Sunday, October 25, 2020

What I did last summer

 Last weekend, before the severe cold snap with single digits and snow arrived, I hiked the two dogs up the access road to Mount Howard. This route is my fitness barometer---if I feel terrible slogging up the 4000 feet of elevation, then I know I need more exercise, less brownies, and more sleep. If I bound right up there, then I am doing all right. This time I felt somewhere in between. We easily gained the summit to a piercing breeze, too cold to stop and snack. With a perfunctory glance at the mountains, it was time to head down. 

A thick blanket of snow lay over the high mountain lakes, and I felt sad for the passing of another summer. Though 2020 has been awful and people have suffered. my enforced Covid stay at home summer meant that I hiked to places in my home range that I never thought I would reach. Without work travel twice a month, I was able to spend more time camping and less time in airports. The lure of the long distance trails was strong, but I didn't want to become part of the vacationing problem, at least until I could figure out how to do it safely. So I have only been out of the county once since February. This has been less hard than I imagined it would be.

This weekend, with the intense cold, I didn't venture too far into the mountains. I went for my first run, though not my last, in full-on winter gear: warm tights, a buff, and mittens. It felt invigorating and good, but I know by February I'll be sort of over it. 

I need a new winter sport, just like I took up paddleboarding last summer. It can't be something to do with speed. Just something to make staying at home through the cold winter months a bit more palatable. Suggestions?

Spruce is living his best life.

Sunday, October 18, 2020


 As I headed up the Hill of Death, I was aware of two things: carrying five liters of water was still totally doable, and my winter boots were no longer waterproof.

I was enroute to the ski hut to do some maintenance, and I figured I might as well stay the night. Even though I would be staying in the hut, it still seemed to count as a backpacking trip, since I was carrying all of my stuff. It would be...backpacking glamping.

In winter, the trail is fairly obvious. It splits into two routes, the winter and the summer trails. In winter, the summer trail is sometimes scoured clean by the high winds that always blast this mountain. In contrast, the winter trail winds through deep woods and is always full of snow. Either way, it is a slog, though considerably easier without snowshoes (or skis, but I am not a good enough skier to descend the Hill of Death, so I don't try).

In summer, the trail is a little more obscured, and I congratulated myself when I found the crux move, an unmarked turn off the ridge, a short climb across a two-track road, and then another climb to the next ridge. This was followed by a traverse across a steep slope, the place where the winds will get you if you aren't careful. Today, though, it wasn't bad.

Today the climb seemed easy, even with the water weight. In winter, there is snow to melt, but not now. Except there was. A thin blanket of snow lay on the roof edge, and Spruce quickly jumped into it. Avoiding his area, I scraped some snow into a couple of pots for melting. 

The hut had held up well over the summer, and the only work I needed to do was split wood. That is a task that I find oddly satisfying, so I didn't mind that previous visitors hadn't replenished the supply. I ate a wrap and stoked the fire as a strong wind buffeted the hut. This wouldn't have been a good night for tent camping.

This wouldn't be considered glamping for very many people, but it was luxurious to not have the typical camp chores (filter water! Set up tent!) and to be warm with a fire in the stove. The dogs, despite having a whole cabin and not a measly tent, settled comfortably on my sleeping pad, refusing to share. 

A strange warm front blew through in the night, bringing rain and snow to the mountains above. Whenever I am at this hut, I start to daydream about living up here. I think about the route I would take far down to the stream, to carry up enough water to survive. How I'd carve out a running route through the trees. It's fun to think about.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Puppy Wrangling

 I nervously headed up the trail with two excited dogs. I had done day hikes and runs with Spruce, but always overnight there had been another responsible adult along. There are a lot of things to worry about with dogs. Will they encounter a bear? Will they bother other hikers? Will they tear the tent?

Speaking of tents, this was also the maiden voyage of my new tent. I had divested myself of a couple of tents earlier, so it wasn't as though I had too many tents anymore--ahem, four--but none of them would reasonably fit me and two dogs. Because the tent had to be light, I had plunked down a lot of money for a really nice one. Yes, I bought a tent for my dogs.

Happily, there were no hunter vehicles parked at the trailhead, so I abandoned my Mount Howard plan A and headed up McCully Basin. This hike is much better for a run than for a backpacking trip; it drearily climbs through the trees with no views. Even when you break out into the top of the basin, you have to trudge fairly high to get outstanding scenery. I admit to being a little spoiled. 

But for a quick overnight hike, commencing as soon as I could reasonably dash away from my Zoom workshop (3 pm), it would have to do. The trail was empty and cold, reminding me that even to be able to do this in October was a gift. Many times, a September snow dump shuts the mountains down.

A wall tent was pitched near the water crossing, but no hunters appeared. Climbing higher, I found a spot that would work; it was only about seven miles but  I knew that  night was coming

The dogs ran around chasing each other, entranced with the spot even if I wasn't. I stared grimly at the wet, dirty messes that emerged from the nearby creek. Well, tents were made to be used, weren't they?

Both dogs ran into the tent, not realizing that they would be trapped in there for almost twelve hours. This is what shuts down backpacking more than anything, the sheer boredom of sitting in a tent for what feels like forever. I will have to reluctantly return to day hikes.

An old hand, Ruby quickly settled at my feet and fell asleep.  Not so the puppy. His large ears perked up, he listened intently (pro tip: if you put the rain fly on, dogs can't see out and are usually much more content). Soon, though, Spruce lay by my side and didn't stir until the morning.

You can't sleep in with dogs in the tent. Once I woke up, they were ready to go. We climbed toward the pass, wanting to get a glimpse of sunrise. I could see down into Silver Basin and over toward the wild Nebo country. It seemed like we were the only creatures left on the planet.

On the way out, the dogs stayed behind me, unlike their happy bounding on the way in. I figured that, like me, they were reluctant to go home. They wouldn't mind staying in the mountains forever.

Back in the yard, not very happy.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Searching for Skinnydip Lake

 I hadn't been in ten years, but I remembered. The unnamed lake lay a short distance from the beaten path, but it might as well have been miles distant. The rangers had named it Skinnydip, and it was perfect; surrounded by alabaster rocks, the small lake was a tiny teardrop of perfect blue.

I was determined to find it again. I had avoided the Lakes Basin all summer due to the horrifyingly sheer amount of humanity that had descended upon it. The use is definitely not as much as, say, the areas near Seattle, or in national parks, but it is still so much higher than it has ever been. Not really wanting to camp near a bunch of other people, I went elsewhere.

I headed cross country toward the lake I thought was Skinnydip. Before me the route showed what everyone else was missing: slabs of warm white granite, expansive views, and no people. Before long I came to the lake. But something was wrong--this was not the lake I remembered. It was a scenic spot, and would make a good campsite, but I still wanted to find the other one.

Besides, this lake wasn't good for swimming. It probably had been, earlier in the summer, but now it was silty, with a thin skim of algae. It was October, freakishly warm, and I was determined to swim in a lake. Checking the map, I noticed another lake about a mile away. That had to be Skinnydip!

Following the map, I headed toward the lake through mild terrain, contouring around a rocky cliff. My heart sank. The lake lay well below me, protected by steep rock walls. What to do? I had two options. Backtrack a fair piece and hike up the drainage, or attempt to skid down the cliff. If you know me, you know which route I picked.

Having survived the downclimb, I arrived at a fairytale place. Alas, however, the lake, without an inlet, was in the same state as the last one. There would be no skinnydipping here. Still, I thought about staying. I wandered down to the water. A mountain lion track was pressed into the damp sand. 

Still, that was not a huge barrier. I walked up the granite slabs, looking for a potential campsite. Then I stopped in my tracks. Two backpacks lay abandoned on the rocks. Where were the people? I surveyed my surroundings. Nobody was lingering by the lake or hunting up a campsite. 

That was the last straw. Too creepy! I headed downhill toward the beaten path.

The beaten path wasn't too bad though.

I remembered how much I loved the Lakes Basin. It gets so much use because it is wilderness lite: it is only 8 miles to the first lake, the grade is pretty easy, and it is impossible to get lost. But there's a reason why everyone goes there: it is stunning. I resolved to go back more often. 

I finally got to swim, too (though skinnydipping in the main basin is out of the question). I went below someone's camp, because there was a sandy beach and besides, their camp wasn't legal anyway (too close to the water). Apparently the campers were unaware of my presence, despite the loud splash. I was sitting on the bank, (clothed), with my "swimsuit" drying on a branch. A voice intoned overhead: "Someone left a BRA here!" Giggling, I grabbed my stuff and headed back to camp. Mission accomplished.