Friday, February 27, 2015

Tame: April at Campo

In about a month, Flash and I will toe the Mexico-US border at Campo, California and begin hiking the PCT north. We won't be alone.


The graph above represents the thru-hikers (people hiking 500 miles or more) who are now required to get a permit at the start of the PCT. The quota is fifty people per day; the total number of permits possible to give out is 4600. On our start date it looks like 18 people have already gotten a permit, and that doesn't include section hikers like ourselves. (My mileage may total 500 on the pct this year--besides this 110 mile section, I hope to hike 256 miles in the northern Sierras and possibly some Oregon September hiking). 

Eighteen people?! I don't even like hiking around eight people. Yes, I am spoiled. But glad we are going early! Look at those late April dates! Where will everyone camp? Will there be enough water sources? Where will everyone poop? Is this many people in the desert even sustainable?

Most of our camps will be dry ones. There is one 30 mile water carry already that we have heard of.  It will be hot. There is already a search underway for someone who is missing in the general vicinity of where our hike will be ending. It's easy to underestimate the desert.

Planning has been pretty minimal; it's only 110 miles. We're hiking to Warner Springs and getting a shuttle back to San Diego there. I know both of us will want to keep going but, well, jobs. We've mapped out a pretty sane schedule which includes a 20 mile day but some shorter ones, and if we get done early we'll just hang out on the beach in San Diego.

Flash has hiked in the California desert before; I haven't. My only experience with it was on a soul-destroying wildfire near Cabazon. Under lockdown because of gangs, we slept in a city park while locals slowly drove around the perimeter. An inmate crew got burned over. A helicopter crashed in power lines. My crew, out of shape and lazy, sat down on the hills. One guy had to be evacuated because he was stung by so many wasps. It, my friends, was not a good time.

But this will be. Flash and I have dealt with many things over our PCT tenure: golf-ball sized hail, torrential rains of the century, cutthroat campsite competition, river crossings, and a family playing a cello late into the night. We can do this!

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.