Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Mary Poppins look, on a trail near you!

 In the Alaskan rainforest town of Sitka, the only people carrying umbrellas were tourists. We were tough! We went running in shorts and T-shirts in torrential downpours! We wore rain gear when we had to, hoods cinched down tight, and endured. No wimpy umbrellas for us!
Okay so here I am in Alaska with an umbrella. We were stranded for days in a remote bay, fifty miles from town. The floatplane couldn't get us. Some fun had to be had. Cue the pink umbrella!
I'm not a fan of umbrellas. What's wrong with getting wet? But in the land of long distance hikes, I've learned, there are people who swear by their trekking umbrellas. They love them with a passion. Not only can umbrellas allow you to hike in the desert without roasting to a crisp, they can provide some shelter from day after day of rain slogging. It's a whole different experience, Scout said, to hike with an umbrella keeping you mostly dry rather than rain pelting your head, running down the space between your pack and your back, soaking the pack contents despite your best efforts, resulting in a soggy pile of drippy rain gear to deal with at camp. 

Scout gifted me with a GoLite umbrella and I am eyeing it with curiosity. You can attach it to your pack and hike on. I have to say, I'm intrigued. This past summer we were drenched over and over by relentless rain in the Cascades. We still would have gotten wet with umbrellas, but not as wet. It might have helped in the baseball sized hail where we just huddled and screamed in pain. And what about that lovely misty rain where you stall in putting on your rain jacket, because well, you're going to sweat in it, and get just as wet? So you wait, and get wet. Surely an umbrella might be a useful tool. You might be able to avoid rain gear altogether, or at least avoid the dance of rain jacket on, rain jacket off.

Other hikers have suggested uses for umbrellas that range beyond the mundane. Shielding you while taking a bio break when trees are not nearby, for example. A makeshift siesta face-cover. Emergency tent prop-up or in place of trekking poles for tents that use them. Portable shade. A plate?

I'm still not sold, but I think I'll tote one on some short hikes and see what I think. 

Umbrella..yes or no?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hells Canyon in Winter: the long darkness

You don't go into Hells Canyon in January. At least, I don't. The access roads leading to the trailheads are snarled with ice and a spackle of slippery mud, sometimes deep snow. There are places the sun never reaches below the towering canyon walls. The jetboat traffic of summer is long gone. You are alone. If something happens, you could be out there for days before someone finds you.

But this year is different. A ridge of high pressure has clamped over the region and we have had cold sunny days for endless weeks. If you are brave enough, you can go anywhere. Even fifteen miles of hairpins, winding down to where the icy Imnaha heads towards the Snake.

Eureka Bar. No, it's not a beach. It's a bar.

I've been to Eureka Bar, the confluence of the two rivers, many times before, but never in deep winter, with nobody around, the blackberry dying back, the silence of a place abandoned. An inversion blocked out the sun, and it felt like I was the only person left in the world.

I scored the good campsite under the lone tree, which is hardly ever available in spring. I had never noticed before, but there's a spooky mine tunnel behind it:

Darn, a gate. Can't go in any farther. BOOOO.

If you want peace and time to think, this is the place. I snuggled into the -20, four pound sleeping bag I had brought and was blissfully warm. The river sang all night. The canyon held me in its arms.

I could easily have not gone. The long drive, having to make up some work hours later, the cold weather. The short hike--barely five miles. The long darkness. But I've decided--this will be the year of little adventures. Excuses begone!

View from the campsite
Someday, it will snow. The roads will drift shut. Later, the poison ivy will grow across the trail. The canyon will sizzle. There is such a short window in this place. I'm glad I went.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ski Walk of Shame

 On birthdays, specifically my birthday, my husband and I generally do things that extend a bit past my comfort zone. (On his, we were snorkeling happily in Hawaii. Hmm.) On my last birthday, I bravely declared I was ready for the "Most Difficult" cross country ski trail. After all, I reasoned, I never skied in tracks at home. Instead we plowed through knee deep snow on alleged cross country routes, designed by telemark skiers. How hard could a groomed trail be? But the Most Difficult route really was, most difficult. Sadly, staring at a Hill of Death, I realized that I was going to have to take off my skis and do the Walk of Ski Shame.


It was time for another birthday and the possibility of a Ski Walk of Shame loomed over my head. I know, I know, nobody cares. The Lycra-clad skate skiers don't care! The Man in Retro Gold Tights doesn't care! I'm the only one who cares.

While 45 degrees in January is troubling, we managed to find some snow at Anthony Lakes. Everybody and their brother was there, basically because there's no snow anywhere else. It was fun to ski out on the (hopefully frozen) lakes. As I skied out there I wondered, why is nobody else out here? Maybe better not to ponder this and keep going.

This is Hoffer Lakes. I snowshoed up to this one. Skiing down the very steep trail would have entailed a Ski Walk of Shame for sure.
Oh what's the name of this lake? I can't remember. It's by a little campground.
I launched myself on a "More Difficult" ski trail and waited for the inevitable. The zooming out of control. The cratering face first while Man in Gold Retro Tights curiously skied by, accompanied by Wife in Fleece. The Ski Walk of Shame. But...everything went fine. I negotiated steep turns at a fast pace. I didn't fall. I didn't walk.

I'm not sure why sometimes everything aligns and other times it doesn't. Sometimes you make it to the top of the mountain, sometimes you don't. You bonk, or you don't. You walk with your skis or you go for it. You can trace it back to fuel or water or lack of rest days or whatever, but sometimes there just seems to be luck involved. Some days I head out for a run totally dreading it, and it is the best run ever. Other times I bounce out the door and shuffle defeatedly along. One of my best runs ever was after I ate two chocolate chip cookies for breakfast.

Who knows what we are capable of? All we can do is ask and find out.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

We Carry Our Fears

It's a pretty common saying in the hiker community: "we pack for our fears", or, we carry them with us. I think it applies to any kind of trip we do: what we put in our running hydration vests, what we pack in our carry-on. What this means is, we place in our baggage things to combat that which we are most afraid.

Afraid of getting lost and having ravens eat your corpse? These people pack plenty of maps, compasses, and GPS units.

Some people are afraid of cold, so they pack many layers. Others fear running out of food, or water, so they compensate by loading themselves down. Still others worry about having the right stuff, so they bring items that will cover every possible situation. Some panic about wild animals or wild people, so they bring guns. Some fear the loss of being connected, so they pack phones, Ipads, and SPOTs.

My fears have changed over the years. In Alaska, it was getting rain-soaked, because once you were it was a fight for survival. In my kayak I packed an assortment of types of rain gear: light breathable to full-on rubber. In contrast, my work partner wore a big old wool sweater and shrugged off the downpour.
A rare sunny day below Mount Ada, but you can bet I'm packing rain gear.

 For a long time, the Great Starvation Trip of 1995 haunted me and I packed more food than a person could possibly ever eat. Years of bringing the same tuna and cereal home uneaten finally convinced me that I would survive with less.

Same with being cold.  Even though I am colder than most people I don't seem to pack for it. It doesn't escalate to a fear (though maybe it should).

There's always fire (where the environment can handle it)
So what's the fear I carry? Foot problems. I've been sidelined by plantar fasciitis and plagued on occasion by tear-inducing blisters. I compensate by carrying the biggest blister kit known to man, even on the trail runs where I bring a hydration vest (not often, because I camel up, but sometimes when it's hot). I carry NuSkin. I carry bandages. I carry blister cushions and pads. I carry a needle for sterilizing and draining. I wear expensive insoles and make sure the camp shoes I bring could be used for hiking out, if necessary.

What fear do you carry?
I'm scared I'm going to give in and get this puppy and my husband will kill me. Look at the ears. So adorable.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Grand Canyon in Winter, Days 5-6: Everyone has a story

 We crossed the steel bridge and climbed away from the river. The first part of the Bright Angel Trail leading from Phantom Ranch is all in the shade at this time of day, and we hiked the Devil's Corkscrew without much problem, though a few months from now it would be a different story. A few months from now you would need more liters of water and to leave by four in the morning. It was hard to imagine, as I could not remember what it felt like to be warm.

It was still winter and we searched for sun in the pockets we could find. Arriving at Indian Garden campground, our last campsite, we hastily set up our tents and rushed the mile and a half to Plateau Point for sunset.
 As we sipped hot drinks, the sun slowly sank over the canyon. A few of us walked together, Peter and I making up incredibly bad scenes from a Harlequin type canyon romance: "The sun shone on her alabaster skin." Maybe a new career?
 Or maybe not.
 We could see where we had gone the days before and where we had yet to travel.
Looking toward the South Rim.

Hard to see, but that's where the devil's corkscrew climbs.

On our last pre-dawn morning we packed up for the final time. Somberly we headed up for the final push to the South Rim. Our packs were light and we all walked at our own pace. Soon I was passing curious day hikers who queried me on what, exactly, I had been doing. The snow and ice started well below the rim and I "chained up" for the last climb. Before I knew it, I was on the rim.
 The ascent was bittersweet. I had made friends for life, but now we were scattering to the four corners of the country. When would I see them again?
 I've hiked solo so often and with long-time friends that it was interesting to delve a little deeper in other people's stories. The people I hiked with were from all different walks of life and each had their own, unique story. Hiking for hours allows bits and pieces of these stories to come out in ways that would not happen in years of casual conversation.
 That's why I like backpacking. It gives you that gift of time. The record for an RTRTR is 17 hours, but I'm not about that. Five nights in the canyon was enough for me to let go of the stuff that builds up over the long working months. I'll leave the records to someone else. I need time, huge blocks of it. I need to listen to the stories.
Goodbye, canyon, for now. I'm not through with you yet.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Grand Canyon in Winter, Days 3-4: The View From the Other End of the World

The black fabric of sky punched through with stars, the bitter cold; another morning before dawn in the canyon. My companions emerged from their tents sporting headlamps, all of them enthusing about how warmly they had slept; unzipping sleeping bags, taking off layers. Once again I had shivered, burying myself into my bag, looking for warmth that wasn't there. But it was impossible not to be excited about the day ahead: a seven mile climb over three thousand feet to the North Rim, a place I had only been to by helicopter.

Fueling the fire on the way to the rim.

Pictures just do not show the reality.

We spiraled out over a gently ascending trail before the serious climb, the point of no return, the ranger residence at Roaring Springs. Once a family lived here but now it was vacant, only occupied intermittently. I gnawed a frozen Snickers and contemplated the trail ahead. This part of the canyon was a completely different place, close-walled and narrow-sided, the sun never reaching parts of the icy trail. One section was only possible to cross by palming a rope tightly to the chest and skittering across, the rest of the trail lost to a washout. At the mile and a half resthouse we climbed through packed ice and snow, passing a viewpoint and finally, inexplicably, arrived at the other end of the world.

Traversing the canyon is like that. In the bottom it feels like an endless sweep of reality, the only place that exists. Once you climb out, you can see forever, all the layers of rock pressing down on each other, the timeless sweep of canyon rim. You look back to the South Rim and it looks so far away it is unimaginable.

We descended on food like hyenas and shivered in the white deserted parking lot. Nothing moved but the wind. It wasn't a place you could stay for long, and we donned spikes and raced the sunset home.

The next morning was a leisurely stroll back to the Bright Angel Campground, a place that felt familiar already. The tame deer, the clean soap smell that trailed cabin dwellers, the sandy beach where a few brave souls plunged into the Colorado. The very bottom of the canyon already seemed sweet and dear. It already seemed like home. I wanted somehow to live a parallel life where I could see what it was like to live down here forever.
But I couldn't. The next day we faced a short climb to our last campsite and the final push out of the canyon and back to the rest of our lives.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Grand Canyon in Winter, Days 1-2: The Silence and the Cold

It was the day after Christmas. We dropped below the South Rim in a clattering of microspikes. A thin layer of ice lay like frosting on the South Kaibab tourist trail, and day hikers skittered and slid as we passed them with our forty pound backpacks. They gazed at us, mouths agape. The average visitor to the Grand Canyon spends about eleven minutes on the rim viewpoints and we had seen it while stuffing our packs at the trailhead: cars speeding up, everyone popping out for a picture, and back in the car.

Obligatory rim photo. It seems that the Canyon must be in a drought. There wasn't much snow on the rim at all.

A chilly wind bit at my heels as I dropped lower in elevation. This was my gift to myself, a six day backpacking trip below the rim and up to the north rim and back, in the company of ten other like-minded individuals. It's often hard for me to find others who share my enthusiasm and I had hit a backpacking jackpot with this diverse group.

The South Kaibab is seven miles of switchbacks, interrupted by the long, sweeping expanse of the Tonto Plateau. It was there we lost the limited crowds and were left mostly to ourselves, in the deep, deep silence of a canyon winter.

I've been to the canyon in spring, when everyone goes. I've been to the canyon in summer, when it sizzles with heat. I've never been in winter. Down at Phantom Ranch it was still fall, the cottonwoods a glorious shade of yellow. As soon as the sun set in the Bright Angel campground, the temperatures plummeted to the mid-twenties, the stars brightly enormous in an unspoiled sky. I eyed Ashley's down booties with envy and regretted the ultralight decision to go light on layers. At night I shivered in my zero bag, wearing all the layers I had brought. My feet were blocks of ice. It seems like the older I get the less tolerant to cold I am.

The mule trains go all winter. The mules have special spikes put on their shoes for the ice.

But the canyon is beautiful in cold weather, the sun not reaching the walls of the inner gorge as we hiked up towards Cottonwood Campground, seven miles to the north. In a dry wash we turned our faces like flowers to the sun, almost warm enough to get down to the last layer. Only a handful of people passed us. It was as deserted as the canyon can get.

There's the Colorado River!

We reached Cottonwood in late afternoon. In the distance the North Rim loomed. We were going to go for it the following day, without knowing how deep the snow would be. There were rumors of a washout further up the trail. It would be fourteen miles of hiking through a strangely quiet place. It's true that people run through the rim to rim to rim in less than a day. We were taking six. I needed that long for the canyon to work its magic.

My Kindle quit working and I begged a book from Murali. The nights were fourteen hours long and brutally cold. I curled my body around a hot water bottle. Our little lights shone from our tents. There was something special about the canyon in winter that made me feel heroic.

The next day we would get up well before dawn to make our ascent. Would we make it? Would we be stopped by deep snow and ice? Much remained to be seen.
Ribbon Falls, off the North Kaibab Trail