Monday, December 19, 2016

2016 - In Review

It was a different sort of year.

Short but Sweet

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

Routes versus Trails

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

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

Not just Backpacking...

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

The Measurables

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

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

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

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

Enough of the bloviation. Photo time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Twelve Rounds with Mother Nature

They're called the "Wind Rivers" for a reason.

Over Labor Day weekend 2016, I hiked a marvelous route in a marvelous mountain range. The Wind River Range of Wyoming is Wyoming's tallest, largest, most remote mountain range - and that's saying something given the competition. The Winds are a quintessential backpacking destination and rank near the top of any hiker's bucket list. With a map, a plan, and a three day weekend, I had the perfect opportunity - sort of.

The weather was forecasted to be a bit unsettled, as mountain weather often is. My route climbed Temple Pass and Jackass Pass (yes, I know, the twelve year old inside of you is giggling right now) on-trail. In addition, my route headed off-trail over little-known "Coon Lake Pass" as well as the crown jewel of the southern part of the range, Wind River Peak. At 13,000+ feet, it towers above everything in its neighborhood. Aside from Wind River Peak, the route also passed through the Big Sandy Lake area, the upper Little Sandy watershed, Pinto Park, and the legendary Cirque of the Towers. It was to be a tour de force of the southern Winds. 

The long, long drive instantly set a tone for the trip. The trailhead itself lay fifty miles beyond the edge of pavement. But despite the remote nature of the trailhead, the road was busy. Several hundred cars packed the parking lot when I arrived at dusk. I set up my shelter near the parking lot and tried to fall asleep as an evening thunderstorm rolled through and cars drove in and out of the parking lot all night. It was clear that this would not be a solitary adventure.

 Or would it? I was up with the birds the next morning and started hiking early. I walked alone on a well-trod trail. The miles passed quickly, and soon I found myself at Big Sandy Lake. I turned off of the main trail and onto a side trail - one that would lead up to Temple Pass. I wandered my way around the lake and bushwhacked up for a few hundred vertical feet until I regained the trail. As I ascended the trees thinned, then disappeared. Alpine lakes started appearing,  each more majestic than the last. The wind speed increased, and those puffy white clouds transformed into billowing gray clouds. As I neared the crest of the pass, thunder boomed from the west. I raced down the steep south side of the pass on a sketchy trail as graupel and hail began to fall.

As I neared the base of the pass, I skirted small alpine tarn. Trees began to reappear, and a trail began to emerge as the brush got thicker. Hail and rain continued on and off, and thunder continued to rumble from all directions. My lunch stop was abbreviated by the weather, as I opted to keep moving to beat the worst of the weather.

I was searching for a very specific spot, a break in the cliffs to my east as I continued south. I had scouted a pass on the map but wasn't sure if it was doable. I scrambled up a steep embankment, around large boulders, through some thick brush, and over and under fallen trees. Picking my way carefully, I kept ascending, and soon found myself at the top of the pass, the only navigable gap in a ten-mile-long sheer ridge. I named it "Coon Lake Pass" in honor of the lake to my east - my next destination.**

The rain and hail continued off and on for most of the afternoon, as I descended to Coon Lake, and then farther down, on-trail now, to a meadow at 10,200'. Although I had several hours of daylight remaining, I opted to camp as low as possible and in a sheltered location due to the threat of the weather. I ate what must be the nastiest dinner of all time. It was so repulsive, in fact, that I could not physically choke down all of it. Stuffing mix, prepared with sausage bits and tomato powder may sound delicious, but it tastes like something that leaked out of the sarcophagus at Chernobyl. For your own sake, just don't. Ever. Please, I'm begging you. 

My dim view of the weather was well-founded. It stormed through most of the night, and I was glad to be cozied up in a thick forest as lightning crashed off the high peaks. The rain and thunder subsided a few hours before dawn. As you might imagine, I didn't get too much sleep.

I woke to dreary, overcast skies and low-hanging clouds. I packed up my stuff and climbed 800 feet to Toyo Lake, at the foot of Wind River Peak. Clouds hovered a mere 200 feet above the surface of the lake, and it was clear that my ascent of Wind River Peak would be a zero-visibility climb. But I didn't have many good options - an ascent of Wind River Peak was the only non-technical route to where I was going, and waiting until later in the day would only increase the chances of a lightning storm. I began my ascent into the clouds.

At times, I could only see twenty feet in front of my face. Once in a great while, the clouds would clear enough for me to see a few hundred yards. They lay thick and heavy on the peak, graupel and mist stinging my cheeks as the wind howled. Wind River Peak, while probably not a hard peak in good weather, challenged me. It was nothing more than a large, steep pile of boulders - a pile that became a wee bit slippery when wet. 

Unable to make out any terrain features, I navigated with compass alone and sooner or later ended up near the summit. I don't know exactly how close I got (I reckon a few hundred feet below the summit), but given the conditions, I decided not to make a summit attempt and head down the eastern flanks of the mountain instead. I wouldn't have a summit view anyhow!

I navigated east-northeast past deeply gouged alpine cirques, down the broad ramp that lead to the Deep Creek Lakes. at about 11,500 feet, I finally emerged from the clounds and picked my way past the lakes, over a small pass, and down to a trail. 

A trail! It was a novel thought. I had spent the past twenty four hours mostly off-trail, traversing a couple of passes and making an ascent of a prominent peak, all in bad weather. And right as I got on trail, another round of weather moved in. More thunder. More hail. Same old story. I hadn't taken my raincoat off, except to sleep, since Temple Pass a day and a half earlier. I cozied up under an overhung rock and ate lunch as Storm # 837 raged.

The latter half of the day was marked by a mixture of sun and rain - enough sun to make me sweat inside my raincoat, but enough rain to make it a bad idea to remove said raincoat. I saw a few people and more than a few llamas. In theory, llamas are a great backcountry pack animal. In reality, they cause significant trail erosion and spit on long-haired backpackers with rainbow-colored bandanas. Eww.

I made camp that evening a mile east of the famed Cirque of the Towers - and just in time too, as Storm # 894 rolled in. I prepared my significantly-less-disgusting dinner and fell asleep.

At some point during the night, it stopped raining and everything grew quiet. Suspiciously quiet. The wind continued to scream, but my shelter didn't move an inch. That's strange.

And my living space grew smaller. the head and foot ends of the shelter sagged inward. I grabbed my trekking pole and used it to bang off the...



Yes indeed, brought to you by the Wyoming Board of Tourism. At that point, I just had to laugh. I'd had rain, sleet, hail, graupel, and now snow. Paradoxically, the snow served as a nice little insulator on outside of my shelter and kept me rather warm. Every few hours though, I woke up to clear an inch of snow off of my shelter.

Snow does have its upsides though. I woke the next morning to a Christmas card scene. Everything was coated in a thin, fluffy blanket. A hint of pink sunrise peeked through the clouds. The breeze was frigid and the trails had turned into a system of canals, but the beauty of the Cirque of the Towers with a fresh coating of snow cannot be surpassed. 

I climbed Jackass Pass (I'll wait here while you snicker) and the snow got steadily deeper. By time I reached the top of the pass, there was close to six inches on the ground. The whole experience seemed rather polar. And this in the first week of September!

I headed down Jackass Pass, promptly lost the trail, and spent the next hour in a miserable boulder hope until I found the trail again. The problem with doing a lot of off-trail hiking is sometimes you do it by accident. Oh well. 

As I descended to Big Sandy Lake, the sun came out, for the first time all trip. As I re-joined the main trail and hiked the five miles to my car, I discovered where all two million people in their two hundred cars had gone - right here. But I couldn't complain too much - the rest of the weekend I'd seen almost nobody. I changed into short sleeves for the last few miles and finally shed the rain gear. The weather just had to taunt me like that. Or, just perhaps, I had gone twelve rounds with it - and won.


*It turns out that the pass I climbed is crossed from time to time by other backpackers. In fact the author of "The Book" on the Wind Rivers calls it Coon Lake Pass as well. Great, albeit unoriginal minds think alike!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Freedom. Beauty. Quietness.

I've written and re-written this post about five times now. Each draft has left me unsatisfied. How do I describe nine days in the desert? Do I focus on the landscape? The human experience? The solitude? The climate? The route? The quiet confidence? How do I tell the story of a silent, harsh, brooding, beautiful landscape? And how do I tell the story of my experience within it?

I close my eyes and let my memories wander. On the last day, Sam had asked me, "If you could keep going right now, would you?" Misinterpreting the question, I mumbled something dumb about running out of food and needing to resupply. That's not what he was asking. He was asking whether I'd had my fill, whether I was ready to return to civilization. I hadn't had my fill. Not by a long shot.

Why? What drew me to the Hayduke in the first place, and what kept me out there? Hoist your pack, lace up your trail runners, and grab your trekking poles. Follow along with me on the walk. Freedom. Beauty. Quietness.

Day 1

I parked my car down an obscure dirt road in a place described best as "eighteen miles south of Hanksville, Utah". Don't know where Hanksville is? That's ok, most Utahns don't either. From the very beginning, this section was remote. Dirt roadwalking gave way to following a wash upstream, which gave way to more roadwalking. I encountered a cold, clear creek and watered up gratefully. It was a gentle introduction on a trail not exactly known for gentle introductions. I kept a certain spring in my step - the telltale sign of a hiker on Day 1. The telltale sign of a certain newfound freedom.

The day's challenge was the Henry Mountains - the last mountain range in the Lower 48 to be discovered and named by Europeans. I followed dirt roads almost all day, stopping a bit early as an afternoon thunderstorm lashed the mountains. I huddled up under my tarp and waited out the storm. Tomorrow, Day 2, would be summit day.

Day 2

It dawned dank and dismal. Wind had whipped my shelter all night long and made for poor sleeping. I got up with the crack of dawn and was hiking soon thereafter. I waved to a passing ATV driver - the last person I would see for almost a week. The ATV passed and soon I found myself hiking along under cloudy skies. The only sound was the crunch of my footsteps. Quietness.

The quietness wouldn't last long though. I left the dirt roads and climbed steeply up a wet, muddy mountainside, toward the summit of Mt Ellen. Mt Ellen, due to the Henry's remote location, offers tremendous views of the southern Utah desert in all directions - mesas, mountains, deserts, and canyons extend to the horizon. The guidebook and map promised amazing views.

I, of course, could see about twenty feet. I had climbed into the clouds, which were roughly as transparent as a glass of milk. The wind once again howled around me, sending me scurrying for my windshirt and $1.50 knit gloves. At some point I passed over the summit, although it's hard to say which little bump was the true summit. Trusting my compass, I bore to the southeast and tried to stay on track in the low visibility.Eventually, though, the clouds parted, and I enjoyed a phenomenal view of the canyon country to the west. Beauty.

Continuing my descent down from the Henrys, I encountered wonderful, clean water, and tanked up. I followed a rather annoying little drainage downstream, bypassing pouroffs and slipping and sliding my way over treacherous, slippery mud.

Progress is slow when walking through mud, but by late afternoon, I got to the bottom of the canyon and spent a few miles on a boring, yet quick roadwalk. I cowboy camped at a solar-powered water catchment installation, using cow patties as a pillow. Standards: lowered. Heat lightning flashed in the distance as I rolled my sleeping bag out and fell asleep under the brilliant stars.

Sometime during the night, that heat lightning became real lightning, and my tarp-pitching skills faced a stiff test - how many seconds does it take you to set it up a windwhipped pyramid of nylon? I am proud to say that I got it set up with seconds to spare, and spent the rest of the night trying to hide from the sandblasting wind.

Day 3

Morning dawned clear though, and it was evident that the pattern was changing after three days of iffy weather. It's a good thing the morning consisted of a roadwalk, because the afternoon was significantly more exciting: I crawled my way down a series of ledges. I braced myself with my trekking poles as I descended down a steep dirt slope. I tried to find cattle trails that didn't exist. I pushed my way through thick brush. The Hayduke - in a nutshell.

 It was also remote. Aside from an ancient, almost imperceptible mining cart track, there were no signs of human activity on this mesa - Swap Mesa. A crypic route across a desolate and beautiful landscape. Quietness.

I dropped down into the eponymous Swap Canyon. A marginal spring, slightly green, represented my last water for twenty miles. Time to grin and bear the algae. But a little so-so water couldn't spoil my evening - it was too beautiful for that. The new moon revealed a tapestry of stars. It was cold. Frost formed on my sleeping bag. I had to toss and turn to stay warm. I didn't mind.

Day 4

Swap Canyon is one of those forgotten places in the desert Southwest. It's pretty, but not world-class gorgeous. It's got water, but the water isn't great. But what it does have is a certain remoteness. Only a tiny handful of people, I'm certain, pass through here every year.

Swap Canyon feeds out into Capitol Reef National Park. On a dirt road, I climbed up the Waterpocket Fold, a giant ripple in the Earth's crust a couple hundred miles long. Next up - the amazing Lower Muley Twist Canyon. Muley Twist's gigantic sandstone walls and deep alcoves were a treat. I camped in one particularly large alcove, at least a hundred feet deep. Scratched into the walls with bullet lead were the names of cowboys from a century ago - "E.G. Slocomb, 1921" was my personal favorite.

 Day 5

The sandstone walls of Lower Muley Twist soon gave way to the wide-open valley of Halls Creek. Halls Creek flows south from Capitol Reef to Lake Powell, forming a deep graben separating the mesas on the east from the Waterpocket Fold on the west. Most of the day was fairly uneventful - about mid-morning I passed the Muley Tanks, a pair of deep, crystal clear potholes. They were my first water sources in twenty miles, but they were absolutely worth the wait. It's amazing how delicious water can be when it's in scarce supply. I also stopped by the "Hamburger Rocks", a desert oddity that has to be seen to be believed.

Miles in Halls Creek were alternately boring (when I was able to find cattle trails) and frustrating (when I wasn't able to find said cattle trails). I tried to avoid walking in the wash as much as possible - the mud was unbelievably slippery and generally nasty. Near the end of the day, I reached the Halls Creek Narrows. Halls Creek abandons its broad valley for several miles and twists and turns its way, carving a narrow serpentine canyon into the Waterpocket Fold. While the mapset I was using recommended following the valley over Halls Divide, I decided to check out Halls Creek Narrows.

I knew I wouldn't be able to make it all the way through. Quicksand and deep water can be problems in Halls Creek Narrows even in dry conditions, and given the recent rains and flooding, I knew that I would hit an impassible section sooner or later. But I headed in, knowing I'd have to turn around at some point. The Narrows blew me away. The walls towered above me, the canyon only ten feet wide in spots. It twisted and turned around itself dozens of times. After several turns, I came upon an improbable campsite - nestled high above the water level on a sand dune where the stream made a horseshoe bend. I dropped my pack there and explored a half mile farther, returning after finding a very deep pool of water that blocked my progress. I camped in a surreal site, surrounded on almost all sides by a the stream, and its attendant canyon walls.

Day 6

It was a hard day. I backtracked to Halls Divide and continued my journey southward, toward Lake Powell. The miles themselves passed easily - however the day was a mental struggle. The desert sun blazed fiercely. I had to ration my water and I was running short on food. My appetite had been turned up to eleven over the past few days, and suddenly my nine days of food looked more like seven. And I knew that, at the end of the day, I would encounter a tricky navigational section as I finally left Halls Creek and climbed over the Waterpocket Fold to the west.

But the day presented a reward along with its challenges. I climbed the Waterpocket Fold and was rewarded with outstanding views - I could see the Henry Mountains, Navajo Mountain, Fifty Mile Mountain, and every other prominent feature for a hundred miles. This was the heart of the American Southwest.

The Waterpocket Fold's elevation also afforded me the opportunity to send a text to my buddies Justin and Sam, who were due to meet me in Coyote Gulch on Day 8. I was close enough to the Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell to have cell service. I felt a twinge of guilt for taking advantage of that amenity - one that came at a terrible price: the damming of Glen Canyon a half century ago.

I slept just below the crest of the Waterpocket Fold, in the upper reaches of what would eventually become Stevens Canyon. With the lake out of sight (and therefore out of mind), the feeling of big, deep wilderness returned.

Day 7

On every long hike, there's a particular day I look forward to most. On the Appalachian Trail, it was Mt. Washington Day.. On the Wind River Fun Route, it was Blaurock Pass Day. On this section of the Hayduke, it was Stevens Canyon Day.

Stevens Canyon is, in a nutshell, the reason why I hike the Hayduke. It's a big, long canyon. It's got spectacular views, occasional good water, and only a handful of people visit it annually. Several impassible dryfalls block the path along the canyon bottom. The only route involves significant sidehilling along the south wall of the canyon, several hundred feet above the bottom. While not for the fainthearted, the traverse offered spectacular views.

After several hours of traversing high above the canyon floor, I dropped back down to the canyon bottom on a steep shoulder of slickrock. The next four miles were lush and green - and plenty of poison ivy attended my way. As I approached the Escalante River, the canyon got wetter, deeper, and darker, and soon I found myself slogging through thigh-deep mud. Exhausted and dirty, I stumbled my way to the confluence of Stevens Canyon and the Escalante.

The Escalante was my Rubicon; my Jordan River. On the other side of the Escalante lay Coyote Gulch - a well-trod backpacking destination with abundant water, helpful use trails, and plenty of tourists to yogi food off of if necessary. A land flowing with clear spring water, which is the next best thing to milk and honey.

But the final obstacle was the Escalante itself. I had to walk a mile and a half down the river to where the Escalante and Coyote Gulch flowed together. And the recent rains had increased the flow of the river. Travel on the Escalante is exceedingly difficult. Thick tamarisk chokes each shore, making travel on the banks impossible. The water resembles chocolate milk, making it impossible to see any obstacles below the surface. And to top it off, I was quickly running out of daylight.

The splash down the river was a battle. I prepped my backpack in case I needed to swim. I avoided all the deep spots and still contended with waist-deep water. But presently I arrived at the junction with Coyote Gulch. Home Free. I turned around to see Stevens Natural Arch ablaze with the setting sun. I found a campsite under a rock overhang. What a day. What an adventure. Freedom. Beauty. Quietness.

Day 8

A trip through Coyote Gulch should never be considered anticlimactic, but there's a certain sense in which I had "made it". I had agreed to meet Sam and Justin near the lower end of Coyote Gulch, so I had all morning to explore. I climbed up and out of the canyon on a massive sand dune, through a crack in the canyon wall (fittingly named "Crack-In-The-Wall") and soaked in an incredible panorama of the Escalante canyon country. I meandered my way back down into the canyon, devoured the remainder of my food bag, and relaxed while I waited for Justin and Sam.

I saw people! For the first time in six days, I saw other humans. I wanted to say something to them but didn't know what to say. For their part, they seemed relatively uninterested in making  conversation - Coyote is a fairly busy place; I imagine they were experiencing social burnout. I felt completely out of sorts. Soon enough, Justin and Sam showed up. We took brief side trips to the confluence with the Escalante, as well as Crack-In-The-Wall. I took a certain joy in being able to share these amazing places with good friends.

We hiked a few miles up the canyon and made camp. Unlike my quiet, remote camps of the last week, this was a lively experience. We sat around late into the evening, chatting and eating. I was so hungry that I shamelessly accepted (ok fine, I begged) excess food off the guys. And if that act of generosity wasn't enough, they produced celebratory beers that they had packed in. Rigorous scientific inquiry has proven that finely-crafted India Pale Ale tastes far superior to muddy water and off-brand Crystal Light. Guys, if you're reading this, I owe you one.

The next day dawned all too early. We packed up and headed on our way. We passed the fantastic Jacob Hamblin Arch and all-too-quickly reached the side canyon where we'd turn off. We headed up a wide, sandy wash. The sun was sweltering, but soon enough we reached the trailhead. After the obligatory stop at at the Subway in Torrey (which I frequent probably 5 or 6 times per year on average), we drove over to Hanksville to pick up my car. Before long, I was rolling back into the noise and chaos of Salt Lake City - the stillness of the desert in my rear-view mirror.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Partially Tame; Entirely Beautiful

Early fall is, by far, the best season. This is an authoritative, universal fact, and ought not to be questioned. The last of the previous winter's snows have finally melted, the bugs have died off, a yellow hue begins creeping through the aspen grove, and on the shady sides of the highest peaks, there's just a trace of snow. A month ago, I had to fight swarms of bugs and swarms of people. A month from now, I'll be huddled in my sleeping bag as an early-season snowstorm rips through the mountains. But this - this is perfection.

The nights are chilly, no doubt about that. But still, the cheery sunshine boosts the temperatures as soon as it peeks over the horizon. The frost accumulates thick at  night, but is burned away within minutes of sunrise. Time flies though - it's the upper elevations' last hurrah before winter.

Inexplicably, I had lived in Utah for the better part of four years, and had never climbed any of the peaks in the upper part of Big Cottonwood Canyon (Patsy Marley and the Honeycomb Cliffs don't exactly count). For one, none of them rise above 11,000 feet, and thus don't fall on the list of classic Wasatch giants. For another, the top of Big Cottonwood is the hub of ski-area activity. From some peaks in the area, six different resorts are visible, and three more are hidden just behind ridgelines. I prefer my wild places a bit... wilder.

But I had been looking at the lake country just on the east side of the Wasatch crest for some time now, and had been eyeing a couple nice-looking lakes to camp at. And just adjacent to the lake region was the string of peaks that surround Brighton ski area - a string of peaks I'd never explored.

I expected nice fall scenery. I expected a bit of melancholy over the degradation of wild places. But I didn't expect to be blown away. 

It's always a thrill to get out of work and camp two miles above sea level just hours later. I parked my car in the Brighton parking lot and explored the surrounding slopes. Before the area was purchased by the Forest Service, several generations of people had built cabins in the upper Cottonwoods. You can find many quaint/grandiose/ramshackle cabins grandfathered in, including several dozen within ski area boundaries. I wandered around, looking at the architecture and wondering how much, exactly, these places sell for. By and by, a few friends showed up, and we carpooled up to Guardsman Pass, head of Big Cottonwood.

We parked at Guardsman and descended a few hundred feet to a couple of very well-used campsites at busy Bloods Lake. We opted to bypass the lake and climb up to the ridge on the other side of the lake. By this time, it was getting dark and we set up camp on a grassy ridge overlooking Park City. It was a gorgeous (albeit chilly) evening and I camped under the stars for the first time in a couple months (mountain weather has a funny way of making that a very bad idea most of the time). The frost was thick and heavy, and I dreamed about soaking in a steaming hot tub - and plotted modifications to my gear for the winter season. But the amazing sunrise over the distant Uintas made the cold night worth it, and the sun soon bathed everything in warmth.

After lazing over breakfast (an amber ale, a bag of gummy bears, and a handful of pretzels, just like they teach you in Home Economics), we all set out on our ways - they headed back to the car, and I bushwhacked steeply uphill, toward the day's first objective - peak 10,420.

10,420 is a pretty dull name, not only because it looks weird at the beginning of a sentence (sorry for that brief foray into recursion), but also because it's a neat little peak and deserves something a little warmer than a clinical-sounding moniker. I paused for a few minutes on top and took in the mountain views. One peak down, seven to go.

Down into a dip, up to another summit - Clayton Peak, elevation 10,721. Beautiful yellow leaves, a hardcore lady in her 70s hiking solo. A half mile of trail. A minor peak covered in nasty scrub oak (Preston, 10,315). Down again - past the top of the ski lift I frequent on dark winter evenings. Ahead, the terrain grew steeper. 

I climbed over another minor peak, this one unnamed. A bunch of loud ATV's roared past on a jeep road below. The ridge turned downward briefly before ascending further to Pioneer Peak. At 10,420, Pioneer is the exact same height as the first peak I climbed (we'll call it Recursive Peak, just to complete the Möbius loop), and even less prominent. Yet somehow, Pioneer has the honor of a proper name. 

Pioneer Peak marks the mental halfway point of the ridgewalk, even though it's a little bit more than that distance-wise. From Pioneer on, it's constant steep ups and downs the rest of the way. The rock turns white and sandy, almost chalk-like. After a short but steep downhill to a saddle, I climbed up to Sunset Peak, where a group of loud townies were perched, having climbed from Catherine Pass. I hastened off the summit and down to the pass, a bit perturbed at how obnoxious several people were being. Don't get me started on the subject of yelling in the mountains. Ditto for playing top-forty hits over speakerphone.

[takes several deep breaths, counts to ten, regains composure]

Once past Catherine Pass, the ridge ascended steeply to Mt Tuscarora. Tuscarora isn't really a peak of its own, merely a shoulder of Mt Wolverine. I traversed the ridge and reached the highest peak on the route, Mt. Wolverine. Coincidentally, the Michigan Wolverines football game had just kicked off, and yes, of course I checked the score (they were losing early in the first half, but came back to win convincingly). Seven ought of eight peaks done.

The last peak, Mt Millicent, only stands at about 10,400, but it's by far the roughest. Large, steep talus litters all sides of the mountain. Getting to the summit wasn't too bad, however the descent down its north slope extremely slow and tedius. The boulders were unstable and steep - perfect ankle-twisting terrain. With an appropriate amount of caution, I slowly made my way down to a trail. After having hiked off-trail (or on faint/skethy trail) for hour, I felt relieved to have terrain pass under my feet at three miles an hour. Despite the ski lifts, the clear-cut ski runs, and the ever-present hum of ATV's, I had wandered through a truly beautiful place. I arrived at my car, thoroughly impressed by the fantastic vistas, the cheery fall colors, and a corner of the Wasatch that I'd previously written off. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Off the Beaten Path

In the Beartooth Range of southern Montana, there's a hiking trail called the "Beaten Path". It traverses the range from north to south. From all accounts, it's a lovely trail. But I wasn't interested in the Beaten Path, metaphorical or otherwise. You may insert the appropriate Robert Frost cliché here. The alternative? A "High Route" of sorts. The "High Route" craze has been sweeping the backpacking scene in the past few years - it eschews trails to follow the main line of a mountain range or other geological feature. It aims to show the "very best" that a place has to offer.

Unfortunately, like everything else in the human enterprise, High Routes tend to become an occasion for people to bicker on the internet (note - these people would be much better served by getting off said internet and actually go outside). Everybody thinks their special unique little snowflake hiking route is worth of the designation "High Route". And when other people offer contrary proposals for the same area, they're quick to take up arms. And that's just silly. When my buddy Zippy and I did a traverse of the Wind River range last year, we called it a "Fun Route". And when I did a traverse of the Beartooths this summer, I again called it the "Beartooths Fun Route". Hike off-trail, stay high, see as many beautiful things as possible. Don't worry about the mirage of ideological purity.

I had a 7-9 day trip planned. From the get-go, I knew that weather was key. It's simply impossible to navigate, above treeline, hopping over washing-machine sized boulders, when it's socked in, rainy, and windy. If the weather deteriorated, I knew I'd have to bail.

I drove up Friday evening after work. It was a long drive, around eight hours, and I finally made it to the trailhead around midnight and crashed in the back of my car. As a side note, any outdoor-minded person should lay down in the back and make sure they can fit prior to purchasing a new vehicle. I'm 5'7" or so and I fit - but I wouldn't fit if I were 5'10".

The next morning I got up bright and early and started hitchhiking. The plan was to hitch to the start of my route, and hike back to my car. I had a little trouble getting a ride, but eventually a lady with three overly-friendly dogs picked me up. Obviously sensing my great love and affection for canines, a border collie cozied up to me and I ended up riding shotgun with forty pounds of fur snuggled in my lap. Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week.

It was a beautiful day up Beartooth Pass, where the road crested. I hopped out and began walking. The Fun Route immediately revealed its colors - a short but very steep uphill, followed by endless talus hopping. Travel was slow. But the scenery sure was worth it. I hiked thousands of feet below innumerable glacial cirques, past snow-covered peaks, and past turquoise-colored lakes. While I wasn't moving quickly, the ridgetop travel would actually turn out to be some of the fastest hiking I did on the whole trip. But whatever goes up must come down, and soon I encountered a glacial valley that I had to descend into in order to get off the ridge. It was hard hiking. The talus was steep and not particularly stable. I crept downward gingerly to avoid disturbing any of the rocks, poised to tumble downhill. After a while I made it down to a small stream, that I would follow downhill to the lake where I planned to camp for the night.

Just one little problem though - the stream, at some point, turned into a waterfall, and I was again scrambling gingerly down boulders. At long last I reached my campsite, ate supper, and set up my shelter. I crawled into my sleeping bag, and browsed the day's pictures...

...and boy, am I glad I did! They all had a nasty, orange tint to them! What happened!? I turned over my phone, and found the offender - an orange gummy bear shard, stuck to the camera lens. Not ideal, but at least I was able to remove it and save any upcoming photos from the affliction of the orange haze.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny.The first half of the day promised relatively easy hiking - small ups and downs as I followed a long chain of lakes westward, beneath the main crest of the range. The afternoon turned out to be harder - the route went up and up. I hiked on a little lingering snow, and detoured around a small glacier that wasn't marked on the map. I'd call it a snow field, but when it has its own moraine and crevasses, I think it's graduated to "glacier" status.

Around 5PM, the clouds obscured the sun, the wind picked up, and the clouds built overhead. A little late for the afternoon instability to start up, but nonetheless it quickly grew very cold and started to rain. I set up my shelter in a hurry, and spent the evening at the inlet of an extremely remote lake, in an obscure corner of the range. It wasn't loneliness, it was aloneness. And not the bad kind, either. 

Some time during the night, the rain stopped and the wind died down, and the morning dawned brilliantly yet again. I got up and hiked over a pass to Red Rocks Lake. My route led along the north shore of the lake, where I'd climb another pass to another, higher lake. When I was sitting on the couch planning it, this seemed like a great idea. However, as I stood there on the lakeshore, I realized that the north side was completely impassible. Sheer hundred-foot cliffs guarded the north shore. I'd have to circumnavigate almost the entire lake to get to the other side of the cliffs, just a couple hundred feet away. The circumnavigation was no small feat either, requiring numerous small elevation gains and losses to navigate around cliffs and steep terrain. But with time I made my way around, up to another lake, up to yet another lake, and so on. Eventually, I topped out. And then came the descent.

I though the descent was going to be worse than it was. It was about a thousand feet (perhaps a bit more) and the top 500 feet was very, very steep. I had no beta on the route and frankly wasn't sure whether it was doable. But thankfully, I found a series of grassy ramps all the way down the steep part. Just a couple scramble moves sufficed. From there on, it was a less steep, bouldery descent all the way to Fossil Lake.Fossil Lake is the lowest point on the Beartooths Fun Route, and the highest point on the Beaten Path, just on the fringes of treeline. I briefly followed the Beaten Path for less than a mile.

Soon enough, it was time to leave the Beaten Path for the more comfortable environs of trail-less terrain. I stopped for a while and set up my shelter at tiny Oly Lake, as threatening clouds billowed. Of course, it didn't end up raining. Finally I decided to press on toward Lower Cairn Lake and camp there for the evening. My delicate Achilles was starting to remind me of its existence, and progress was slow over the rough terrain. But finally I arrived at the the lake, and was blessed with an absolutely perfect campsite. I set up my tent under threatening skies and distantly booming thunder. Perhaps ten seconds after i finished, the storm broke overhead and skittle-sized hail started pounding. I waited out the storm for a half hour, and to my amazement, the weather cleared up shortly thereafter. I grabbed my still-too-heavy food bag and my phone and sat on a rock, reading the Bible as the sun set in the beautiful and rugged basin.

That evening I made an important decision Originally, I was planning to cut across lower Sky Top basin, head west, and circle back several days later to hit upper Sky Top and Granite Peak, the highest in Montana. However, my most recent weather forecast had indicated that the weather was supposed to break down in the next couple days. I was fairly confident that 1) the weather would flake out, forcing me to shorten/modify my trip and 2) I would have cell service on top of Granite Peak to check the weather. So I decided to detour slightly and climb Granite on the front end. It turned out to be a wise choice.

But first I had to get out of Cairn Lake Basin. Easier said than done, as the walls of the basin were steep and numerous cliff bands dropped into the lake. I ended up side-hilling on some very steep terrain, but with a little grunting and groaning on rock-hopping, I eventually made way up and over the ridge into Sky Top basin. I kept hiking at a pretty good clip, eager to start the climb as soon as possible. My six-day-old forecast seemed to indicate that today would be stable weather-wise, but I know better than to trust a mountain forecast, much less one from the better part of a week ago. So I kept moving all morning and reached the base of Granite Peak around 11AM. The face looked sheer and vertical - simply undoable - but there was supposedly a route.

While I was stashing my stuff under a rock and preparing to ascend, I heard a crashing sound - somebody had kicked a rock. It bounced and rolled at terrifying speeds all the way down the steep side of the mountain. I was content to wait a few minutes and let them get out off the ramp prior to starting my climb.

Ah yes, the ramp. Among the 50 state highpoints, Granite is typically ranked anywhere from #2-#4 in terms of difficulty. The standard route is high-end class 4 climbing and merits the use of ropes, however there's a route on the southwest face that's rated class 3. This was the route that I climbed. The route climbs through some very steep and loose talus and rockfall danger is not something to be taken lightly. The route climbs up a "ramp", essentially a weakness in the cliff-like southwest face. The climb itself didn't take as long as I thought - the route ascends very steeply. It was a mixture of slogging through unstable talus and scrambling on solid rock. The scrambling was fun, but the talus slog was a little scary. Although I was fairly confident hat nobody was below me, I was still paranoid about sending rocks crashing on their heads. Near the top, I met a couple guys - the same ones who had dispatched the rock I had seen tumbling earlier. They were the first people I had seen in four days.

The weather on the summit was simply gorgeous - clouds were building very slightly, but nothing to worry about. The views were stunning - glaciers, high plateaus, milky-blue lakes, and distant horizons. But despite the beauty, I wasn't entirely relaxed - I knew I had to go back down the steep, loose, unstable ramp. Fortified with more than a little prayer, I began my descent. It turned out to be fine - the difficulty had been more a result of my mental state than anything else. Soon enough, I arrived back at the base of the mountain, grabbed my pack, and headed back down the way I came into lower Sky Top basin. 

Smoke moved in that afternoon, the result of a wildfire burning to the southeast. The sun grew dim and red and everything smelled like campfire. I made camp behind some rocks next to a lake and hardly had energy to eat supper before falling asleep. I heard the chewing of mountain goats on the local grasses in the middle of the night, twice getting up to throw some rocks at the shaggy white creatures to keep them away from my camp. 

The morning dawned bright and clear, once again. Atop Granite, I had taken advantage of unlikely cell service to check the weather. And the decision was made for me. The next three days were supposed to be cold, rainy, and windy. There was no way I'd be going anywhere, not above treeline and off-trail, in that kind of weather. I had to bail. So I headed over one final off-trail pass to the absolutely beautiful Aero Lakes, a pair of huge alpine lakes situated beneath picturesque rock spires. I made my way around the lakes. This is where the Fun Route ended. It would be seven miles, on-trail, to the highway just outside Cooke City.

Once at the outlet of the lakes, I lost my way - I couldn't find where the trail picked up! I wandered around for at last 45 minutes trying to find a trail. After having hiked without a trail for 5 days, it was jarring to have to find a designated footpath. Finally I found it, and headed down the trail. The miles passed quickly and my feet, not used to the repetitive motion of walking on a smooth trail, started complaining. Strange how that happens! I walked through some burn areas, dead tree corpses everywhere, and ended up at the highway. From here it was a fifty-mile hitch back to my car. 

Overall, the Beartooths Fun Route was amazing - simply outstanding. For the experienced adventurer, one of the most enjoyable things is to chart one's own course through a beautiful, harsh, wild landscape. I had five days of very good weather, and a route like this can only be undertaken in good weather. I saw more mountain goats than people. I camped in sublime locations. I crossed glaciers and skirted lakes. It was truly the trip of a lifetime.