Wednesday, January 19, 2022

the long haul

I hauled myself up the backside of Mount Howard, carrying snowshoes. It's always better to bring snowshoes and not need them rather than leave them behind and need them, I reasoned. Some vintage sno-cats had powered up the road the day before, packing it down, but not in a a good way. Their tires created ridges, and the snow was soft, so it was like walking in mashed potatoes. 

Still, I was determined. I've written about this hike before, and it has become a semi-annual staple. On one hand my goal is to get as high as possible--8,400 feet--and on the other, this hike serves as a good fitness gauge. It's hard--almost 4,000 feet gained in 4 miles--and because I couldn't park at the trailhead, it added another three miles to the total.

As usual, nobody was around. I've only known of a couple of people who do this hike, probably because it isn't that scenic until you get to the very top. And in summer, why not just ride the gondola that brings thousands of tourists to the summit? It's also hard, as I have mentioned before. But as I've said, it serves as a good fitness gauge. Today, I wasn't feeling so fit. I slogged slowly upwards, half tempted to turn around. I've been uncomfortably aware that my endurance could be better. I don't have a lot of time during the week to exercise, and the weekend warrior thing wasn't cutting it.
I've never been a sprinter; I like the long haul. I endure the elliptical machine and the bike trainer, but can't endure the boredom of more than an hour on them. I like the endurance of hiking or skiing for hours, at a pace that is sustainable. Someday I hope to have enough time to live this way. 

 At the top of Mount Howard, a bitter wind kept me from staying long. I looked over all of the peaks and the places I've been and the ones I have yet to know. I hastily chomped down an apple and part of a fig bar. As always I wished I had brought a tent instead of descending into the fog that kept the valley hostage. 

At a bonfire a few days before, friends talked about what comforts of civilization they would miss. Hot showers were high on the list, followed by toilets and good food. I can be on board with those things, but I love being outside more. 

The hike down was fast, aided by two snowmobilers who came up, packing the snow down a bit more. All too soon, I reached my car, having put in a solid effort. 

I considered the fitness gauge. Not great, not terrible. I don't obsess over these things, or count my yearly mileage, or other things that I could do, but am too unconcerned about to tally. Still, I emailed my hiking partner, Flash. How about a few weeks on trail? I wanted to know.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Just call me scout

 I don't know why this is, but people in my town seem to think I've been everywhere. People I rarely cross paths with will ask what the skiing is like at an obscure location, or how much snow there is on a trail, or if the bugs are bad at a random lake in summer.

If I know, I'm usually happy to say, but there's a fine line between being helpful and becoming a guidebook. I think the requests are more numerous now because we are all so used to googling anything we want to know. Remember card catalogs? No? 

Sometimes, though, a question will pique my interest and I'll decide to go scout. Such was the case with Kinney Lake. Long time readers may recall that this is my early summer swimming lake and, due to lack of snow last year, the most perfect skating rink. When a friend mused about conditions there, I decided it was the perfect excuse for an expedition.

I recruited a friend and we geared up with snowshoes. This road drifted shut during our 70 mile an hour windstorm and won't be plowed again. We crunched along in crusty snow, quickly ascending the mile to the lake.

A lone ice fisherman with two huskies had pulled in an ice fishing shack, but other than that, we were alone. Venturing out onto the ice always feels a little strange at first, but it was solid and we walked a couple of laps around the lake. After days of clouds, the sun was welcoming and warm, although the temperatures were in the teens. If anyone wanted to skate, they would have to arrive armed with a shovel and a posse. 

After an hour we headed back to the car. The friend who had asked about conditions coincidently drove by at that moment. What was it like, he wanted to know, could he skate? I relayed the outcome of my scouting trip and he drove by, perhaps plotting a siege with shovels. 

Later, I went to scout the small pond at the end of my street for skating possibilities, and the big lake to see if it is frozen (yes, and no). 

I'm not sure how I got the reputation as a scout, but I doubt I will be able to shake it. Like anywhere, in a small town you get assigned roles from the beginning. I don't mind it that much, really. I like being the first one to arrive at a destination as snow is melting. I like the discovery, so much better than hearing it from someone else.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Backpacking Rim to (Almost) Rim to Rim, Grand Canyon

 "You know that's a bad idea, right?" the ranger at Phantom Ranch said when we told him our hiking plans to reach the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He went on to count the ways: thigh deep snow! Rockfall! No chance of rescue because of staffing shortages!

Good Stuff, Camel and I looked at each other and shrugged. We knew the rangers had to say this. They had to speak to the lowest denominators. We met two of these later, a group of earnest youngsters who planned to get up at three to "summit" the North Rim, but who admitted they had "never done anything like this before, but had been Boy Scouts." (they never did emerge from their tent the next day.) 

So far, one night in, our trip had been magical. We descended down the Bright Angel Trail in fresh snow, the ominous weather forecast apparently scaring away the usual crowds. The trail was hushed, silent, ours alone. I have seen two hundred people in a mile and a half on this section before; today we saw about five. The river was running a high chocolate brown, the snow turning to light rain as we approached Bright Angel campground. Even here, a place that typically bustles with hikers, only a few camps were occupied and we were able to secure our typical secret spot, nestled up against the cliff face. All night, a peaceful rain fell on our tents. 

Undeterred by the ranger's warnings, we headed to Cottonwood Camp, seven miles distant. This is an almost flat walk, passing through the steep passages of the Box and into an open, rolling landscape. The few backpackers coming down had not made it to the North Rim. They made it to the Redwall Bridge before being defeated by the snow. We could see the snow ahead, the rims frosted with it, lower than I had ever experienced. A light snow spit from a slate-colored sky as we arrived at Cottonwood to find it, too, mostly deserted. 

Cottonwood Camp in spring is likely an enchanted place, with namesake trees bending over the river. In winter, wicked winds rake the camp, and cold air sinks into the bones. It was an early night as we ate dinner by headlamp in between snow squalls. 

The next day would be our North Rim attempt. As we headed out of camp before daylight, I tried to quell my feeling of foreboding. It just did not feel right, though I couldn't explain why. The pace was too slow for me to stay warm. My feet in their trail runners weren't wet, thanks to my waterproof socks, but the snow got deeper and deeper and I knew I would be facing wet pants and shoes. Once we reached the Redwall Bridge, only a couple people had broken trail before us. It would be a long wet slog. 

Camel had already turned around; Good Stuff was determined to press on. I debated--go or stay? Finally I decided to turn around. We were only 2.6 miles from the top, but I had been up there twice before, I didn't need bragging rights. I had all winter to slog through snow. It was a whiteout, no views anyway. I just plain wasn't having fun. I descended in fluffy snow, enjoying the hike much more. 

As I returned to Cottonwood, I was beset with doubt. The younger, adventurous me would have pressed on. But the younger, adventurous me made some mistakes. What's the line between not feeling like it and being lazy? When Good Stuff returned he said he had kept going because if he turned around, it would have been age keeping him from the top. I don't think it was age causing me to turn around. It took Good Stuff 3.5 hours to go the last 2.6 miles. My feet and patience would never have lasted that long. Still, I wondered: had I done the right thing?

Of course, there is no wrong in the Canyon. The next day I left before the others to begin our trek up to Havasupai Garden camp. Wandering down through the Box, I realized that my best moments have been solo in the Canyon. There's just something about solitude, the rock walls, the timeless river. Just like a photograph cannot, words can't adequately describe it.

I vowed once to never spend another night at Havasupai Garden (formerly known as Indian Garden) due to the loud nature of the other campers. But here again, there was mostly quiet. A wild wind tossed the cottonwood trees. A rainbow appeared, arching over the entire Canyon. 

Climbing out on New Years Day, the trail was once again mostly empty. It was the easiest climb out yet, and there was only the icy drive back to Flagstaff to navigate. Both my companions professed a desire not to go back for a while. Not me. I was already planning my next trip.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Type 2 Fun in the Grand Canyon

 "I'm unpacking my sunscreen," I text Camel. Good Stuff is stranded in Flagstaff and must take a shuttle. I stare at the weather forecast as if it might change. Rain in the inner canyon, for at least three days. Temperatures in the 40s. My least favorite kind of backpacking weather.

Of course, the forecast improves the day we are supposed to hike out. I'm annoyed by this, even if it's unreasonable. After the expense of getting here and one precious week of time off, it's hard not to be annoyed. But it is what it is. 

I panic buy a fleecy headband and waterproof socks, since I've left my boots at home, based on a better forecast. I'm bringing all sorts of things I don't normally: waterproof sacks, a pack cover, overmittens. The wild card is always in hiking with others; my companions may decide to bail early. Or they may not. I admit to myself that were I going alone I might bail too.

But I remember hiking the Washington PCT for three weeks in relentless rain. I did it then and we survived. I switch out my light hiking pants for soft shells. How many people get to see snow in the inner canyon anyway? We are fortunate. 

The picture above is of Frost on a ski trip. She looks 100% over it. Will I look like this on day 3? Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The tyranny of packing (a first world problem)

 "My pack without water and the first day's lunch is 33 pounds," Camel reported. Good Stuff did not say, but said he was "going light". I hurried to weigh mine. 27 pounds with one liter of water and four days of food. 

But I fretted. On this trip we have a whole gamut of possibilities. It could be sixty degrees, or it could be in the teens. We will be in ice and snow, and also not. The forecast holds a foreboding chance of rain (or snow). One day is an 18 mile day, some of others not so much. The nights are long, so reading is essential. Tights or pants? A pack cover, or hope for the best? Trail mix or not? (I almost always end up with extra trail mix) "I'm not bringing waterproof socks," Camel declares. But, he reveals, he has waterproof boots. Feeling silly, I pack my down booties, down pants, and down hat, plus handwarmers. There is no ultralight in winter.

Dog is my co-pilot.

 I've  pretty much stayed in this valley for two years. In that time I went on one hike that involved leaving the county. After section hiking the PCT for eight years,  it has been a big adjustment to stay home (I realize that this is a privilege not afforded to many). In that time I have apparently forgotten how to pack. In the end, I stuff just about everything in the rolling duffel and figure that I will sort it out the night before.

But travel is still a few days away, and there's still time to readjust. I have a few days off from work, and so I ski. I meet up with non-working friends on a weekday, an unknown luxury. What would that be like? They are both younger than I am and I ponder my life choices. We ski through the wildlife area, all three of us making spectacular crashes in the soft snow. We laugh and laugh. It feels good to laugh.

Another day I head solo up into the hills. Nobody is around, and my skis cut deep into the snow. Our skating lake is completely shrouded in snow, nobody having the desire to shovel it out again. I ski from the house up the snowed-in road, running into my neighbors, also on skis. I feel sorry for the people here who hate snow. They should probably move to Arizona.

Of course, I sometimes get tired of snow too. Thus this upcoming trip. It's been so long since I felt like life was normal, and I'm starting to think it won't ever really be again. So it's time to hike long trails again. This isn't long, about 50 miles, but I am eyeing some plans for next summer, two weeks if possible. The choices I am pondering are to go back to the Sierra, or to hike part of the Colorado Trail. I want to do these things while I still can, since none of us have any guarantees. 

Sierra: more people, a permit system that is challenging, but logistics are relatively easy. Colorado: haven't been before, logistics more difficult, lightning!! Which would you choose?

Thursday, December 16, 2021

heart of winter

 We approached the small lake on foot, armed with shovels and skates. To my delight, the lake had frozen smoothly, unlike the bumpy ice of years past. My skates cut cleanly through the light snow. We were the only people around. 

The thrill of skating on a backcountry lake was measured by the fact that this is a really short season. A huge snow dump was predicted, and nobody wants to labor for hours to shovel over a foot of snow each time they want to skate. There are no backcountry Zambonis! 

Still, you take what you can get, so we had two great days of skating. The next day I dragged a friend along, and the three of us sped along the paths we had shoveled. None of us will ever qualify for the Olympics, but we mostly avoided faceplants, and no bones were broken. Two good days of skating is better than no days of skating!

As predicted, the snow came in, perhaps trying to make up for the entire dry winter so far. We woke to a world of white, over a foot having dropped overnight. Hoping to get to the summit, we drove optimistically through deep snow, only to find our route blocked by an overconfident driver who was stuck. As we carefully backed down the road and turned around, other people appeared and got stuck too. Everyone, it appeared, was anxious to get out.

You don't live here if you want amenities, but we have the outdoors in great supply. It's always surprising to see a few hardy souls about in what most would term terrible weather. Coming down from the West Fork, I encountered two backpackers bound for Ice Lake. Did they know a big storm was coming in? Yes, they did. They had snowshoes strapped to their packs and were intent on gaining the lake. Feeling a combination of envy and puzzlement, I headed for my warm house. (The fact that they were carrying pepper spray spoke to the fact that they might not be from these parts.) On the way, I saw two different people I knew. We were all walking in snow, in temperatures in the teens, and we were all happy to be out.

The rest of the week was a flurry of unearthing the winter gear. Where was the glide wax? The skis? Gaiters? The dogs are the only ones ready.

What do you bring in a winter pack?  It's funny how you forget, but I managed to successfully launch for both a snowshoe and a ski. I floundered along in the sugar snow, trying to gain purchase. It's a lot of work, but once a track is set, the rewards are great. Sometimes it would be nice to live somewhere with groomed trails, but with groomed trails comes more people. When I see tracks made by others, I usually know who made them. That's the benefit of living in a small town.

The usual signs of winter are now here. My skis and snowshoes, propped up in the snowbank. Ski boots, drying out by the fire. Me shuffling out to the woodpile. People with shovels. The tire shop panic, with everyone wanting winter tires. The resurgence of our local winter road report facebook page. It took a while, but it's here. 


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Signs of winter + poison ivy avoidance tips

 I bought a new tent. It's a one person, to replace the one I gave away this summer. Tents to me represent possibility and adventure. I only spent 37 nights (so far) backpacking this winter, but someday I will spend many more. I love tents!

I set it up indoors, making sure the cat wasn't around. He likes to attack tents. By now, my neighbor Mike has learned to see many tents set up outside. He generally wanders over to inspect the tent. However, the weather has not been great--icy and cold. Indoors it was.

Tents to me represent possibility. Where will I go? There are so many trails, but so little time!

It'll be a while before I can use it. I think winter is finally coming. I saw a few signs this week. I was running on an abandoned road and saw a random Christmas tree. 

And the backcountry lake is open for skating!

Skiing can't be too far behind.

Earlier this week I was able to hike all the way to Slickrock Falls, which is the first time I have ever been able to do this late in the season. While it was nice to go for a hike, this certainly isn't normal. I hoofed it up to the falls and back, only encountering a few other brave souls. Once at the falls, I looked longingly up at the route to Deadman Lake. I knew from experience it would take an hour to travel the mile up to the lake, and there's one difficult spot to traverse. It was so windy that I feared trees falling on me, and it wasn't the right time to attempt it. It is always hard to turn around, but live to hike another day.

But guys! I avoided getting poison ivy this year! I don't know if these tips below helped, but if you are as allergic as I am, you might give them a try.

  • The obvious--don't wear shorts. I used to not follow this rule, but it's a sure way to get PI. I wear long pants and long sleeved shirts. When I get to camp, I put these clothes in a plastic bag and put on my sleeping clothes. I carefully put on the hiking clothes the next day and wash my hands.
  • I wipe off my shoes with baby wipes and rinse my poles in water.
  • Technu during the golden hour. There are wipes or the lotion. Either works.
  • Anything dangling off your pack could brush against PI. Like your bandana, your pee rag (gasp) your sit pad...anything. Your pack, too, can become contaminated. Don't take it into the tent with you. Wash it in the bathtub when you get home. Wash everything!
  • Bring a change of clothes for the car ride home, or you may find yourself with PI on the car seats, to be a problem much later on. The oils can last for over a YEAR on things.
  • Rain gear really is the best for going through PI if you can stand sweating. Likewise, if you pass through PI in the rain, or in the fall when it is less potent, do so. The dormant phase, where it looks like dead sticks, can still give you a rash. You know the PI by the white berries on the stalks. Avoid! Avoid!
  • I don't bring a dog when I am hiking in PI. The oils can stick to their fur.
  • I sometimes use my poles to hold the taller plants out of my way, but have to remember what part of the pole was touching it and not touch with my bare hands.
  • The websites SAY that washing in a machine will nullify the PI but I am not convinced. I wash the clothes, and sometimes twice, in the washer. Then I run an empty cycle with detergent and vinegar. I am not taking the chance! I also wipe out the dryer with cleaner before putting any other clothes in, if I am not air drying at the time.
  • Another Captain Obvious: cold shower at first. Though honestly, I have done hot showers and haven't seen much difference. However, apparently hot showers open pores and allow for more contamination.
Any other tips?  How's everyone's winter going snow wise? (unless you live in the southern hemisphere. If so, can I come visit?)