Thursday, October 30, 2014

In search of six

When I turned an age that I had before believed was impossible, I decided that in order to endure it, I would start the 5-0 rule. That is, on the years where I turned an age with a five or a zero on the end, I would do something big. It didn't have to be on the day, just that year. I've only had the opportunity to do this a few times, with the following big things:

1. On one zero year, I got married. (That didn't work out so well. For marriage #2, I didn't pick a big year, and it seems to be turning out just fine)

2. On a 5, I backpacked the Overland Trail in Tasmania. I cashed in all my airline miles and it was really great. Looking for a good trip? Tasmania is pretty great.

3. And this year, with a zero, I decided to spend fifty nights out in the wilderness, for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, or backcountry if that wasn't possible, reached only by human power (so car camping did not count, but backpacking to a hut did).

It's surprisingly hard to get fifty nights in if you have a job, two houses, six pets ("It's midnight and I'm a dog! I want to go outsideIwanttogooutsideIwantogo..oh lots of things are out here to bark at! BarkyBarkBark Barkity Bark!" "Hey, I'm a kitten and I see you are composing an important document. Let me help you by running across your screen. There! I just deleted a bunch of text! Now I'm going to jump on your head!") and other obligations. I've made it to #44 though, with only six to go. When I am done I will post about what I have learned. In the meantime...

It is snowing. Which can be the death knell for backpacking. I know there are those who salivate at winter camping, and I plan to do it a little more, but honestly? You slog through the snow, carrying half your body weight, you hastily put up your tent before you freeze to death, and you dive in for a total of over fourteen hours. I just....don't get it. I want to, though. It would open up a lot more possibilities.

I'm pretty sure I'll get to fifty nights before my birthday in January. Though the high country is getting snow, we still have Hells Canyon for awhile longer. The poison ivy has died back, reports C, and the temperatures are still in the sixties. One night will go there, and three nights are spoken for at Big Bend National Park at New Years. Two more are unknowns, but I still hope to get to a lake or two before they are buried in deep snow. I'm running out of time, but the mountains are still calling. I'm not done with them yet.

Maybe that's all right. I don't like doing the same thing over and over, and it might be time to put the tent away and do something else. In winter, I run more, I ski, and reacquaint myself with the gym. I write more, and make bread. All good things that I don't have time for in the summer. There will be many more nights in tents in other years.

Do you do anything on the 5 and 0? Anything you want to share? Looking for ideas. And no, I am not going to run in one day my miles in years. That's just too far.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

I feel it in the air, summer's out of reach

I couldn't explain why I felt compelled to hike to Mirror Lake. The forecast was horrible--forty mile an hour winds--and there was an unknown amount of snow up there. The road is typically a washboarded mess. There were so many things I should do instead--chop wood, order a propane heater, clean the house, write, grocery shop--all of the things that add up when you work ten hour days. Sometimes I think how great it would be if I didn't work: all of that time! Run whenever you want! Go to the post office when it's actually open! Get a haircut! But then I have to stop because I am seized with a deep jealousy.

Mirror Lake is typically tourist ground zero in the summer. Good luck trying to find a place to camp where you aren't observed, or even worse, a place to pee undetected. I've seen people carrying duffel bags here instead of backpacks, and all sorts of rule flouters. Its saving grace is that it is truly a beautiful lake, surrounded by peaks and other lakes, a sort of highly inhabited heaven. In summer, we stay away.

But not now. As I slogged up the switchbacks, thinking that the trail had become more difficult in my absence, not a soul appeared. Fresh bear tracks were pressed into the snow. I started wishing I had brought my tent, but as I crested the final hill, 7.3 miles later, the full brunt of the wind hit me. Unlike in summer, today Mirror Lake was an inhospitable place. Six inches of snow covered the ground and the lake boiled with waves. If you could even put up a tent, you would be hunkered in it for many hours, hoping it would hold.



Day hiking is okay, but I've gotten my backpack weight down enough that I can almost move at the same speed with or without it. I don't like tagging a lake and leaving, and going back the same way isn't as interesting as waking up the next day in a sweet place and hiking out. Today was a day hiking kind of day, though, and I knew that I couldn't linger long, even though I had enough gear to survive if I needed to. There's not a lot of daylight, and you have to stay on the move.

The snow has come fast and sudden this year, and this will be the last trip to Mirror until next year. Probably I'll do what I usually do, slog as far as I can get in July before snow turns me around. It's a short season up this high. We're lucky to get what we do get.

As I trotted along the lyrics of a song we used to hear all the time when I was younger ran through my head:
Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach, I can feel it in the air, summer's out of reach. Empty lake, empty streets, the sun goes down alone..

The sun will go down alone at Mirror Lake for months to come. Don't look back, you can never look back...

I did look back, though. I looked back at snowy Eagle Cap peak and thought that we can't disregard all of the things we have right now, empty trail, empty lake, the fitness to hike fifteen miles, the love I never thought I would ever find. There's always something to complain about, like a job that keeps me sequestered from the mountains I love. The trick is to capture what is good and know that it will pass, like summer, because all things end, even if it breaks our hearts. But we have it right now.

The trailhead was empty. I went back home. I looked at all the things I should have done that day. And I didn't do them. I sat on the couch with my kitten happily sleeping on my lap.




Monday, October 20, 2014

I think I was in Albuquerque

At least, that's what my travel documents say. I mostly saw the inside of conference rooms. Work travel, when you don't have a car with you, can be challenging. I feel uneasy without a stockpile of food nearby, and I always make sure there's a hotel gym, if I can't run outside. You don't really want to run outside in downtown ABQ, by the way, unless you enjoy panhandlers and overall sketchiness.

So these things happened:

1. A lady in the gift store told me her life story as I tried to edge away with my chocolate, ranging from weight problems to a career change. She was nice but she was standing between me and my chocolate!

2. I discovered the interesting machine that is a Spin bike. Three of us spun along to nowhere, accompanied by Ebola TV. (Spin bikes are kind of fun actually. I like standing up).

3. I saw a man in a kilt, another one whose fashion accessory was a bandanna tied around his head, and various very, very short skirts on millennials. Not entirely conference attire, but to each his own.

4.  A LAP POOL. OUTSIDE. IN THE SUN. ON THE ROOF. LOVE.

5.  Two different people said I looked like someone they knew, and two others thought I was my sister. (I get people saying I look like someone they know a lot. Do you? It's weird. It has happened all my life).

6. I SIGNED MY BOOK CONTRACT!!!!!!!!! Yes, I am getting a novel published by a REAL PUBLISHER. (more on this later). Psst:  published writers! I need to put your names down for copies to be sent to you! If you don't like it, you don't have to review it or blurb it, I just need names now, before November 1! Message me and I will....will...send you cookies!

7. I found out that my ex's long term girlfriend has MY SAME LAST NAME. Which is not common. And kind of creepy.

8. I got lost in the hotel twice and had to follow a creepy labyrinth out to the lobby. Seriously. Who locks all the stair doors so you can't climb the stairs?

9. As I was giving my presentation, a marathon was being held on the street below. I snuck some glances at the people running. I don't pay to run, but it was inspiring to see the different shapes and sizes struggling along out there. Also, lots of cheering which I pretended was for my presentation.

10. I won a Deuter day pack at the silent auction for $70! Score!

What are some things that happened in your world this week? Please comment! I love comments!


Monday, October 13, 2014

Just me (and a few gutpiles)

It's fall now, no denying it, and the backpackers have disappeared. Where are they? Probably at home, doing other stuff. After all, it gets dark way early now. It snows, sometimes. You have to totally abandon the ultra light idea and go heavyweight, with down booties, a real tent, snow stakes.

Which reminds me! Guess what, guys! If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am a habitual gear forgetter. But I haven't forgotten anything in a long time. Until my Elkhorn Crest trip, where I forgot my spork. "Darn," I groaned, looking around for a stick to carve. But then my eyes lit upon...my REI snow stake! Guess what, it's perfect! Kind of like a big chopstick! So the uses I have identified for this item now are: emergency eating utensil, cat hole digging implement, vampire killer, and, I guess, staking your tent.

Digression alert! But back to the empty woods. They're not quite empty. This week I hiked to Ice Lake, a place that gets hammered in summer. Sitting by the lake, I mused: I'm all alone here. Then two shots rang out from the basin below. All alone except for a gutpile, actually.

Ice Lake
 The hunters here don't camp much. They silently appear from the bushes in camo when I least expect them. They regard me curiously. "Going for a day hike?" one asked as I hiked uphill with a pack of hugeness, full of four liters of water for a dry camp. If that's my day pack, I thought to myself, I'd hate to see my overnight one. But they're all very nice, and don't seem to shoot wildly, unlike other states I've hiked in (I'm looking at you, Idaho). You know, if people make the effort to hike, I have to appreciate that, even if they are out there for other reasons than I am.

The animals have vanished too. It's like they know. And there's just a different feeling out there now. You can't swim in the lakes anymore unless you like hypothermia. You have to hike in pants. And  you know, you just know, that snow is around the corner.


The skiers are running around all wild-eyed, even though they know that a full snow cover won't be possible for months. Us backpackers don't get a lot of sympathy, because the skiers have suffered through an impossibly warm and dry summer that came pretty early.

I'm still hoping to get a couple more nights out before winter sets in (I'm up to #44). I'll snuggle in my zero bag, with snow stake in hand, a good book to read, and hours to go before daylight. It's hibernation camping, and it's all right.
This thing is awesome. Really.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Men in the woods

The pudgy hunters trudged up the slope, looking winded. "Looking for deer?" my hiking partner called. "The four-legged kind," the leader of the pack responded with a wink.

Har, Har, Har.

Standing a little too close to her to "point out our route", he said, "You two are the best looking things we've seen out here!"

Thanks?

As soon as it would not be considered rude, we hiked on. I thought: a lonely hunter, thinking he is funnier and more handsome than he really is. Harmless. Happens every day.

Hours later I sat with my hiking partner at camp. We were the only ones at this "seldom visited" (according to our slightly inaccurate guidebook) lake. The hunters were far from my mind when she expressed a concern that they might show up. We had told them where we were going, after all. "They could never make it here, and they would have to use headlamps," I said, but I wondered. This isn't the first time I've noticed a fear of people in the woods from other companions that I don't share.

Two years ago a friendly man gave my friends and me directions to a "hidden cabin". I was ahead of my hiking buddies and they saw him walking out of the trail but no sign of me (he was already on his way out when I hiked in, but they didn't know that). "We thought you were murdered!" they joked (I think), but I was left with the impression that they thought hiking in alone was a bad choice. In other conversations I've had with friends, they seem way more worried about men in the woods than I do.

In the real world, I'm not always a trusting person. I've been burned often enough to know that many people operate in their own self-interest. The world is all about them, and you are only a moon circling their planet. I do not linger in places where wilderness and civilization meet. But in wilderness? I have the perhaps bad habit of thinking that all people are good. As if being outside in the trees somehow paints everyone with a magic brush, covering up all of their flaws and potential deviousness.

I would hate to start thinking otherwise. The wilderness is one place where I can let my guard down, at least with people. We stand on the trails, sharing maps and information about the route to come. Sometimes we meet as kindred souls and camp together for many nights. People have given me camp fuel, a stove, and cookies. They've shown me really, really cool lakes and routes I never would have tried otherwise. Other times we become friendly for life, such as a chance encounter on Mount Thielsen with another climber. I don't want to scurry through the woods the way I think I sometimes scurry through life, looking out for intruders.

I've been through enough that I won't ever adopt the Pollyanna, Facebook poster mentality of "everyone's so wonderful". I know differently. I still hide my camp when I'm alone, and I don't usually tell other people where I plan to go. I don't pack a gun on a hike with four other friends like some women do, but I do carry bear spray (much more effective and less life-changing). But I will always be more afraid of bears than of people in the wilderness. Do murderers backpack? Probably. But the chances are slim. I want to believe otherwise, and so I do.

I think I sometimes have this at night instead:



Thoughts?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Thru-hiking the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail

There are more mountain goats than people on the Elkhorn Crest Trail. We hiked in glorious solitude at 8,000 feet, only encountering a few lonely deer hunters and a phone from which you could apparently call God (no answer, alas).



For some reason summer returned this weekend, and we caged a shuttle from only a slightly put out friend to Marble Pass (near Baker City, Oregon). From here the trail rollercoasters along for 23 miles and ends at the Anthony Lakes ski area. We started late on day one, so only hiked four miles to the junction with Twin Lakes, which we reached by a steep mile long trail. There's only one water source along the entire Crest Trail, so most hikers drop off the top to camp at the lakes along the way.



The next day we hiked about 13 miles, taking a side trip to camp at Summit Lake, once again the only people in the entire place. Along the way we passed more goats, more lonely hunters, and big views from saddles and passes.

Summit Lake, surrounded by new trees as well as silver snags from a 1990s fire.
I finally have met my match with early rising, when before six the next day I peeked out from my tent to see my companion's headlamp in motion. We quickly hiked the last twelve miles, passing above beautiful Lost Lake and through a gap in the rocks called Nip and Tuck Pass. In total we hiked 28 miles, most of it completely alone. 

Cracker Creek, the only water source on the crest.

Lost Lake
Above Lost Lake we fantasized about calling in sick and staying out one more day. But as all thru hikers know, the trail ends one day and you go back to "real" life. Our trail was 23 miles, not 2,660, but we still felt like we had accomplished something as we stuffed our faces with pepperoni and crackers on the drive home.

The Elkhorn Crest trail can be reached by many side trails. The drive up to Marble Pass is, in one word, awful. The better approach would be to drive up another route (from Phillips Reservoir). There's not a lot of info on this trail, but if you google it you will find some older trip reports. It's definitely worth the effort. Bring enough water capacity for three liters, maybe more in summer, although snow lingers for a long time up here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fire and Snow on Sacajawea Peak

I paused, three quarters of the way up Sacajawea Peak, at nearly 10,000 feet the highest point in the Wallowa Mountains. The mountain's shoulder was exposed to the darkening sky. A skinny trail snaked upwards, talus-covered and slippery. As I watched, fog rolled in like cotton, and snow began to spit from the clouds. I thought of the hour and a half descent waiting.


Going up is easy for me. Going down is not. Scree is  my nemesis. I could climb uphill all day. But descending wrapped in fog on a faint trail? Ball-bearing rocks under my feet? It was time to call it.

I don't really care about ascending to high points. I've never aspired to mountain climb. I'd rather hike to a lake, or along a river. I had wanted to climb Sac mainly to scout out the best way to a hidden lake called Hawk, and to see if there was a better way to another one called Deadman. Sometimes you have to get high to see the pieces of the puzzle.



As I descended, smoke rose through the trees below me. I'm camping in a basin that's still on fire, I thought, and laughed, because that isn't dangerous to me, not the way it was burning, not dangerous in the way the peak was. Most people would choose the talus over the fire.

Loose stones rolled under my shoes, causing me to slip and fall. This is not fun, I thought. Just get down.

I came to Thorp Creek Basin to see what had happened after the wildfire. Turns out it is still burning, flames moving through green pockets. It'll burn until the big snow. There are places that have been totally nuked, dead trees burned black, a carpet of golden needles, and other places where the fire skipped and hopped around without much reason. In the end, it'll be good for the basin. It was crowded like pre-brac54es teeth. This fire cleared things out. There will be more open spaces, more room for little trees to grow.

Climbing the peak was just an afterthought, because it was cold and I had time on my hands before it got dark. It's fall now, and the lazy days of reading and lake swimming are gone. Instead, in fall, I explore.

The basin was deserted. Light snow covered the peak the next morning as I packed up and hurried through the dead trees, trusting they would remain standing. Two people were camped at the river, and they looked upward at the sky. They were going to try to attempt the summit, they said, but if it was too slippery with new snow, or too cloudy, they would turn back.

"There's flames just ahead of you," I said. "Don't freak out." And I headed down the trail. Maybe most people would care that they didn't make the summit, would be planning a return. If I go back, I might try it again. Or I might climb it the easier way, from Ice Lake. Either way, I'm not holding on to the idea.

It rained for the next two days. Fresh snow showed up. The summit days might be over, but I bet the fire is still burning.
Looking into the basin. You can see the burned areas and maybe some smoke.