Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Twisting Mules (Part 2)

If Upper Muley Twist Canyon was spectacular, Lower Muley was even more so. I met my friend Corona Sam, who had previously secured our permits, down south on Friday night. After camping high on Boulder Mountain, we got an early start Saturday morning, heading south into Lower Muley.

Within a couple of miles, we dropped into a narrows in the canyon, with distinctive red rock. We noticed that the recent heavy rains had left their mark in the canyon - there was fresh debris strewn as high as eight feet above the canyon. But the highlight of Lower Muley is the huge alcoves that water has carved into the sandstone. Some of the alcoves were several hundred feet deep. 

The trail meandered another seven miles south before finally merging with Halls Creek. At that point, we turned north and followed Halls Creek upstream. Of course, the term "creek" doesn't mean that there was any water at all in the drainage. There was, however, a patina of slippery, sticky clay-mud on the creek bottom which was impossible to walk on without skidding. It was a hot hike, in the full sunlight. We camped in a location that's absolutely definitely 100% legal, please don't ask me where.  

The next day, Corona roadwalked a few miles (for which I ragged on him mercilessly) back to the car, while I took a supposedly sketchy overland route over the canyon rim and back into Lower Muley. There was a little bit of exposure, but it wasn't so bad... once I found the trail. Of course, the problem was finding the trail. Segue to...

Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week. I've been using a free website ( to create map packs for my hikes. They allow me to carry just the maps I need, and to zoom in to whatever degree is necessary for effective navigation. Save the map packs as PDFs, and print them. On this particular hike, I had a larger-scale overview map, as well as detailed maps covering the entire route...

Except a very small slice. The slice that led from our entirely legal campsite over the rim back into the canyon. The same place I got off-track on, resulting in scrampbling up and down sketchy slickrock, only to get cliffed out after an hour and backtrack to the surely legal campsite to start the whole thing over again. Utterly Impractical Hiking Item goes to me. Sadface.

All photos - Tracy Martin

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Twisting Mules (Part 1)

In the latter part (haha, get it?) of the 19th century, groups of Mormons were sent out from Salt Lake City to explore and populate remote parts of the greater Utah region. One group was sent to the Four Corners area, in southeastern Utah. In their way was the Waterpocket Fold, a huge ripple in the Earth's crust. The rock layers on the west side of an ancient fault line are several thousand feet above the same rock layers on the eastern side of the fault line. At the eastern edge of the Waterpocket Fold, therefore, is a large vertical escarpment - a significant obstacle to a team of horses, wagons, and settlers.

After much searching, the settlers found a way to descend the east side of the Waterpocket Fold - through a skinny, winding canyon. They named it Muley Twist Canyon - a canyon narrow enough "to twist a mule". 

Photo - Justin Swanson

This fall, I took a couple trips down to Muley Twist with friends - one to the upper part of the canyon, and another to the lower part. This post concerns the hike through Upper Muley.

My friend Justin and I left Salt Lake on Friday evening and drove down to the Boulder, Utah area. We camped high on Boulder Mountain (at around 9,000 feet). A warm sleeping bag is a necessity up that high in late September. We got up the next morning, waded through some red tape to get our permits, and headed along the extremely scenic Burr Trail road into the Waterpocket Fold district of Capitol Reef National Park. We got started hiking around mid-morning.

Unfortunately, there's no reliable water in Upper Muley, so we each carried around 4 liters for the 2 day round trip. Upper Muley has plenty of arches, and the miles passed quickly when we weren't stopping to take pictures. A particular highlight was the impressive Saddle Arch, where we also found a pothole of pristeen water from the recent monsoons.

Photo - Justin Swanson

It got fairly warm in the canyon as we continued upward. we stopped in a couple side canyons to get some shade and take some photos. I'm sure there were many more arches that we didn't even see.

Finally, at the top of the canyon, Lower Muley turned into a slot before disappearing entirely. We explored the slot for a while. The different colors of the rocks were breathtaking.

Time to play everyone's favorite game - avoid the muddy water! Photo - Justin Swanson

After the slot, we climbed out of the canyon on a decently sketchy cairned route. The ascent was a steep slickrock endeavor, and there were a couple of no-fall zones sprinkled in, just to increase the adventure factor. But once we got onto the canyon rim, the views were spectacular. The canyon rim also serves as the eastern edge of the Waterpocket Fold. To the east was the canyon we had just climbed out of, and to the west was a huge gulch, innumerable mesas, and the Henry Mountains. 

We found another clean pool of water up on the rim, and hiked for a few hours before making camp on the rim. Our campsite that evening was simply outstanding. Fifty yards to the west was the dropoff into Upper Muley; fifty yards to the east was the Gulch and the western edge of the Waterpocket Fold. It was a warm, pleasant evening. 

The next morning we watched a phenomenal sunrise over the Henry Mountains. It was a short couple of hours to drop back into the canyon and retrace our steps back to the car.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Gear Review: High-tech Handwear

There are very few articles of clothing I always bring with me on a backpacking trip. In the summer, I may skip the pants. In the winter, the short sleeve shirt is pretty pointless. But regardless of season, there’s one item that always comes with me:

My green sparkle gloves.

These gloves are priceless. They’re lightweight. They’re breathable and my hands don’t sweat inside them. They don’t melt when exposed to DEET. They do a fine job of shedding the wind. And they even allow me the dexterity to do most tasks while wearing them. Yes, fine gloves indeed.

But the best part, of course, is that they’re green and sparkly. It’s a fun little reminder not to take myself too seriously. The gear on my back may cost almost a third of what my car is worth, but my humble green sparkle gloves were bought on clearance in the children’s section of K-Mart. They set me back a buck fifty. Literally.

And the best part – when you inevitably post-hole in the soft winter snow, you look like even more of doofus with green sparkle gloves!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Enjoy the Jerny

Oh how quickly time passes! In July of 2013, I got off the trail at a random road crossing in southern Maine. I had battled injury and terrible weather in the south. I had pushed myself to the limit of my capabilities racing across the mid-Atlantic. I had battled the tough terrain, on a gimpy ankle, through New England. I wouldn’t change a thing. I was worn out and hurting, but incredibly disappointed for having to quit on the home stretch.

I’ve learned and grown a lot over the past year. My ankle is mostly healthy again, my pack weight has dropped by 50 percent, I’ve expanded my skill set, and if anything, my love of hiking and the outdoors has actually increased. So maybe it’s not entirely surprising that my return to the AT this year felt a little… tame. I had hiked nearly 2,000 miles. I had tackled the toughest terrain on the trail. I had undergone the full thru-hiker experience. I had been there, done that. And besides, I’ve been spoiled by the spectacular scenery of the West. Would I really enjoy walking through the green tunnel all day?

Immediately, upon my return to Maine, it became apparent that my attitude couldn’t be more wrong. First off, Maine was beautiful. Beautiful by any standards. Several peaks reached above treeline. Enormous ponds (lakes, really) dotted the lowlands. Evidence of glaciation was abundant.

Even more importantly, though, being on the AT got me back into thru-hiker mode, which I’ve missed since getting off the trail last year. It’s impossible to get the feel of a true journey on a weekend hike, or even a week-long hike. My section on the AT this year was part of something bigger, something that started a year and a half, and two thousand miles ago. I shared a sort of comradery with this year’s class of thru-hikers. I felt that north was forward, south was in the past, and east and west were mere diversions, or at best, means to an end. I now realize how poignant my words were, that I wrote after concluding my hike in 2013:

I just want to know what’s around the bend. I want to climb to the top of Avery Peak, Saddleback, Bigelow, and most importantly, Katahdin. But more than all of that, I want the hiking life. I love the freedom, the independence, the simplicity, the importance, of life on the trail. Some people were counting down the miles until their hikes ended. Not me.

Next year, Lord willing, I will conclude my journey by hiking from Monson, ME to Katahdin, passing through the Hundred Mile Wilderness and summitting what the Penobscot tribe called “Greatest Mountain”. But although it will be the end of my time on the AT, the journey will continue. What’s next?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Weekend Wanderings

Quick and dirty details -

Destination - High Uintas, Middle Basin
Dates - August 7-9, 2014
Miles - 35ish, including 5 miles off-trail

Sometimes you just need to get away. I threw this weekend trip together at the last minute. I stopped at the store on my way home from work, grabbed a map and pointed to a random place, packed my stuff, and headed off to the Uintas for the weekend. It was a smashing success. I even went swimming!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Life Elevated

(Note - this post comprises the second half of my big western adventure this summer. I hiked the Uinta Highline Trail with a group of AT veterans. For part one of this series, click here. For Corona Sam's account of our trip, click here)

Each mountain range has a unique character. The Whites are steep, rocky, and wind-scoured. The Wasatch are cut by deep, distinctive canyons. The Tetons are improbably jagged. And the Uintas are home to expansive basins, punctuated by red ridgelines.

This would be our rhythm for the next days. We (Griz, Sherpa, Corona, and I) camped at the base of a given pass, crossed the pass early the following morning, and hiked through the next basin to reach the base of the next pass. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a rhythm that gets in your blood. The trail almost seems to have its own internal metronome, ticking off passes every 10-15 miles. It imparts a unique simplicity to life that isn’t often found in the world of meetings, traffic lights, panhandlers, and ringing phones.

We got an early start on Tuesday morning, knowing that we had a three-hour drive just to get to the trailhead. The trail started in a lodgepole pine forest, and for a few miles I was afraid that most of the hike would consist of meaningless miles under a generic forest canopy. But, after a couple hours, we started to climb. Soon we reached treeline, and had our first views down into those expansive basins of the Uintas. I had been at high elevation for the better part of a week, but the other guys were not used to the thin air yet. The first pass, North Pole Pass, was challenging for all of us. There’s not too much oxygen at 12,200 feet, especially when you’re packing six days of food. We also had our first experience with the afternoon thunderstorm pattern. Due to having driven three hours to the trailhead, we were still finishing up lunch atop the pass when the billowing clouds started to roll in. We were all too happy to scamper down below treeline after one particularly loud crack of thunder just about blew our socks off.

The evening was rather delightful. We set up our tents by an alpine lake, built a fire, and Sherpa and Griz went fly fishing. I took the opportunity to take some neat sunset pictures. The lake was glassy-calm, and provided picture-perfect reflections of a nearby mountain. Due to the mosquitos, it was an early bedtime.

Knowing that the day’s hike was entirely below treeline, we meandered out of camp around 8:00. The hike was marshy in spots, but we made good time, and were within a few miles of the evening’s camp by time lunch rolled around. I absolutely hate carrying any more water than I absolutely have to, so I was hiking dry. I remarked to Griz, “What do you say we lunch at the next water source?”

Sure enough, within five minutes, Corona pointed out a cheery stream trickling across the trail. I took a quick look at it, didn’t like what I saw, and kept walking. Since we’re all thru-hikers, and refuse to backtrack for any reason, as soon as I walked by it, there was no turning back. Which is rather unfortunate, actually, because we started to climb some inconsequential knoll. A knoll that didn’t have water. And lasted forever. Thirty minutes later, we caved, and had a dry lunch at the top of the aforementioned rise. I’ve been banned from ever choosing a water source, ever again.

After a couple more hours of hiking, we made camp in Painter Basin. The mosquitos were particularly ravenous at 11,000 feet, at the cusp of timberline. Just ahead was Anderson Pass, the highest point on the trail at 12,700’.

The next morning, we were hiking by 6PM. The weather was forecasted to be dicey for the next three days, and we wanted to be over the pass before the storms rolled in. By this time, I was in terrific high-altitude shape, having been above 8,000 feet for a full week. Anderson Pass was long, but fairly gradual, and before I knew it, I was at the top. A couple minutes later the other guys joined me at the top. Kings Peak is a mere .8 miles from the trail, so I took the opportunity to summit it. The others pushed on, and I told them I’d see them in camp that evening. I summited Kings at about 9:00, took a couple quick pictures, and got off the mountain in a hurry, as the clouds were already starting to build. I had the summit to myself. However as I was headed down, I met several large groups of Boy Scouts (of course!) heading uphill. I warned them that the weather was falling apart, but they pushed on anyway. I arrived back at the pass, picked up my pack, and started descending down the west side. Sure enough, a half hour later, a storm moved in over Kings, and lightning started striking the peaks in the area. I’m sure that if someone had been struck by lightning, we would have heard about it in the news. But don’t ask me how all those people managed to avoid getting zapped. Given its popularity, it’s really a wonder that more people don’t die on Kings.

I headed across Yellowstone (no, not that Yellowstone) Basin, as the clouds continued to boil above me. The area offered scant tree cover, and much of it was entirely above the timberline. I hustled, hiking at three miles an hour in order to beat the deteriorating weather. Right as I got to the top of Tungsten Pass (more of a high spot than an actual mountain pass), it started to rain. I scurried down the back side of the pass, took a side trail downhill for a quarter mile, and finally found some protection in the trees. I waited out a storm under a particularly lush pine tree, and hiked on to find Sherp, Griz, and Corona. They had set up camp at North Star Lake, a wonderful lake above treeline at 11,400’.

I practiced casting a fly-rod with Sherpa for a while, and then set my tent up while a thunderstorm passed. I felt pretty uncomfortable with spending the night above treeline, given the weather condition, and I resolved to camp in a more sheltered spot for the night. But it didn’t stop raining. Around 6PM, the wind started to pick up. Throughout the evening, it got stronger and stronger. My tent is designed to use natural protection from the elements. It’s certainly not designed to withstand 50 MPH sustained winds and driving rain for hours on end. Eventually, the wind, whipping the tent, shook condensation from the walls onto my sleeping bag- it was raining inside my tent. As the wind got stronger and stronger, I realized that my tent simply wasn’t going to keep me dry all night. Around 10:30, the situation was deteriorating. I swallowed my pride, donned my raingear, and ran through the dark, wind and rain to Sherpa’s tent. As I’m sure you can imagine, he was absolutely thrilled to have a wet, smelly dude barge into his tent uninvited in the middle of the night. Mercifully, the rain and wind subsided by about 4AM, after a 13-hour storm. Sherpa, I owe you one.

The next morning, we swapped horror stories of the previous night, and banned Corona from choosing campsites forevermore.

It was a particularly gloomy and cool day. However, given the instability of the weather, the lack of solar heating probably kept the storms at bay, and it merely sprinkled from time to time. We went up and over Porcupine Pass and down the west side, just like every day. Unique for a protected wilderness area, the High Uintas Wilderness still permits grazing in some areas. We ran into an enormous herd of sheep. And of course, sheep are notoriously stupid. As we hiked west through the Lambert’s Meadow area, the sheep kept running away from us, to the west, where we were headed. The bleating of a herd of sheep is almost as irritating as the yammering of a herd of Boy Scouts in the backcountry. After 20 minutes of this nonsense, we started baa-ing back at the sheep. Hiker delirium is real, folks!

 A few hours later, we came upon a bizarre phenomenon, which could be called a “blowdown throwdown”. A fire had ripped through the area rather recently, weakening the trees. We probably crawled over, under, and around fifty blowdowns in a single mile. It was obvious that several of those trees had been blown over in the previous night’s windstorm. The wind had absolutely splintered those trees. I said a prayer of thanks; that was one nasty storm and we all made it OK. That evening, I took great care to select a very sheltered campsite. I’m not making that mistake again! The area was still so wet from the previous evening’s deluge that Sherpa and I couldn’t even keep a fire going.

The next morning we got up and were hiking at the crack of dawn. This would be our biggest day, with two major passes to cross. We had a bit of trouble finding the trail approaching Red Knob Pass, so we simply trekked cross-country until we found it again. Red Knob pass was undoubtedly our most beautiful pass so far, and the day would only get better from there. The weather was gorgeous and the views into the surrounding basins were surreal. We dropped briefly into Dead Horse basin and hiked past Dead Horse Lake. Up ahead was – you guessed it – Dead Horse Pass. Dead Horse Pass rates fairly highly on my sketchiness index.  The trail is cut into the steep mountainside, which works great when the trail is actually clear. Unfortunately, the side we were ascending is north-facing, so it was still covered in patchy snow. We had to climb straight up the mountainside, scree and dirt slipping out underneath our shoes. The vistas were phenomenal however, definitely the highlight of our trip. We dropped into Rock Creek Basin and grabbed some lunch. For the first time in a couple days, the sun had come out and it was nice and warm. We dried out our tents, did some laundry in a nearby stream, and generally spent some time relaxing in the sunshine. After lunch we pressed on, detouring a few miles off the “official” Highline trail in order to take advantage a pretty trail and avoid a particularly nasty, brushy section. We rolled into camp around mid-afternoon, having done 16 miles and two passes. I was wearing down a little bit by this time, having now been on trail for more than a week. I was all too happy to bed for the night.

Our final day dawned bright and sunny. After eating most of our food, we had lightened our packs considerably, and we zoomed down the trail. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Debbie (Corona’s better half) was meeting us at the trailhead with sandwiches and drinks! We sashayed up our final pass, Rocky Sea Pass, avoiding some minor snow fields. For here on out, it would be home territory for me. I had done this stretch in early June, and it was interesting to see the same landscape, devoid of snow this time around. We kept the pedal to the metal all morning, at one point doing 3.6 miles per hour uphill. Having been on the trail for 9 days, I finally felt into the thru-hiker groove right as we were about to end. We blew by a bunch of day hikers as if they were standing still. By 11:30AM, we arrived at Mirror Lake, 75 trail miles from Chepeta Lake. An hour later, Debbie showed up, and we celebrated completion of the trail in style!

Both the Teton Crest and Highline trails were absolutely phenomenal experiences. The Crest Trail is flat-out the most beautiful hike I’ve ever done. The Highline Trail was the fulfillment of a dream, a true wilderness experience, and a wonderful experience with new and old friends (emphasis on the old!). It’s hard to believe that I was only hiking for a little over a week.

Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week: As I descended down the backside of Hurricane Pass in the Tetons, I saw a lady drying herself off with an orange beach towel. Given the fact that they were nowhere near a lake of any size, I wondered (1) what she did to get so wet and (2) why she thought it be a good idea to bring a beach towel into the backcountry. I guess it came in handy, but I’m thinking if a beach towel is a necessity for hiking in the Tetons, you’re doing something horribly wrong. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fantastic Vistas and Fearsome Rodents

Finally! The summer is a very short season in the high country. The higher elevations are just now becoming passable, and in a mere two months, the first snows of winter will shroud the mountains for another year. I need to take advantage.

Two years ago, I spent the summer in Utah, interning at what became my current job. On the way back to Michigan at the conclusion of the summer, I stopped in the Uintas to hike Kings Peak, and in the Tetons to do a few days of hiking there as well. I only spent a couple days in each place, yet it was sufficient to captivate my imagination. I wanted to hike both ranges again.

My buddy Corona Sam (whom I hiked with through the Mid-Atlantic on the AT) had mentioned that he wanted to do the Uinta Highline Trail this summer. I had also put the UHT on my bucket list following the aforementioned summer of 2012. Corona, along with Utah Sherpa and Grizzly (both AT veterans from the past couple years) is retired, so they very graciously agreed to plan the hike around my vacation schedule. But first things first – we were planning to start the hike on a Tuesday, and I had four days free (Independence Day fell on a Friday this year). What better way than to spend them hiking the Teton Crest Trail?

The Teton Crest trail runs about 40 miles (my TCT was a bit longer, due to off-trail travel) from Teton Pass in the south, to the mouth of Paintbrush Canyon in the north. Over that stretch, it traverses six mountain passes, two above 10,000 feet. The TCT is consistently viewed, along with California’s John Muir Trail, as one of the most beautiful hikes in the country.

I drove up to Jackson, Wyoming on Thursday after work and bedded down for the night on what I thought was Forest Service land. The park rangers who woke me up in the middle night informed me otherwise; camping is allowed only in designated campgrounds or backcountry sites within the park. The next morning, I arrived at the ranger station several hours before it opened in order to be first in line to get a permit, which can be hard to get during the holiday weekend. I secured my permit, drove back to town to buy a cheap-o sleeping pad (the one thing I had forgot to pack in my haste!) and drove to my destination trailhead. From there it was a couple hours of hitchhiking to get to Teton Pass, where I would start the hike. Six hitches later, I started hiking a little after midday.

The first part of the trail was fairly mellow. It was still beautiful, but it was not the jagged, bare rock I had expected from the Tetons. I picked my way through the overgrown and seldom-used trail, retreating below tree-line for a couple hours to avoid a mid-afternoon thunderstorm. I camped just inside the park borders at the top of Granite Canyon.

The next morning, I climbed out of Granite Canyon, past Marion Lake, and over Fox Creek Pass. I had been on a two-mile stretch of this trail a few years prior, and it was interesting seeing the landscape covered with snow. What a difference a month or two can make! From there, I stayed high on the fantastic Death Canyon Shelf, which overlooks Death Canyon several thousand feet below. On the shelf, I saw my first views of the three Tetons (South, Middle, and the Grand). I also ran into a very interesting backcountry ranger named Goldie. He provided me some good intel about a few alternate routes I could take to avoid some gnarly snow travel. I stayed a couple hours on the shelf, eating lunch, before dropping over Mt Meek Pass into Alaska Basin.

Alaska Basin is a well-named place. Although it is a wedge-shaped bowl with western exposure, it is high, and ringed by peaks and ridges. The entire basin was still buried several feet deep in snow. I managed to find a small snow-free spot to camp for the evening, but it was no bigger than the area of my groundcloth.

The next morning, I circled the perimeter of the basin, in hopes of avoiding a stream crossing that one very rattled couple had described to me the previous days as “impassible”. I did a few extra miles, but stayed high on the edge of the basin at 9600 feet. For the first time in my life, I saw a wolf, gliding silently across the frozen snow-crust several hundred feet below me. I didn’t have time to take a picture before he disappeared from view, and I’m almost glad. Some things can’t be photographed without being diminished.

Navigation was challenging in Alaska Basin. The trail, probably obvious during the summer, was still a month away from being discernable. There’s something deeply rewarding, though, about constructing one’s own route, shooting a bearing, and using a topo map effectively to find the best way up and over the next pass. And the next pass was worth it.

After going down Mt Meek Pass and into Alaska Basin, I had lost my views of the Tetons, hidden by the northeast wall of the basin. When I summited Hurricane Pass, however, the Tetons burst into view. No longer small and distant as they were on Death Canyon Shelf, they were now the large, majestic, in-your-face beauty that I had expected prior to the trip, but couldn’t even imagine. I lingered atop Hurricane Pass – staring into the chilly Alaska basin, into the verdant Cascade Canyon, and at the soaring Tetons, which felt close enough to touch.

The snowy drop into Cascade Canyon was a bit sketchy, and I was glad to have an ice axe along. Lower Cascade was a very busy place. I saw enough Utterly Impractical Hiking Items to last a lifetime, as Cascade Canyon is a fairly easy hike when approached from the frontcountry. I camped in the north fork of Cascade Canyon, at what I thought was a perfect campsite.

Boy was I wrong! After setting up my tent, I walked a few hundred yards away to eat my supper and stash my bear canister for the night. But bears weren’t what I should have feared. As I arrived back at camp, a cute little marmot grabbed my trekking pole in its mouth and started dragging it away! I let out a demon shriek and chased the marmot away, grabbing my pole in the process. The beast had left a few teeth marks in the handle of my pole. Perhaps he was after the salt? I went to bed, grateful for a nice place to spend the night. A few minutes after dark though, I was awaked by a rustling at the edge of my tent. The marauding marmot was back. Again, I chased it away, this time with no further damage to my trekking pole. Fifteen minutes later, the creature returned. I’d had enough. I ran out of my tent and hurled rocks at the infernal rodent. I seized the ice axe in one hand, my bear spray in the other. I was going to teach this miserable piece of flesh a lesson.

Thankfully, reason prevailed. I was content to grab a stick and jab the hideous highwayman as he bristled in the bushes. At this point, I realized that I really could not win. I packed my stuff up and moved camp a half mile away, where I cowboy camped for the remainder of the night, thankfully without any further carnivorous rodent encounters.

I got up early the next day. I had 14 miles to do, a challenging pass to climb, and four hours to drive down to Corona Sam’s cabin. I was hiking already by 5:15AM. After a couple miles, I reached the still-frozen Lake Solitude, where I began the ascent of Paintbrush Divide. I had talked to a couple of guys with mountaineering experience (possibly the first ones to go over the pass for the year) the day before; they told me that it was “rough” but doable, and that traversing it from west to east (as I was doing) would be the easier way.

It quickly became apparent that Paintbrush was every bit as challenging as they said. From Lake Solitude, the trail ascended the side of a ridge. Theoretically, at least. In reality, there was no trail in many spots, and I had to traverse several steep snowfields, going sideways across a 50-60 degree slope. The ice axe became a necessity. I chopped steps in the icy snow where necessary. It took me perhaps 10 minutes to go 50 yards in the most treacherous spots. Thankfully, the trail looped around onto a south-facing ridge that gave me a few minutes of dry trail, and reprieve. I opted to scramble up about 500 vertical feet of boulders to avoid another section of nasty side-hill, and before I knew it, I was at the top of the pass.

Paintbrush Divide was simply outstanding. All around, jagged mountain peaks soared into the perfectly blue clear sky. Paintbrush Canyon, to the west, was still completely snowbound. Jackson Lake, and the Jackson Hole valley were visible in the distance. And I had to get down from the top of the pass. At this point, the trail was a just laughable thought; this was choose-your-own-adventure hiking at its finest. The only reasonable and safe way to get down from the pass was to descend a snow-slope several hundred long, which was probably on a 70° angle at its steepest point. Hiking down it would be a recipe for head-over-heels flailing.

I self-arrested three or four times in my ride down the slope, just to keep myself from gaining too much speed. The thought of splattering my vitals all over a boulder just didn’t sound too appealing, plus I’d prove all the worrywarts right. Still, the ride was a blast, and a heck of a lot faster than trying to chop steps in the snow, or trying to follow switchbacks under ten feet of snowpack.

The hike down Paintbrush Canyon was so picturesque, it’s almost impossible to put into words. So I won’t.

Once back at the trailhead, I dropped off the bear canister at the ranger station, hiker-trashed the Jackson Wendys (phone plugged in, a billion refills from the pop machine, general stink and grime), and headed south to Corona Sam’s cabin to start my next adventure. In related news, always check your coolant level prior to setting out on a road trip, especially if you have a small known leak. Failure to do so may result in you (1) overheating your car or (2) spending an hour in Green River, Wyoming refilling your bone-dry radiator, trying to prevent said overheating.

I finally arrive at Corona’s cabin around 8:30PM, where I ate supper, introduced myself to the two guys I hadn’t met before, and went to bed on a comfortable couch, rather than a crappy foam pad. The next day, we began the Highline Trail adventure…

Sunday, June 8, 2014

So Much for Summer!

When I was going into first grade, my family took a trip to Lake Powell. It was the first time I had been out west. I had my first glimpse of red rock country, expansive prairies, and the Rocky Mountains. I remember stopping in the Loveland Pass area in Colorado, just west of the Continental Divide. My sisters and I were amazed that we could play in the snow – in mid-June! Naturally, as kids do, we had a snowball fight. Summertime comes late in the high country.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been itching to get into the mountains. Don’t get me wrong, I love the desert of southern Utah, but the mountains are still my bread and butter. But with plenty of late-season snowfall this winter, the mountains are still packed in above about 9,000 feet. Notwithstanding, I desperately wanted to go backpacking this weekend. I wanted to get out in the mountains – and that meant dealing with snow. Game on.

 I headed out to the Uinta Mountains – the highest range in Utah, and home to the largest contiguous above-treeline area in the Lower 48. It is most definitely not summertime yet in the Uintas. The entire hike was above 10,000 feet, and about half of the trail was covered in several feet of snow. Where it wasn’t snowy, it was muddy from the spring runoff, which is in full swing.

I arrived at the trailhead on Friday evening, where two feet of snow on top of an unplowed parking lot greeted my arrival. That sight was enough to confirm what I had suspected – this was going to be a very snowy, very wet hike. I made my way a half mile up the trail and made camp the first night.

On Saturday morning, I awoke to clear blue skies and a deafening woodpecker hammering away on the tree that I slept under. The trail wound through coniferous forests for about 6 miles, past various lakes (there are more than 1000 of them in the High Uintas Wilderness) and alpine meadows. The higher I got, the less distinct the trail became. Above about 10,400 feet, the trail disappeared completely under the snow. Route-finding wasn’t particularly difficult; the bigger challenge was avoiding the soft, deep snow. By time I emerged above treeline, the warm sun had been beating down on the snowpack all day, eating away at the icy glaze I’d been walking on. Each step became a roll of the dice – whether I would posthole up to mid-thigh or not. Once I realized that the westward-facing snowpack was more consolidated, things got a bit easier. A couple miles later, I was on top of the world, at Rocky Sea Pass.

The original plan was to continue down the east side of the pass, into another basin. However I found out at the pass that the east side was (1) incredibly steep and (2) buried in several feet of snow. Going down the east side would have required some serious mountaineering skills to prevent an uncontrolled descent. Realizing that I had reached the end of the line, I lollygagged at the pass for a while. I climbed up an adjoining ridge for some great views.

On the way back down from the pass, I had the opportunity to do some glissading, which is great fun. In case you don’t know what glissading is, it’s basically a fancy French word that means sledding without a sled. Sit down on a snow-covered slope some time, and you’ll find out quickly what that means! The key to glissading is knowing how to stop the glissade in a controlled manner – i.e. before you run into a large boulder! An ice axe and a trash bag to sit on did the job, and before no time I was back below treeline. By that time it was mid-afternoon, and the snow was becoming very wet and soft. I did a couple of slow miles and made camp right before I reached a large creek. In the morning, it was only about thigh-deep, but in the afternoon, with increased runoff, it had swelled and become impassible. Knowing that it’d be at its lowest early in the morning, I camped for the night.

 Sunday morning dawned overcast. It was rather difficult getting out of my nice warm sleeping bag and jamming my feet into frozen shoes (A.T 2013 anybody?). But the hardest part was the knowledge that as soon as I started hiking, I’d have to hike through a thigh-deep creek, with water not a single degree above freezing.

It was as miserable as expected. The cherry on top was the snow that started falling about the time I took my first step into the icy water. You can’t make these things up, people! The last few miles passed quickly, and I arrived at the trailhead around mid-morning.

Although the trip didn’t go as planned (sense a theme recently?), backpacking the Uintas in the extremely early season was enjoyable. The snow-covered mountains were beautiful, and there was complete solitude – I was almost assuredly the first person to venture onto the trail for the season. I hope to be back in about a month, as the route I took forms the westernmost section of the Uinta Highline Trail. Stay tuned!

Sorry, no Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the week. As mentioned, I did not see anyone, nor even see any footprints. But keeping in the spirit of the award, I do have to point out a rather colossal blunder on my part. We’ll call it the Dumb Decision of the Week:

It turns out that sunscreen is not an infinite quantity. I’d been nursing this travel-sized tube of sunscreen for more than a year now. Every time I went hiking, it seemed mostly empty, but there was always plenty, and I was never concerned about it. Until this time. The Widow’s Oil finally dried up. I stopped at treeline on Saturday to apply sunscreen, but when I squeezed the tube, nothing came out. Oh well, I’ve been through this before. Bang it on a rock and try again, right?

Still nothing.

Uh oh. If there’s one place you don’t want to be without sunscreen, it’s above treeline on a snowcovered landscape. I cut the bottle open with my knife and scraped all the half-congealed goop out. I applied it to the most sensitive areas (my nose, the tops of my knees), and that was it. In related news, while it might sound good in theory, scraping icy snowcrust against your legs as you post-hole is not an effective technique for alleviating the pains of sunburn.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The World's Largest Pothole

I have a love-hate relationship with National Parks. On the upside, they have great infrastructure, great informational resources, and great scenery. Think of Yellowstone, the Tetons, the Smokies… these are America’s best ideas. On the downside, trying to navigate the red tape to obtain a backcountry permit can be absolutely maddening. So I was understandably nervous about last weekend’s trip to Bryce Canyon National Park. There’s really only one backpacking trail in the park, there are camping quotas, and Memorial Day weekend could be the busiest weekend of the year there. Would I be able to get campsites for my nights there?

After driving down on Friday evening and bivvying in the back of my car on National Forest land, I arrived at the park around 6AM on Saturday, long before the backcountry permit office opened. Sure enough, I was the very first one in line. In fact, when the office opened at 8AM, I was still one of only two people there. There was currently only one backpacker in the backcountry. I had my choice of sites and itineraries. Except for one hitch: the entire southern section of the park’s backcountry was closed due to a “problem bear”.

At this juncture I should explain: High-use areas of the backcountry (such as National Parks) tend to attract a disproportionate amount of idiots. These fine folks waltz into the wilderness without preparation whatsoever. They’ve done no research, have not educated themselves on treating Creation with respect… and end up providing bears with lots of tasty human snacks. After bears discover that raiding human camps at night for unsecured food is a prosperous endeavor, bears associate humans with food. You can imagine the danger that a habituated bear poses to campers. So after all of rampant stupidity on the part of humans, and ingenuity on the part of the bears, it’s the bears who of course are the “problem”. They’re relocated to very remote areas or, more often, killed.

I managed to snag a campside in the northern part of the park for a night, and had to settle for hiking about 12 of the 25 miles that compose the “Under-the-rim” trail, which I had been planning to do in its entirety. Because I wasn’t about to try hitching under the officious eyes of the park rangers, I had to take a shuttle bus to my trailhead. The shuttle was designed more as a tourist ride than as a means of transportation, so the whole endeavor took me about three hours to go the ten miles. On the plus side, it did allow me to see some of the sights in the southern end of the park that I would have otherwise missed. Finally, on about noon on Saturday, I got on the trail. I only had about ten miles to do to my campsite, so I took my time. The weather was chilly and nasty for parts of the afternoon. However it brightened up into the evening. I had a wonderful dinner next to a pure bubbling stream, hiked a few more miles, and pitched my tent to shelter me from the winds that were picking up.

Sunday morning dawned cool, but sunny. I was up and hiking by about 6:30AM. The squatters who had taken over my designated campsite (I opted to stealth camp a quarter mile away rather than tolerate their noise and general disrespect) weren’t even close to being awake yet – sitting not five feet from their tents was a garbage bag full of food scraps, evidently. THESE people are the ones who habituate the bears, and ruin it for other hikers and, more importantly, the bears. Rant over.

The scenery on Saturday was a more subtle kind. Most of the day consisted of hikes up and down various side-ridges extending from the ampitheaters. I enjoyed observing different climates and foliage types at different elevations. By contrast, there was absolutely nothing subtle about Sunday. It kicked off with a climb up to the “hat shop”, where orange hoodoos are topped with white stones that look like they emerged from a tectonic haberdashery.

Boring geology lesson: Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all. It’s more like Bryce-Plateau-Slowly-Eroding-Away, but most people don’t like to contemplate their own mortality and transience while on vacation. The rim of the plateau ranges from 7,000-9,000 feet in elevation. Two hundred days of freeze-thaw per year, combined with extremely flaky sedimentary rock, causes massive frost heaving and frost wedging. As anyone who lives in a wintry climate knows, the freeze-thaw cycle destroys roadways and creates massive potholes. Bryce Canyon is a pothole, on an almost cosmic scale. Often, harder areas of rock resist erosion longer than softer areas, leaving behind pillars of rock called “hoodoos”.

I emerged from my stint in the backcountry by mid-morning on Sunday. Most of the spectacular hoodoos and amphitheaters are actually accessible from dayhike trailheads. I decided to string as many of these hikes together to make one respectable day, although I was still carrying my overnight pack. After running into another critical trail closure (rock slide this time, probably also caused by those naughty and meddlesome bears!), I connected about six different trails, dropping down into the amphitheaters and climbing back up to the rim several times. While some trails (the short ones) were crowded, the insanity of humanity was less oppressive than I expected on the holiday weekend. Clearly, hiking four miles is just too much work for 90% of park visitors! I ended up doing about 15 miles of trail that afternoon, and after dropping my borrowed bear canister off at the ranger station, headed down to the nearby town of Tropic for something to eat.

And boy did I eat! Evidently 15 miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain, with a pack and several liters of water, gave me quite the hiker hunger. I flipped back into thru-hiker mode, and ordered seconds – at a restaurant! I was sorely tempted to order thirds, but figured I should probably leave the place before they put a lien on my car (side note: for this trip, I re-christened her the “Hoodoo-Baru”). I was still rather bummed about missing out on 20+ miles of backcountry hiking and was looking for something to do on Monday. I had pretty much exhausted Bryce (it’s a small park), and my misanthropic tendencies ruled out battling the hordes of humanity in Zion National Park on the holiday. Enter – the pizza shop placemat-map. I noticed that Cedar Breaks National Monument was not too far from Bryce, and the road from Bryce to Cedar Breaks passed through Forest Service land. I decided to sleep on USFS land that night and visit Cedar Breaks in the morning.

Cedar Breaks was totally unexpected, and totally spectacular. It was formed by the same processes that produced Bryce, except Cedar Breaks is 2,000 feet higher; its rim is around 10,500 feet. There was still plenty of snow at that elevation. I arrived very early in the morning; there was no one there. I looked around, did a quick four-mile hike to an overlook, and came back. There was still nobody there! Cedar Breaks was a great, low-key but spectacular way to spend Memorial Day. After a quick hike up a local peak (which, incredibly, was relatively snow-free even at 11,300 feet), I headed back to Salt Lake City.

Overall – Bryce didn’t go according to plan, however my change of plans allowed me to do a couple things that I otherwise would not have done. In the end, it’s as much about just getting out there, sucking oxygen, doing something, as it is achieving a particular goal or hiking a particular trail. A weekend well spent.

Back by popular demand: Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week. The aforementioned mountain, Brian Head, was about a 1,000 foot climb from the surrounding plateau. There’s a gravel road that goes to the summit. But in late May, that’s a merely theoretical proposition. I left the ole Hoodoo-baru right off the main road, and hiked a mile and a half up to the summit. There was no trail, but I was able to dodge the snowfields effectively and got to the top with relative ease. Not so for the poor sucker who decided to drive to the top! Instead of parking where I did, he tried to drive over the snow. Needless to say, he got stuck. So did his two buddies, who came in their pickups to pull him out! In the time they spent trying to extract their vehicles, I had summited, eaten lunch, taken a few photos, and descended. Meanwhile at least one truck was still stuck halfway up the mountain road. When I finally left a scene, yet another pickup had arrived on scene. This one, though, was a contractor, and he was pulling a bulldozer.

Automobiles: your Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week.