Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Beyond the Lake

I trundled up the trail, finally getting into the groove. A week's worth of rain and work had kept me mostly inside, and my legs took a few minutes to loosen up. But once I got going, I was rolling. The trail up to Lake Blanche is fairly steep, but my pack was light and my attitude was similar. I passed many groups of people coming down from the lake, headed back to their cars and beds in the valley. I was headed the other way - to spend the night at Lake Blanche, and then over the ridge into the next canyon over the next day. I was looking forward to a beautiful campsite at my favorite lake in the Wasatch.

My plans started to unravel quickly, however. I passed a group of Boy Scouts - their packs bulging with stuff. In their hands, they carried all the things that wouldn't fit in their enormous backpacks. I would have chucked at the sight of carrying fifty pounds of stuff on a six-mile round-trip hike. But their complaints and panting breaths were a sad reminder - many of these boys would grow up to hate backpacking, because carrying that much crap just plain sucks. If they had moms and dads and scout leaders who ensured that they packed light, so as to enjoy the journey... who knows how many more of them would learn to love their time spent in the outdoors?

I passed more scouts. And more. And more. At least twenty five of them, with their leaders to boot. They were yelling raucously to each other, as boys are prone to do. My serene night at the lake was going to be ruined.

I arrived at the lake just as the sun was going down. There were already several groups camped there, children's shrieks reverberating off the water. And all those groups I had passed would be arriving shortly. Somewhere a dog started barking. I felt myself getting more and more annoyed. One thing was certain - I did not want to spend the night around this circus.

I had planned to hike up into the upper drainage the next morning, and cross the ridge. But I sure wasn't camping here. I had to press on. I climbed a few hundred feet on a faint use trail above the lake, and into the upper drainage. I looked in vain for a nice sheltered campsite under a few stubby trees, but flat ground was nowhere to be found. I walked out into a nice flat bench overlooking the lake - and in the last vestiges of twilight, tossed my bivy and sleeping bag on the ground. I could have set up my tarp, but that just seemed wrong - on a beautiful evening such as this, cowboy camping was really the only option.

The stars were bright, the sky was dark - even though I could see the Salt Lake City lights five thousand feet below. And the view when I woke up the next morning was incredible - perhaps the mos picturesque campsite I've ever had. There isn't always time to embark on an extended trip. But when time is limited, it pays to get away and get some solitude - that is, to venture beyond the lake. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Rainy Days

Inside the cloud, there are no raindrops. Tiny beads of water spontaneously form on everything, soaking me slowly but steadily. I hike fast, hoping that I'll be merely damp, rather than sodden, if I generate enough heat.

Inside the cloud, everything is slippery. It's rained more or less continuously for three days now, and the lichen-covered rocks prove deceptively slimy, ready to send the unsuspecting hiker crashing down a steep incline at any moment. I inch forward down the steep, slick granite. The trail has been worn down to the bedrock by decades of travelers making this pilgrimage.

Inside the cloud, I'm feeling clammy. Without my rain jacket, the cool, humid air will quickly chill me to the bone, fingers white and numb. But with my rain jacket, I immediately start to overheat, as the thin nylon captures saturated air like a curious yellow sauna.

My prospects for a dry camp are limited. The forecast, or at least the one I've heard through the hiker grapevine, calls for rain again tonight and tomorrow. A heavier, darker, wetter cloud blows in. Rivulets flow through the dirt and over rocks, created a thousand tiny waterfalls as they trickle downhill. My tent is still soggy from last night. I arrive at a flat spot and set up camp, ducking inside just as it starts to thunder.

Hours pass. Malaise sets in. My shelter is lightweight, but small. I duck and contort every which way to try and avoid touching the walls, which have been soaked by condensation. Sooner or later, I decide to lay down and fall asleep. It's not dark yet, although the line between daytime and nighttime is blurred inside the cloud. The pitter-patter of rain is constant, mere inches above my head, as droplets splatter on the nylon tarp. I'll wake up several times in the night to ensure that none of my things are getting soaked - not too soaked that is. Everything gets damp when the humidity's at one hundred percent.

But sometime in the night, something changes. That relentless pitter-patter becomes softer, and more sparse. Soon it becomes the occasional splat! And finally, morning dawns. The sunshine is watery, but I'm not complaining. I poke my head out of the door cautiously, hoping to avoid the splats, as water drips off the tree branches above my head. But it's a new day, and soon all this water will be converted into unbearable mugginess by the mid-morning sun - and finally dissipate. I let out a hollar of joy as I pack up my damp pack and stride down the trail. My shoes are wet, my tent is sodden and heavy, but there's a certain lightness of spirit that only appears after the rainstorm.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Why I Hike (A Reflection)

Of the many places I've been during wilderness adventures, few of them stand out like the San Juan River.

I've taken a few trips to Cedar Mesa now. The first one, in upper Grand Gulch, was a tune-up hike in a popular area over Easter weekend in the spring of 2014. It was fun. I saw some very interesting Indian ruins, visited a scenic canyon, and generally acquainted myself with the desert, an environment I've come to love. But it lacked one thing - Wilderness.

Wilderness with a capital W isn't comfortable. It's a raw land. There are no trails, no signposts, no other visitors to reassure you that you're on the right track. You get stuck in thorns and brush. You encounter impassible pour-offs and end up backtracking. You have no certainty where the water source is. Your only conversation is with your thoughts. The nearest people are seated thirty five thousand feet above your head.

Nobody's ever been here before. I mean, they certainly have (there's a couple tiny cairns in a spot or two), but for all practical purposes, you might as well be the first person to ever walk this way. An intermittent stream flows through the canyon bottom, feeding stands of dense brush and forming cold, clear, cheerful pools. Soon an arch appears, and there are a few footprints in the dry dust below the arch. Who knows how many years those footprints have endured.

Venturing further down-canyon, you encounter deeper rock layers. Purple-ish rock layers, formed by years of clay dissolving, flowing downstream, and drying in a new location. The dry clay forms smooth waves and ripples in the canyon bottom, continuing its journey of many centuries to the river, where it will eventually be deposited into the abomination that is Lake Powell. But you need not enrage yourself with the damming of the Colorado River. For now, it is enough to soak in the untouched serenity that surrounds you.

As the sun sets, you make camp under a rock overhang, taking care to stay out of the katabatic zones, where cool air will pool in the canyon bottom overnight. The night isn't cold under your natural shelter, and the next morning you awake to hear birds chirping. Spring has come to this part of the canyon. Now just 4,000 feet above sea level, you notice green grass, and a few buds on the cottonwood trees. The morning is chilly, but soon enough, the sun rises above the canyon walls, warming up everything in a sudden blast of illumination.

Onward to the San Juan! The last few miles are hard miles. The next lower layer of rock is very flaky and boulders frequently choke the canyon. You scramble over some sketchy dirt and talus piles to avoid a pair of pour-offs. Route-finding is key, but after a couple of days in the wilderness, that animal instinct has kicked in, and you're able to identify the path of least resistance. Your entire being is oriented toward a single goal - forward progress.

Several times, a twisting of the canyon walls reveals the confluence with the San Juan - or so you think. Around the bend is yet another bend. Your world is small - maybe a few hundred yards long, and even less wide. And yet your world is huge - limitless, in fact.

Finally, the San Juan comes into view. It's much bigger than you imagined - a slow, wide river, cutting a deep canyon into the sandstone of the Colorado Plateau. Most of the rivers around here would be called creeks farther east; this one's a bona fide river. The confluence is magical. Water flows out of Grand Gulch, off a 3-foot high ledge, and into the river below. The San Juan, fueled by annual spring runoff, has carved a deeper gorge. And it's quiet. Rivers in the west are either placid and serene, or surging and crashing. Right now, the San Juan is the former.

It's so quiet you can quite literally hear your own heart beat. Nothing, save the occasional rumble of jet engines overhead, disturbs the utter silence. You want to speak, yet you want to contemplate. You want to run filled with life and energy, yet you want to be still. God is in this moment.

Sometimes the only appropriate response is worship. Not of your surroundings, of course, but rather the author of your surroundings. The One who created time itself - who ordained that the Colorado Plateau rise over millions of years, and that canyons cut through it in millions more. The One who rotates Earth on its axis, the One who decreed that the progression of seasons will not end. The One who sends the first greens of spring, and makes the desert bloom while winter still grips everywhere else. The One who gives me the ability to walk, and the strength to keep going. 

That's why I hike.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

An Autopsy of Decisions

You're welcome, Mom.

I bent down to test a seemingly dry spot with my hand. Nope, icy. Tried another one. Nope, that one's icy too. I turned around and scooted on my butt down the slickrock incline. Justin was at the bottom, having taken a dry route. We scrambled on all fours up another icy slope. The view at that top was disheartening. Ahead was a few hundred yards of exposure. Steep sideslope exposure, ending at a cliff with a sheer vertical drop. It was time to turn around.

 Photo - Justin Swanson

Earlier in the day, Justin and I had made the decision to take the Peekaboo Trail, which crosses overland to Salt Creek, rather than an 4x4 road. The views were jaw-dropping. The day was bright and sunny and we enjoyed views of the snow-covered La Sal mountains in the distance. But the higher we climbed and the further we trekked, the slipperier it got. It hadn't rained recently, that much was certain. But the previous night had been a dewy one, and a thick layer of frost covered north-facing and shady sections of slickrock.

The first few encounters were pretty mild. A couple of slippery steps here and there, but nothing to be concerned about. We dropped down into Squaw Canyon, and then climbed out. Dropped into Lost Canyon, and then climbed out. By this point, we had traveled more than four miles, and less than a mile separated us from Salt Creek Canyon, which we would follow upstream. That's when things started to get dicey. We had climbed considerably - we were at around 6,000 feet. And although the sun was bright and cheerful, in the dregs of January it's so far south in the sky that half the landscape lay in shadows, even during midday. There were a couple spots where we had to deviate from the trail, shimmying up a crack to get better traction the slippery rock. But there was no real danger, other than that of a bruised ego and a sore tailbone, were one of us to slip and fall.

Then we came to the ledge. Several hundred yards long with that steep exposure on the left side. But there might be a way that we could navigate in the vegitation on the uphill side of the ledge. I crept forward cautiously to investigate. We could probably swing from tree to tr...

This is crazy. There's no way we can navigate this safely. One misstep will literally lead to death. Yes, we've hiked four miles and don't want to hike four miles back to the car, and then five miles from a different trailhead, just to get to a place we're within shouting distance of. Yes, the views look great and it'd make for a great story. Yes, we've come this far and have managed to do it. But this is crazy.

Turning around is hard. It sucked to return the way we came with our tails tucked between our legs. It sucked to have to make a shorter hike in Salt Creek Canyon. It sucked to not see some of the cool Indian petroglyphs in the upper part of the canyon. But it was the right decision, and it was the wise decision.

The hike back was somber. I reflected on our decision, and how we were blessed with the wisdom and experience to know when to turn back. We also reflected on other people's decisions. Terrible or destructive choices don't come in a moment of temporary insanity. They come as a result of the escalation of bravado and the escalation of commitment. We made it through the last one, we'll make it through this one. We've made it this far, we can't turn around now. We made the right choice. But in a situation where the right choice is the hard choice, suddenly our human limitations show through.

The trip itself was terrific. The weather was beautiful, the scenery was jaw-dropping and the company was great. It's amazing to live in a place where we can backpack year-round. But what I'll take away from this trip is honesty. Honesty to admit that, despite my extensive experience, there are some things that are just going to beat me. Honesty to admit that I don't always get it right. Honesty to admit that it COULD happen to me. 

Thank you, Lord.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2014 - In Review

2014's been a good year. 

A few fun facts -

Trips -

Backpacking trips - 13
Car camping trips - 1
Nights in a sleeping bag - 46
Miles backpacked - 474
National Parks visited - 4
Solo trips - 9
Trips with friends - 4

Experiences -

Car overheating incidents - 2
Trips on which I brought a stove along - 2
Trips on which I had had the desire to actually cook - 0
Trips requiring an ice axe - 2
Glissades down snowy slopes - 3
Nighttime animal encounters - 3
Nights spent under the stars - 13
Trips requiring off-trail travel - 8
Favorite moment - sliding down Paintbrush Divide on a snowfield
Least favorite moment - 13 hour rain and windstorm above treeline in the Uintas
Highest Point - Kings Peak, UT (13,528')
Lowest Point - Escalante River, UT (4,400')

Gear -

Backpacks used - 3
Sleeping pads used - 2
Sleeping pads carved up and otherwise mutilated -1
Shelters used - 2
Max water carry - 4 liters
Heaviest pack basewieght - 15 lb (Coyote Gulch)
Lightest pack baseweight - 8 lb, 14 oz (Lower Muley Twist)
Longest resupply - 6 days (Highline Trail; Stratton-Monson ME) 
Pairs of shoes destroyed - 2

Dayhikes -

Miles hiked - unknown, probably at least 250
Snickers bars consumed - 54
Blisters developed - 1
11'ers summited - 6
Lakes visited - 7

Top five favorite photos of 2015-

#5 -  Rock Creek Basin - High Uintas Wilderness

#4 - Maybird Ridge, Lone Peak Wilderness

Photo credit -ej Horrocks

#3 - The Fairyland, Bryce Canyon National Park

#2 - Amethyst Basin, High Uintas Wilderness

#1.5 - Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

#1 - Upper Muley Twist Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park

2014 was a terrific year. Onward to 2015!