Sunday, May 8, 2022

Hiking the PCT--San Jacinto Do-Over: Snow, Desperation Camp and Fuller Ridge

 I inched my way on a snowy, icy trail around Apache Peak. The trail was barely wide enough for my feet, a ledge that wound around the side of a steep cliff. A young hiker had died here, a couple years before, plunging down the face of the mountain. Ahead of me, Flash and K Zed navigated the exposure without as much fear. 

Contributing to the risk was the fact that Flash and I had gotten up at 3 am my time to catch a plane, hastily pack our stuff in the airport and get driven by a trail angel to the Fobes Saddle trail, which would intersect the PCT in a climb of three miles. Through a sleepless haze, I registered the fact that I had successfully navigated the icy section and we were back on dirt, albeit buffeted by a stiff wind. 

The last time I had been here, the rangers had warned against us tackling this section and there had also been a fire closure, which meant that we had to take an unpleasant alternate to rejoin the PCT. Even though a few people were attempting Fuller Ridge, they had appeared off the mountain claiming the snow travel had been hazardous. Ever since, though, I had felt like I had missed out on an important part of the PCT, and when Flash wanted to complete a 130 mile section, I agreed to go along.

However, I was doubting that decision as we walked the ridge. Though we had left the snow behind for the day, campsites were scarce. The trail bore the full brunt of the wind, and we needed shelter behind trees. Optimistically, we headed for a campsite listed on our Far Out app just as the sun begin to give up for the day.

Our hearts sank as we saw a veritable tent city in the campsites. Everyone and their brothers had wound up in this place, and the next site was a couple miles away. This would have to do. I wedged carefully in a small desperation site next to Blues Clues and Sunfish, two twenty-somethings, and Flash ended up bashing through the brush to find an equally desperate site. Even as we were setting up, other campsite seekers came in to try to find spots. Shivering as I boiled hot water, I contemplated my life choices. Wasn't Southern California supposed to be warm?

The PCT seemed more crowded than ever, but as we set off the next day for more ridge traversing, we mostly hiked alone. It was only when we would stop at a water source that other hikers would pop up out of nowhere. Teeth chattering, we ducked out of the wind to have a second breakfast and an intrepid hiker trudged by in shorts. Later at a snowy water source, we told him he was a badass for wearing shorts--I had started out the day in every stitch of clothing I had brought. "That's Mr. Badass," he said, and we had bestowed a trail name.

Many hikers divert to climb Mount San Jacinto, but the trail had turned to icy snow again and, not having microspikes, we chose to stick to the official PCT. Our camp that night overlooked a panorama of distant mountains and the glittering lights of Palm Springs. Swathed in our puffy coats, we speculated on the Coachella Valley temperatures. Here at over 8,000 feet, it was still winter.

I had looked toward Fuller Ridge with enthusiasm and fear. Tales are told of hikers wandering all over the mountain, lost. People have disappeared here. Yet, it is a beautiful three mile traverse along the side of a mountain, and much of it was snow free. "This is great," I enthused as we passed huge boulders and pine trees. I had spoken too soon--we then faced a two mile stretch of icy snow that soon turned into a slippery nightmare. The exposure wasn't life-threatening, but staying upright was. While Flash was able to navigate it, I ended up falling three times, my shoes sliding in the soft snow. "I'm over this!" I exclaimed, skirting the edges of a meltdown. Slowly we made our way out of the snow zone, and sat at a closed campground, boiling water for a 20 mile waterless stretch. I had closed the gap from my previous section hike.

We cursed the trail builders as we crisscrossed the mountain in mile-long switchbacks, pointing out where they could have easily lost elevation instead of staying high. I began to bonk, surviving only by popping Starburst and singing. Arriving at one of the few flat areas to camp in, we found Blues Clues and Sunfish occupying the best real estate. It was a desperation camp once again. But with a nice sunset.

The following day, I knew, we would descend to the valley floor and begin what I had considered the worst section of the whole PCT: the four mile slog to the I-10 underpass. When we had done it years before, temperatures were over ninety degrees. A forty-mile-an-hour wind had scoured our faces. I dreaded it, but it seemed much cooler than that year. How bad could it actually be?

To be continued...

Thursday, April 21, 2022

One more April

 This weekend I adventured with friends. I usually reserve a solo trip one of the days; I'm so scheduled the rest of the week that I don't want to be on someone else's schedule. Also, most of my friends don't work, and they are picky about going out on weekends. That is true even though on both days we saw zero people. 

Despite this, I can sometimes pry them out into the woods. It was two good days in the snow (and it's still snowing).

As we headed up the ski hill on our snowshoes, I contemplated that in less than two years, I can leave my job with no penalty. ( I just can't say the word retired. It sounds all wrong to me, like someone shuffling around in slippers. I know there are a lot of young, vibrant people who are retired, but I still don't like the word) Besides, I'll still work, just not full time. 

I'll have spent over three decades helping people get into the woods. This includes everything from clearing trails, cleaning toilets, listening to people scream, picking tinfoil out of fire rings, packing out trash, writing site plans, determining visitor capacity, managing outfitters, and so on. It's time for me to recreate instead!

But what does this look like? I've never been an all work/no play or its opposite. I don't have any role models I want to emulate, although there are bits and pieces I like. I'm not going to start traveling a lot or hiking full time. Like Flash, I plan to volunteer. Like Rowan, I'd like to have a garden. I'd like to have time to market my books and to write more. It would be nice to just have more time, not rush around all the time trying to fit everything in.

So I have one more full winter of helping people recreate, and then they are on their own! Today I sat in a conference call in a series of conference calls. J lurked in the background, getting ready for a ski trip. "I'm going to invent a drinking game," he said. "When someone says a governmenty phrase, you have to drink." On the call, someone said, "We should put eyes on it." "Drink!" J yelled. "We have to be on the same page," someone said. "Drink!" "We need to circle back on that, and set boundaries." "Drink! Drink!" I fell off the couch laughing, deliberately off camera and on mute. (I wasn't drinking)

Yep. I'm ready.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Outdoor Outliers

Greetings from the land of endless winter. As I write this, there is no way out of the county unless I were to swim the Snake River. Both interstates are closed again, and so are the mountain side roads. As we drove to ski yesterday, we were greeted by a road full of snow, impassible. Even the fearless Clare had turned around, so we knew we should not push our luck. 

 People are over it; this is a lot of snow for this time of year, and it will mean a really short hiking season. But if it prevents a smoky summer, I'm all for it. Instead of hiking, which is impossible right now, we keep skiing. The dogs are happy about that. 

 This week a friend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She didn't say so, but I knew she was thinking of our mutual friend who also had it, and fought hard for seven years, ultimately losing the fight. I had just seen her a week before, and she had just finished skiing ten miles. We talked about a long ski we wanted to do. Now she's in a hospital. 

 I feel fortunate as we ski up the road. So far, so good. Yes, my knees are a little weird, but I can still hike down into the Grand Canyon without ill effects. I'm a much slower runner than I used to be, but I can still run, even though I think half marathons are a thing of the past. I don't know of any lurking illnesses. I am hoping to be an outdoors outlier. 

 There are a few of these in my community, though not many; 70 and 80 year olds who are still skiing and hiking. Joe is hard to keep up with on skis, and John kicked all of our younger butts on hikes. Flash, who lives in Sun Valley, sees many of these outliers, and I wonder if this influences your attitude; if it is not about hope but confidence that you will also be one of those outliers, because there are so many around you. 

 Of course, you can be in the best of shape and become just plain unlucky. I hope to be an outlier, but somehow I've crossed the line from "Hmm, something hurts. Well, I'm sure it'll go away" to "Hmm, something hurts, this isn't good." Falls seem catastrophic--I've had two friends taken down by them this winter. "You're walking like a Grandma!" J says as I pick my way across the ice. I don't care--I want to be an outlier.

We ski back down the closed road. J chooses a risky line down the slope while I stay on the easier route. I remember back in the day as a wilderness ranger, where I bounded up talus slopes with the carelessness of the previously uninjured. I just always assumed everything would work out. Somehow, it always did.

Genetics, luck, and desire seem to be the common denominators. I can't do a lot about two of these but I can keep going, even when I don't feel like it, when it's snowing out, when I've worked all day and all I want to do is sit around and watch Amazon Prime. Recently I drove 150 miles to swim laps in the pool (with gas prices I won't be doing that very often). Variety in pursuits also seems to create outliers. 

Maybe I'll become one, maybe I won't, but I'm not ready to throw in the towel. I'm going to give it my best shot.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

trail lessons

 I texted Wild Thing: "I'm not into this." It was the Monday after our AZT hike. "Dude, Preach!" she texted back.

It's always hard to come back after a week in the wilderness. You just get your trail legs, are used to waking up early, packing all of your stuff up, hiking all day, and then sitting at camp with your meal in a bag, The world both narrows and widens: it narrows to where you will find water, how much you are climbing and descending, and where you will camp. It also widens to endless possibilities, following a ribbon of dirt through forest and desert, where it feels like you could change your life for good if you wanted.

Post trail depression is hardly a real problem but it is real! 

But for now, my life is bounded by structure, so these small escapes have to work. Fortunately, I live in a place with endless opportunities. Strangely enough, the skiing is still good. Six months of skiing! Every time I think that the 11 mile loop will be impassible, it strangely still is, though the snow is skimpy in some areas:

The temperature has been fluctuating wildly between 50 degrees to snow, so it is hard to know what to expect. We race out of work at 4:30, burdened with skis, snowshoes, and various items of clothing. You can be skiing happily downhill in powder and then suddenly encounter an icy crust where it is difficult to snowplow. Being adaptable is the way for spring.

Speaking of being adaptable, I have been pondering the lessons I have learned from hiking partners. I've hiked thousands of miles with one person or another, and I've learned something from all of them. Our partnerships were not always successful, but there is always something I have taken away. Here's the list:

1. Backpacking with people you don't know for 212 miles in difficult circumstances is rarely a good idea (JMT 2012)

2. Believe how great you are (Wild Thing). Also: Werther's candy (AZT 2022)

3. It is possible to backpack for weeks in a cold rain and maintain a positive attitude (Flash, Washington PCT, 2013)

4. The importance of making a quick decision when things turn bad (Triscuit, CA PCT)

5. But the importance of talking things out (Tinkerbell, Northern Loop, 2021)

6. Breaks before bonking, and the joy of cherrypicking (Beekeeper, Hat Creek Rim)

7. Sometimes, your brain can hold you back "20 miles is your new normal" (Cherry Pie, Washington PCT)

8. Enjoy what you can do, rather than what you can't (Freak of Nature, Hells Canyon 2022)

9. Don't quit on a bad day (Tor the trail angel, Oregon PCT, 2018)

10. Smiles, not miles (Camel, Good Stuff, and TC, the Grand Canyon, 2014-present)

Anything you have learned from your trail partners?

Also, stay away from tree wells!


Thursday, March 31, 2022

Hiking the Arizona Trail, Passages 8-11: Snow and Sun

 We huddled in a remote outhouse, brewing a hot drink. Outside the wind howled. As I prepared my lunch, we decided on a new rule: "no tuna in an outhouse". The combined smells were disgusting, and this was a new low in my hiking career, but it was necessary; a winter storm had turned the sky island into a snow globe.

My hiking partner, Wild Thing, hovered on the verge on hypothermia. Unlike myself, she had not stopped to put on a coat, and the heavy snow had soaked our feet. It was hard to believe that just a day before we had flopped in the meager shade of a cactus, rationing our water.

This is the Arizona Trail, a study in contrasts. When I picked these passages, I had cheerfully neglected the fact that we would ascend 4,000 feet not once but twice, and also traverse some water-scarce sections. Climbing up Mount Lemmon a few days later was more of a scramble than a hike; passing another section hiker, I said, "Come to Arizona and hike the trail, they said. It'll be fun, they said!" "THEY LIED," the other hiker snarled (but was kidding; I think.).

It's been two years since I have been on a long trail and I have missed it; the simplicity of trail life, adapting to the natural daylight and darkness, talking with other hikers. To completely get away from obligations, worry, and what comes along with social media. Sleeping outdoors in a tent is so much better than being in a bed; waking up to a beautiful sunrise with the only thing to do is walk. 

Passage 8 is low elevation and favored by mountain bikers for its flat, curvy track. We hiked 14 miles to the Rincon River, the only source of water beyond what is close to the trailhead. Water in the desert is so life-giving; we soaked our feet and sat on soft white sand. 

The next day would begin the big climb into the sky islands of Saguaro National Park. We had looked at the weather and decided against sleeping high; instead we stopped at Grass Shack campground at 5800 feet. This turned out to be a wise choice; a little snow dusted our tents but mostly a hard rain fell all night (is there anything better than rain on a tent?).

As we climbed the next day the snow got deeper and we were forced to dive into the bathroom. Nobody was around and we were grateful for our app which showed us if we were on trail at all. Dropping several thousand feet, we once again wound up in one layer of clothes, camping near a stream that is usually dry. 

The next day we walked a rollercoaster of hills and washes, passing by cows and roads. The landscape changed gradually from cactus to low trees. We dreamed all day about a fabled wash with cottonwoods, but reaching it, we found only green, scummy water pools and decided to go on to the next water source. Reaching our planned campsite, I cringed in fear. A range bull stared balefully at us. There was water here, but the thought of passing the bull every time we had to get water didn't sound that great. Counting on the trail to provide, we continued another mile to a defunct water tank, where we found a few golden pools of water. Our tents set up in a soft sandy wash, we did Campsite Yoga and drifted off to sleep.

We headed for the entire reason I had planned this passage: Hutch's Pool. Like a mirage, it is a deep, swimmable pool surrounded by cliffs. Arriving before anyone else, we snagged the best campsite, a sandy beach near the water, and proceeded to jump in.

 This was close to perfection and well worth the struggle to get here.

We could have stayed here for days, but time marches on, so we geared up the next morning for the steep climb up Mount Lemmon. 

Steep it was, and I soon regretted my choice to only take two liters of water for an 8 mile climb. Typically this would be overkill, but my pace slowed to two miles an hour as I scrambled up boulders. It was close to two pm when we stumbled into our last campsite. It was only three miles from the trailhead, but we couldn't pass up one more night in the woods. Here we found a delightful small pool to dip our heads into.

Reluctantly we drove back to Tucson, where it was already 90 degrees (how do people live here even?) and I headed immediately for the hotel pool (oh yes, this is how). We had hiked 75 miles, meaning that I have covered about 200 miles of the 800 mile Arizona Trail. Everyone wants to know if I will hike it all, and I'm not sure. Time and seasons are always an issue, and I don't feel compelled to completely finish a long trail again. But it is hard to resist the call of the trail. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

I won the lottery!

 Don't get too excited..not THAT lottery. But almost as good! I won the early access Wonderland Trail lottery. What is that, you ask? The Wonderland Trail circles around Mount Rainier. If you have been reading for a while, you might recall that last summer my intrepid hiking partner, Tinkerbell, and I drove there hoping for walk-up permits. We didn't get one, but we were able to hike for a couple days on the route. 

I've worked in recreation planning most of my career, and I know the sad truth that often in order to manage recreation use, the default is to a permit system. Nobody likes a permit system, but I can't think of too many people who want to hike and camp with a hundred people either. Thus the Wonderland Trail permit system, which is very restrictive and coveted. 

It's kind of funny: you have to get in a lottery to be in a lottery. The early access starts on March 24, and my slot isn't until the 31st, so it's possible all the good itineraries will be gone. It is also entirely possible that I won't be able to go: work and home obligations are hard to overcome. But I'm excited at the thought of doing the hike (maybe).

While I impatiently wait for my chance, I am packing for a few days on the Arizona Trail. I have spent way more time than I should debating over the merits of what gear to bring. It's also interesting that when I am on the eve of something like this, mysterious pains appear. Why does my knee hurt randomly? Or some days, not hurt at all. What's this pain in my foot? Oh, today it's gone. I can feel every pavement mile I once ran, every 70 pound pack I hoisted as a wilderness ranger. I'm hiking with someone twenty years younger than myself. Luckily, we have plenty of days to cover the miles we have planned.

Flash and I are getting the band back together for a PCT hike as well. It'll be a good do-over. I lie awake at night trying to figure out how to make my vacation days stretch enough for all these hikes; I work eleven hour days to meet the ferocious deadlines I have. I have no regrets; I can't let life pass me by. 

I recall a man I worked with in the Great Basin who once won a Cadillac. Instead of sensibly selling it like everyone told him to do, he decided to keep it. He got a license plate that said "Lucky Lew."  He haunted the casinos, convinced he was now lucky. I hardly ever played but once in a while I would throw a few coins in the machines in the restaurant. Lew would come sit by me, telling me he was lucky, and that luck would rub off. It never did, but this didn't faze him. He kept trying.

Keep trying, friends. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

miracle march, maybe

 Suddenly, strangely, it began to snow. Those of us who like winter had resigned ourselves to crust cruising: skiing across hard snow at a rapid pace, which isn't all bad, but dreams of powder had long since gone. Historically, March is when the biggest snow dumps occur, but all we had were days and days of sunshine.

I awoke to so much snow that I knew I had to ski. Looking at my outlook calendar, I also knew that if I didn't get out early, I would never get to go: meetings upon meetings awaited. So at 6:30 am, I hit the road outside the house. It hadn't been plowed, and my skis disappeared in deep snow.

Nobody was up yet; the dog walking neighbor hadn't appeared, and the People with Lights, a group of colorfully festooned light joggers, had surely been put off by the snow. Even Man Running with Headlamp hadn't gone by. 

I shuffled up the hills, trying to get as far as I could before the turn-around time. I had a meeting at 8 to discuss supplies for an open house. As riveting as discussing sticky notes and pens might sound, I had a hard time turning around. I wanted to keep going, as far as I could, before the snow melted.

Other, freer friends are making plans for escape. Beekeeper is thinking about New Mexico and then the Colorado Trail. Camel has designs on the High Sierra this summer, and hordes are beginning their PCT or AT thru hikes. Other friends have a seven week camping trip around the Southwest, beginning this weekend. 

Here, I couldn't leave even if I wanted to: both ways out are closed, again, due to weather and crashes. Today, I am OK with this. The snow is perfect. Over a Teams meeting, I see worry and resolve in a new co-worker's eyes. She lives in Moldova, and it seems silly to be talking about recreation planning for their forests when they face an uncertain future. At the same time, nature is all we have. 

This Miracle March snow will hopefully lift us over the drought a little bit. Before it, we were at 83% of normal, which is better than most of the state, but not good enough. On the ski hill, the volunteers declare a Mandatory Powder Day, starting the lift on a non-open day. We look to the sky and hope for more.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

seven hundred miles

 Last weekend, I drove 700 miles for an adventure that didn't happen. We had planned this trip for over two years, Covid having deterred us previously. It was a simple adventure, the kind I like best: ski eleven miles into a cabin with two friends. The height of luxury, a snocat would bring in most of our stuff. The "cabins" were not exactly rustic either: they had beds, electricity, and running water.

Or, they DID. We got to mile two when my friend checked her phone. The resort's water had frozen. We could not go. 

But..we whined. We weren't your typical guests. We could melt snow! We could dig catholes in the woods! Perhaps unused to this type of hardiness, but more likely due to county health codes, we were cancelled.

In the past, I would have been really grumpy. When you work nine to ten hours a day, your time off is precious. Everything needs to be worth it! No time needs to be wasted! Everything has to be epic!

But as we reconfigured for a day ski, I realized that this attitude is self-defeating. While I feel like there is always a time clock ticking the older I get, this time has to be enough. I may never get to "retire". This may be all there is. An older friend recently said, "I figure I have about ten more good years." We all know there are outliers who keep charging through their sixties, seventies and beyond, but we know statistically this isn't often the case. By the time I am eligible to retire, I may not have that many good years left. This has to be enough. This may be all there is.

With that in mind, I fully enjoyed the fast ski on a groomed route and the short climb up to a frozen lake. The 20 degree air felt warm in the sun and I crunched on a crisp Granny Smith. Everyone we saw was full of smiles. This had to be enough. It was enough.

Trip notes:

Elk Lake Resort in Central Oregon is a great place to visit. You can stay there winter and summer. In winter, you can snowmobile, ski, or walk in the 11 miles, or ride in by snocat. You leave from the Dutchmans Flat snopark, on Century Drive near Mount Bachelor. Get there early--it fills up fast. We got there at 0700. Once at Elk Lake you can ski around the lake or on the groomed road, snowshoe, or fat bike. They also have "camping cabins" with heat but no water and you walk to a pit toilet. (Still worth it)

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The cougars are out!

 When I asked the condition of the steep grade into the canyon was, someone on the facebook winter road report page warned me against going onto the trail. "THE COUGARS ARE OUT,"  she reported. 

That made me laugh. I mean, it's not like cougars hibernate. They're always out! But when I arrived at the trailhead and saw a handwritten note: "Cougar on trail!!" dated five days previous, I paused a little. There were no other cars at the trailhead and it looked like I would be the only one staying the night. However, because COUGARS ARE OUT, I had brought some items I don't usually bring: bear spray, a loud personal alarm, a whistle and a dog. I also had my beacon (you should always have that).

Overkill, probably; I've hiked around mountain lions all my life. But this area is remote and not really traveled much in February (I would end up seeing only two people: a man day hiking and a fisherman). It was also predicted to be cold. I stuffed my -20 sleeping bag into my biggest backpack. It took up half the space. Determined not to make the same mistakes as the previous weekend, I also packed down booties. Staring at the stuffed backpack, I was sure it was incredibly heavy, but surprisingly, it weighed only 23 pounds with food and water, not bad for a winter hike.

My heart sank a little when I saw snow lingering on the riverbank; I had been convinced that at 2,000 feet, this canyon would be snow free. Ice lingered under my feet, and it was way too early for flowers. But I had arrived in time for the last bit of sun, and I felt warm as I made my way upriver.

I had sworn the last time I had come to this canyon that I would never stay overnight again. The Grizzly Fire in 2015 made this a dangerous place to camp. All of our previous campsites were wiped out. Trees lay in huge piles, preventing river access. But despite myself, I came back. It's a lovely place to be, and it is slowly starting to heal.

But you still can't hike very far without encountering the washed out bridge, with a river that's hard to cross. That limits a backpacking trip severely. I dropped down to a nice little campsite about four miles upriver and then day hiked as far as I could before darkness came. Though it was cold, I lingered outside to get some sunset photos.

I had also brought a three person tent, knowing that the night was about twelve hours. Ruby and I reclined in palatial comfort, listening to the river flow by. The next morning was exceptionally frosty, with the tent fly weighing in many more pounds than it should have. I wistfully watched the sun slowly make its way down the canyon walls, but knew it would take too long to get to my camp. A winter storm was coming in later that day and it was time to go.

Backpacking trip number two for 2022 was in the books. I stayed warm, there were no rattlesnakes, the poison ivy was non-existent, and the COUGARS WEREN'T OUT.  Winning!


Wednesday, February 16, 2022

the freak of nature returns

 We called our friend "the freak of nature." She was unbelievably strong and fit, and could go from a standstill to a blistering pace. It was because of the Freak that I ended up hiking the whole PCT--a random idea from her to hike the Sierra portion of the trail turned into a dream for me. 

But the Freak was struck with a virus and a resulting years' long battle with chronic fatigue soon after that. This isn't my story to tell, but there were long stretches when she couldn't even get out of bed. She handled this with a grace that few others could muster. She would ask me about my adventures instead of feeling sorry for herself. She did what she could, and it was a little more each year, but there were setbacks when she did too much. Though she tried everything, there was no cure for this mysterious disease. "I might have to check out," she said once, a rare moment where she spoke of how hard it was.

When I searched the forecast and saw that conditions looked optimal for a trip into the canyon, I thought of the Freak of Nature. The trail has a gentle grade, and I thought she could do it. She was up for it, but concerned. Though she had hiked five miles before, it wasn't with weight. She stashed a cook kit in my car in case she had to come out and I carried her tent. She said that I should go ahead and then double back to check on her.

We started hiking and she took off at a fast pace. I hurried along behind her, laughing to myself. The Freak of Nature was back! We arrived at the river bar to see that the sun had already left the canyon walls (at one pm.) Bundled in our puffys, we made dinner and watched the stars come out. 

Lulled into a sense of complacency, I realized that even though there wasn't snow, this was full-on winter camping. My fifteen degree bag was right on the edge of comfort; our water froze. The stove valiantly tried to boil breakfast water, but took forever. My toes were frozen. This was definitely pushing the season. But the Freak was happy. Her smile lit up the beach.

As the Freak hiked back at the same blistering pace, her first backpacking trip in seven years, I couldn't help but smile. There are miracles when we least expect them,

Yes, sometimes there are.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

still not good at skiing

 A and I skied optimistically down the big hill. Our goal was to complete the Hass Owl loop. I've done this loop a few times this winter, but she never had. We had followed snowmobile tracks until they dead-ended, and now it looked like it would be a slow, breaking trail slog. I'm not opposed to a 10 mile slog, but we knew it would take forever, and forever was not the time we had. We glanced at each other in defeat. Today was not our day.

Except...I heard a distant hum. "I hear a snowmobile!" I cried. Sure enough, a snow bike hove into view (this is a motorized thing that looks nothing like a bike). Now we had a trail to follow. The day was saved!

I'm not typically a fan of snowmobiles, but there are times when they are useful. The snow was still soft enough in the track that it was hard work, and it took us a full three and a half hours to finish. Without the snowmobile, the snow was deep enough that it would have taken twice that long. 

I've been skiing this type of terrain all winter, and decided on another day it was time to take on the forested, steep loop. It's been unseasonably warm, with residents saying IT'S SPRING, THE BIRDS ARE CHIRPING,  unaware that this is really wrong. We need more snow! Due to the warm temperatures, my skis stuck in the snow and I shuffled miserably, on the verge of a meltdown. After applying glide wax twice, my skis slid...but way too fast. I rocketed down the hills in a panic. Trees loomed before me. I had to admit: I was still not good at skiing.

Another night, we received word that the snowmobile club had groomed the canal road. (Yes, snowmobiles are useful.) This means more corduroy than your pants back in the 1980s. When this happens, skiers emerge in glee, because you can skate ski or go fast on the groomed surface. It was headlamp warrior time, just at dark, and I soon became aware that the road had iced up. Forced to perform the walk of shame, I took off my skis and walked down the last hill. It's better than breaking something.

Today was like skiing in a combination of mashed potatoes and ice. I skittered along the tracks in a doubtful mood. This is definitely like skiing two months from now, typically. I wandered out to the lake, which was hopefully trying to freeze, and stepped tentatively on the ice. That was a big nope! In front of me, I could see carved out footprints and then a big hole with caution tape around it. This is obviously where someone fell in.

I know nature doesn't care, but I'm not ready for spring! Winter has barely been here. We need more snow, and then I can try to ski some more, and have more meltdowns, and hopefully get a little better at skiing.


Wednesday, February 2, 2022


After twelve years here, I can still be surprised. A friend revealed a secret place to ski, a magical place that was actually flat (no scary hills or miles of climbing!). I had never heard of it before, though others had mysteriously alluded to "skiing out north". Technically, it's not a secret, but once you find a great place, you don't exactly spread it around to the universe. 

I drove out there with low expectations. After all, there hadn't been snow for a month and the snow was a crusty, icy mess elsewhere. I spied a set of ski tracks and took off through the woods. Soon the tracks joined an established route. Skiing nirvana! The route spiraled through a pasture with views of the mountains. It was perfect.

A man on snowshoes appeared, and told me about other routes I could take. "Blessings!" he said as we parted. He was right; it was a blessing to be out here. The main route is about three miles long, and I did it twice, and thought about a third time.

Later in the week, I went for a run to check on the lake. Even having to wear spikes didn't dampen my enthusiasm as I skidded down to the water's edge. The lake had frozen over! In this time of changing climate, this is increasingly a rare event. Most of the years I have lived here, this five mile long lake has not frozen. There have been some incredible cold winters where it has been frozen for weeks, allowing us to ski and skate along its length. There have been many more depressingly warm winters where it hasn't frozen at all. I stepped tentatively out onto the ice. Skating is on!

Later still, I joined the headlamp warriors as we skied the canal road in falling darkness. The snow reflected off the sky so that a light wasn't even necessary. We were the only people around, our skis sliding effortlessly on new snow, making the most of the day. When the only choice is to get out in the dark, I get out in the dark. 

We drove down from skiing with one friend in our bubble, talking about all of the things we had managed to fit in during the work week. "I need to find friends who like the outdoors," our friend joked. True, it's at the expense of things like house cleaning. I haven't had a real haircut since 2018. (I think?) I plan to and constantly fail to get to the post office when it's open. Often chores are put off for so long that it's overwhelming. But do I change? No. I'll always pick the outdoors.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The secret world of the Wednesday adventurers

 For weeks it seems, we have been encased in freezing fog. Running in the fog, walking in the fog, driving timidly to the gym in the fog, working with fog outside. Fog fog fog. It can grate on the nerves. (How I survived seven years in a rainforest is beyond me.) It was made all the more infuriating because I knew that just a few feet in elevation, the sun was shining.

My birthday randomly fell on a Wednesday. Even though I don't really celebrate, I refused to sit in meetings on that day. We inexplicably got a boon of eight hours of "pre-holiday" off for Christmas and New Years and we could use them anytime before the end of January. Not being stupid, I decided to use them for my birthday.

We drove up the mountain to discover perfection. The snowmobile club had groomed the entire Hass Owl loop, which rarely happens. Also, the sun was shining and it felt like summer (if 40 degrees is your summer). As far as days went, this one ranked right up there.

I skied happily along the corduroy, making record time on the loop. Usually, it takes about four hours to complete. Today, it would take two and a half. And because most people go clockwise, while I was going counter, I ended up meeting people. All of them, I knew. All of them aren't working, are retired, or are self-employed. It dawned on me that there's a secret society of Wednesday adventurers, a whole unknown world of people who are out there while the rest of us are hating the fog and our computers.

Of course, I knew this already; the same friends have given up asking me if I can join them on Wednesdays, because I usually can't. But it felt like I was getting away with something as we met each other on the trail and stopped to chat. For once, I wasn't envious of them, because I was one of them.

A group of friends burst into "Happy Birthday." Nobody was in a hurry. They had all day. In fact, they had all week, all month. Someday I will be one of them, but I had to eventually descend back to the fog. On the weekend, I saw some of the same friends, along with other weekend warriors like myself. We were all down to one layer in the sun, so used to the bone-chilling fog that it felt warm. 

I can't take too many Wednesdays off right now. I returned to work to a grim meeting. "Everyone on this call looks really stressed," I typed in a chat with my co-worker. "That's what it's like to work here," she responded. "Hair on fire!!" I wrote back. There was such a difference in the faces of the people on the screen and the ones I saw on Wednesday. I hope to carry a bit of the secret Wednesday adventure spirit with me in spite of it all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

the long haul

I hauled myself up the backside of Mount Howard, carrying snowshoes. It's always better to bring snowshoes and not need them rather than leave them behind and need them, I reasoned. Some vintage sno-cats had powered up the road the day before, packing it down, but not in a a good way. Their tires created ridges, and the snow was soft, so it was like walking in mashed potatoes. 

Still, I was determined. I've written about this hike before, and it has become a semi-annual staple. On one hand my goal is to get as high as possible--8,400 feet--and on the other, this hike serves as a good fitness gauge. It's hard--almost 4,000 feet gained in 4 miles--and because I couldn't park at the trailhead, it added another three miles to the total.

As usual, nobody was around. I've only known of a couple of people who do this hike, probably because it isn't that scenic until you get to the very top. And in summer, why not just ride the gondola that brings thousands of tourists to the summit? It's also hard, as I have mentioned before. But as I've said, it serves as a good fitness gauge. Today, I wasn't feeling so fit. I slogged slowly upwards, half tempted to turn around. I've been uncomfortably aware that my endurance could be better. I don't have a lot of time during the week to exercise, and the weekend warrior thing wasn't cutting it.
I've never been a sprinter; I like the long haul. I endure the elliptical machine and the bike trainer, but can't endure the boredom of more than an hour on them. I like the endurance of hiking or skiing for hours, at a pace that is sustainable. Someday I hope to have enough time to live this way. 

 At the top of Mount Howard, a bitter wind kept me from staying long. I looked over all of the peaks and the places I've been and the ones I have yet to know. I hastily chomped down an apple and part of a fig bar. As always I wished I had brought a tent instead of descending into the fog that kept the valley hostage. 

At a bonfire a few days before, friends talked about what comforts of civilization they would miss. Hot showers were high on the list, followed by toilets and good food. I can be on board with those things, but I love being outside more. 

The hike down was fast, aided by two snowmobilers who came up, packing the snow down a bit more. All too soon, I reached my car, having put in a solid effort. 

I considered the fitness gauge. Not great, not terrible. I don't obsess over these things, or count my yearly mileage, or other things that I could do, but am too unconcerned about to tally. Still, I emailed my hiking partner, Flash. How about a few weeks on trail? I wanted to know.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Just call me scout

 I don't know why this is, but people in my town seem to think I've been everywhere. People I rarely cross paths with will ask what the skiing is like at an obscure location, or how much snow there is on a trail, or if the bugs are bad at a random lake in summer.

If I know, I'm usually happy to say, but there's a fine line between being helpful and becoming a guidebook. I think the requests are more numerous now because we are all so used to googling anything we want to know. Remember card catalogs? No? 

Sometimes, though, a question will pique my interest and I'll decide to go scout. Such was the case with Kinney Lake. Long time readers may recall that this is my early summer swimming lake and, due to lack of snow last year, the most perfect skating rink. When a friend mused about conditions there, I decided it was the perfect excuse for an expedition.

I recruited a friend and we geared up with snowshoes. This road drifted shut during our 70 mile an hour windstorm and won't be plowed again. We crunched along in crusty snow, quickly ascending the mile to the lake.

A lone ice fisherman with two huskies had pulled in an ice fishing shack, but other than that, we were alone. Venturing out onto the ice always feels a little strange at first, but it was solid and we walked a couple of laps around the lake. After days of clouds, the sun was welcoming and warm, although the temperatures were in the teens. If anyone wanted to skate, they would have to arrive armed with a shovel and a posse. 

After an hour we headed back to the car. The friend who had asked about conditions coincidently drove by at that moment. What was it like, he wanted to know, could he skate? I relayed the outcome of my scouting trip and he drove by, perhaps plotting a siege with shovels. 

Later, I went to scout the small pond at the end of my street for skating possibilities, and the big lake to see if it is frozen (yes, and no). 

I'm not sure how I got the reputation as a scout, but I doubt I will be able to shake it. Like anywhere, in a small town you get assigned roles from the beginning. I don't mind it that much, really. I like being the first one to arrive at a destination as snow is melting. I like the discovery, so much better than hearing it from someone else.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Backpacking Rim to (Almost) Rim to Rim, Grand Canyon

 "You know that's a bad idea, right?" the ranger at Phantom Ranch said when we told him our hiking plans to reach the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He went on to count the ways: thigh deep snow! Rockfall! No chance of rescue because of staffing shortages!

Good Stuff, Camel and I looked at each other and shrugged. We knew the rangers had to say this. They had to speak to the lowest denominators. We met two of these later, a group of earnest youngsters who planned to get up at three to "summit" the North Rim, but who admitted they had "never done anything like this before, but had been Boy Scouts." (they never did emerge from their tent the next day.) 

So far, one night in, our trip had been magical. We descended down the Bright Angel Trail in fresh snow, the ominous weather forecast apparently scaring away the usual crowds. The trail was hushed, silent, ours alone. I have seen two hundred people in a mile and a half on this section before; today we saw about five. The river was running a high chocolate brown, the snow turning to light rain as we approached Bright Angel campground. Even here, a place that typically bustles with hikers, only a few camps were occupied and we were able to secure our typical secret spot, nestled up against the cliff face. All night, a peaceful rain fell on our tents. 

Undeterred by the ranger's warnings, we headed to Cottonwood Camp, seven miles distant. This is an almost flat walk, passing through the steep passages of the Box and into an open, rolling landscape. The few backpackers coming down had not made it to the North Rim. They made it to the Redwall Bridge before being defeated by the snow. We could see the snow ahead, the rims frosted with it, lower than I had ever experienced. A light snow spit from a slate-colored sky as we arrived at Cottonwood to find it, too, mostly deserted. 

Cottonwood Camp in spring is likely an enchanted place, with namesake trees bending over the river. In winter, wicked winds rake the camp, and cold air sinks into the bones. It was an early night as we ate dinner by headlamp in between snow squalls. 

The next day would be our North Rim attempt. As we headed out of camp before daylight, I tried to quell my feeling of foreboding. It just did not feel right, though I couldn't explain why. The pace was too slow for me to stay warm. My feet in their trail runners weren't wet, thanks to my waterproof socks, but the snow got deeper and deeper and I knew I would be facing wet pants and shoes. Once we reached the Redwall Bridge, only a couple people had broken trail before us. It would be a long wet slog. 

Camel had already turned around; Good Stuff was determined to press on. I debated--go or stay? Finally I decided to turn around. We were only 2.6 miles from the top, but I had been up there twice before, I didn't need bragging rights. I had all winter to slog through snow. It was a whiteout, no views anyway. I just plain wasn't having fun. I descended in fluffy snow, enjoying the hike much more. 

As I returned to Cottonwood, I was beset with doubt. The younger, adventurous me would have pressed on. But the younger, adventurous me made some mistakes. What's the line between not feeling like it and being lazy? When Good Stuff returned he said he had kept going because if he turned around, it would have been age keeping him from the top. I don't think it was age causing me to turn around. It took Good Stuff 3.5 hours to go the last 2.6 miles. My feet and patience would never have lasted that long. Still, I wondered: had I done the right thing?

Of course, there is no wrong in the Canyon. The next day I left before the others to begin our trek up to Havasupai Garden camp. Wandering down through the Box, I realized that my best moments have been solo in the Canyon. There's just something about solitude, the rock walls, the timeless river. Just like a photograph cannot, words can't adequately describe it.

I vowed once to never spend another night at Havasupai Garden (formerly known as Indian Garden) due to the loud nature of the other campers. But here again, there was mostly quiet. A wild wind tossed the cottonwood trees. A rainbow appeared, arching over the entire Canyon. 

Climbing out on New Years Day, the trail was once again mostly empty. It was the easiest climb out yet, and there was only the icy drive back to Flagstaff to navigate. Both my companions professed a desire not to go back for a while. Not me. I was already planning my next trip.