Saturday, May 18, 2019

RIB Part 3: Kanab to Torrey

Note: This post is the third update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Uah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff
Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

After much anticipation, I've entered the Utah section of my route and am now truly and fully in trailblazing mode. I've left behind defined trails, other hikers, and friendly locals who know why I'm hitchhiking. My footprints are the only ones in the pristine snow.

Yep, Still Winter: Speaking of snow, there's a lot of it left. More notably, it continues to fall. I took several days off in Tropic, near Bryce Canyon National Park, to allow a doozy of a storm to clear out. That storm dropped over a foot of fresh snow in the high terrain of the Aquarius Plateau (10,000+ feet). After three or four nice days (in which I scooted across the plateau and down into Torrey, Utah), another round of terrible weather moved in. One storm has already passed, with two more on their way. With snow levels as low as 6,000', along with high winds, heavy precipitation, and plummeting temperatures, I made a business decision and am waiting out this extended stretch of bad weather for a week or so. Interrupting the hike is not my preference, but did make the most sense. I've got plenty of time to work with - I'll use some of it to avoid unnecessary risks.

The Burly Snowpack: Even after the weather stabilizes, I will be walking through a very, very deep snowpack. In addition to the heavy winter and late-season snowfall, this spring has been cool, wet, and cloudy, which means that the pack is not melting anytime soon. My local Salt Lake ski area, Snowbird, will certainly be operating into June this year, possibly even July. 

Walking through snow is tough. If I'm lucky, I'll have a couple hours of quick travel in the morning, when I can walk atop the hard crust from last night's freeze. But as mid-morning approaches, the crust melts and I begin to sink in with every step. By time 10AM rolls around, I've switched to snowshoes. Walking in snowshoes isn't that much faster than postholing, but it is a little bit less exhausting. A backpack full of snow and storm gear weighs me down. A full day, perhaps eighteen miles, requires as much effort as a thirty-mile day ordinarily would. These are already some of the toughest miles I've ever walked. And I've got several hundred more upcoming.

Beauty and Brutality: But let me paint a picture for you: I climb up onto a high plateau, through the Pink Cliffs - the same geologic layer that forms the famous hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. There's nobody here though, in this random corner of National Forest. I climb off-trail up a steep ridge with stunning views of the valley four thousand feet below. I eventually hit the snowline and travel atop a blanket of white, weaving around Ponderosa and Douglas Fir trees. Occasionally, I break into a meadow and marvel at the sea of undisturbed snow. I'm probably the first person to visit since last fall. The sunshine bounces off everything up here, nearly blinding me even though I'm wearing sunglasses. 

There's not much liquid water up here, not yet anyway. It's all locked up in snow and ice. I eat a handful of snow - hardly satiating my thirst - then another, then another. Brain freeze. I point my compass at a tree at the other side of a long, open meadow. There's a dirt road under here somewhere, but I can only identify it from the clearcuts where it enters a grove of trees. Everything's white. Everything's beautiful. 

The snow transforms into wet glop over the course of the day, freezing ice clods onto my trekking poles. The afternoon is a slog and my progress is minimal. Billowing clouds form, obscuring the once-brilliant sunshine, and a little rain begins to fall. But after a few hours, it clears up and the sun sets in an almost incomprehensible palette of bold color. 

I set up camp on snow - again. I build a little pillow out of snow and then set up my shelter. I'm sleeping in my rain gear tonight - again. My breath will condense and form frost on the walls of my shelter - again. It cools off quickly once the sun goes down, and after eating half a jar of peanut butter with a spoon, I close my eyes and go to sleep.

In 2018, I found the unofficial motto of the CDT - "Embrace the Brutality" - to be mostly outdated. On the RIB, I'm finding out exactly what it means. This route has challenged me in ways I didn't think possible. It's tough. I love it.

I don't always take advice from random styrofoam plates stapled to trees. But sometimes I do!

Goodbye Desert:
After almost one thousand miles of walking through arid environments, I've officially left the desert. It ended on a great note though. I climbed through various geologic layers, passing cliffs of many different colors. I revisited a neat slot canyon I'd been in a few years prior, dropped in on Bryce Canyon to see how it was faring, and slogged up the always-gorgeous and muddy Paria River. Goodbye desert, hello snowbound mountains!

Unexpected Warmth: One highlight of Utah has been the people I've met. The person who picked me up when I was leaving Kanab made sure to give me the number of a friend whose homestead I will pass by in northern Idaho. The owner of the barbeque joint in Tropic was was supportive, curious, and didn't really mind that I sat at a table for five hours and listened to the baseball game on his wifi. Even the police officer who confronted me for hitchhiking was kind and helpful. But a wonderful RVing couple take the cake. In addition to very generously driving me an hour out of the way so I could catch a bus to Salt Lake, we shared some truly wonderful conversation. John and Gretty - if you're reading this, thank you! 

Southern Utah has the reputation, not entirely undeserved, of being a good ol' boys club - of stratification between insiders and outsiders. But with few exceptions, I've felt welcomed in these small communities.

What's Next: As mentioned, I'm waiting out an extended period of weather, and using the opportunity to visit my friends and church family in Salt Lake City. After that? Back to central Utah. More snow travel, more beauty, more brutality. More adventure.

Friday, May 3, 2019

RIB Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

Note: This post is the second update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff

Bah Humbug, Springtime: Once north of Flagstaff, I started to encounter lingering snowpack. The trail crests above 9,000 feet in the San Francisco Peaks, flanking the highest peak in Arizona (12,600'+). Normally, I would be tempted to climb it on the way past, but in a snow year like this, that would have still been a mountaineering task. Don't you worry, though; I'll have plenty of snow travel further north in Utah.

Further north, at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I found even more widespread snow pack, again at about 9,000 feet. The trail was almost entirely snowbound, but a parallel road was already plowed for the year, and, since the North Rim hasn't opened for the season yet, it was entirely devoid of traffic. I opted for the road, and enjoyed the open subalpine meadows and Ponderosa forests at first. Unfortunately, the weather decided to turn foul as I walked through those high elevation areas, and it rained, snowed, and sleeted for about two straight days. At one point I bailed to a nearby fancy-pants resort just to get indoors and out of the driving wind and rain. It's been a long time since I've been that cold!

Surprised Once Again: I must admit that I had low expectations for the Arizona Trail through the Grand Canyon. I'd backpacked in the Canyon once before, on the Hayduke Trail, and found it to be spectacular. The Hayduke spends a week or two below the rim and passes through some truly wild and stunning environs. By contrast, the Arizona Trail stays on trails that are pedestrian equivalents of the Interstate highway system. It takes the most direct route down to the Colorado and up the other side. The Arizona Trail certainly doesn't do justice to the Grand Canyon.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed the (brief) time I spent in the Grand Canyon. I stayed near the famous Phantom Ranch, just a stone's throw from the Colorado River, saw wildflowers in bloom, and even ate a steak, courtesy of some friendly tourists who had food to spare. The climb up to the North Rim was new to me, and did not disappoint. Since the North Rim isn't open for the season yet, the trail was entirely deserted except for a few hardy ultrarunners going Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (starting at the South Rim, running down to the Colorado, up to the North Rim, and back again). Those ultrarunners may be in elite shape, but they still can't match the uphill speed of thru-hikers who do nothing but hike, all day, every day. 

Goodbye, AZT: I crossed the border into Utah on May 1, reaching the northern terminus of the AZT. I truly enjoyed the Arizona Trail, and it would be a worthy adventure in its own right. But I'm not nearly done yet. I've left behind the world of maintained trails, abundant information, friendly trail angels, and a large hiker community. 

I now head out on a route that exists only in my mind and on my maps. I've already had to re-route once or twice because of flooding. I'm heading over high, snowbound plateaus and mountain ranges. I've swapped out my lightweight desert gear for more rough-and-tumble snow travel equipment. I'm moving forward in dependence on God. Here we go!