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.