Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lightning Strike at Guitar Lake

I remember the afternoon vividly. We were chased by dark clouds all the way  up from Bench Lake and across a broad, tawny plateau before hastily setting up our tents at 11,000 foot Lake Marjorie. Fog danced in and out of the spires surrounding the lake and an icy rain, more snow than water, pelted our tents.

It was still early enough in the day that my destination-oriented self (the main reason I should hike alone) longed to put in some more miles over Pinchot Pass instead of just lying in a tent. If it was going to rain, why not move? But a ferocious thunderclap put the end to that discussion. Moments before, our trail friends Jess and Brewer had disappeared into the heart of the storm and we hoped they were all right. (We never saw them again, and while I would know if they did not survive the storm, I would love to get in touch with them again. Such is the trail life)

As I crouched in my one person coffin, munching M&Ms and trying to read (an unfortunate choice, Gretel Ehrlich's book, A Match to the Heart, about her experience being struck by lightning), I comforted myself by thinking that I had never heard of someone being struck in a tent. Sure there are these poles...but I was on a thermarest, right?

We had been plagued by thunderstorms our entire last half of the JMT and nowhere was it a more frightening prospect than at high elevation, and possibly the most danger at our last campsite, Guitar Lake, the last outpost before climbing Mount Whitney. Guitar is starkly beautiful. Not a scrap of vegetation save some embattled grass clings to its shores. Talus and boulders and a lake the color of night are all you have here.

Arriving early on Day 18, I set up my tent amid a vicious hailstorm and waited for my companions. A few thunder rumbles echoed around the lake, but we were lucky. Encased in all the warm clothes we had, we were able to perch on rocks as the intermittent hail came and went.

Recently I was transported back to that time when I stumbled upon this account of being struck by lightning in their tent at Guitar, only four days before we arrived there. This was our Lake Marjorie day, the day I had wanted to go on but was discouraged by the storm.

I can't even count the number of thunderstorms I have waited out in the wilderness. It's just a part of the experience and they don't stop me from getting out there. I've had lightning strike a few yards away, flash across my face, and start fires while I watched. It's just one thing to prepare for as best you can. It is a random thing, a charge meeting another charge. I tell myself this.  But I may rest a little less easier now.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Five things to remember when cross country skiing

So last weekend I went to a real cross country ski place. When I say real I mean that an actual groomer goes by, not just random snowmobiles in the wrong place, snowshoers messing up your ski track, deer using the trail, or, the more likely scenario, that you yourself are the groomer, plodding at one mile an hour through knee-deep snow. This was a place you had to actually pay for, that marks trails with ratings. Where people wore Lycra.  I felt a little out of place, but here is what I learned:

1. When trails are marked as being "Most Difficult" they really, really mean it. When your husband says, "are you sure about this?" might be a good time to turn around. If you decide to keep going, be aware that there will be a moment when you will fall in the snow and declare that you are never skiing ever again. Then you will walk down the last hill and go back the the "Easier" and "More Difficult" trails and be happy again.

2. False eyelashes are not a good look at the ski place. (Just an observation).

3.  When sliding down a hill at high speed, you will have to do fancy maneuvers to avoid taking other skiers out who are coming the other way. Because you are not used to seeing any other cross country skiers at all, this will come as a surprise.

4. Skiing ten miles at high speed versus skiing ten miles at a slog are two very different things.

5. If someone skis onto a frozen (you hope) lake and stomps out a heart with his skis, this guy is a keeper.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Thoughts on climate change while skating on a frozen lake

If you've never skated on a frozen lake, the songs it sings might surprise you at first. The lake booms, mutters and cracks. It is a constant symphony of noise. You might be forgiven for sprinting for shore, but what is happening is that the ice is expanding and contracting due to temperature, wind, or other weather condition.

Though some people in this town refuse to believe in climate change, it is a fact that Wallowa Lake, our six mile long glacial lake, used to freeze across on a regular basis. People drove trucks out on it and even landed small airplanes. It is also a fact that it has been years and years since this has happened (2001 according to the website).

I have been hoping since I moved here that the lake would freeze, and this winter so far has been bitterly cold, dipping down to zero often. Every time I passed the lake on a run, I would focus on the progress of the ice. Finally this weekend the whole lake froze.

This town doesn't have an indoor ice rink. It doesn't have a pool. We don't have a movie theater that is open right now. Nobody's teaching yoga or pilates or any other kind of class. The gym is two small rooms and if someone is working the weights, that pretty much counts you out. There's no clubs (well, I think there's a chess club and oh yes, a chapter of the Well-Armed Woman) and I have to drive 65 miles to the dentist. A metropolis, we are not. One thing we do have is lots of mountains and people who like to get out in them.

So the lake freezing has galvanized the subset of folks who like to skate and ice fish. When I arrived at 10, nobody was there yet. I paced on the ice, gauging its thickness. I could see where people had walked and someone had skated, and where someone had even driven out on it.

A Zamboni could do wonders on this lake; you have to watch your blades. I fell twice when transitioning through a frost layer. It's extreme skating, just like most every other sport around here. Nothing really comes easy, not the running, not the skiing, not the hiking. But that's okay. I'd much rather be out skating on a real lake than indoors at a rink.

I'm not a great skater, but there were places where I felt like it, places where the ice had frozen so fast and smooth that I skimmed along. The sun bounced off the mountains.  The lake muttered and grumbled. It was the most perfect day of ice skating I've ever had.

Will the lake freeze again in the next ten years? It makes me kind of sad to think that it might not. I don't think you truly understand the implications of climate change until it happens close to home. I know I didn't.
For now I'll skate on the lake and hope.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The vanishing

I just read the story of Kaitlin, who disappeared Friday night on a Grand Canyon river trip. By all accounts it was a bitterly cold night, an easy night to wander, disoriented, into the river or over a cliff. I've been by the river several times, enough to know that it flows like a muscle, deep and chilly and swift. I suppose someday we will know what happened to her, or maybe not. The wilderness is full of stories like these.

Whenever I read about someone, vanishing, I feel lucky. Lucky because no matter all the precautions you take, one little wrong step can trip you up. Things add up, inconsquential things, to a final ending. I've always been careful to bring the right stuff, think things over, bail when I had to, but there is no denying that luck has played a role.  Because of my chosen profession and by choice I've spent more time in the wilderness than most people ever will, and I've dodged a lot of figurative bullets.

When I worked in the Grand Canyon for a short time, fishing people out of rapids and off the trails, people who may have died after we sent them on to the hospital in Flag, it was always sobering how quickly a trip can turn bad.

When you are at the bottom of the canyon, looking up, you only see a slice of sky. You can't see the rim, only the bottom  layers of a geological cake that was created long ago. You feel completely separate from the world because the canyon is its own world. It is a magical place.

Thomas has surely disappeared for good in an equally haunting place, somewhere near the Ambler River in remote Alaska.  Far more people die in car crashes, by the gun, and from cancer. Why is it that death in the wilderness holds us in its spell?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why are we doing this?

Back in my obsessive running days, my family used to run regardless of anything. Not for us the treadmill! We ventured out in horrible winds, slick ice, deep snow, strange green sky. Sometimes as one of us would trudge past another, we would say, "Why are we doing this?"

There really wasn't a good answer beyond this: Fast or slow, a run, a hike, a ski reminds me that I'm part of a big, interesting world. It seems like my body craves some kind of movement, that sometimes it's the natural state of being. Cooped up with the computer, I forget how great life is. I remember it when I am outside.

I thought of this as I went out for a run yesterday. We were in the throes of a winter storm and the plows had scraped the streets bald to the ice layer. The main streets that is. We take our chances on the side streets; those are rarely touched by a plow. I had forgotten my ice grippers and didn't feel like going back for them, so I beelined for the fail safe option, the tiny park. Only the park was adrift in snow. I floundered in the powder, realizing that my first mile was a blazing 13:56. Would a sane person have gone back? Probably. Instead I decided to take my chances on the lake road. As I descended from the park I saw another runner.

"It's a challenge!" I screamed over the howling wind. She went on anyway, but I looked back and saw her expression of dismay as she plunged ankle deep into the fresh snow.

The park in freezing fog.
My pace improved marginally as I navigated the crusty side of the road, but it never got above a ten minute mile. I saw another runner hoofing it up the big hill, blasted by snow (our county is tough like that). Why am I doing this, I wondered. This run veered on the side of ridiculous.

Why am I doing this? The answer has always been the same.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Channeling John (Not)

John Muir used to grab a blanket and a piece of bread for his long hikes. What would he think of all of us who ponder, plan and rate our expensive gear? Sometimes it all seems a bit ridiculous, worrying over a pound, trying to find the lightest, the best of everything.

My friend A sent me some photos from 1999. In them, I was wearing the same long underwear top, the same fleece vest, and the same snowshoes I now reach for, 14 years later. Do we really need all this gear?

Probably not. I would probably have just as good a PCT section hike this summer with my very first tent, the pup variety that I had to string between two trees, my First Need water filter, on the cutting edge back then, and my Coleman stove that probably weighed at least two pounds full. My first backpack was a red REI behemoth that accompanied me all over the Sierras. I don't remember complaining that about its weight or how it hung like a sack from my shoulders.

The wilderness was the point, not the gear.

How spoiled we have become.

I've been combing through the gear I plan to use for my Washington PCT hike, and I've  decided on the following:

The tent: My JMT friend D. was shocked to learn that I now had two one person tents. But I can't help it. I eyed her tent with envy during our hike last summer for two reasons: It has a side entrance (no more crawling in head first onto your sleeping bag) and the rain fly is made of a material that dries super fast. When you pack up a wet tent every morning, this makes a huge difference. I bought one when I got back and this is the one I will take. It's a little heavier than my Big Agnes Fly Creek, but worth it.

The filter: Trying to save weight, I hauled Aqua Mira last summer. You basically do a chemistry experiment with your water, mixing two little bottles with the water you filter. Big downside, you have to wait thirty minutes to drink and it's hard to do with a big container like a water bladder. I'll still use it for shorter hikes, but I'm going to steal my husband's small MSR filter. I've also heard good things about Sawyer squeeze filters, but I'm not going to go out and buy another system, even though it is tempting...

The pack: Since I don't have to carry a  bear canister, I'm going with a smaller backpack.  My Granite Gear Vapor Ki is 2.5 pounds, about half a pound less than the Deuter I carried for my JMT hike.

The footwear: Love my boots, didn't love the blisters. 90% of the people we saw last summer were hiking in shoes. I have a pair of Merrell Siren Sports that I plan to wear along with my short gaiters.

Food: Because my only resupply is after 100 miles (about a week), I will have to think carefully about what to take. After only a few days the sight of protein bars made me want to vomit. Likewise Kashi trail bars. I liked the cold breakfast combo of peanut/almond butter, raisins and tortillas, however. That will be staying.

One of these might taste good, but several on a long hike? Barf!

Stove: I got a Pocket Rocket last year and I really like it. Yes, it's a canister, which is a big landfill problem, but it uses very little fuel and is one of the smallest stoves around. I don't want to fiddle with big fuel bottles and my Dragonfly, so this is the stove of choice.

Clothes: I wore everything I brought last year, but in the interest of space and weight I am going to lose the tank top (too much sunscreen used when wearing one), the extra pair of shorts and the long sleeve shirt. That leaves me with one hiking outfit, long underwear, a puffy, rain gear and a fleece, which should be plenty, though somewhat aromatic by trip end. (I hope I can figure out how to bring extra clothes to the end. Maybe I can mail myself some to Manning Park).

Obviously I am not channeling John Muir on this hike, but I am trying to go lighter than ever before yet stay comfortable. It's a challenge to see how close I can step to that edge.

Old school trekking pole!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Vertical Limit

I stood on a mountain as steep as a cow's face. The "winter trail", a nice name for a downward plunge, was crusty and I was carrying a heavy backpack with tools in it. Where were my trusty snowshoes? Oh. At home. Because my husband said I wouldn't need them. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he still believes I can ski.

With a sigh, I remembered the previous day's snowshoe. I have no problem slogging all day in fluffy snow to get to meadows like these.

When it comes to skiing down hills, though, I felt a familiar and frustrating fear. This fear has followed me all of my life. While I am not afraid of camping alone, animals (except occasional grizzlies), kayaking in big seas, or thunderstorms, the fear of falling never really goes away.

We had skinned up several thousand feet to clear the winter trail of blowdown and to check on the backcountry hut. I love, love, love my new skins. They allow me to climb up huge hills. But even with them on for the descent, I was afraid.

Yep. Just over the edge, a scary fog awaits us.

I know in my heart that it is mostly an illogical fear. Just like the people who will  no longer hike on the trails here because they suspect that wolves will take them down. The problem with illogical fear is that it is just that, illogical. No matter how many times I successfully descend, I will always have it to some degree.

This is the smile of someone who is relieved that I haven't killed him.
Well, you're reading this, so you know I made it out.

Cale looks pretty with his Happy New Year headdress.

And yes, I'm still married. But next time I'm bringing snowshoes as a backup.