winds, the Beartooths, and the Absarokas in turn. Each trip was a largely off-trail adventure in the very best scenery that the respective ranges offered. Each time, something derailed my plans. In 2015, it was injury. In 2016, it was weather. And in 2017, it was a hungry grizzly. But we'll get to that later.

The plan was straightforward: Drive to the northern terminus of my trip, in Cooke City MT. Hitchhike down to the southern terminus, at Togwotee Pass, Wy. Hike back to my car. I had two weeks off from work to complete the trip, and although I suspected I wouldn't need the full two weeks to do 170 miles, I played it safe. Very little information exists on the Absarokas. I was fairly confident that my route would be impossible at some point - I just didn't know when or where. So to allow for the likelihood of re-routes, mishaps, and weather, I padded my schedule with several extra days.

Day 1

First things first. I had driven to Cooke City the night before, where I would leave my car. I snagged a ride with a 70 year old who lives in an RV, a Danish couple, a couple returning from backpacking Glacier, and a pair of hippies from California. The hitching was generally easy, and by 1:30 in the afternoon, I had arrived at the top of Togwotee Pass (pronounced "TOGA-tee"). I followed a dirt road for a few miles and passed a dude ranch. After following a trail for a couple miles, I split off and began the big climb up to the Continental Divide.

The Divide in the southern Absarokas follows a high, undulating ridge between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. While there's some elevation change, it generally comes just a few hundred feet at a time. The climb up, however, was nasty. The underbrush was rather thick and scratchy, and streams carved deep gorges into the landscape. Steep, loose, and brushy sidehilling is not exactly fun. But no matter, I gained about a thousand feet and made camp on a tiny flat spot just before sunset.

Day 2

I got up early and immediately started climbing again. Although steep, the footing wasn't a problem and before long, I topped out at about 11,300 feet. A thick, smoky haze hung over the landscape, obscuring what would have otherwise been million-dollar views. I followed the Divide eastward, then northward. The ridge in this area took the form of a wide, gently undulating plateau, offering easy walking. Patches of snow and a couple small ponds dotted the landscape. The Absaroka Fun Route was certainly living up to its potential.

Smoke notwithstanding, the sun shone intensely overhead and a relentless wind swept over the wide-open landscape. I sipped water constantly, yet found myself dehydrated all the same. But with views like these, it was impossible to wipe the smile off my face. Midway through the afternoon, I took a small detour to climb Crescent Peak, an 11,300-foot peak whose stark black volcanic rock contrasted sharply with the browns and grays of the surrounding topography. That volcanic rock made a curious sound when stepped on - a resonant ring rather than the expected thunk. I've never seen anything like it.

After my diversion up Crescent Mountain, I continued along the ridge, following the Continental Divide as it twisted and turned its way generally northward. There were a couple of steep spots, but nothing that a little creative routefinding couldn't solve.

A half hour before sunset, I found a little spot protected from the wind at about 10,200 feet. I set up my tent and at supper. As I tied my Ursacks (bite-proof Kevlar food bags) to a tree for the night, I noticed that the OpSaks (odor-proof plastic liner bags) were already starting to fail. I could smell my food, which means that the rest of the animal kingdom could too. I made sure to tie them up a good distance from my shelter and collapsed in bed. A long day, but a great one.

Day 3

The day started off with more ridge-walking along the Divide. I didn't have much time to dally - I had to get to a good place to view the solar eclipse. The AFR was about to coincide with the 2017 eclipse's path of totality.

I went nowhere all morning. Well, I went somewhere, but my route formed a big horseshoe, heading east, then north, then west, all to avoid a deep drainage. After several hours of hiking, I was still within eyeshot of where I had camped the previous night. The scenery continued to impress, though, and I didn't mind taking a roundabout route. Like the previous day, the hiking consisted of fairly level plateaus punctuated by the top end of canyons that I needed to cross. Around 11:00, I topped out on a high ridge with a view to the Tetons to the west. I sat down and waited for the eclipse.

I was initially disappointed. Although the moon was beginning to cover the sun, nothing was happening. Aside from getting really chilly, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. As the coverage of the sun increased, though, a strange twilight fell across the landscape. All of the sudden, the Tetons disappeared from view, and I knew that totality was imminent.

The difference between 99% coverage and 100% coverage is the difference between between night and day - literally. Although totality lasted only about a minute where I was, it was surreal. Stars came out. A brilliant orange twilight occupied the horizon in all directions. And I watched the Sun's corona with fascination. My photos turned out terribly. I like it that way. It's a memory that I'll never, ever, lose.

Thoroughly  chilled to the bone, I hoisted my pack and continued onward. I skirted another 11,300 foot peak and noticed, to my surprise, three people near the summit. I crossed yet another high plateau, filled with snowfields and dropped into a small canyon.. After lunch, I ran into the three guys I had seen earlier. They were veteran Absaroka hikers and offered a couple of helpful route tips. I hadn't expected to see anybody out here, but were three guys in their sixties, doing a week-long trip in one of the most remote areas in the lower 48. If I'm half that cool in thirty years, I'll be a happy man.

Here the terrain changed dramatically. I left behind the wide-open plateaus and the Continental Divide and entered higher, steeper, and more glaciated terrain. I followed a trail briefly over Marston Pass and entered the South Fork of the Yellowstone drainage. Above me towered Younts Peak and the Thorofare, the two most remote mountains in the Lower 48 as measured by distance from a road. As I climbed up to the saddle between the two peaks, I noticed grizzly bear prints everywhere. Bears head up to talus-covered slopes in the late summer and autumn in order to feed on army cutworms, a species of moth that hides in talus and scree.

To my surprise, I found a decent trail at the top of the pass and followed it down the North Fork of the Yellowstone. The only suitable campsite in the area was right next to the raging river, and I endured a very damp and drippy night.

Day 4

After following the North Fork for a mile, I headed up a side drainage, paralleling a deep, rocky gorge. After a short 200-foot climb over a 10,600-foot saddle, I dropped steeply down a narrow, snow-filled canyon into the upper Thorofare drainage. Supposedly there's a decent outfitter trail around there somewhere, but I couldn't find it and endured a fairly horrendous bushwhack down a side stream until I eventually found the trail where the stream joined the main Thorofare drainage.

A trail! I'd only had a couple miles of it the entire trip, and it was refreshing to shut the brain off and cruise for a while. I noticed a large yellow tent in the bushes in the upper drainage, but other than that, saw nobody.After a couple of hours, I left the Thorofare and headed north on-trail toward Butte Creek. The trail sees heavy horse traffic and was well-marked, if a bit uneven underfoot. The two thousand foot climb sapped me of the last bit of energy I had. As soon as I got down into Butte Creek, I started looking for campsites.

And presto! An outfitter camp. The Absarokas see heavy visitation from hunters in the fall, and dozens of outfitters cater to the hunters. They set up camps in the backcountry with tents, meals, and whatever else a trophy hunter from Connecticut might need. It's a big business. I came upon a camp not currently in use. It was a clear and level piece of ground and had convenient stumps to sit on. This would be my campsite for the evening. I hung my food bags a few hundred yards away and went to bed, exhausted.

Around midnight I woke up to pee, and heard something out there. A bit nervous, I grabbed my bear spray and headlamp and clambered out of my tent. I yelled a couple times, shone my headlamp around. No sound. Probably an elk or something. I'd had several elk and deer walk by my campsites on this trip.

Day 5

I woke up ravenously hungry. After four days on trail, my body had started to protest the calorie deficit it was running. I had been too tired to eat much the night before, and I needed food NOW. I sauntered over to get my Ursacks...

...and something was definitely wrong.

Ursacks are normally white. But mine were brown. And wet and smelly. The tree they were tied to was denuded of bark. And sure enough, the weave had separated in tooth-like patterns.

That animal I'd heard last night? A grizzly.

Ursack should really hire me as a spokesman. I had two Ursacks, and both of them survived a grizzly encounter. I cannot say the same for my food however. I opened the Ursacks to find all of my food completely mangled and saturated with bear slobber. Completely inedible. Ursacks, you see, protect bears from your food. They don't protect your food from a bear. That was the OpSak's job - the OpSaks that had failed on Day 2.

As I sorted through my drippy food to look for anything salvagable, I kicked myself. I should have known better than to camp in an established campsite that had probably hosted delicious cooking smells regularly for years. I should have noticed the bear claw marks on several trees in this camp. I should have picked an out-of-the-way spot to sleep. I knew exactly why I hadn't, of course - I was tired last night and off my game. I hadn't been in any danger - I had stored my food away from where I was sleeping - but still, I never should have camped here in the first place. And the worst part - I still hadn't ever seen a dang bear!

I sat down to evaluate my options. I had no edible food. Forty of the toughest miles separated me and the resupply box I'd mailed myself. Bailout time.

Before I bailed, though, I scampered up the next pass on my planned route. I was pleased to see that it was in fact passable, and that a faint trail led around some cliff bands down the north side. Dejected, I headed back down to the trail, crested Deer Creek Pass, and headed down the east side, away from the crest of the range, my intended route, where I should be. The trail was okay - still horse-impacted, but very obvious and well-graded. I made quick miles, the oppressive heat notwithstanding.

For the first time on the trip, it clouded up in the afternoon. A little thunder started to rumble. The wind picked up and sprayed misted around. It had been so hot that the cooldown felt wonderful. I reached a stream crossing and paused for a moment, trying to find a crossing that would keep my feet dry.

"The HEEEEEL are YOU doing?"

I turned to find a horsepacker who had caught up to me. He was an older guy - 72 years old, he proudly told me. I'd seen his tent a few days prior in the Thorofare, along with one of his six horses. Why somebody needs six horses to head into the backcountry, I'll never understand. He was a funny guy, full of personality. We chitchatted for a few minutes and I tried to yogi a ride from him once he got to the trailhead. No luck - he didn't take the bait. My new friend Bill wished me luck and rode ahead.

Waiting for a hitch down a dead-end dirt road in a thunderstorm is not my idea of fun. So I put on my "shoppers walk", as my mother would put it, and busted down the trail at 3.5 miles an hour. If I got lucky, perhaps Bill would still be packing up his stuff when I got to the trailhead.

I nearly kept up with him, arriving at the trailhead maybe 15 minutes after he did. He seemed surprised to see me and remarked that if he knew I was going to be so close behind him, he would have offered me a ride to town. Success! So I helped him pack all his stuff into the truck and hopped in.

The horses, of course, didn't take well to being shoved in his trailer, and promptly started fighting. So out the horses came. One of them had been kicked and was bleeding fairly substantially. I grabbed his first aid kit and bandaged up the horse with a little gauze, duct tape, and triple antibiotic. That's my first and hopefully last time moonlighting as a veterinarian.

Bill is a really swell guy. He moved out to Cody forty years ago, from Howell, MI, and never found a reason to move back. It was a long ride into Cody, but time passed quickly, and he kindly dropped me off right in front of the outfitter.

After hitting the outfitter and the Pizza Hut buffet, I wandered town, looking for a place to spend the night. The dumpy motor lodge was full, the Super-8 was going for $189/night, and the campground's office had closed a few minutes before I arrived. So I wandered the campground for a few minutes, found a happy drunk couple and made friends. Soon enough I was tenting on their site and sipping a couple Budweisers - all in exchange for entertaining them with tales of adventure. I took the opportunity to wash my stuff (including the nasty Ursacks) and went to bed, full, happy, and very blessed. Tomorrow I needed to get out of town, hitch to the dude ranch where I had mailed my resupply box, and get back on-trail.

Day 6

I rolled out of bed early, left a nice note for Happy Drunk Couple, and headed up to Walmart to buy a couple things. It was a decent walk to Wally World, and I snagged a couple of Five Dollar Footlongs at the in-house Subway. I'm sure the employee there didn't expect to make a pair of Chicken Teryakis at 6am, but oh well. After another long roadwalk, I finally reached the outskirts of town and found an ideal hitching spot. There was a nice paved pull-off there and plenty of traffic so I figured it wouldn't take long to get a ride.

Boy, was I wrong! I got there at 8:00 and hung out my thumb. Nine o'clock rolled around and nobody stopped. Ten o'clock... still nothing. I waited until 11:00, a solid three hours, before a nice couple gave me a pity hitch. Future thru-hikers - don't stop in Cody. It's a black hole whose event horizon you simply can't escape.

I swung by the dude ranch and grabbed my resupply box. The owner is an absolute sweetheart. She held my box, offered me lemonade and lunch, and told me to make myself comfortable for as long as I liked. For a deep wilderness trip, this journey had certainly involved a lot of wonderful human interaction! I packed up all my food, slid her a few bucks as a thank-you and took off around 1:00.

I stopped by a different dude ranch and asked about trail conditions up my intended route, Gunbarrel Creek. The owner informed me that the trail no longer existed and that the entire area had burned badly a couple years ago, rendering the terrain impassible. I had suspected that Gunbarrel might not be doable. So I hitched a couple miles up the road and started hiking up Grinnell Creek.

The trail proved excellent - well-marked, smooth, flat, and fast. I made good progress all afternoon and set up camp on the only clear piece of ground I could find. A brief rainstorm pitter-pattered me to sleep.

Day 7

Turns out that hiking a quarter mile farther would have been a good idea. A few minutes after breaking camp, I stumbled across another unoccupied outfitter camp. This one, though, had a metal bear box to store food in. Could have saved myself the hassle of bear bagging last night! Oh well, onward.

The outfitter camp was significant for another reason, too - beyond the camp, the trail barely existed. It clearly hadn't been maintained in a decade, and the trail was almost impossible to find, much less follow. Sigh. Another bushwhack. I spent the next several hours schwackpacking through dense brush, over downed trees, through marshy areas with knee-deep water. You know, the kind of thing they put on the cover of Backpacker magazine.

Three frustrating hours later, I emerged from the trees and made a beeline for a pass that would dump me a high alpine basin where I knew there would be trail. I climbed the pass relatively quickly, perhaps more quickly than I should have. But when I crested the pass, I looked to my west and saw a million pickup sticks.

The summer of 1988 was a brutal one. Wildfires burnt a third of the Yellowstone area with ferocious intensity. The Park Service had suppressed fires in the park for a century, allowing dense, dead underbrush to accumulate that would have otherwise burned off due to natural wildfire activity. So when the fires of 1988 started, they burned hot. So hot, in fact, that they sterilized the soil in many areas of the park and killed all the seeds that otherwise germinate after fires. Biologists estimate that many of those areas will take a couple hundred years to recover.

All of this to say that the Silvertip Basin was completely torched, thirty years after the fact. Not a single tree was standing; everything was knocked over, gray, and dead. Progress, once again, slowed to a literal crawl.

A couple of tedious miles later, I reached an above-treeline area where the walking became much easiesr. The clouds moved in though, and it began to rain sideways. I headed for the nearest clump of (living) trees, and to my surprise, found another outfitter camp, complete with bearbox and knocked-over mining cabin. I set up my shelter, threw my food in the bear box, and listened to the rain.

After maybe an hour, the rain let up. It was only 5:00 and I considered pressing on. However, the next five miles were all above treeline and very exposed to the elements. Considering the shaky weather, I did not want to get caught above treeline in bad weather, especially at dusk or overnight. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to stay there for the night and catch up on my calorie deficit. The decision to stay in Silvertip Basin turned out to be a wise one for multiple reasons.

Day 8

I woke up, rolled out of my sleeping bag, and winced. It was back.

Over the course of my hiking career, I've dealt with recurring issues with my left Achilles tendon. It generally complains after I put too much stress on it in a particular day. If caught early, it's fairly manageable - just take it easy for a day or two, walk at one mile an hour all day, and it'll be fine the next day. If I try to ignore it or refuse to baby it, however, it quickly becomes completely unbearable and makes walking impossible. It turns out that crawling over eighteen trillion fallen trees is really hard on an Achilles, and I knew that today was going to be a slow, slow day. I was instantly glad that I hadn't pushed it farther the previous day - if I had, who knows how bad of shape I'd be in today.

I found the trail, an old mining track, and followed it to near a 10,700 foot pass. There was an impediment to travel, however - a gigantic snowbank on a steep slope. I gingerly (on a bad ankle I remind you) climbed up the steep, loose mountainside, around the snowfield, and back down to the track. It proved a bit sketchy and made me really glad to be back on trail. The entire endeavor took about half an hour to go fifty feet. I was glad to be doing it in the morning, rather than racing weather and impending darkness the night before.

I followed the mining track for a couple more miles, over another pass. A little smoke hung over the mountains, but the sun shone brightly. I bumped into a half dozen guys on horseback. They asked if I'd seen any bears - of course I hadn't, but they had. Typical. I took a five minute break every twenty five minutes in order to avoid overworking my bum ankle.

I descended to Sunlight Creek, past a couple dozen ATV'ers. I followed the trail westward, paralleling the creek. The trail was very nearly flat, but dozens of blowdowns blocked forward progress. I gingerly climbed over, under, and around them. At some point I had a Sasquatch encounter. It might have been a bear, but more likely a moose or an elk. It was big and dark and I could barely see it through the trees.

After soaking my feet in the stream for a few minutes, I followed the trail away from the stream and up a side canyon. I had about two thousand feet to climb to get up to the main Absarokas crest. I decided to do a thousand feet tonight, and a thousand feet tomorrow. My Achilles tolerated the climb relatively well, and I settled in to a beautiful campsite just a mile or two from the Yellowstone border.

Day 9

What a day! I woke up to an ankle that felt nearly 100%. The final thousand feet to the crest passed quickly, and I found myself on the spine of the Absarokas in the early morning light. What a treat! I followed a trail northward along the crest for a few miles.

Just south of Hoodoo Peak, the trail took a turn to the west and headed down a canyon into the park. I, on the other hand, continued along the ridge. The climb up to Hoodoo Peak proved rather interesting. Soft sedimentary formations, reminiscent of southern Utah, dotted the landscape and formed steep draws that were a pain to clamber in and out of. It took a little poking around, but eventually I found a flank of the mountain that offered a doable path to the summit. I arrived at the 10,400-foot summit around mid-morning. Continuing northward, I climbed a few other bumps in the ridge before dropping quickly to Bootjack Gap.

After a quick lunch, I climbed north out of Bootjack Gap, still following the crest up an unnamed 10,200-foot peak. I had been fearing this climb for a while, and it turned out to be as sketchy as I'd thought it'd be. Perhaps I just wasn't in a good mental place, but the terrain made me very cautious about steep-and-loose volcanic crap for the rest of the trip. The rest of the afternoon proved fairly easy - cruising the gentle ridge to Canoe Lake. I watered up at Canoe Lake, walked a hundred yards to the east (to ensure I was camping on Forest Service land, rather than on National Park land), and fell into bed.

Day 10

Another beautiful morning. I rolled out of camp a little late and resumed the ridgewalk. As I journeyed northward, the ridge took on a more alpine characteristic. It was narrower, steeper, and each little bump was higher than the previous one. Many peaks looked impossible, but up-close, I found ways to skirt or summit all of them. I paused for a few minutes to watch a huge herd of elk pass. Each time I saw elk, they always ran westward, into the National Park. You wouldn't expect wild animals to understand the nuances of American land management policy, but here they were, running to where they knew they'd be safe from hunters.

The size of my smile increased with the elevation. Here I was, way off-trail, way above Yellowstone, on the crest of the mighty Absarokas, and I was having a blast. I had studied my maps carefully and had made note of each potential bailout point, should the ridge prove impassible. I had heard whispers that somebody, years before, might have actually hiked the entire ridge, but it was just a rumor.

Perhaps the rumor is true. Perhaps the entire ridge is hikable. But I came across a very small bump on the ridge - perhaps 30 feet tall, too insignificant to even show up on a topo map. But there was no easy way around. I tried going right over the top - cliffy. I tried the west side - steep and loose. I tried the east side - doable, but very high consequences on terrain that wasn't exactly rock-solid.

The east side was passable. I felt confident that I could do it. And I knew that, should the ridge farther north prove impassible, I could always reverse my route safely.

And yet I turned around.

I know that hiking involves risk. Hiking alone involves more risk. Hiking alone, off-trail - doubly so. And I made a promise to my family and to myself, years ago, that I would never do something that I couldn't tell them about with a clean conscience. This thirty-foot section, though doable, represented an escalation of commitment that would be inconsistent with that promise I had previously made. It wasn't even a question - I had decided my level of risk tolerance before this trip. And now, in the moment, as much as I wanted to push on, I knew what the right thing to do was.

So I backtracked a half mile. I descended a very steep two thousand feet into an unnamed drainage. And I encountered the worst burn area yet.

Nothing was alive. Nothing was upright. A fire had obviously swept through here years before and killed everything. Trees lay scattered everywhere. Seven miles of tedium lay between me and the nearest trail. I picked my way slowly downstream, searching in vain for a suitable campsite. I finally found a meadow that wasn't covered in downed trees and set up camp in a grove of stinging nettles. Not ideal, but I had no good options.

Day 11

I got an early start and immediately returned to the full-contact hiking I'd been doing the previous day. The going was slow but by late morning I had reached an honest-to-goodness trail, my first in several days. It's amazing how fast a trail feels after having been off-trail for so long. I made good time as clouds periodically dropped a few sprinkles. I climbed Republic Pass, the last of the trip. At the top of the pass, I paused for a few minutes and looked over the mountains stretching endlessly to the south. I gazed north at the Beartooths, where I had been the previous year.

The trail north of the pass was beautiful. The fire had obviously burned the south side of the pass, but not the north side. I walked through a wonderful green forest over more easy trail. The six miles to Cooke City seemed to take forever. I reached my car around 6pm, got some good food and drink, and celebrated another terrific hike.


In some ways, the Absarokas Fun Route was a disappointment. For the third straight year, I took an ambitious trip into the trailless environs of the greater Yellowstone. For the third straight year, I was unable to complete my intended route.

But a trip like this never goes as planned, for one reason or another. I spent a week and a half in some of the wildest, most remote, most beautiful country in the lower 48. I experienced the kindness of strangers and hopefully showed a little of my own. I watched a total solar eclipse - a once-in-a-lifetime event, in a once-in-a-lifetime place. I saw grizzly tracks, glaciers, distant vistas, bubbling stream, and crystal-clear tarns. I pioneered a route that holds great promise for the enterprising hiker. If that's failure, I'll take it.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Brief Interludes of Sanity

 I've been very busy with church stuff and I'm working 70+ hours per week. Outdoor time is a distant third priority right now.

I need to slow down and get outside. Fortunately, it's the perfect time of year for that. The trips aren't long, but they're worth so much more than the time I put into them.

Micro-adventure #1: The White 'n Bossy Route. 

Like all my good ideas, and most of my bad ones too, this route was concieved while noodling around on Caltopo. White Pine Lake (the one up near the Idaho border, not the one near Salt Lake) is a popular lazyman's backpacking destination. But the ridge behind it was what really fascinated me. We tramped overland from the lake and up the head of an alpine basin.

The climb up to the ridge proved to be a bit of a lungbuster, but once up there, we encountered rolling terrain along the crest of the Bear River Range. 

We encountered just enough snow to do a little glissading.

And oh my, the views.

Micro-adventure #2: Catherine Pass

Can fun be fun-sized? With many members of the Fast 'n Dangerous Hiking Crew working late on a Friday night, it was time to turn to Plan B. Plan A had involved 3 miles and 2,000 vertical feet of hiking, which is a tad ambitious if you don't get to the trailhead until 8:00PM. Plan B turned out to be lovely though.  

About a mile from the road in the upper part of Little Cottonwood Canyon, there's a wonderful little meadow that offers camping in a picturesque spot. With such a short hike planned, luxuries like a stove (gasp!) and a couple of refreshing beverages wormed their way into my backpack. 

Plan B continued to impress the next morning.

 It was just a hop, skip, and a jump up to Catherine Pass.

A side trip up Mt Tuscarora yielded some outstanding views.

Two weeks. Two quick trips. Two quick bursts of reality in an otherwise chaotic world.

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.