Saturday, September 5, 2015

Pick up yo' Trash!!!

I love my time spent outside, and the further from human impact the better.  It's a commonly joked observation that once you leave the pavement in National Parks you leave the hoards and throngs of vacationers with lots of questions about WiFi behind.  And honestly, I can't pass judgement about the WiFi, I've been guilty of seeking those invisible tethers before and have done some silly things for faster streaming.  (Sitting outside of a closed Grand Basin visitor center, charging devices and surfing the web, while eating ice cream and cooking dinner in the parking lot.)  But I still do love my wilderness areas and the limited markings of mankind.

Remember to look at the geyser, not just your screen...

Yet very rarely, if ever, am I the first person to lay eyes on such an area, as I typically follow a trail or a route previously recorded.  Lands traversed and mapped, trails designed and carved from the unique form of the lands.  Fire rings suggesting the most ideal places to camp. But these areas still manage to evoke a feeling of solitude and an amazingly small feeling of being a human alone in nature with only the fewest items necessary.  For me that's the huge draw of hiking, and it really comes down to the camping part.  I really like camping, and I prefer camping in challenging places, pushing myself to get there, and I savor the feeling of solitude that there might not be a human being or structure within miles and miles from where I lay my head for the night.  And maybe this area has been traveled to before, but has anyone slept in this exact spot in the history of the planet?  Has anyone climbed the shortcut to the ridge? Have these trees sheltered others from the rain?  Are my footprints the first to touch this rock? These big thoughts lull me to sleep at night while watching the deeply stained Milky Way across the sky and more stars than any city dweller can imagine.  

Camping in the Grand Canyon below towering walls

I know I'm lucky every time I get to have this experience.  Of being outside, of rising and falling with the sun, of pushing my body hard physically, of sleeping and eating as nurturing and healing. I really do appreciate the ups and downs, as those are the features that make up hiking, one is not better or worse than the other, they coexist. Some climbs are hard, some descents are too.  But there is always a reward, even if only the satisfaction of having done it.  You see the land through wiser eyes, scouring rock faces for hints of a trail, standing on ridges and aligning your map with the distant peaks, traveling with intuition in areas along the way. You learn to develop a relationship with the trail and the wilderness, as you know the laws and rules are Mother Nature's, and she doesn't negotiate.  It's this kinship that is so important: have respect for the land, and weather, and wildlife, and the wilderness can be a wonderful escape into a world without human intrusion.

Remember that time the Sierra had snow?

But dammit.  Pack your trash out.  I can't tell you how often the sight of trash in the middle of a trail is the one piece of evidence left behind that humans were there recently.  Or partially burnt trash in a fire pit.  Now I have to pack out some partially burnt, potentially moldy, bug filled trash.  And I do pack out trash I find when it's feasible.  Huge kudos to these two guys that removed over 1,000 pounds of trash from the AT.  They even packed out a mattress!  Now I understand, the AT is often very close to roads, not making it a true wilderness, and there's probably a 99% chance that mattress belonged to someone other than a backpacker using the shelter.  But still, when it was brought and left in the woods, where did the previous owner think it would go!? There is no trash fairy that follows you around sweeping things up.  There are no street sweepers or public servants that are tasked with following you around in the woods to carry your trash out.  You carry it in, you carry it out.  

Who found this North Rim of the Grand Canyon spot nice enough to camp there, but ugly enough to leave behind partially burnt trash?

Now I completely understand that trash sucks to carry at times.  Lots of little wrapper corners and sticky residues.  Some poor meal planning and you end up with 5 day old tuna juice soaked trash.  And do you crush those beer cans and risk tearing your only empty, thus highly coveted, ziploc? Or leave them whole?  Or leave them behind?  Please don't leave them behind.  Beer cans seem to be the biggest culprit in the backcountry, and without pointing fingers, I'd guess they belong less often to hikers and are more likely associated with backcountry travelers on other transportation modes, horses, snowmobiles, atvs and even trucks, but hikers drink too.  I know beer companies advertise lives mingled with adventure and beer drinking, how about include a note about recycling your cans when your done at that bonfire in the woods?  Did you know the "Budweiser Can Flower" is the unofficial state flower in New Mexico along the Continental Divide? But hikers are certainly suspects in the partially burned Mountain House foil packets that litter backcountry sites.  Once the consumables are consumed, it gets lighter; you packed it in full, now you're lucky it's empty! You brought that 12oz can of liquid America out here, you can certainly get that significantly lighter empty can out.  Some states will even pay you a nickel for it.


Now I admit, trash has certainly escaped from my pack before.  Those moments when you look down and realize that your Kind Bar wrapper seemed to slip from your unzippered hipbelt pocket.  Or the doublejointed elbow move to get the pesky tag from your GU pouch in a water bottle pocket fails. I've even left water bottles behind at camps before.  It happens.  I'm guilty of it just like any other hiker, but when I see those objects left behind by others, I snatch them up and pack them out without much of a second thought, and I hope that trail karma exists and my trash gets the same treatment.  It's hard to believe that multiple half-burned Mountain House pouches just ended up in the firepit by accident though.  Those are the bonehead moves that frustrate me.

I've spent a lot of time on public lands this summer.  I bought a parks pass that covers entry fees to federal lands, and I've gone to national forests and other sparsely managed lands that allow for recreating beyond the generator-humming campgrounds and pavement. These are my public lands to explore, along with everyone else if they want to.  The western states offer endless dispersed camping areas where you can camp in solitude.  There are no water or electricity hook-ups, and there are no services, but there is the opportunity to feel small.  It's our responsibility to keep these places sacred and pristine and packing out our trash is a great start.  Keep that dirt clean!

Beautiful cryptobiotic soil in the Grand Canyon

Oh but hey, here's a cool way to help keep trails clean be barely lifting a finger! Michelob Ultra is hosting a "Superior Trails" contest in which the two most voted trails will receive $25,000 dollars grants.  With a couple of clicks (you must be 21 to enter the site) you can have your vote counted for the trail of your choice.  I am a strong believer in the Continental Divide Trail, and personally knowing the diligent worker bees behind the scenes, I know $25,000 would go a very long way with them.  The other trails are no less deserving, but the CDT is a huge trail at nearly 3,000 miles, and receives a fraction of the attention and support that other trails with greater local populations receive.  This grant would do amazing things to continue to improve, maintain, and support this growing trail community.  You can vote daily, and it really only takes a few clicks, help the CDT win!!! Vote here: http://superiortrails.michelobultra.com/

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Uinta Highline Trail

The Uintas in Northeastern Utah are a pretty special place.  Aside from residing in the coolest of the 50 states, the High Uintas exist under a wilderness designation, leaving it void of roads and machinery.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Wilderness Act of 1964

The High Uintas joined the wilderness party in 1984 and includes the highest peak in the state, Kings Peak at 13,528 feet, as well as numerous other peaks above 13,000 feet. This is also the most prominent east-west mountain range in the lower United States, outdone on US soil only by the Alaskan Brooks Range. The towering range is a spine of 2,500 million year old rocks pushed up on near vertical fault lines to form harsh ridges and large sweeping basins.


And where there's big mountains, there's trails.

The Uintas are no different, with the Unita Highline Trail running east-west along ridges and through passes, grazing the high point, and rarely dipping below 10,500 feet.  It's a trail I've had my eye on ever since moving to northern Utah a few years ago.  Unfortunately, it has a small hiking window; you can feasibly only hike the warmer summer months as the high elevation leaves it cold nearly year round, and the bugs can be vicious after the first hatch. It might make a good ski tour...but that's a different topic...

This map is way too heavy....

As for the other major obstacle: the shuttle.  I've considering this hike in the past as a yo-yo hike, or double traverse of the route, since the logistics for a car shuttle are a nightmare, but shied away from carrying so much food.  It took 5 days to traverse the route and we traveled fast because our packs were light.  Ten days of food wouldn't be very light.  And I wouldn't be very fast, or happy.  Thankfully my friend Shay was able to procure some free time and was able to come hiking, since he had been eyeing this trail for a while too.  I think it was first mentioned back in 2013, but we were finally finding the time to hike it.  This provided us with two cars to use for the shuttle, and it proved rather helpful having two sets of eyes to seek out old trail markers in sections.  He grew up not far from the Uintas, so his family was going to help by dropping his car off at the western terminus while we drove 4 hours to the eastern terminus in my car.  We would then hike east to west, arriving at his car in a few days, then begin the 4 hour drive back to my car.  The shuttle is not ideal, but it is at least a pretty drive for an amazing hike.

Admittedly, I let Shay take over most of the planning as I had a fairly full schedule in the days prior to the hike. I just asked how many days of food he was planning, if I need any extra gear, and when to be ready.  He runs a food resupply business for hikers, Trail Logistics, that I've been helping with, so I tossed a few of his huge and tasty dinners in my food bag along with some bars and gluten-free goodies and dug through the car assembling my gear.  The best part of having a dialed in system is that you need the same gear for 5 months or 5 days, so I stuck with the old favorites.  Shay did a great job figuring out the finer details of where we would start the hike, and he chose the longest hiking option, roughly 100 miles from the eastern to the western terminus in it's entirety.  He even found some cool caves near the start of the trail that we checked out before hiking.  These caves have routes marked along them that we donned helmets and headlamps for, and dove in following the breadcrumbs.  There were some tricky down climbs, huge log jams to monkey through, and the spooky feeling of being in completely disorientating blackness. Thankfully Shay has some experience with caves and a super bright headlamp, and it was a pretty cool side-trip.


Day 1: US-191 to Carter Yurt

So on Tuesday morning we finally grabbed our bags from the back of the Subi and hit the Highline Trail from the parking area along US-191, the road between Flaming Gorge and Vernal UT.  This easternmost section is the least often hiked, as the elevation is lower, the vistas are so-so, and the navigation is tricky.  Most of this day was spent hiking on old ATV trails, in trees and sparse open patches, always looking for a cairn, hatch-cut trail blaze on a tree trunk, or snowmobile markers.  Without great views of mountains, we were left with wandering through tall grass in roughly the right direction at times, wondering where we would find water, pinpointing our location on the map with each dirt road crossing.  We repeatedly underestimated the distance on the Nat Geo Trails Illustrated maps, the 1:75,000 map size throwing us off, and the 100 ft elevation lines disguising minimal but soul crushing micro climbs all day.  Underestimating the distance to our first water, we left the last source with much less than desired over the hot hiking day, and when we finally came to an open meadow near late afternoon we eagerly checked for running water.  At first the drainage was dry, then small trickles through cow patty-filled fields began, and enough walking down the riverbed finally revealed flowing, clear water.  We happily threw our packs on the ground while waiting for our water to treat.  

After chugging some much appreciated water and snacking along the creek, we were ready to hop back on the trail.  Of course we couldn't find it, so we followed atv tracks to a known road junction with a yurt nearby.  Always tempted by a structure to sleep in, we checked the doors, but it was a locked, stocked, structure that was open to paying backcountry travelers in advance.  Around this time, Shay mentioned that he wasn't feeling too great, so we decided to camp in the woods nearby the cabin, considering the 18 or so miles hiked today to be sufficient.  Not long after I started setting up my camp, Shay came over and mentioned that he had just vomited.  Potentially from too much water or electrolyte powder, he felt rough the rest of the evening, but thankfully woke up feeling fine.  

It was a nice long sleep that night; being in camp early and not having a sense of urgency in the morning was relaxing.  We were packed up and moving around 8, aiming for what we guessed was around 17 miles to set us up for being near Kings Peak the end of the next day for a potential summit at sunrise.  Now in full disclaimer, we had no idea how long the trail was.  We thought the trail was roughly 80 miles, and we were aiming for 5 days.  It ended up being 95.7 miles, plus an extra two to summit Kings, and we still did it in 5 days.  Later we ramped up the miles, but with no mileage listed on the maps and no data book for the trail, we were mostly just winging it and hiking our average speed for most of the day and figuring out where we were along the way.  Thankfully hiking thousands of miles gives you that sort of confidence, and we both did fine with pushing big days with signification elevation gains.  

Day 2: Carter Yurt to Taylor Lake

The second day finally rewarded us with some big open views.  And also rain. We approached Leidy Peak within a few miles, this being the trailhead the 80-mile Highline hikers use.  As we contoured around the north shoulder of Leidy Peak the wind kicked up, blasting saturated clouds into us.  It was wet like rain, but the small droplets seemed suspended in the near horizontal wind ripping over the summit.  We became saturated in the foggy air, and moved quickly to stay warm, conversation limited to calling out directions of the barely visible cairns.  These old sloopy mountains are less jagged than others, the surfaces consisting of barren spaces covered in rocky veins between short tufted grasses.  But the hiking can be frustrating, each step on an uneven surface, some rocks shifting beneath your feet threatening to trap an ankle or trekking pole.

Looking out towards Flaming Gorge From Leidy

Approaching Gabbro Pass

We pushed on for the morning, the wind and water easing up on us, allowing us to take in the sweeping vistas that were forming in front of us.  We climbed up over Gabbro Pass, staying high along the ridges until dropping back into a basin below.  We cruised through the valley below, water no longer a concern as the trail was now along lakes, rivers, and through marshes.  Eagerly wanting to see a moose, we always scanned for them, but never ended up seeing one.  We did catch a few small herds of elk, spooking them to bounce back into the cover of the forest effortlessly.  As we approached Chepeta Lake we were racing into a storm head on, and as trail luck would have it, there was a creek with a road, and more importantly, a bridge over it!  Always eager to channel my inner troll, we jumped in under the bridge, watching the skies open moments after we were tucked away.  It was a rather spacious bridge, and we took the chance to hydrate, snack, and Shay even boiled water for tea.  It was a fast and drenching rain, but it quickly passed and we headed on our way.  

Gabbro Pass looking west to the big mountains

Water was no longer an issue after the first day

Chepeta Pass is roughly the 62 mile option starting point of the Highline Trail at Hayden Pass, and honestly, if you were short on time, then this is the chunk to hike.  The section east of here was pretty and enjoyable hiking, but the real beauty of this hike is the western High Unita Wilderness section.  The wilderness boundary begins a few miles west of the Chepeta Trailhead, and from here you hike over 50 miles of trail without crossing a road.  It's harder and harder to find trails like that.  And it's stunning. And we only ran into a handful of hikers.  We pushed passed Chepeta for a few miles, then dropped down into a high alpine lake off the trail to camp for the night instead of hiking up higher for the next few miles.  It was another early camp, but after being cold and wet for most of the day, I was concerned about having a warm, dry camp, so we called it a day near Taylor Lake.  We found a rare flat spot in a sheltered area of haggard pine trees and built a bunker from the wind.  It was another good long sleep, something I would be grateful for a day later.

 (photo: Shay Blackley)
Oh Cairns. Without you, we'd be frustrated! (photo: Shay Blackley)

Day 3: Taylor Lake to Kings Peak

We woke up in the morning with the idea that we could get close to Kings Peak tonight and if weather allowed, we could aim for a sunrise summit of Utah's highest peak.  Feeling good, and ready to get above treeline again, we shot straight out of camp directly onto the ridge to bisect with the Highline Trail.  We had dropped off the trail to camp and didn't want to backtrack, so this route served as a short cut, and an invigorating way to wake up the lungs.  We scrambled onto the ridge and looked west towards King's Peak before sliding down to follow fingers of the Uinta River.  At some point in the day the idea to camp on the summit of Kings was hatched.  The days-old forecast was favorable, and the river hiking was easy on the legs so we decided we would try.

 Approaching Kings (photo: Shay Blackley)

As we approached the first planned camping spot, we noticed the skies grey with ominous looking clouds.  Some clouds look nice, fluffy and cheerful, others more menacing, heavy and angry.  These were of the latter variety, and we thought it was best to wait on climbing to the summit.  We found some workable camping spots and I set up my camp while Shay laid low beneath his flat tarp.  I worked on calories and staying warm while Shay played amateur meteorologist.  The clouds were ripping through Gunsight pass, then sucking down the valley we were in.  As the cold air came ripping through, the cloud let their raindrops fall, and for a brief while, we got rained on.  It came and went quick enough that soon we were standing outside reconsidering the summit.  It was decided that the clouds were trending on friendly and we were going to try and sleep on Kings.  We packed up our stuff and headed up the mountain.  

Friendly Clouds and Kings shadow from the summit

It was a brutal climb from where we fake camped, and I was glad we weren't doing this early the next morning, as alpine starts and I don't get alone well.  We had full water bottles, so we could cook at the summit, but it was mostly the unrelenting climbing that was so exhausting.  We made it to Anderson Pass for a quick break, then from there free climbed the huge blocks of rock leading to the summit.  There was no exact path, just a jungle gym of rocks to climb, the occasional block rocking beneath your foot.  Surged by the desire to summit, we clambered to the top for our celebratory photos, then quickly retreated to a nearby bivy spot.  While climbing up we had noted spots with some wind protection that were big enough and dirt covered for sleeping.  On a mountain covered in rocks the size of micro-fridges, this was a harder than anticipated problem, but there was a perfect spot near the summit that only required some slight rock moving to prove suitable.

The rocky Kings Peak ridgeline (photo Shay Blackley) 

Standing on Kings Peak at 13,528 ft (photo: Shay Blackley)



Unfortunately the winds shifted soon after we found this spot, and soon we were nearly being blown off the summit.  There was no way cook with the sustained winds, and it was a struggling to hold onto gear that could blow away.  Having a light sleeping bag, I was worried about how cold I would get, and attempted to wrap myself in my rainfly as a bivy, but the risk of it flying away left me sleeping with one eye open.  Just kidding, I barely slept.  It ended up getting really cold, and I was constantly changing position to try and limit how many cold spots I had.  The wind was so loud that I resorted the headphone and podcasts to doze in and out of consciousness, and I eagerly watched my clock and the horizon for any glimpse of the coming sun.  It made for a memorable night, but the sunrise was completely worth it.

Phase one of Turtle Mode.  Just minutes after finding this spot the winds kicked up and sustained for hours.  This was the first position I assumed, then I climbed into my sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep. (photo; Shay Blackley)

Day 4: Kings Peak to Dead Horse Lake

Waking up after a long night, feet in backpack for extra insulation.

This is my "Glad I made it through the night" face

The horizon teased me for what seemed like a eternity, the glow slowly expanding further along the curve of the earth.  At first it was faint, only slightly lighter than the dark blue sky, then growing to include purples and oranges and yellows.  Finally a huge red orb pushed up into the sky, blasting us in a golden glow as I felt my body begin to warm.  It was a beautiful iconic sunrise, that pictures couldn't do justice.  You'll just have to camp on Kings Peak to know what I mean.

 There was definitely a moose at one of those lakes.


With the winds dying off in the early morning hours, we were finally capable to cook, and I dove into a pot of hot cocoa and coffee while Shay cooked his dinner that went uneaten the night before.  Feeling sluggish from a lack of sleep, but eager to get moving, we packed up, and began our long descent from the summit to the basin below.  My legs were protesting, annoyed with a less than restorative sleep, constantly fidgeting and wiggling to stay warm, and for the better half of the morning I lagged behind Shay, struggling to motivate my feet to move faster and smoother.  Tungsten Pass proved an easy path between basins, but then Porcupine Pass crushed my dreams.  

I struggled to push up the steep path, wanting to take a breath at each switchback, lacking the gusto to drive to the top for a rewarding break when I got there.  I still took a break at the top, but it was more derived of defeat and desperately needing calories.  Whether the pass was particularly steep, or I was extra tired, I felt I got beat up by Porcupine Pass, and if the valley on the other side wasn't so damn beautiful I would probably have a deep-seeded hatred of it.  Yet the reward for this climb was so mind blowing that I had forgotten about the struggle as soon as I began my descent on the west side of the pass.  It was a huge sweeping basin, surrounded on three sides with steep mountain walls, while the valley lowered into Oweep Creek.  It was so grand and picturesque that it almost appeared two dimensional, like a painting.  We hiked for miles down this basin, imagining backcountry ski possibilities and trying to conjure a moose or bear to complete the scene.


I fell instantly in awe with this basin.  (photos: Shay Blackley)

We continued along the treeline of the basin, then followed Lake Fork River up to our last pass of the day, Red Knob Pass.  It was a long slow approach, though we were entertained by the thousands of sheep grazing in the basin.  Sheep grazing is one of the few industries operating in the wilderness, in the same fashion as years ago, with herders living in the field in tents along with their horses and dogs before driving the sheep out of the mountains for the winter.  We dragged ourselves over Red Knob Pass and crossed to the northern side of the range before dropping down to Dead Horse Lake to camp for the night.  This proved to be a popular Friday night camping spot, as it is roughly ten miles from a trailhead, and provides an epic backdrop for fishing and camping.  We ran into three other parties there, but were able to find a flat camping spot for the night, and after a long day of hiking, and a long night of not sleeping, I didn't need much.

The nose of Mount Lovenia from Lambert Meadow

The view of Dead Horse Lake (center, top third) from Red Knob Pass, Dead Horse Pass climbs south (left) from the lake over the ridgeline.

Home sweet home. 

Dead Horse Lake

Day 5: Dead Horse Lake to Hayden Pass

We woke up that last morning to the sun illuminating the wall across the lake that held the trail up to our pass.  Dead Horse Pass is "Hazardous to horses" unsurprisingly, and was a fairly steep, through straightforward route up and over the pass back to the southern slope of the range.  The route looks improbably from the lake below, but the actual path was easy to follow and very manageable for a hiker.  From this pass, the trail drops low into the next basin, going below 10,000 ft for the first time in a while crossing Rock Creek.  From there it was a brief climb up the last pass, Rocky Sea Pass, then we cruised down the trail a few hours to the car parked at Hayden Pass, near Mirror Lake.  We ran into over a dozen hikers on this section of trail, either weekenders out for a few nights or day hikers heading back for some late summer sunshine.  It was nice to see other people out enjoying this fine trail as it deserves more recognition than it gets!

The view of Dead Horse Pass. The route switchbacked through the scree to the pass in the center of the picture.  It looked less feasible than it was; it was actually well maintained trail.  

My last morning view of the sun-soaked cliffs 

The Highline is a pretty awesome weeklong hike that is filled with quad-burning climbs, rewarding vistas, and solitude.  While the shuttle proves inconvenient, it can be done, and the hike is definitely worth the extra effort.  Maps were key for navigating the often confusing trail signs along the way, but otherwise, it is a fairly straightforward hike. We managed the trail in a little over 4 and half days, with time on the 5th day to stop for milkshakes and floats in Kamas before driving back to my car near Vernal 4 hours away.  Shay turned back to Park City and work the next day, and I turned towards Colorado.

Hi Mountain Drug in Kamas for huge old fashioned rootbeer floats and loaded bacon cheese fries....yummm

I rolled out of Vernal the following morning after a night sleeping near the Steinaker Reservoir where a friendly policewomen woke me up in the middle of the night to ask if I was okay.  That was a first for the summer, but she didn't tell me to leave or yell at me, just wanted to check in with me.  In the morning I made some coffee, went for a swim/bath in the reservoir, then chatted with two old cowboys for a bit.  I then went to Dinosaur National Monument for my first time to check out fossils of Stegosaurus and Allosaurus and swim across my favorite river, the Green River. It's a beautiful landscape that is worth a visit if you're in the area, and I discovered my newest idol there, Josie Bassett Morris.  She was a hard lady that homesteaded this rugged land, using box canyons as corrals and eschewing traditional feminine roles for a life of intimacy and dependence on nature.  She brewed brandy and wine during Prohibition, was accused of rustling cattle in her 60's and hosted outlaws, including Butch Cassidy.  She sounds like she had some good stories to tell.  

Steinaker Reservoir

The Quarry Wall at Dinosaur National Monument filled with piles of Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Diplodicus fossils

Allosaurus

The Green River in Dino. NM

Hopefully we all end up with good stories to tell.