Monday, February 29, 2016

"Brutal Yet Fulfilling": The tale of a ski hut trip

As it turns out, don't trust good skiers to provide an accurate description of your access to a ski yurt if, in fact, you are not a confident skier yourself. Their description:

"You just need to ski a gentle cat track to the lift, where they'll put the packs on one chair and you with me on another so I can help you. Then it's an easy ski to the yurt, only 2 miles, you don't even need to put skins on until the last part. On the way out, there's an easy cat track you can ski back to the parking lot."

My description:

"Snowplow in fear down an alleged green run while little kids on skis zoom past, while carrying a 45 pound backpack. Ride your first ski lift ever solo while clutching your huge backpack and wondering how you are going to get off successfully. Manage this but only because the liftie compassionately stops the chair. Then side-hill through an icy, steep traverse with switchbacks where if you fall, you might die, and midway through you need to switch to snowshoes or you might die. On the way out, you must trudge with skis attached to your pack the entire length of several alleged green and blue runs on your snowshoes for what seems like hours while little kids on skis zoom past. That's after you descend to a bowl in an attempt to avoid aforementioned icy traverse, then climb steeply back to ridge, becoming momentarily disoriented in fog and only half jokingly asking, "are we going to die out here?" before realizing the icy traverse has not been circumvented in its entirety."

Was it worth it? Absolutely yes!

The Stateline Yurt is located in a dead tree forest. Looking at the area I would guess this fire occurred in 2001, and it is slowly regenerating. In the meantime, it is starkly beautiful and creates nice openings for slightly terrified skiers. We toured through rolling ridges and an old road that leads up to the former lookout site on Saddle Mountain.

This really isn't an area for cross-country skiers like me. But I discovered a game changer: skins! I could charge up the hills and control  my descent. Skins, I love you.

Idaho or Montana? Just not sure.
I am fascinated by yurts and it was fun to stay in one. Next time, I might bring a tent, however. I'm not a partier, and if there are some in your group, there you are with them, no escape. Luckily, the skiing made everyone tired. I also have the most sensitive hearing on the planet, and snorers are not my favorite thing. Earplugs are my friend.

If I had known what the access to this hut was like, I probably wouldn't have gone. But I'm glad I conquered those fears and went. A good backcountry skier I will never be, but I am no longer quite as afraid.

When we got back, the guys were reading about a bike packing trip they wanted to take. The description read, "brutal yet fulfilling." I had to laugh. That summed up this weekend's trip very well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Getting Ready for the California Desert

I now have an organizing system for my longer-length backpacking trips. It's called "The Empty File Drawer." Over the last few weeks I have been throwing in random items I plan to take on my PCT section hike in about five weeks. So far I have my water filter, maps, a few Larabars, blister treatment, Shower-in-A Bag (liberated from fire camp this summer--big wet wipes!), and BodyGlide. You know, the desert essentials.

Backpacking in Southern California requires some thought. For example, there's not a lot of water. Some trail angels provide water caches, but it's bad form to rely on these. So I am taking food that does not require a lot of water to prepare (wraps, tuna, peanut butter, hummus.) Instead of doing a resupply, which takes time, I am going to power through with seven days of food for the 110 miles. And though I say desert, there is a section that goes to 10,000 feet. Already this winter a couple of hikers have fallen to their deaths from nearby locations due to ice. (By the time I get there, it should have melted, but if not, there's a road walk. Thus, the importance of maps.)

I'm less prepared than I have ever been for a section hike, due to lack of time. I haven't looked hard at the maps. I don't know where I'll camp. I don't have a plan for Idyllwild, a cute town on the way where I might decide to stay for the night. But I'm going with it because lately I've been really frustrated with the need for connection I see among the thru-hiking bunch. People are asking all sorts of questions, like what tent should they get, what shoes they should wear, how many days off during their trek they should take. Some have said they wished there was cell service everywhere. What? You take a day off when you need one. You can ask a few people about gear, but strangers on the internet? You need to check Facebook in the wilderness?

I guess I'm old school. I first learned to navigate in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park backcountry as a volunteer, when I was handed a map and told to write a guidebook for the trails. I made a lot of mistakes. I ran out of water once and couldn't find the seeps on the map. I got turned around, because the "trails" were marked by insufficient cairns. I once mistook cow tracks for elk (and got mercilessly teased). I also tried out a lot of gear. Some worked, some didn't. I learned not from asking other people, but from trying it myself. But I also gained a lot of confidence and skill. I think once we take discovery away, we are losing something important.

Anyway, back to section hiking. My last one, in July, was really difficult. It wasn't just the terrain. The mental desire wasn't there; both Flash and I felt it. I'm not sure why, except that it's good to reexamine your goals once in a while and see if they are still what you want to do. Maybe I don't need to hike all the PCT. Maybe half is enough? We'll see what this hike brings in terms of discovery.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

After the fire: revisiting the Wenaha-Tucannon

This summer, several lightning fires merged into one massive wildfire that ran through the Wenaha Canyon and down into the town of Troy. Looking at the column from fifty miles away, it was impossible to believe that anything had survived.

I've spent many nights in the Wenaha. It is a good place to go when the high country remains enveloped in snow. There's a narrow window before the heat, the poison ivy and the snakes drive you out. But if you catch it on one of the good days, it's a lonesome and magical place.

So I went to see what had become of the canyon. As we hiked the trail upriver, it was immediately apparent that it has changed, if not forever, for decades. The places we used to camp are gone, full of blackened trees. The fire charged across the river and up the other side with a power that is breathtaking.

 Snow lingered on the burnt ground. Weather put this fire out, as it does most large wildfires. We ate lunch and shivered--it's still winter, after all.

All sorts of surprises show up when the underbrush is gone.
We hiked about three miles up the canyon, not wanting to turn around. What had become of the bridge at the forks, we wondered. Our flat campsite at the six mile mark? There wasn't time to find out today.

As is the nature of fire, some clumps of trees remained untouched, while whole hillsides around them were burnt. Though it's been years since I was in charge of putting out a fire, I found myself collecting clues to the puzzle: it crossed the river here and went up canyon there. The wind drove it this way. Some memories are hard to let go.

Though the canyon is forever changed, the bones are still there. It's still beautiful, still lonesome, still magical. A fire doesn't change that about a place. A fire just adds to the story. I look forward to watching the canyon come back to life.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

One of Those Days

Don't get me wrong, a day outside is still way better than a day at the desk. But just isn't my day. Am I the only one? I've had a string of these lately. For example: drive to ski, and the snow is like concrete, impossible to stop without crashing. Go for a run and discover a sheet of ice on my "too snowy to run in the woods but this should be okay" route. Go for a bike ride and discover strong winds, but am committed to the rest of the route.

For the hike in the picture above, I slogged up the backside of Mount Howard. It is never an easy hike, topping out at over 8,000 feet, gaining three thousand feet in as many miles, and in snowshoes it is even harder. Still, I wasn't feeling it. I shuffled along at redline, and it's easy to let the mind go dark: am I out of shape? Why am I so tired? Why can't I pick up the pace? What's wrong with me?!
Only my stubbornness brought me to the top, through deep, deep untracked snow. A stiff wind prohibited lingering.
Far below me, fog engulfed the town. Three guys had passed me earlier, two riding a snowmobile and one holding on to a tow rope while wearing skis. They left the snowmobile and skinned up the mountain. Besides them, nobody else was up here. In six months, the tram will be running and tourists will be illegally feeding chipmunks, but for now, the mountain belonged to me.

While I hate the millenial term YOLO (You Only Live Once), I believe it. That's why I want things to go smoothly when I get the chance to be outdoors, even though I know that there will always be "Those Days". Like my life coach (aka "Husband") says: it's important to acknowledge the feeling (frustration, tiredness, whatever it is) and let it go. I'm working on it.

Do you ever have Those Days? What do you do to push through?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lost and Found at White Sands

Many, many years ago, I went backpacking with friends at White Sands National Monument, in Southern New Mexico. The trail to the campsite is only about a mile. I decided to go for a run in the dunes, figuring I would follow my footsteps back. (See where this is going?)

It started to get dark. I couldn't find my footprints. I looked over to see lights and made my way over there. A ranger directed me back to the backpacking trail. For the past couple of decades, I've always thought of that moment with a little shame, but also: nothing bad would have happened because it was a major road I saw. Right?

It's funny how memories trick you. I was in Alamogordo this week for a meeting. No offense to anyone who lives there, but it isn't a place high in scenic quality. So I took a couple of hours to go see the national monument, 15  miles away.

There's a five mile trail and I headed out on it. You follow posts in the dunes, and trudge your way up and down some significant sandy slopes. After the first half mile, there was nobody around. Just me in a sea of shockingly white sand.

 A few trees are scattered in the dunes, but otherwise it's a starkly beautiful, harsh place. I started wondering if I had enough water. Even in February, it was approaching 60 degrees. I haven't seen those temperatures since September.

The turn around point is at an alkali bed. If it's windy, you don't go hiking here, because you can't see the markers from blowing sand.

People have died here, I found out. From thirst but also from getting lost and freezing to death. I was shocked to see that the "main road" I had walked to during my lost episode was just the park road, and the car lights I saw were of the ranger doing the final sweep. Turns out I was pretty lucky that night.

I'm a lot smarter now, and I didn't get lost. Instead I walked peacefully, charging down dunes and getting sand in my shoes (this would be a great place to try barefoot hiking). The five mile trail is the longest in the park, and they don't allow camping except for the one backcountry site. There's no campgrounds in the park, and the road closes at dusk. You can't linger long, but you can be completely alone for a time.

It was interesting to revisit my former self, a seasonal gypsy at the time, still so much left ahead to explore. I thought about passing her in the dunes, and what she would think of the life she had ahead of her. I'm sure she'd be happy to see herself still out hiking around.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ski chair

This week I got the best birthday gift ever!


It's been a challenging few weeks over here in Eastern Oregon, with Survivor: Malheur Refuge playing out daily. I don't live in Burns anymore, but I did for five years, working for the BLM, and I know the whole history of where this began. I know a lot more than what is being reported, but let's leave it at that. There's a rally to protest the death and arrests this weekend in a tiny town south of us, along with "government overreach." There are senators (I'm looking at you, Utah) proposing bills to turn public lands over to the states, which would change them forever, especially recreation access. (States would have to run the land for profit. Who is going to lose in that scenario? Not the miners or the ranchers). It's hard to be universally hated for the agency you work for, especially when you have dedicated your life to helping people enjoy the outdoors, with many toilet cleaning jobs thrown in.

There were many times when I thought, why am I even doing this job? Why do I even live here? There are places to go where life would be a lot easier. Hawaii comes to mind. But every so often something appears in life that makes you realize you belong somewhere, like a ski chair showing up on your deck.

I have long coveted these chairs. They are a rare species, adorning the porches of a few residents lucky enough to know how to make them or win them at a fundraiser. They just make me smile. Though I am sure they exist in some form in other places, something about them makes me always think of this town. 

Turns out that J has been hoarding skis for years to make me a chair (I think he may have used an ex's skis to make part of it. Oh well, we all have a history).  It's too cold right now to hang out on the deck and it will  be for months. But who cares! I have a ski chair! I belong here, and I'm not going anywhere.