Friday, November 23, 2018

National Park Bingo. Play Along!

One of the chief delights of spending time in National Parks or other touristy areas is people-watching. Perhaps you've heard the stories of people putting baby bison in their cars, getting way too close to active geysers, or following their GPS units into the middle of nowhere

But sometimes the tourists are just funny. Way too much gear for a simple two-mile hike? Check. Folks complaining about the lack of wifi and/or cell reception? Check.
We've all seen those tourists before. We've all been those tourists before. 

Next time you're in a park, bring along these handy bingo cards! You can even play with friends!

Download Link

The Uinta Highline Trail - A Guide

in light of the coronavirus pandemic, this page will not be updated for the 2020 hiking season. Utah is in the midst of a surge of cases on the eve of the typical (July-September) UHT hiking season. While hiking through the wilderness is social-distancing-friendly, the logistics of a point-to-point hike is not. It is impossible to maintain distance while flying, taking a commercial shuttle service, or sitting in the car with a friend for multiple hours. Unless you have a member of your household (spouse, roommate, parent, or at-home child) who is willing to shuttle you, hiking the UHT is not advised this yeae. Let's all do the right thing in 2020 and hopefully 2021 will be an unforgettable hiking season!

The Highline Trail! Yes indeed. I get quite a few questions on it from time to time. This is (hopefully) a straightforward description that answers those questions.

Where is it?

The Uinta Range, in northwest Utah, is Utah's highest range, and a western extension of the Rocky Mountains. Unusually, it runs east-west rather than north-south.

Big passes, high alpine terrain, hundreds of magnificent lakes. Beautiful wildflowers, great fishing, and solitude. Need I say more?

How long is it? 

Anywhere from 70-100 miles, depending on your choice of eastern trailhead (more on that below). Call it 6-10 days for your average hiker.

Where is the eastern trailhead?

There are three options:
  1.  The "true" trailhead on Highway 191 (105 miles). This trailhead makes for the longest hike and easiest logistics, but the first 15-20 miles are mostly a forest walk, and don't really fit the high alpine theme of the rest of the route.
  2. Leidy Peak/Hacking Lake trailhead (80 miles). This trailhead is located at what I'd consider to be the "true" eastern end of the classic High Uintas. The access road is fairly good. This is the longest car shuttle of the three options.
  3. Chipeta Dam trailhead (70 miles). This trailhead makes for the shortest hike. The access road is fairly rough, although doable for most passenger cars with a little care.
I personally highly recommend option #2, the Leidy Peak trailhead. Leidy Peak is the easternmost 12,000-foot peak in the range and the easternmost point above treeline. Starting at Leidy will give you an all-killer-no-filler hike which has a consistent theme and feels "complete". Starting at the Highway 191 trailhead, to me, seems like a 20-mile approach trail just to get to the good stuff. Starting at Chipeta Dam misses a rather nice section of trail, for no real appreciable benefit. As always, hike your own hike!

Where is the western trailhead?

Hayden Pass Trailhead, on Mirror Lake Highway.

How do I get from one trailhead to another?

This is the most significant logistical challenge of the Highline. Those who have friends/family in the area are probably best off bribing somebody with gas money and a nice dinner. Those from out of state will have a bit harder time. There was, and possibly is, a shuttle service available - Wilkins Shuttles. It sounds like Wilkins has gone through some transitions in recent years - for a while, the service was not offered, but as of this writing, in May of 2019, their website advertises fares for the various trailhead options. I would recommend contacting them directly, well in advance of your hike, to ensure that the shuttle service is something they can facilitate.

I've also seen various people offer their services on the internet over the years, but they come and go quickly.

Hitchhiking is possible if you take the 105-mile Option #1, from Highway 191. The best hitching route (from the western terminus to the eastern) is as follows:

1. From Hayden Pass to Kamas on UT 150.
2. From Kamas to Heber on UT 32. Beg and plead with your ride, if you can, to drop you off on the south side of Heber on US 40. Otherwise you'll be walking a few miles through town to get into more rural areas where hitching is easier.
3. From Heber to Vernal on US 40. This is a long stretch but there aren't very many towns along the way and there's plenty of thru traffic.
4. From Vernal to the trailhead on US 191.

While not the shortest possible option, it's probably the fastest. I would avoid the shorter routes on UT 35 (no traffic) and I-80 (Interstates are misery to hitch on) and use the recommended route. Even so, plan on taking a full day or more to get all the necessary rides.

My best recommendation though, at this point, is to self-shuttle using a mixture of hitchhiking, Greyhound buses, and free Park City buses. For detailed information, step-by-step directions, maps, and more, please visit the UHT Shuttle Page.

When can I hike it?

As soon as Dead Horse Pass melts out. In most years, that's around mid-July. I hiked it in an average snow year, and the north side of Dead Horse was still fairly snowbound as of the 4th of July. If I were planning the trip in advance, I probably wouldn't plan to start until about the 3rd week of July. In a high snow year, it may not be doable, without an ice axe at least, until August. By mid-September, winter is on its way. Call it mid-July through mid-September.

When should I hike it?

In July, you'll have patches of snow garnishing the landscape, beautiful fields of wildflowers, and abundant water. You'll also have muddy trails, potential lingering snowfield issues, daily thunderstorms, and oft-horrendous mosquitos.

In August, you'll have drier trails, fewer bugs, and golden grasses in the high basins. You'll still have thunderstorm issues and quite a few bugs.

In September, you'll have beautiful fall colors (when below treeline), very few thunderstorms, and no bugs. You'll also have colder temperatures and the every-present threat of early season snow.

In my mind, the end of August is an ideal time to hike the Highline - in that short window between when the bugs and thunderstorms subside, and when winter hits. Were I to plan a trip right now, I'd plan it for the last week of August. YMMV!

What direction should I hike it?

It doesn't really matter all that much. It's probably a little bit more common to hike westbound, for a couple of reasons:
  1. The west end of the Highline is a more spectacular than the east end, particularly if you stick to the official route. It's a nice feeling to have something even better to look forward to.
  2. Whether you're from Utah or elsewhere, you're likely going to be coming from Salt Lake City. Parking your car at the west end and getting shuttled to the east end, before your hike begins, allows you to save a little gas, and walk back to your car when you're done. I always try and get a hitch/shuttle/ride on the front end whenever possible, so I can get that logistical worry out of the way, and so I don't smell as disgusting when someone else is giving me a ride in their car.
Where can I get maps for it?

Maps for this trail are remarkably straightforward. If choose trailhead #2 or #3, as outlined above, you'll need Trails Illustrated Map 711, available at any outfitter in Utah or on the interwebs. If you choose #1, you'll need 711 and 704.

You can also print DIY maps using Caltopo. Simply follow this link (embedded below as well) and print to your heart's content.If you're doing a significant amount of off-trail navigation, this may be a better choice. The Trails Illustrated maps are just fine for on-trail and easy off-trail navigation; however, they have 100-foot contour lines rather than 40-foot contour lines and don't provide as much detail as a Caltopo 7.5" quad would offer.

What's the trail like under my feet?

The trail can be a little faint at times, especially through meadows and open areas. Remember, this trail is pretty remote and doesn't see a lot of people in most areas. It is a bit rocky in places, especially where horses have done damage to the trail. Be prepared for a few slow/frustrating miles. In general though, it's fairly straightforward walking - generally fairly flat, except for the passes.

What about the passes?

Glad you asked! There are eight named passes on the official route, described here from east to west.

  1. Gabbro Pass (11,700'): nothing particularly complicated, although snow cornices can hang around for an uncomfortably long time on the eastern side. You may be able to sneak around the snow by staying north of the actual pass on the main Uintas crest, as shown on the mapped alternate. After Deadman Lake, there's a 400' climb back up before you crest an unnamed pass and drop to Whiterocks Lake
  2. North Pole Pass (12,200'): This one may hit you like a ton of bricks. It's not very steep, but it's your first 12,000' pass of the trip unless you've been taking the ridgetop alternates.
  3. Anderson Pass (12,800'): The highest point on the UHT. It's mostly just a long uphill, and those in good high altitude shape may be able to power up. Don't forget to tag Kings Peak! The west side looks intimidatingly steep, but there's a fairly good trail down.
  4. Tungsten Pass (11,400'): A total joke - hardly worth being called a pass at all.
  5. Porcupine Pass (12,200'): Gradual approach from the east, dropping off sharply on the west side. A decent trail most of the way. 
  6. Red Knob Pass (12,000'): A little confusing. There is a trail junction atop the pass - the East Fork Blacks Fork trail runs parallel to the ridge and joins the Highline trail from the East. You want to head north, then southwest, into West Fork Blacks Fork drainage. 
  7. Dead Horse Pass (11,600'): The crux of the official route. The north side of Dead Horse generally holds snow well into July. It is steep and loose and, if the trail is still snowcovered, a bit treacherous. Be careful!
  8. Rocky Sea Pass (11,300): The last pass on the trail. The western approach is fairly steep and rocky, but nothing to be concerned about. If you did Dead Horse, Rocky Sea won't be a problem.

Any special route recommendations?

To be perfectly frank, certain parts of the Highline are just plain boring. Fortunately, there are scenic bypasses for all of these stretches, of varying levels of adventure. There are four stretches that come to mind:

  1. Gabbro Pass to North Pole Pass. It's a muddy, buggy slog through lowlands with no views. Bypass: a huge, awesome ridgewalk. I've done the whole thing and can confirm it goes. Shortly after leaving the Leidy Peak trailhead, climb Leidy itself, and simply stay on the main Uintas crest. I'd recommend this to anybody who's in good high-altitude shape, as long as the weather is good. More on both those topics later.
  2. North Pole Pass to Anderson Pass. Another buggy hike through lowlands with no views. Bypass: Another huge, awesome ridgewalk. I have not actually walked the mapped route, but I'm fairly certain it goes. And if it goes, I'm sure it's amazing. Lot of up and down in this section, but you also get to climb the third-highest peak in Utah, Gilbert Peak.
  3. Rock Creek Basin. After descending Dead Horse Pass, the Highline dives down to the bottom of Rock Creek basin. I've heard multiple reports that the Highline is badly maintained and hard to follow, again with no views deep in the trees. Bypass: Contour around the top of the Rock Creek Shelf, soon thereafter joining up with the Head of Rock Creek Trail. This alternate is almost entirely on-trail, and is supposed to be beautiful. You can also take the Jack and Jill trail if you prefer, but I'd recommend the Head of Rock Creek trail.
  4. Rocky Sea Pass to Hayden Pass. The official route skips Naturalist and Middle Basins, which are both exquisite. Bypass: this alt sneaks over an off-trail pass from Naturalist to Middle basin, and then climbs, still off-trail, over a sag in the ridge and descends steeply to Hayden Pass. This route deserves a caveat emptor. It goes - but it's significantly harder, higher, and more spectacular than the boring forest walk on the official route. This is a level of hiking harder than everything else on the Highline. I haven't mapped it for a reason. Those who do it must have a level of expertise that would make it a trivial task to map it for themselves. There are a couple of low-end fifth class moves.
In addition to the alternates listed above, make sure to drop your pack at Anderson Pass and tag Kings Peak, the highest in Utah (13,528'). It's 0.8 miles each way from Anderson and won't take you more than an hour or an hour or two, even at the high altitude. 

What about weather?

It's gnarly, no two ways about it. Particularly in the height of summer, the Uintas experience a consistent afternoon thunderstorm pattern. And unless you're interested in getting charbroiled by an ambitious bolt of lightning, you'll probably want to be below treeline by noon each day. That often means you'll hide in your tent for a couple hours while it storms like the dickens outside.

In general, hikers in the Uintas are served well by getting up early and hiking hard all morning, knowing that the afternoon will be slower as the storms roll through. The passes, conveniently, are about a dozen miles apart. Start hiking at 6am, at 2mph, and you'll have done your daily mileage by noon.

What about bears?

They're not a big problem up high. I don't know anybody who's seen one above 10k in the Uintas - and the UHT is entirely above 10k for its entire length. That said, normal bear precautions/proper food storage is always a good idea. No specific bear regulations apply to the area. Utah is not home to any grizzlies at this time - only black bears.

This may change in coming years though. The grizzly has expanded its habitat in recent years, even being seen in the southern part of the Wind River Range. From the Winds, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to the Uintas. Perhaps in several years, grizzlies will return to the Uintas. 

What about red tape?

Basically none. Yippee! If you park a vehicle on the west end, along Mirror Lake Highway, a self-service permit is required. Permits are available along the highway, just west of Kamas, UT, or south of Evanston, Wyoming. You can't get the trailhead without passing a permit station along the way. As of 2017, America the Beautiful passes were accepted.

What about fishing?

It's excellent. Fish will bite at just about everything up there. Dead Horse and North Star lakes looked particularly appealing. Don't forget to get a Utah fishing license

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Safety Series Part 4: What Do I Need For Navigation?

In retrospect, attaching my maps to a lanyard around my neck might not have been the best idea:
It was slow going. The terrain was steep with lots of ups and downs. Branches tugged at me as I ducked over, under, and around them. I stopped to check the...
MAP. Where's the map?
It was on the lanyard around my neck just a few minutes ago. But now the lanyard was broken, dangling mournfully around my neck. And that map pack was nowhere to be found. I attempted to re-trace my steps, but it was impossible. It could be anywhere. I walked a mile back and forth, looking for where it fell. Nowhere.

I sat on a fallen pinyon trunk and tried and compose my thoughts. I had no map, 40 miles from the nearest paved road. I had downloaded a backcountry mapping program onto my phone, but had cell coverage to access the topo for this area. However, even though I didn't have topographical data, I still had a GPS track of the route saved on my phone. A blue line through empty space. I had no choice - try to follow that line - and be cognizant of the remaining battery.
I knew that, as long as I made it into Dark Canyon, I'd be home free. I expected to see backpackers in Dark Canyon and in the worst case scenario, I could hitch a ride back to my car from them. The challenge was getting there. I aligned my phone to north with my compass, shot a bearing, and started following my compass, overland, south-southeast. I had to go three miles and end up in the right canyon system. Messing up was not an option.
Spoiler: I made it back to civilization just fine. But things could have been a lot worse. It's a good thing I had that GPS track on my phone, even without topo data. That squiggly line through empty space saved my bacon. I had one and a half sources of navigational data. That was enough - but just, just barely. And had I not basically memorized the map before I lost it, it wouldn't have been enough.


Spend enough time in hiking circles on the Internet, and you'll soon find people debating the merits of GPS apps versus map-and-compass navigation. I'm not going to go into it here, except to say that both GPS and map-and-compass have their benefits and drawbacks. 

The real problem with the maps-vs-GPS debate is that both sides fail to recognize that different tools are needed in different situations. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. For example, my personal preference, most of the time, is map-and-compass navigation. It allows me to build a better "mental map" of the area I'm traveling through and forces me to get better acquainted with the terrain. But in thick fog, where I can't see more than ten yards? GPS all the way. 

Ultimately, what I'm concerned about is not the kind of navigation sources, but the number. Those complaining that a GPS can fail in the middle of nowhere are right - but they forget that maps can also, um, go missing, leaving you equally stranded. So with that in mind, I offer three categories of navigational situation, each with different navigational requirements:

Type A: I've been here before and know the area very well. The hike I'm doing is on-trail. This may be a "touristy" hike, say, something at a National Park that goes three miles to a beautiful waterfall. There are other people on trail and water is not a problem. I do not need a map for this hike.

Type B: If I've even been here before, it was a long time ago. I don't know the area in very much detail. The hike is still on-trail or follows an obvious off-trail feature like a ridgeline or watercourse. The trail is still fairly obvious but all junctions may not be signed. I may spend a lot of time in the trees, or pass through more complex terrain. I need a map for this hike. 

Type C: I haven't been here before, or I don't remember it very well. The hike may be on faint trail or off-trail entirely. The terrain is complex and confusing at times. Water might be an issue. I need two maps for this hike.

Why two maps for Type C hikes? Type C hikes are in remote areas, often off-trail, and often in arid places. If I lose my map, get my phone wet, run out of battery, etc, I don't have any real hope of finding my way back to civilization fast enough to avoid death. When I'm halfway through a 30-mile waterless stretch, getting lost will kill me very, very quickly. 

The lost-maps story I refer to in the introduction occurred in a Type C environment on the Hayduke Trail. I needed two sources - and I had two sources, even though one was pretty minimalist. But there are plenty of other routes that fall into the Type C category and thus require two sources:

  • Just because there's a map pack out there for that cool new "high route" you're hiking doesn't mean it's a trail. Nobody's gonna find you if you're off-trail and lost.
  • The CDT through New Mexico is a maze of seldom-traveled dirt roads with long water carries. Getting off-route could mean running out of water in the middle of nowhere.
  • The PCT may be a well-marked and maintained trail, but when it's buried by snow in June in the Sierra (or Washington in September), it suddenly becomes a Type C trail. Got your second source of navigational data?

Here's where the rubber hits the road. In my experience, the majority of hikers on the western long trails (here I refer to the CDT, but I surmise that the PCT is similar) carry only one source of navigational data, even though the environments they're traveling through often fall into the Type C category. There are certainly times that the long trails are Type B, for example, the CDT through Glacier National Park. In those times, carrying only one source of navigational data is warranted. However, I have observed hikers treating the entire 3,000-mile trail as if it were all Type B, when in fact, a good chunk of those miles are type C. So, here are my shamelessly opinionated declarations:

  • If you're carrying only a GPS app on your phone for navigation through the dirt roads of New Mexico or the snow-covered San Juan mountains, you are an idiot, plain and simple. Messing up, veering off course, and having your phone unexpectedly crash can kill you.
  • If you're carrying only one set of paper maps for navigation through those dirt roads or the San Juans, you're also an idiot. What happens when the maps fall out of your pocket while you're glissading and go over a cliff? And before you say "that's unlikely", it happened to me on the CDT, in the San Juans, in 2018.

In case you haven't gathered this by now, I'm very careful when it comes to navigation. But despite that, I've lost my maps on two different occasions over the years, and suffered GPS app failures twice. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. But, by embracing redundancy in Type C situations, those failures have been mere annoyances, rather than dangers.

A word on the nature of navigational sources for Type C expeditions: two different apps on the same smartphone do not count as two different sources of navigational data. A charging issue, OS crash, simply losing the phone will render both apps inoperable. Similarly, a brochure map that you get in the backcountry-permit office that doesn't have topographical data doesn't count either. The key question: if I flat-out lost the other navigational source, could I get back to civilization safely?


Thus ends the diatribe. I do have certain recommendations and ways of doing things that I prefer, but don't necessarily rise to the level of universal guidelines. So I offer them as mere recommendations based on my experience:

  • In type B environments, I prefer to navigate with paper maps rather than GPS/electronic sources. I enjoy looking at maps and getting to know the lay of the land in a deep way - far deeper than if I were looking at just my location and immediate surroundings on a small screen. I believe this gives me greater awareness of what's around me and makes it a more enriching experience.
  • In type C environments, I generally use paper maps as my primary navigational resource and keep an electronic source (GPS app on my phone) as a backup. I find that if I rely on my phone as a primary resource, I don't have a good "mental map" of the area - and if my phone fails, I still won't know where I am, even with the maps as backup. 

For the seventeen of you who've read this far, thanks for reading and I hope it inspired some thought.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Safety Series Part 3: Decision Points

Last time, I explained the Mom Principle as an important backcountry decision-making tool. But of course, applying the Mom Principle is only possible if we realize that we actually need to make a decision. This isn't as trivial as it sounds.

PC: ej Horrocks

Plenty of ridgeline scrambles start out relatively easy and get progressively more difficult and more exposed. If we're not careful, we can become numb to the difficulty and just keep pressing forward - until we hit something truly impassible and have to turn around. And at that point, we realize that it's considerably more difficult to scramble down than it was to scramble up, and now we're stuck in a bad situation. Or a snow slope that starts out gentle and gradually gets steeper as you get closer to the pass. The point is, if we get lured in by something easy, and never stop to re-evaluate our plan as conditions change, we're rolling the dice and merely hoping that we won't cross that line that separates "difficult" from "dangerous".

Enter, the decision-point paradigm. Although originally developed for backcountry skiing in avalanche terrain, I find it useful in a wide variety of backcountry contexts. It's relatively simple in theory. Whenever I'm entering an area of complex or difficult terrain, I I follow these steps:

1) Stop. Nobody goes any further until we all discuss and make a collective decision. We don't even start the discussion until everybody in our party is standing right here and ready to talk. One person takes on the mantle of leadership and coordinates the discussion in steps #2-4.
2) Converse. The leader asks each group member, individually, is asked what they're seeing, if we should tackle this objective, and if so, what the best route is. Any special considerations (i.e. "let's spread out so we don't kill each other with rockfall") are voiced at this time.
3) Decide. The decision to press forward must be unanimous. If any group member believes it's unwise to push forward, we don't tackle the objective. We find another way.
4) Review. The leader repeats back the plan to the group, and identifies, via pointing or description, the next decision point. Each group member verbally agrees to the plan. 
5) Move. We execute the plan and arrive at the next decision-point, where the cycle starts over.

It seems like a clunky process at first, but it really does become second-nature. It's important to get a solid opinion from each group member (a simple yes/no is not enough). If I have doubts, it's easy enough to keep quiet while everyone else decides we should push forward. But if I am asked directly, I've got to either speak up, or swallow my doubts and spew a load of nonsense I don't believe. It forces the question in a way that encourages differing perspectives and, when in doubt, trends toward more conservative decision-making.

For example, a group of friends and I employed the decision-point method while ascending Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range this summer. The pass was still choked with snow in early July, and a large cornice adorned the top. We all had slightly different opinions on the best route to the top. Skunk thought right looked best, and it did, until Max pointed out that the cornice over there looked pretty gnarly. I thought the left side looked best, while Lara preferred center-left. After talking past each other for a couple minutes, I took a picture on my phone and traced the route with my finger. Turns out that was the same route that Lara was advocating. It looked good to all of us, and Skunk suggested a big Z-shaped switchback underneath to gain the elevation more safely. Looked good.

I reminded everyone not to get above or below each other, reiterated the plan to everyone, and got a "yes". Go time.

A half hour later?

PC: Kevin Erkelenz

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Safety Series Part 2: The Mom Principle

I'm closing in on thirty years old (yikes!). And yet, "what would I tell Mom?" is still my guiding principle. Allow me to explain.

As discussed last time, there are a multitude of "brain traps" we can fall into when out in the backcountry. Recent avalanche avoidance research has identified a pile of them. Bottom line: our brains aren't that good at identifying and assessing risk, much less when we're actually in the backcountry. So as a safeguard against letting my lizard brain take over, I ask myself this question:

Could I, with a clean conscience, tell my mom about what I'm poised to do?

I ask myself this question because it brings to front of mind any latent, lingering doubts that I'm trying to suppress. Are there any warning signs I'm missing, that I should have seen? Am I 100% confident that I can do this safely?

In my backpacking career, there's really only been one decision I've made that violated the Mom Principle (though, it was before I had developed the Mom Principle). In 2014, I traversed a snowy, sketchy sidehill in Grand Teton National Park. If I had slipped on the hard, icy snow, I would have taken a very fast ride down some very steep terrain, interspersed with sharp boulders. I had not brought microspikes.
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.
Setting aside the fact that there's no way it was actually 50 degrees, let alone 60 (I'd now say it was about 40-45 degrees at its steepest), this was just a flat-out bad decision. I couldn't tell Mom about it without feeling guilty. It was a dumb risk to take. I didn't have the experience using an ice axe. I didn't have traction devices for my feet. If I had waited several hours for the snow to warm up and soften, it would have been easy. But given the current conditions, my traverse of that slope was simply unsafe.

I aim never to be in that position again.

Note, however, that the Mom Principle is not dependent on whether my mom (or anybody else) actually agrees with my decisions. It's about whether I am confident in my decision. If the worst happened, and I were badly injured, would I regret undertaking that traverse to begin with? Would I feel ashamed? Or would I imply acknowledge that bad stuff sometimes happens out there and that I just got "unlucky"?

Since the development of the Mom Principle, I've backed down on at least two occasions from routes that exceeded the accceptable level of risk. I was confident I could make it safely, but not 100% confident. Not confident enough to tell my family about with a clean conscience. So I turned around, went another way, and lived to fight another day. I turned around in the moment, but really, I had made those decisions months or years in advance. And I can tell my mom about them without the slightest twinge of guilt.


A special note on solo travel. I do quite a bit of solo backpacking, some of it off-trail. I've done the entirety of the Hayduke Trail alone, as well as off-trail routes in the Uintas, Absarokas, and Beartooths, among others. I wish I could find the study, but the research apparently indicates that solo travelers in the backcountry actually make more conservative decisions than those traveling in a group. If anything, I'm less likely to get myself into a dangerous situation when I'm solo.

Solo and off-trail. Worth it.

But I freely admit that the stakes are higher alone. Take, for example, a simple case of food poisoning in the desert. If I'm too physically weak to hike, my partner can easily hike to the next water source, fill up ever container we have, hike back, and wait for me to recover with plenty to drink. If I'm alone and unable to get to that next water source? I'm dying of dehydration in the hot desert sun. There's nobody coming past to see my plight and lend me a hand.

Therefore, my corollary to the Mom Principle, regarding solo, off-trail travel: If 1) I am both alone and off-trail, or 2) not being able to move forward will kill me in short order, then I will bring my Personal Locator Beacon. 

My PLB is designed to do one thing and one thing only: to summon a helicopter. I won't push it unless my life literally depends on it. It's not a way of bailing myself out of sticky situations, nor is it a tool that allows me to take greater risks while still having a safety net. I intentionally bought one with limited functionality so that I'll never be tempted the make riskier decisions just because I have a PLB as a backup. 

There you have it. The Mom Principle. A useful way of checking whether I'm really, really sure about the decision I'm about to make. Next time? Decision points.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Dark Canyon: Last Gasp of Fall

I've been slumming it on the Colorado Plateau for a couple of weeks now. A little backpacking, a little car camping, a little day hiking, and good times with friends. And in the course of those two weeks, winter has arrived. When we entered Dark Canyon, it was fall. When we left, it was winter.

I don't exactly know why it's called Dark Canyon. Perhaps it's the gray slate that forms the lower layers of the canyon. Perhaps it's the depth of the imposing gorge. Or perhaps, somebody a century ago just had a really bad day down there.

At any rate, I had been through Dark Canyon in 2015 as part of the Hayduke Trail. Dark Canyon is one of the scenic highlights of the route and a true gem of the Colorado Plateau. Of course, that was the infamous trip on which I lost my maps and ended up navigating overland almost entirely by memory. Needless to say, I wasn't in the state of mind to enjoy Dark Canyon as much as I otherwise would have. And I really, really wanted to go back and hike down to its confluence with the Colorado River.

So when long-time pen pal Paul Mags emailed me to suggest that we do a backpacking trip, we both jumped at the chance to do this section of Dark Canyon. Mags is an experienced outdoor adventurer  who recently moved to Utah (as all smart outdoors folks should). From his house in Moab, it was a quick three hours to get to one of the more out-of-the-way destinations in the state. 

The trailhead is an unassuming parking space ten miles down a dirt road of so-so quality. Quickly though, the dirt road we were walking down gave way to a trail-like substance. A cairned route, really, down 1,500 feet in less than a mile. The sprawling canyon system opened before us, before swallowing us as we descended into the gulch. In the bottom of the canyon, we found a cheerfully trickling stream and the trademark rock ledges for which Dark Canyon is famous. We headed for the confluence with the Colorado. 

What a place! Despite a small amount of annoying bushwhacking, we soon reached the River, channeled between the soaring sandstone walls of Cataract Canyon. We camped nearby. We could hear beavers at night as they noisily splashed up Dark Canyon wash. I even caught a glimpse of one when I woke up in the middle of the night.

The next two days were spent exploring the various nooks and crannies of Dark Canyon and a couple of its tributaries. There were a few thigh-deep spots, some bushwhacking, and plenty of backtracking and routefinding on the various rock ledges. There was no trail per se, just a network of social trails and cairned routes that started and stopped seemingly at random. In no particular hurry, and with no particular destination in mind, we meandered our way first upstream, and then downstream, taking a long lunch and camping early each day. There's not too much daylight at this time of year. The season for doing big miles has passed. Now is the time for sauntering and for exploration.

On the penultimate day, we encountered something special. As we sat down for lunch on some rock ledges, I heard a rustling in the bushes on the other side of the stream. A massive bull elk ran a few dozen yards in the other direction, then turned. And stood his ground. Obviously the alpha in this neck of the woods, he was not going anywhere. He was unafraid. We were in his territory. 

He must have stood there for a half hour, occasionally flexing his legs as they grew tired, nostrils flaring in displeasure. We finally snuck over a hillside, out of his view, and made our way rather stealthily down canyon until we were several hundred yards away from him. I hope you're happy, Mr. Elk.

PC: Paul Magnanti

All too soon, we made our way back up the steep climb to the canyon rim. Back to the open expanses. Back to a cold, howling wind. The nights are getting cold now, down into the teens. The last few golden aspen leaves are dropping. Winter is coming quickly. This is the last gasp of fall. What a way to spend it.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Safety Series Part 1: In Which You May Critique My Decisions

Yes, dear reader, it's Safety Day. It was boring when you were in elementary school, boring when you were at orientation for that new job, and boring now. It's a dry topic, but one that I am truly passionate about. So, since my readership stats can't really get much worse, I present to you, the Safety Series. Today, we establish the right to make assertions about other people's decision-making, and postulate a primary driver of bad decisions: happy brain juices.

Looks intimidating, but safe. Right equipment, right experience, right decision-making framework (PC: Max Schuler)

"Hike your own hike" (HYOH) has become a bit of a mantra in the backpacking world. Simply put - do whatever you want, as long as your activities don't endanger others or ruin their experience. Want to hike with 60 lbs of stuff on your back? Fine. Always take side trips to scenic overlooks and make little forward progress? No problem. Hike 30-mile days and never stop to "smell the roses"? Go for it.

In principle, I agree with the, uh, principle. But HYOH frequently becomes a conversation stopper. Think that I'm making a bad choice, that my actions will put me or others in danger? Notice that I'm damaging the environment by building new fire rings or inadequately burying my poop? Hike your own hike. Get off my case. You have no right to tell me how to act! Perhaps it's a symptom of the morally relativistic culture that we live in - that it's often taboo to advocate for a universal set of concrete behavioral standards. But that's a rant for a different day! 

That white sheen is frost and ice. That giant dropoff is as sheer as it looks (PC: Justin Swanson)

Cam "Swami" Honan wrote an excellent article a few years back, discussing the pitfalls of HYOH:
Once you make the decision to venture into conditions that you have neither the experience, skill and in many cases the equipment to handle, all bets are off. You have forfeited the right to “Hike your own Hike.”
“Why?” Because not only have you put yourself at risk, you’ve potentially also placed the Search & Rescue (SAR) workers that have to come and find you in danger. 
“Isn’t that their job?” No, it’s not. At least it shouldn’t be. These individuals have more than enough to do as it is; the last thing they need is to be spending time and resources looking for ill prepared hikers that more often than not have no one but themselves to blame.
I believe he's completely correct about this. But sadly, I think he's preaching to the choir - and so am I. The reality is that those who make unwise choices in the backcountry usually aren't simply miscalculating the risk that their activities carry. Rather, they're failing to consider the risk in the first place. It's easy to overlook safety in the moment, when we're just a few hundred feet from the summit, a few hundred miles from Canada, or standing at the top of a few hundred feet of steep, pristine powder. The "lizard brain" part of us takes over, we get caught up in enthusiasm, and before we know it, we find ourselves in bad situations. 

I traversed that steep, snowy sidehill. No microspikes. Probably wouldn't make that same decision again.

That's why I believe in making all the important decisions ahead of time. I frankly don't trust myself to make good decisions when my system is pumped full of dopamine, adrenaline, endorphins, or any other happy brain juices that come from being in the outdoors. It's not because I'm uniquely weak, it's because I'm a homo sapiens. The human brain just isn't good at processing low-probability, high-consequence events. And even less so when we're doped up. So I believe in making as many decisions as I can while sitting on the couch, when I can engage in the cold, rational calculus that keeps me alive in the backcountry. And then, when I'm in the moment, I can simply apply the decisions I've made to the situation I find myself in. 

I'm not going to try to explain an entire decision-making framework here. That would be a massive undertaking, and short-circuit a lot of really good thinking by people who are a lot smarter and more thoughtful than I. Rather, it will be an exposition of all those different decisions I've made ahead of time - easy, practical rules of thumb that guide my behavior in the backcountry. So at the risk of violating that sacred cow of principles, HYOH, here are my rules:
 Each rule of thumb will get its own post. Stay tuned!

Cold, wet, miserable, clothed in all cotton. That look says it all (PC: Jake Vriesema)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Route X: Part 1

I've hiked quite a bit in the Escalante region of southern Utah. But there are still so many places left to explore. I wondered what would happen if I simply strung a bunch of them together into a longer journey. Something that's not the Hayduke Trail. Something that's not really anything at all. Something called, say, Route X. A route that's not a route.

I don't know how long Route X will be, where its termini are, or even all the places it will pass through. But, as previously asserted, doing something is more important than doing the perfect thing. So, this week, I did something. A section of country I hadn't been to before. And in the course of doing something, found it closer to perfect than I would have thought.

That's it. No exhaustive details. No route map. But I enjoyed it. And I hope you enjoy the photos.