Monday, October 22, 2018

A Week on the Lowest to Highest Route

We marched - no, straggled - up the last few feet to the summit, our lungs straining to take in as much of the thin air as we could. The hut burst into view suddenly, a rush of elation for our weary selves. Suddenly, those plans to stop and stage interesting "approaching the summit" photographs went out the window, and we rushed headlong toward that final summit block. One quick scramble move. The end. The summit. The big finish.


In October of 2018, I hiked the Lowest to Highest Route with a friend, Nemo. The Lowest to Highest (L2H) begins at the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin in Death Valley, 282' below sea level) and ends at the highest point in the Lower 48 (Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, 14,505'). Between the two endpoints is 135 miles' worth of endorheic basins and austere desert mountain ranges. It doesn't rain too often in this country. Water sources are limited. Vegetation is sparse. Wildlife encounters are almost non-existent. 

But the L2H is amazing. It's scenic at times, in a moonscape sort of way. It's extremely challenging. It's chock-full of historic ghost towns, salt trams, and mining ops. It's life on the edge, backpacking-wise.

Day 1

It gets hot in a hurry around here. In order to beat the heat, we woke up entirely too early and started hiking across Badwater Basin at first light. Badwater's floor consists mostly of salt flats. Water drains into the basin and evaporates in the hot desert sun, leaving behind salt deposits that coat the valley floor with a smooth(ish) coat of white.

Perspective is an impossibility on the salt flats. The other side of the valley looked so close that it felt like we could reach out and touch it. But we would walk across the salt for miles, and for hours, before reaching the west end of the valley. Occasional patches of salt and mud, still wet from recent heavy rainfall, slowed us down, but we persisted and reached the other side of the valley by mid morning. 



The Lowest to Highest isn't a trail, really. It's a combination of roads, trails, burro paths, gravelly washes, and cross-country travel. We left the salt flats behind and headed up Hanaupah Canyon (don't ask me how to pronounce that) cross-country, eventually joining up with a jeep road. After a few miles, we reached Hanaupah Spring. Since we still didn't know how to pronounce it, we dubbed it "Weed Spring", an illusion to a recently-busted pot-growing operation there. The NPS recommended that we didn't drink the water, as the pot farmers had potentially contaminated the spring with some insidious pesticide. But it was our only water option, so we drank it, and have suffered no ill effects thus far.


We'd gained about 4,000 feet already, but still had 6,000 to go before we hit the Telescope Peak ridgeline. I really can't describe just how monstrous a 10,000' climb is. Prior to the L2H, the longest sustained vertical climb I'd ever done was about 6,000', on a climb out of the Grand Canyon. The biggest climb on the AT is about 5,000'. On the CDT, it's about 3,000'. Ten. Thousand. Vertical. Feet. Yikes.

We left the jeep road behind and started climbing, straight up the ridge. It was a steep climb, but the footing was good and we had identified a little flat spot about 1,500' up where we could camp. The task was made considerably harder by the five liters of water we were each carrying. We found a nice little campsite with views of Badwater Basin and hit the hay.

Day 2

It's never particularly pleasant to tackle a long climb first thing in the morning, particularly when it's steep. We gained about 5,000' in three miles, entirely off-trail. While no scrambling was required, we were careful to avoid kicking down loose rocks onto each other. The climb was slow and long, but the temperatures stayed relatively pleasant. 

We finally, mercifully, gained the ridge around noon. After a long break and a bit of lunch, we headed down a lovely maintained trail for a mile or two before we veered off-trail once more, down a steep, loose slope into Tuber Canyon. We would follow Tuber all the way down, back to the desert floor. Ten thousand feet up and nearly as much down. The L2H was not exactly providing a gentle introduction.


I was expecting Tuber Canyon to be absolute misery. After all, I've walked my fair share of off-trail desert canyons before, and they inevitably turn into brushy, scratched-up slogs. But Tuber was different. This place is so arid that almost nothing grows. The walking was slowed, however, by a lot of unstable rock that really tore up my bad ankle. I'd feel the effects of Tuber Canyon for a couple days every time I took a step.

We camped on a flat bench about 10 feet above the bottom of the canyon. We found a few particularly murky mud puddles to get a little water from. I ran it through a coffee filter, Nemo's squeeze filter, and finally an AquaMira treatment. It wasn't great, but I thought it tasted acceptable. It's far from the worst water I've ever consumed. 


Day 3

We had hoped to get a few miles farther on Day 2, but the hijinks up and down Telescope Peak had slowed us down somewhat. Time was of the essence, as we wanted to cross the dreaded Panamint Valley before things got too hot. Panamint Valley is similar in nature to Badwater, but instead of salt, the floor of the valley was covered in sand.

We were up and hiking before first light and made a beeline to our water cache past some old mining ruins. Water caching worked well, for us, but I looked like a bit of a hobo with a smashed water jug strapped to the top of my pack. We headed down a series of monotonous dirt roads, nearly level, along the edge of the Panamint Valley.


The wind, our constant-companion-to-be, picked up as the day grew hotter. It was annoying, dusty, loud, and at times hard into walk into, but at least it kept us somewhat cool. Not wasting any time, we cut directly across the sand playa, off-trail, in the direction of Panamint Valley Resort. 


The hot sun, the fierce wind, and the long walk took something out of us. By time we reached the Panamint Springs Resort, we were both pretty beat down. Fortunately, we were able to get a burger and field awkward inquiries from busloads of clean and fresh tourists about what the heck we were doing. I guess it's hard to disguise the hiker trashiness. We resupplied out a bucket that we had stashed in the nearby desert. Everything chocolate had turned to liquid and my cheese had become a little, um, extra-flavorful, but my standards aren't high. 

A couple of tough and sore miles later, we made camp and were both sound asleep by time the sun set.

Day 4

I woke up to an inflamed Achilles tendon. I'd been limping since the heinous rocks of Tuber Canyon, and my altered gait probably caused it to seize up. We mulled our options and elected to press forward, albeit at a reduced pace for me. We climbed out of a canyon and traversed the top of Darwin Plateau, completely off-trail, to our next crossing of the main highway through the park. As we neared 5,000' of elevation, we met a little Joshua tree, the first of many we'd see over the next few days.


The off-trail traverse did no favors for my ankle, as black, volcanic boulders made for fairly slow and painful terrain underfoot. But after crossing the main park road, we followed a road - a mixture of pavement and dirt, something that obviously hasn't seen a lick of maintenance in decades. I was able to keep up better on the easier terrain, particularly after lunch and a break at our next water cache, under a delightful Joshua tree. The road was straight, flat, and boring, but we didn't mind the reprieve from the brutality of the first three days. Yesterday's wind continued to blow straight out of the north, though it had a distinct cold edge to it today. I wore my wind shirt all day long.



Day 5

The long, boring roadwalk continued as we gradually climbed into the Inyo Range. At the top of the road lay an old ghost town, Cerro Gordo. It's an old mining town that thrived for a few years during the 1870's and 1880's, but now is completely deserted except for the caretaker who lives there. The dry desert air has preserved the town well, and it was great fun to poke around the site. We grabbed our third water cache and had an early lunch.


After Cerro Gordo, we followed a series of roads and trails, each clinging perilously to the side of the mountain, to the crest of the Inyos. We stumbled upon a few old mining cabins and an elaborate tram works that was originally used to transport salt across the mountains to the town of Lone Pine. Across the valley, the imposing eastern escarpment of the Sierra beckoned.



I've never felt a wind that cold. Whenever we were in the lee of a mountain, the sun blazed hot, and I sweated buckets. But as soon as we were in the line of fire again, that wind would immediately sap every bit of warmth from my body. Cold, harsh, constant. It taxed us mentally. We pushed deep into the evening hours, trying to get to a sheltered spot off the ridge so we didn't have to camp in that frigid wind. We found a small saddle just as the sun was setting.

Day 6

Town days are great motivation. We woke up only about 10 miles from Lone Pine, and made quick work of the miles. The descent from the Inyos down Long John Canyon was our last off-trail segment of the trip. With a little creativity we found a nice route around some cliff bands and to the bottom of the barren canyon, whereupon we followed a road down to the valley floor.


We made it to the little cafe just in time for a big, delicious breakfast. I made quick work of an omelet and french toast. But we didn't dally too long. We stashed most of our stuff at the hostel in town, and hiked twelve miles out of town to Whitney Portal trailhead, where Nemo's car was parked. Above us, Whitney and its sisters towered in truly impressive fashion. For the first time all trip, we had entered a subalpine environment, with large trees, abundant water, and greenery all around.

We picked up Nemo's car and drove back to Lone Pine, where we picked up a permit to hike Whitney the next day and spent the night at the hostel.


Day 7

After another terrific breakfast at the cafe, we drove back up to Whitney Portal and began our 21 mile, 7000' ascent of Whitney. The trail was well graded; 99 switchbacks built into the mountainside. We ascended through multiple ecosystems, past multiple lakes, and emerged from treeline where we encountered a bit of snow on shady aspects. A few ambitious day-hikers were making the trek, but most people we saw were spending the night in the backcountry. We made good progress and summited in a little less than six hours. I could not imagine a better day. The sky shone clear blue, the air was crisp, perfect for climbing without sweating. I'm not normally a fast hiker, but with 3,500 miles on my legs so far this year, I flew past all comers on the ascent. 


On top, we had a snack and looked back over our route. From our lofty perch, we glimpsed the Inyos and, in the distance, Telescope Peak. That ten-thousand foot climb of doom. It wasn't easy, but it was so worth it. Lowest to highest. In a week. What a terrific adventure.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Ditching the Stove: Five Reasons to Leave it Behind

Before starting the Appalachian Trail in 2013, I built myself a little backpacking stove. It was made out of a couple Heineken cans, and I took the time to do it right. That little stove lasted all the way up the AT, and I was justifiably proud of it. I cooked dinner every night - generally Knorr Pasta Sides, instant mashed potatoes, or something of that ilk.

However, when I got to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I changed strategies a bit. I knew I'd have a few opportunities to eat dinner at a series of huts, operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. However, I didn't know how often I'd get to eat there, and consequently, how many dinners I'd have to cook for myself.

Not pictured: hot food. Gummy bears, even melted ones, are better anyway.

My solution, of course, was to not bring any dinners at all, and if I wasn't at a hut around dinnertime, I'd just eat for dinner the same kind of food that I ate for breakfast and lunch. This decision turned out to be more consequential than I realized. The first night out, an intense thunderstorm hit right as I was setting up camp. I threw everything in my tent, crawled inside, and began chowing down. I didn't need to worry about using any of my limited water to cook, and didn't have to worry about cooking inside my tent (a big no-no). I could simply burrito myself in my sleeping bag and begin eating. And I didn't have to get up after dinner to clean my cookpot.

Since that evening, I've probably spent about 350 nights in the backcountry. I think I've used a stove on maybe five of those nights. The rest of the time, I've left the stove at home. Here are my reasons:

1) It's one less thing to put in my pack. A stove, fuel, pot, and windscreen are space intensive, generally taking up at least a liter of space, even if they're all neatly nested. More to the point, the more objects I have in my backpack, the more annoying it is to pack and unpack everything, and the easier it is to lose things.

2) It doesn't make that annoying metallic rattling all day long. This may seem trivial, but while hiking, I've never been able to completely stifle the annoying jangling coming from my pack.

3) It simplifies prep. In a lot of small towns, especially those that aren't on a popular trail, stove fuel may not be available. For weekend trips, I never have to make a last-minute run to the outfitter to buy a fuel canister. And if my timeline changes, I'm not stuck with too many or too few dinners. All my food in my food bag is available to eat at any time. I like that flexibility.

4) It reduces fire hazard. Many land management agencies in the arid West routinely ban the lightweight, alcohol-powered stoves that lightweight backpackers prefer, as they're too dangerous to operate when one spark can set ten acres on fire. Even heavier canister-type stoves can easily set a dry patch of grass on fire if they're knocked over. In dry environments, the safest stove is no stove at all.

5) It saves time. It takes a few minutes to bring even a small amount of water to a boil, and once dinner's done, a few more minutes to clean the cookpot. Those are additional minutes I could have spent actually eating more food. I'm a slow enough eater as it is; I don't need to make dinner take longer than it has to.

None of this is to say that everyone ought to go stoveless. Some people just can't bear to give up a hot meal at night. Others enjoy the morning coffee ritual. I personally find that I crave town food, whether or not I have a stove or not. And the preceeding five reasons give me pretty good grounds to leave it behind. Try it; you just might like it!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Salt Lake County: From Lowest to Highest

I find it fascinating to observe the differences between native Utahns and émigrés. I often find that those who have always lived here are the most complacent and not particularly well-travelled in their home state. "Oh, Zion? Yeah, I've been there once." Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it probably does breed apathy.



I've lived in Salt Lake for half a decade now, at the foot of the Wasatch mountains. And each year, I've seen my adventures get farther afield. More remote. Rather than going on a dayhike in Little Cottonwood Canyon, I'll go up to the Uintas, or the Winds, or the Sawtooths. That is, I too have begun to neglect my own backyard. Most of my Wasatch exploration, I'm ashamed to admit, happened in the first couple years I lived in Utah. Since then, I've occasionally revisited a few old favorites, but mostly, I've just burned a lot of gas driving to other destinations.

I needed to change all that. So, in late September, with plenty of time and no excuse not to do it, I finally did an extended trek in my own backyard.

The concept of Lowest to Highest is an interesting one. A brilliant guy by the name of Brett Tucker mapped a 130-mile route a few years ago that originates in the lowest point in the Lower 48 (Death Valley, 282' below see level) and terminates at the highest point (14,505'). I've had my eye on his route for years, and decided to apply the same concept to my home county - Salt Lake County. Because everything needs a name and an acronym, I dubbed it the Lowest to Highest of Salt Lake County - the SLCL2H.

My route began at the lowest point of the county - the Jordan River, near where it flows into the Great Salt Lake (4,200'). The terminus, the American Fork Twin Peaks, towered over Snowbird ski area (11,500'). Between the two endpoints, the route climbed out of the Salt Lake Valley and traversed the main Wasatch crest. I calculated it to be 60 miles of pure autumn splendor. 

Day 1: I began my hike at a sewage canal that runs alongside the Jordan River. I started a few miles from the lake itself, but it was as close as I could get without trespassing on private land. In addition, the "lowest point" of the county is quite undefined, as mud flats are sometimes dry, sometimes wet, and it's hard to say where exactly the lowest point on "land" is. But in any event, I crossed the Jordan (neglecting to build an altar out of 12 stones), and walked east, first through an industrial park, then through a business district, then through a richy-rich neighborhood in the foothills. After approximately forever on pavement, I finally hit a dirt road that led up North Canyon, above the town of Bountiful. Dirt road soon turned to trail, trail turned into vague overgrown path, and vague overgrown path turned to a bushwhack. All the while, I gained elevation - a 5,200' continuous climb, a full vertical mile. 




Progress was slow along the ridge that formed the north wall of City Creek Canyon, but the day was beautiful and the scenery likewise. I headed east along the ridge toward Grandview Peak, the highest thing in this corner of the Wasatch. As I neared Grandview, I encountered some moderately rough terrain which slowed me further. I summited just before sunset, and had just enough time to make a cowboy camp at a tiny, cozy flat spot in the lee of the peak itself. 




Day 2: Not long after hitting the trail, I met a bevy of hunters. I had seen several herds of deer the previous day, so I understood why hunters were in the area. I was, however, very grateful for my orange regalia. Shots periodically rang out through the mountains, and I saw 3 or 4 hunters hauling out bucks. I joined the Great Western Trail after a mile or two, marking a dramatic improvement in the quality of the trail tread. I would follow the GWT for most of the next two days. 

I crossed a paved road, Big Mountain Pass, around noontime, and continued on the crest toward Parleys Summit, where Interstate 80 crosses the Wasatch. The views remained huge and the fall colors remained spectacular. I had a little trouble crossing the freeway, as the wildlife bridge (am I considered 'wildlife'?) at the summit is still under construction. I ended up walking the shoulder of the freeway for a few hundred yards before I reached an underpass where I could cross. I watered up at the crappy gas station (my first water source in a day and a half) and climbed through another ritzy neighborhood, sleeping in a backcountry ski smoke shack on top of the ridge overlooking Park City. 




Day 3: Well, the morning stunk. I got up, hiked a half mile to the top of Summit Park Peak, and then spent the next 3 hours in a truly horrendous bushwhack. I stayed on main Wasatch crest, but there was no trail to be found, and scrubby oak grabbed at me, tearing up my pants. Progress was slow and frustrating until I topped out at Murdock Peak.


Murdock offered tremendous views, and kicked off the real scenic highlight of the SLCL2H. I followed the Wasatch Crest Trail, staying on the spine of the range as it rose higher and higher, finally reaching 10,000' for the first time on the hike. I detoured off the ridge briefly to water up at Desolation Lake, and then continued on to Guardsman Pass, just north of Brighton ski area. From Guardsman, I climbed a pair of peaks, mostly off-trail, before camping, once again on the ridge, above Brighton. As I drifted off into the Land of Nod, I saw two rutting moose tussling, bellowing and chasing each other down the mountainside. Not an experience I will soon forget.




Day 4: I continued my off-trail traverse along the top of Brighton, summiting 3 named peaks, and earning dramatic views of the entire Wasatch Range. My objective was now clearly in sight. I drifted down into Albion Basin in Little Cottonwood. From here it was a quick hike up past Cecret Lake and into Snowbird, where the American Fork Twins awaited. 





But it was not to be. The trail to Cecret Lake was closed off, with a Forest Service closure order stipulating that the area was closed due to emergency dam repairs. My only option for detour would be to drop all the way down to the floor of Little Cottonwood and climb all the way up and around, which would cost me several miles and several thousand feet of elevation gain. More importantly, the detour would destroy the aesthetic beauty of the line I had followed thus far, staying on the ridge, following the most scenic and elegant line.

So I bailed. I was only a few miles short of the finish, I'd been there before, and I had no desire to take a decidedly anticlimactic detour simply for bragging rites. After all, I was the one who had mapped this in the first place.

But, despite the premature end, the journey was in no way a letdown. The route was stunning from start to finish. The fall colors were gorgeous. I spent 4 days revisiting old places, seeing them in a new light, and even visiting some new places. I finally returned to my roots in the Wasatch - and I was not disappointed.



Sunday, September 30, 2018

CDT Part 9: Wrapup

The sun shone directly into the plane's windows, blinding me and the other passengers. I quickly closed the windowshade as my flight home took off from the Denver airport. A few minutes later I opened the window to look out over the Rocky Mountains. Directly below me, I saw a jagged ridgeline. A ridgeline I knew. A ridgeline I had walked. I saw that class III traverse and the steep ascent of James Peak. I'd been there. I'd walked it. And I'd walked everything to the north and south, as far as the eye could see.


That's the moment that it really hit home. As a matter of practice, I avoid dwelling on the enormity of a long hike because it's usually a dispiriting thought. In that moment, though, I was able to reflect on on the hike as a whole.

Usually I like to have these blog posts have a theme or a story, but not today. What follows is a random mishmash of random CDT related stats and thoughts. Sorry guys.

Pacing and timing

Prior to the CDT, I was a bit concerned about my pace. The CDT measures in at about 2,900 miles and the hiking season is only about 5.5 months in a normal year. I ended up completing the trail in just under five months. A faster than expected pace, combined with an early start, allowed me to complete the trail just after Labor Day. 

Overall, I was happy with my pacing and timing. I started on April 10, which would be very early in a normal year. However, this year was not a normal year. Southern Colorado recieved only about 50% of median snowpack over the winter, which meant the high country was accessible much earlier that it normally is. I still arrived a bit too early (a late-season storm dumped a couple of fresh feet in early May) and ended up waiting a week for more snow to melt. However, I enjoyed the challenge of navigating through the San Juans in the snow. It was tough, but doable. It tested the skillset I've worked toward for several years.

The not-hiking part

In general, I employ a slow-but-steady hiking strategy. I'll never be the fastest hiker, but by limiting off-days and striving for consistency, I can make solid progress. On the AT, for example, I took just six zero days - days on which I did not hike at all. On the CDT, however, I took significantly more: a total of 16 zero days.

New Mexico: 2
Colorado: 13
Wyoming: 1
Montana: 0 

Immediately, the 13 in Colorado stands out. Seven of those days were spent waiting for more snow to melt, and during that window, I took a trip to southern Utah with a few other thru-hikers, where we did a leisurely backpacking trip. Even after factoring those seven days into account, though, I still took six zeros in Colorado. 

I hit my stride in northern Colorado and only took one zero in the second half of the trip, in Pinedale, Wyoming. I did take a few short "nero" days in Montana, where I hiked maybe five miles and spent the rest of the day in town. Overall, though, my progress became much steadier as the hike progressed.

Expectations

I'll admit it - the CDT was quite a bit different than I expected. When I first became interested in the CDT, it was still a fairly young trail. Many roadwalking, bushwhacking, and navigational challenges awaited hikers, only the hardiest of which could reasonably be expected to complete the trail. The trail's unofficial motto, "embrace the brutality", says it all.

Coupled with the CDT's reputation was my own experience. In the five years since the AT, I had done off-trail routes in various parts of the West. I'd done ridgeline traverses of the Winds, Beartooths, and Absarokas. And most significantly, I'd done the Hayduke Trail. I knew what to expect from the CDT - at least, I thought I did.

I was dead wrong. The CDT, while certainly less developed and defined than, say, the AT, is still a trail for the most part. Most of it has established tread on the ground. It's oftentimes signed or marked. Logistics are fairly easy and straightforward. And, for those who choose to use it, there's a smartphone app that basically eliminates all the navigational challenges one might otherwise face.

The end result was a little bit of disillusionment on my part. I had expected a 3,000-mile Hayduke, and I got... well, not that. Sure, compared to the AT and PCT, the CDT is a little rough around the edges. But, in terms of on-trail experience, it's a lot closer to the AT than it is to the Hayduke. The whole "embrace the brutality" thing may have been true a decade ago when it was coined, but is increasingly outdated these days. I definitely had to make a conscious effort to come to terms with this new reality. Don't get me wrong; I loved the CDT. However, I had to remind myself to appreciate it for what it is, not for what I had originally wanted it to be.

Navigation

Navigation is the big scary bugaboo in the minds of a lot of prospective CDT hikers. There are basically two map sets.

CDT Maps by Jonathan Ley: The Ley maps have been around for approximately forever. They were published in the early 2000's after Jonathan hiked the CDT himself. Each winter, he updates the maps using hiker feedback and comments and makes them available for free to next year's hikers. While I had a few nits to pick with the maps, they were extremely useful. While other tools and resources make things easier, it is possible to make it to Canada with only his maps if needed.

Pros:
  • Offer lots of different route options, on the macro scale (Gila River vs Black Range) and the micro scale (The trail routing here is completely ridiculous, just cut straight across the river and pick up the trail on the other side)
  • Provides valuable beta on the reliability and quality of water sources (although that beta might be from 15 years ago at this point!)
  • Points out oddities along the trail and things worth seeing

Cons: 

  • Scale is too zoomed-out to do any serious, heavy-duty navigational work
  • "The line" is often slightly inaccurate. Makes it very difficult to ascertain exactly where the trail is, even with a GPS
  • "The line" is dark and thick, and often obscures the topographic/road/trail information on the base USGS map - the exact place where you'll be walking
  • Doesn't differentiate between trail, road, and cross-country travel in any meaningful way
Guthook CDT App: I can't offer too much commentary on the app since I didn't use it. But according to pretty much everyone, it's accurate and helpful. One specific criticism I did hear of it - it doesn't have nearly as many alternate routes as Ley's maps do, and its trail corridor is rather narrow - if you have to bail, you'll quickly run off the edge of your maps. 

I try not to be too much of curmudgeon when it comes to electronic navigation. GPS is a great tool, and is incredibly useful at times (say, when you're in the clouds above treeline and can't see more than 15 yards in front of you). At the same time, electronic navigation is more prone to failure than analog maps are (skill of the user notwithstanding). My personal philosophy: if I'm ever in an environment where my survival depends on staying found, I will always bring two independent sources of navigational data. One can be electronic, the other, analog. When it's 30 miles to the next water source, getting lost is not an option.

What's next


Well, there's another long hike on the docket for next year. Plans are still solidifying, but it's a trek I'm really excited about. In the meantime, I'm spending the fall catching up on all the things I didn't get a chance to do over the last five years - spending an extended holiday season with my family, doing a few hiking trips that have been on the back burner for years, prepping for the aforementioned long hike. Stay tuned for more!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

CDT Part 8: Leadore to Canada


Well, I just walked from Mexico to Canada. 

I walked. From Mexico. To Canada.

Along the way, I climbed the highest peak in the Rockies, slogged through waist-deep snow, gobbled wild raspberries, swam in astonishingly cold lakes, and mostly, did a lot of walking. But most remarkably, I didn't lose or break my spork. Now that's an accomplishment worth lauding.

The big finish: Glacier National Park really did live up to the hype. Although the weather was a bit spotty, I loved the park. Everything is so vertical. The lakes are baby-blue. The glaciers themselves are small, emaciated, and pathetic (hey, we're bringing back those Coal Jobs, right?), but the park is still one of the crown jewels of the CDT. What a place to finish!


Fire, fire everywhere: In my last post, I predicted that I would hit at least one fire closure between Leadore and Canada. In fact, I encountered three. One resulted in twenty miles of paved roadwalking but was otherwise pretty inoffensive. Another forced me to miss one of the highlights of Montana - walking next to the famous Chinese Wall escarpment in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The third, and most aggravating, closed the Waterton Lake finish of the CDT. It forced me to enter Canada not on the shores of a beautiful lake, but at a random paved road crossing east of the park. 

Still, I can't complain. Shortly after leaving Leadore, I happened upon a new wildfire that had started very, uncomfortably close to the trail. I shifted into high gear and jogged around it before it could get out of hand. A couple days later, it did get out of hand, and forced the closure of a huge chunk of Montana - with a hundred-mile re-route, all on pavement. A week later, a line of dry thunderstorms moved through the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness and started a couple of fresh fires in the same place I'd been earlier that morning - again closing a large swath of the CDT. Had I been just a week or two behind, I would have hit hundreds of miles of fire closures, not only in Montana but farther south as well.


Shots of olive oil: I've never been hungrier in my life. I ran out of food several towns in a row, even after bringing extra to accommodate my increased appetite. I simply needed to consume more than I could possibly carry. I resorted to buying olive oil and drinking it straight from the bottle - no chaser. It was pretty gut-curdling, but did do the trick. At more than 200 calories per ounce, it took the sharpest edge off my hunger.

Seasons changing: Summer has come to an end in northern Montana. It's no longer short sleeve weather, most nights are at or below freezing, and yes, it snowed last week. The wind howled over the alpine passes - sharp and cold, with a bite to it - strong enough to knock me off my feet on a couple occasions.

What's next: I'm headed back to Utah for a bit, but the adventures will hopefully continue. I'll also have at least one wrapup post for the CDT with thoughts, unsubstantiated opinions, and maybe some stats and trends.












Thursday, August 2, 2018

CDT Part 7: Pinedale to Leadore


The end is finally in sight. 

For a thru-hike to be successful, it's essential to maintain focus. To that end, I don't allow myself to think about the goal - about finishing, about Canada, until the latter stages of the hike. To think about hiking 3,000 miles when I've only hiked 300 is more than a tad disheartening. 

However, once I reached the two-thirds point of my hike (2,000 miles, in Yellowstone National Park), I finally allowed myself to think about the end. After all, it was only a month and a half away. I would soon be going aboe 10,000 feet for the last time. I'd be crossing into my final state. I'd need to arrange my maildrops to the very last towns on the CDT. Before I know it, the end will be here.

I was discussing this with a few fellow hikers the other day. The question - if the CDT were twice as long, would you still hike it? Having already hiked 2,300 miles, would you be stoked on another 3,000+ miles? I realized that, if only the seasons permitted, I would absolutely love to do it all over again. I just love hiking that much.


Themes:

The Hollow Leg: While my attitude is still upbeat, my body is definitely feeling the effects of nearly 5 months on trail. Around Pinedale, my appetite went bananas. Suddenly those 5-day resupplies I had sent myself were only good for 3 days. I actually ran out of food coming into Leadore and was so hungry that I drank all my water flavoring packets - 5 calories each - just because they were something. I can eat my fill, and be ravenously hungry two hours later. I've had to spend additional time in town in Idaho and Montana, just trying to lessen the calorie deficit I'm running. In Lima, MT, I ate three huge meals in town and left fully fueled. And that day, I cruised up and down a very steep ridgeline. By contrast, two days later, I slogged. The terrain was easier, but energy-wise, I was simply running on empty. I simply cannot eat enough in a day to account for all the energy I'm burning right now.

Flyrannosaurus Rex: As previously mentioned, the mosquitoes were horrendous in the Winds. Since then, they've gradually gotten better. Unfortunately though, they've been replaced by the Flesh-Eating Flies. These horseflies are about an inch long, make an ominous buzzing sound like that of a wasp, and draw blood when they bite. And when you kill them, they leave a disgusting yellow slimelike blood substance on you. They're pretty annoying, and their bite is pretty painful, but they're still better than the mosquitoes. Good riddance to those guys!

Walking the Backbone: One of the highlights of southern Montana has been the routing of the CDT. For the most part, the trail has stayed right on the Divide itself. Oftentimes, my right foot is in Montana and my left foot is in Idaho. And while that means constant ups and downs (probably the consistently steepest part of the trail thus far, even moreso than Colorado), it's also meant great views, wonderful fields of wildflowers, and a top-of-the-world feeling. I must give this section of trail surprisingly high marks.

We Didn't Start the Fire: The entire West is on fire at this point. At least, that's the way it looks. For the past week or so, the sky has been filled with smoke, presumably from larger fires burning to the west. While on the ridge last week, I saw a dry thunderstorm pass well to my south, and a few minutes later, a plume of smoke drifted upward. That fire spread very quickly (fire danger is in the Very High or Extreme categories across most of the West right now) and apparently forced the evacuation of at least one town in eastern Idaho. Nothing's affected the trail so far, but with conditions like this, it's a near certainty that I'll hit a fire closure/re-route or two between here and Canada.

What's Next: I just passed the 75% mark and have only about a month left on trail. The trail will soon leave the Idaho/Montana border and cut eastward, past the mining towns of Butte and Anaconda, before heading north through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park. The next post will likely be written in Canadian. Don't worry though, I hear Canadian and English are mutually intelligible. 


Thursday, July 12, 2018

CDT Part 6: Grand Lake to Pinedale


In my most recent post, I lamented the fact that I hadn't hit my stride on the CDT. Multiple zero days and unexpected delays had contributed toward a nagging feeling that I just wasn't making much progress. 

Since then, I've walked nearly 500 miles in 20 days. 

It helped that the terrain evened out, of course. But although I'd been hiking for more than four months now, I hadn't yet entered that state of flow where the legs go on autopilot, the mind is free to wander, and the miles come easier. Upon leaving Grand Lake, however, I realized I'd have to really turn on the jets to make it to Encampment, WY, before the post office closed for two days the next weekend. I pushed myself and made it in time to pick up my package, and then kept that momentum going across the dreaded Great Divide Basin. Over the years, I've discovered that I'm happiest when I keep moving at a consistent, reasonable pace, spending minimal time in town. And over the last three weeks, I've achieved just that.

Themes:
 
The Great Divide Basin: Among CDT hikers, the Basin has a reputation as a bit of a boogeyman. If you've ever drive Interstate 80 through the state of Wyoming, it's the boring, hot, crappy central part of the state that's tedious enough to drive through, let alone walk through. The water is either chemically undrinkable, disgustingly cow-fowled, or completely non-existent. And there's absolutely nowhere to hide from the blazing sun. There are no trees, no tall rocks, no overhung cliffs - just flat country with foot-tall sagebrush. Fourteen hours per day, in 95+ degree heat, and absolutely nowhere to escape from it, not even for a minute. It really takes a toll, not just physically, but mentally. I averaged close to 30 miles per day across the Basin, just to get across it as soon as possible and escape to the relative cool, shade, and glorious cold water of the mountains again. 

Pretty, but undrinkable.

The Wind River Hordes: Of course, as soon as I got into the mountains again, I wanted to be back in the desert. Well, that's not true, but a new challenge confronted me: mosquitoes so thick they're worthy of "Eleventh Plague" appellation. In the Winds, I've covered up from head to toe - long sleeves, long pants, a headnet, and DEET - all day, every day. I've never seen bugs this bad before. A few days ago, I killed six mosquitoes with one swat of my hand. Oh, and it's rained every day too. 

The Wind River Magic: In spite of the challenges that the Winds present, they really are beautiful. Although it was still too snowy to do the off-trail route that I really wanted to do, I still took a small detour through the Temple Pass and Cirque of the Towers area. I'd been there before, but it was no less beautiful this time around. The lingering snow on the north side of a few passes allowed me to do some glissading. Bonus: even ravenous zombie-mosquitoes can't catch up with you while you're sliding down a snowfield!


Happy 150th, South Pass City: I was cruising across the Great Divide Basin when I ran into a local on his ATV one morning. We got to talking, and he mentioned that South Pass City (approximate population: 50) was having its 150th anniversary celebration the next day. He mentioned that there would be concerts and... BBQ! I was still 51 miles away from South Pass, but I determined that, if I really hustled, I could make it for lunch tomorrow. So I went into overdrive, hiking 36 miles that day and 15 the next morning to arrive just in time for the festivities to start. South Pass is so small that normally, there's not even a place in town to get a hot meal. When I arrived, though, I found two food trucks, a free concert going on, and old-timey baseball tournament between several cow town teams, random gunpowder explosions, and more. I spent most of the day there, sitting in the glorious, glorious shade, watching baseball and drinking pop. Happy birthday, South Pass!

What's next: The northern half of the Wind River Range beckons, including (hopefully) the famous Knapsack Col. Those plans are still up in the air though, as there's apparently a nasty snow cornice lingering up there. After the Winds, it's less than a week through the Absarokas (the locale of last summer's big trip) to Yellowstone National Park. Within a few weeks, I should be in the last state of the CDT, Montana. There's over a thousand miles of trail in Montana though, so don't hold your breath quite yet!