Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Death in the Whites

If you're part of the outdoors community, I'm sure you have heard this story.

Predictably the howls have begun. Why did she go alone? With that forecast? Why didn't she dig a snow cave, turn on her cell phone, not go at all? None of us can know these things unless we were there. All we can know is that she didn't have a chance once the wind began to blow.

I was dropped off today to do a solo ski from Salt Creek to Fergi, a distance of about ten miles. There's something about being dropped off that commits you to the adventure, but unlike Kate, I was skiing into a cold but sunny day. I was at a high elevation in a remote place, but after awhile I saw some snowmobilers, a sno cat, some dudes busting the oversnow road closure and a young girl mushing sled dogs. Winter came back this week and people were out. At the same time, the grader headed down a closed road to rescue a family that had illegally driven down it and been stuck out overnight. So you never know.

The road I skied lies high above the river, mid-mountain, far from anywhere. I was glad to be alone, to push the pace a little, to not have to talk. Maybe that's what Kate wanted too, but who can know? The people who admonish us to never go alone don't understand the value of being silent in your own company. I never really trust people who can't be alone.

Despite the meager snowpack, I was able to charge along the route at a blazing speed, faster than I've skied it before. It was so cold that I wore a puffy for the first half of the journey but the big hills soon warmed me. Somehow I always forget how steep this route is, but I skied along with my new mantra: "If a 74 year old woman can thru hike the Appalachian Trail, I can do this!"

Cold, the kind of cold Kate faced, can change everything. Maybe she made some bad decisions because of it. Maybe she should  have stayed home. It's really sad that she died, and it's sad that people's lives were put at risk trying to rescue her. But the mountains aren't safe. They never will be. And that's part of why we go there. Who wants to just hit the gym every day? Who wants to just sit on the couch?

I arrived at the parking lot in record time, happy with the day. The death in the Whites doesn't change a lot for me except that I will scrutinize the weather a bit more closely. Having been part of a search and rescue team, I never want to endanger others with my choices (Try having a Coast Guard helicopter out looking for you. It's embarrassing. And a long story. We weren't in danger but some conclusions were jumped to).  I carry a beacon and I turn around, a lot sooner probably than I would have at 32. I don't see this as failure anymore though I am sure at one time I would have. RIP Kate and all the others who have died in the mountains.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

the winter that wasn't

still some snow up high
There are a lot of things to say about the winter that wasn't. Like, the $900 I spent on snow tires. The fact that I will have to harvest much less wood from the forest next year because 62 degrees is a fine indoor temperature, achieved by opening the door to the sunroom, the natural warmth of the logs, and wearing a wool dress. Or that my bread production has gone way down, because what's better on a snowy day than making bread? Or that because I am still hiking, my house isn't nearly as clean as it is usually. (Small digression here. Can you really trust a person with a spotless house to be a good adventure buddy? While not unsanitary, I believe on a day off there are much better things to do outdoors than cleaning inside.)

Nope, the worst thing about the winter that wasn't is that we are all out of our routines. The Fergi ski area crowd is completely undone. The ice skaters, the snowmobilers--all roaming around with too much time on their hands. A lot of peoples' social lives are completely disrupted. Each day dawns cold and clear. And snowless.

As for me, I counted on winter as my break from hiking and running. Don't get me wrong, I love those activities. But cross country skiing is perhaps the best cardio exercise there is, without the repetition of pounding down a trail. By the time the snow melted, I was eager to get back to the trails.

Yesterday I drove to a trailhead that normally you can't even access until June, except by skis. It felt weird and wrong to be hiking up to about 7,000 feet on a bare trail. The day before that, I was able to do a trail run that was previously summer only.

Some people are loving this weather. I don't blame them really. Wearing a T-shirt on the moraine is kind of delightful. But there's also a feeling that we are going to pay for this later, with wildfires in the mountains, more evacuations, our valley wreathed with smoke.

I hiked up the mountain to the old miner's cabin, finally sinking my boots into some snow. It's up there, still plenty of it, just higher than we have had to ever go before. What does this mean? I don't know. March is usually the snowiest month. We've had big snowfalls in May. It could still happen. We could still turn this thing around. Maybe.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Walking the Big Lonely: Four days on the Tonto Plateau

First light, after climbing out to the rim on the Bright Angel trail with a headlamp.
Late in the day, day three I think, far into my thirteen miles, I happened upon a man attempting to dry out his gear at the desolate Cedar Spring (Condensation happens, even in the Big Ditch). This would be the only person I would see all day. In the Grand Canyon. What if, I thought, Something has happened to every other person on the planet, and I'm the only one left alive? That's how it felt this week on the Tonto. The designated campsites nestled into the rocks, deserted and quiet. At Horn Creek, water I was warned not to drink, tainted by a long-ago uranium mine, trickled into the perfect dipping pool. I could not resist--that is probably not what I'm going to die from.

The loveliness that is Granite Rapids. Not strictly on the Tonto, but who can resist a February swim and sleeping on sand?
The Grand Canyon was mostly, oddly, silent, the corridor trails deserted despite the seventy degree temperatures. A handful of backpackers lay collapsed at Indian Garden, moaning about the remaining miles to Phantom Ranch. Not me. I was taking a left, onto the Tonto trail.

The Tonto. It's where I seem to always end up. It's wild, lonely and desolate. People have died here. There's a lot of climbing in and out and over huge drainages, walking exposed above raven colored cliffs that plunge into the Colorado. The entire trail is many miles long, belting the Canyon at midpoint, and I know I have barely scratched its surface. I've only begun to venture off the main paths. There is still a lot to discover.

On the last day I decided to see if I could stay at Indian Garden rather than Horn Creek, two and a half miles farther, to catch an earlier shuttle, and the ranger at the campground looked puzzled. "Of course!" she said. "If you could stay here instead of there, why wouldn't you? Welcome to civilization."

At Indian Garden, a large group chatted in non-campground voices. "Going to bed already?" a man exclaimed as he saw me with a toothbrush. Later, I overheard him name dropping: "I wonder if people on the rim can see our headlamps. When I was on Mount Whitney.."  An earnest conversation over whether to have breakfast before or after packing up ensued, with a woman stating that she always had breakfast before, so she could "digest while packing."

Eyeroll. Give me the Tonto any day. If you could stay on the Tonto instead of the main corridor, why wouldn't you?

So I counted. I've backpacked into the canyon now six times. That's a lot! But I want to explore past the boundaries. Someone tell me about Grandview, Horseshoe Mesa, Grapevine, South Bass.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Can't stay away

Sometimes the stars align. You get a project in Flagstaff, and you get to run on the urban trails, with other runners, without worrying about faceplants because there are no rocks.  Really? Other people get to run like this? I would run every day if it were like this, you think.

You get to go to Sedona and run there too, on a trail called Hot Loop, which makes you a little frightened, but it turns out February is the perfect time, with water still in the creek.

You drive the Mogollon Rim and see places you went to, years ago, before you knew how your life would turn out. You somehow manage to get a permit for the Grand Canyon backcountry for the sites you have always wanted to camp at: Horn Creek, where they only allow one party per night and the water is allegedly high in uranium content, and Granite Rapids, even though the park stamps your permit with: AGGRESSIVE ITINERARY! HIKER INSISTED ON ITINERARY!

At home, 100 mph winds are tearing off your roof, but there is nothing you can do about it, because you are here, at the Grand Canyon, which is strangely warm and devoid of crowds. Tomorrow, you hike in.  Again.

Three times in a year and I am still not done with this place. There is some kind of magic here that I can't quite figure out. And I am not even a desert person. I like water, and mountains, and alpine tundra. So why am I here again? I hope to find out.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Toilets in the woods, and other unexpected finds

I snowshoed loudly through the woods. Crunch crunch crunch. This winter has been a bust so far. There's hardly any snow, and what there is, is icy and crusty. The lack of consistent snow for the last few years is really changing the economic picture of the West. And it is making us grumpy. I don't want to hike and run this much in winter. I want to ski!

I skirted some bare ground. Bare ground in January? Crunchy crunch. Then I saw it. Another homemade backcountry toilet! Gah! Why do I keep finding these? It's like there is some kind of magnetic force that draws me to these structures. People spend a lot of time on them, some even packing real toilet seats in to use. Others are simple wooden one-holers. While I am grateful that some effort is made to contain the waste instead of the dreaded toilet-paper-under-a-rock, I have to wonder just how long these people planned to stay out here. And the color choice of pink for the seat...? Other contraptions have been a lovely mix of blue tarp (for shielding the view?) and bucket. It's never pretty out there, folks.

But what is interesting is that you can think you've heard or seen it all, and you realize that no, you haven't. You can be sitting in the pub next to T, who you've talked to a bunch of times, and he suddenly says, "When I sailed from Fiji to New Zealand.."

What?! Seriously. How have I never known this?

And that's not the only thing.

With the lack of snow, we've been hiking on weekends. This weekend we got permission from some private landowners to hike on their property. Just when you think you've been everywhere, you realize that there is plenty left to see. For example, this big open ridge by Elk Mountain. Who knew all this was out there?

We hiked and hiked and hiked, for hours, because the ridge just kept going. It was warm enough for shorts. Which is pretty awesome, but worrying also. In the distance, the Seven Devils and the Wallowas looked impossibly high. We were surrounded by mountains. I live here! I thought. I really live here! I don't live in a dusty cow town or a place where it rains three hundred and twenty days a year! (both places I have, indeed, lived) I live here!

We found half-frozen ponds, fences, and antler sheds. Also, wolf tracks. But no toilets. That only happens when I'm alone. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mistaken for Coyotes

C and I hiked up the Devils Gulch trail, deep in conversation. We'd hiked with others before, but never just us. I've been trying to find new trail friends, and we were having a good day (it was about 60 degrees. In January!).

As we came upon two slower hikers, they looked relieved. "We heard you back there and thought you were coyotes!"

Well, that's a new one.

Let me tell you this: when you are a nomad, sort of, and move all the time (my record for staying put is seven years), it can be really hard to make new friends. You come into a town and people already have their friends. They're not on the hunt for new ones. In a town of about one thousand people, it's like a diamond hunt.

Because you can always find friends to hang out at the pub, or maybe casually stroll the moraine. Trail friends are what I'm talking about.

If you've ever hiked a long trail, you know what I mean. There's something about the trail that lends itself to sudden bonds and a quick-setting friendship. In the North Cascades we met and camped for several nights with a man we knew only as Cherry Pie. Though we did not hike with him, we compared notes on possible campsites, left trailside notes, and looked forward to seeing him every night.

Trail friends in the canyons

Other trail friends are more fleeting-short conversations at breaks, passing by at water stops. There was Diesel, who paused at the top of the milk creek switchbacks to talk about his thirty mile day and how he was on track for Canada. "See you in Stehekin," he said, although Flash and I knew we were too slow; he would be long gone. We ran into Rags several times last summer before he vanished with a bout of giardia.  In the Sierras, the Archers disappeared into a thunderstorm after days of congenial lunch breaks and leapfrogging.

Sometimes those geographically challenged friends stick with you. Though it has been over a decade, J and I still mention our chance encounter on the summit of Mount Thielsen. I've never seen D, a friend of a friend, again since our hike on the Florida Trail, but the memory of her husband falling accidentally in an alligator hole still makes me laugh, and we occasionally meet up on Facebook to remember him and feel sad that he is gone too soon from a terrible cancer. So far, Camel, Buff and TC and I have managed to meet up each Christmas, and I tempt them with other possibilities ("you can get a red eye, fly all night, drive all morning and still meet me to hike!").

But what you really need is trail friends close by (and this applies to whatever you are into, climbing, running, whatever). Take it from a gypsy: It's not easy. You cultivate people like gardens. Some won't be compatible (like weeds? Ha) but some will. It's almost like asking someone on a date when you approach a potential trail friend. What if they say no? What if they have other, better options and dump me for, say, a day with their husbands (This has happened!)

But it's worth it. I've found trail friends to be the best friends I have. Honestly, do you remember the times you spent sitting in a restaurant with people? Probably not. It's the bushwhacking when you've lost the trail in the willows. It's the dodging of salmon guts and singing loudly to avoid bear encounters on a 16 mile run with Ken that I still remember. Lying in a row looking at stars in the Texas desert. And, now, being mistaken for coyotes.

No coyotes here (and no snow either)

Tell me about your trail friends! Was it hard to find them? Do you have same time, next year trail friends like I do?

Friday, January 23, 2015

It's All About Me: Fitting Adventure into Work Travel


Work travel. It happens. For me it often involves high level, strategic meetings in windowless rooms, from which I bolt at the end of the day to find a hotel gym. I want to break this cycle. Why white-knuckle it over the Rattlesnake in winter two hours to an airport, spend all day in flight, and sit in conferences for.. well..just work? I've determined to find some adventure in work travel this spring.

For example: I have to go to Portland in early March. Portland? Blah. But then I think, if we stay downtown, I can run on the waterfront! I love the waterfront! It's flat! There are other runners! No ice! No rocks! I can be swift! I can look at dragon boats!  Yay Portland!

From Portland, I am going to Cedar City, Utah. Cedar City in late March?! Have I died and gone to heaven? I can surely find a daylight hour or two between meetings and go hiking in Zion National Park, can't I? After that, I have a work trip to Flagstaff in late April. Hmm....could I possibly stay the weekend? A Grand Canyon Hermit to Boucher solo backpacking loop sounds perfect! And I'm not even mentioning my February trip to Flagstaff and the GC permit I've snagged then- Bright Angel to Horn Creek to Granite Rapids, two of the best campsites in the whole place.

Of course, none of this is as easy as I make it sound. After all, these trips are for work. That's the main objective, and I can't let my adventures infringe upon that. There is paperwork to do to ensure that staying over a weekend doesn't cost any more than flying back on a Friday. There's making sure that all the bases are covered at home. There's checking with the boss. Still..if  you can make it happen, it is well worth overcoming the inertia. Below some tips that work for me.

1. Strategic packing. I wear my trail runners both for hiking and for my workday exercise. I usually run in a pair of dedicated shoes, but I figure that a week of using my Cascadias for running won't hurt me. That way I don't need to bring backpacking shoes and exercise shoes. Similarly, for my workday outfits I bring the same color scheme so I only need one pair of dress type shoes or boots. I don't take extras on these trips. Yes, a running outfit for every day is nice...but not necessary.

2. Be okay with solo. I've tried to incorporate friends into these trips, but it doesn't really work that well unless they live in the same town I am going to. Often the work travel isn't scheduled until a few weeks prior, and days of meetings can change abruptly. We aren't allowed to even buy plane tickets until three weeks before we go. Most people can't drop everything on a moment's notice. I've stopped trying, and am fine with exploring on my own. 

3. Trip reports are your friends. Before I go to a place, I scour the internet to see what other people have written about the area. As lovely as the federal agency websites may be, they are definitely lacking in real life experiences. If I hadn't found the Big Bend chat forum, for example, I wouldn't know about the water sources and if they are typically reliable in winter. If I hadn't talked to my friend L about the Grand Canyon Tuweep hike, I wouldn't know that the "dangers" are vastly inflated on the park website. Some cities also  have running routes mapped out if you google "running in Portland" or something similar. Shuttles are also your friend! Often you can find shuttles to many trails or locations. That way you aren't stuck renting a car and having it sit for days. If other types of adventures are your thing, there might be groups in that town that do them. One woman I worked with was into roller derby, and she brought her stuff with her, finding other teams to skate with.(Digression: I have spent many an hour on the trail trying to think up a roller derby name. I still haven't come up with one! It should be a play on your name, profession, etc, but sound fearsome.)

4. Go stoveless.  Thinking about backpacking? A backpacking stove and flying just don't work that well. You have to find a canister somewhere, or fuel, and can't bring it back with you even if you have fuel left. I don't bring a stove unless it is going to be really cold. And speaking of food, I typically fly with most of my backpacking food already in my bag. It's just too time consuming and difficult to try to find that stuff at your destination. That way you are ready to go and don't waste time (I also fly with some of the lunch and breakfast items I plan to eat during the work day. I don't do well with huge restaurant meals and grocery stores aren't often located near hotels).

5. Be realistic. I would love to turn a work trip into a multi-day, multi sport adventure. But I often don't have more than a couple of days to spare, and the gear required is too immense. Less can be more. A day hike is fine! A run is fine! What matters is the experience. You aren't in your hotel watching a Say Yes to the Dress Marathon (don't judge. I don't have a TV, I have done this. I kind of love wedding dresses. I know, I am an enigma).

I can't typically take off and go visit these places on my own. It costs too much and takes a lot of time. But with work travel, I can have the best of both worlds. Go work travel! (Alaska? Need any work done? Call me!)

Do you travel for work? What adventures do you find? And what would your roller derby name be?