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

Updated for the 2021 hiking season.

Over the past few years, the Uinta Highline Trail has increased greatly in popularity. I often get questions from prospective UHT hikers about the trail. This page is intended to be a quick planning resource to address those questions.

Where is it?

The Uinta Range, in northwestern Utah, is a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains. It's home to all 14 of Utah's thirteeners (peaks in excess of 13,000'). It's one of only ranges in the United States that runs east-west, rather than north-south. The UHT parallels the crest of the Uintas through mostly alpine terrain.

Why should I hike it?

Unlike many other classic backpacking destinations (Winds, Sierra, Cascades), the Uintas aren't particularly jagged. Instead, you'll be impressed by the bigness of the place. The Uintas are high enough that the basins, not just the peaks, sit above treeline. The views from the passes are truly incredible, and there's nothing better than walking past an alpine lake while peaks tower overhead. And speaking of the fishing, it's pretty great in many of the lakes. The Uintas (and in particular the UHT) have become more popular in recent years, but solitude is still found in abundance.

How long is it? 

Anywhere from 65-102 miles, depending on your choice of eastern trailhead (more on that below). Call it 5-10 days for your average hiker.

Where is the eastern trailhead?

There are three options:
  1. The "true" trailhead at McKee Draw on Highway 191 (102 miles). This trailhead makes for the longest hike and easiest logistics, but the first 20-25 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 (78 miles). Leidy Peak marks the east end of the classic High Uintas. It's the easternmost 12,000-foot peak in the range, as well as the easternmost peak above treeline. The dirt access road is fairly good, but it's the longest car shuttle of the three options.
  3. Chepeta Dam trailhead (65 miles). This trailhead makes for the shortest hike. The dirt 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. 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 benefit other than shortening the hike. As always, hike your own hike! 

Where is the western trailhead?

Highline Trailhead, near Hayden Pass on Mirror Lake Highway (UT 150).

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.  
I've seen various people offer their services on the internet over the years, but they come and go quickly. Recently, multiple users have reported good experiences with Mountain Trails Transport. If you use a shuttle service and have a good experience with it, please shout it out in the comments.

For those hikers who are coming from out-of-state or who don't have somebody to shuttle them, it's possible to self-shuttle using a mixture of hitchhiking, Utah Transit Authority buses, and free Summit County 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. My first UHT hike was in an average snow year, and the north side of Dead Horse was still fairly snowbound on 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 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 some lingering bug issues.

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 ever-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 far more common to hike westbound for a couple of reasons:
  1. The west end of the Highline is more spectacular than the east end. 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 hikers. 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 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. Just before you get to the top, you'll find a reliable, albeit shallow spring. 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 snow-covered, 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?

While the UHT is a great hike overall, I think there is a little room for improvement. Below are a few recommendations:
  1. Summit Leidy Peak. Leidy Peak is the easternmost peak above 12,000 feet in the Uintas, and is a perfect way to begin your UHT hike (if starting at Leidy) or to introduce yourself to the High Uintas themselves (if starting at US 191). There's no official trail to the top, but the slopes are gentle enough to summit from any direction. Lowlanders will be gasping for breath as they climb above 12k.
  2. Summit Kings Peak. Kings is Utah's highest peak, at 13,528'. It's so close to the Highline Trail itself - less than a mile - that to skip it would be a shame. The route is class II all the way to the summit, staying just on the E (left) side of the ridge. I usually drop my pack at the top of Anderson Pass before taking the side-trip and haven't had any issues with 4-legged critters gnawing it, or 2-legged critters stealing it. Plan at minimum a couple of hours for this side trip - it's not hard, but it's also not fast. 
  3. Rock Creek Basin. The East Fork Fire of 2020 did considerable damage to Rock Creek Basin, and the trails below treeline have likely suffered as a result. The official UHT takes a direct route through the basin, but also drops way down into the lower elevations to do so. It was reported to be in rough shape before the fire, and is almost certainly impassible after the fire. Fortunately, the Head of Rock Creek trail travels through mostly sparse tree cover right at the edge of timberline. There will certainly be damage to the trail, but it's probably passable with a little creativity. Even before the fire, it was the best option (in my opinion), and that's even more true now.
  4. Mirror Lake Finish. A few tenths before the western terminus, a trail splits from the UHT, heading SW to the campground at Mirror Lake. If you're not quite ready for your High Uintas adventure to be over yet, head to Mirror Lake. There's a great view of Bald Mountain reflected in Bonnie Lake along the way, and Mirror Lake makes for a great place to yogi a ride down to Kamas if need be.
  5. UHT western extension. The official UHT ends at Mirror Lake Highway, but the Uinta Mountains themselves continue west, ending at Hoyt Peak just above the town of Kamas. Using a hodge-podge of trails, along with a few short roadwalks and a tiny bit of off-trail travel, it is possible to hike from the western terminus of the UHT to Hoyt Peak. This clocks in at about 30 miles. The western Uintas are nice enough that, if I had time to hike 100-ish miles through the Uintas, I wouldn't actually do the traditional 100-mile UHT hike between US 191 and Mirror Lake Highway. Instead, I'd start at Leidy Peak and end at Hoyt Peak, giving me a hike that was both more beautiful and spanned the entire length of the above-treeline-Uintas. Owing to the small amount of off-trail travel, including through a burnt area, this alternate isn't mapped. If you're planning on doing it, map it yourself and carry USGS 7.5' quadrangle printouts for the area.
In addition to the above, savvy hikers will notice that the eastern end of the Uintas (east of Anderson Pass) are pretty gentle. Lots of off-trail alternates are possible through here, including along ridgetops. The travel is slow, rocky and frustrating at times, but jawdropping. Ridgetop alternates are not advised during July and August due to limited bailout opportunities and the likelihood of afternoon lightning storms. 

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. Unless you're interested in getting charbroiled by a stray 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, and you'll often complete your daily mileage by early afternoon. 

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 stays at/above 10k for its entire length. Proper food storage (e.g. bear-bagging) is required, but bear canisters are not. Utah is not home to any grizzlies at this time - only black bears.

What about water?

If you're starting at US 191, there's a long (20-mile) before you get to Leidy Peak. I've normally found a little bit of water running across the trail in the Leidy Peak area, but it's not reliable. West of Leidy, you should find tons of water and shouldn't ever have to carry more than a liter or two. 
Of note, there is an unmapped but reliable spring on the E side of Anderson Pass at about 12,400. It flows right across the trail. It's a bit hard to collect (use a quart zip-lock to scoop from shallow flows) but I've seen it running even in September of a dry year.

What about resupply?

There are no practical opportunities to resupply along the UHT. After Leidy Peak, it crosses just one dirt road - at Chepeta Dam - and that road has zero traffic. I suppose you could arrange for a friend to meet you on that dirt road with some food, but to be honest, most hikers just carry all their food with them.

What about cell coverage? It's basically nonexistent, Verizon does get some service atop Kings Peak (and I've heard reports of AT&T as well), but you should plan to be completely incommunicado for the duration of your hike. Get a good weather forecast before you leave. Those of a cautious disposition may consider carrying a personal locator beacon in case of emergency.

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 at the Highline Trailhead itself or at a permit station along the highway. America the Beautiful passes are accepted.
Campfires are prohibited in many of the more popular basins along the UHT. If you plan to have a campfire during your UHT journey, be sure to download or print a list of campfire-restricted areas, available on the Forest Service's website. Do not rely on the Trails Illustrated maps - while it does shade some popular areas in purple, I've noticed several discrepancies between the TI maps and the actual Forest Service order. Better yet, please consider forgoing a campfire - in sensitive alpine environments, the impacts of campfires can last for years.

What about fishing?

It's excellent. Fish will bite at just about everything up there. I am a complete fishing novice and even I can catch a few. Don't forget your 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.