Journal

October 17, 2011 – Long overdue update on the end of the trip and thoughts on the Great Divide Trail

Well, I’ve been home for over a month so I suppose I’m overdue on an update on how the trip ended. The final section through the United States was largely uneventful with the exception of Glacier National Park. But Glacier didn’t even feel like a part of the United States; its (soon to be gone) glaciers, glacial valleys, and alpine lakes were all much more similar to what I saw in the Canadian Rockies than anything in the U.S. When I entered Glacier, I began an 800 mile (or so?) stretch of the most consistently stunning hiking I’ve ever done.

I’ve hiked through areas that rivaled the Canadian Rockies in quality (the Sierra Nevada and the Grand Canyon come to mind in particular) but I’ve never been anywhere that was so consistently scenic and wild. From the first day that I entered Glacier and saw bighorn sheep walking around the Two Medicine Lake parking lot to the morning of the day that I reached Kakwa Lake and saw two woodland caribou nervously watching me from afar, nearly every day contained some event or sight that had me grinning with wonder.

The majority of this final section was along the Great Divide Trail – an unofficial route that traverses the Canadian Rockies from the U.S.-Canada border to Kakwa Lake. Given the areas it passes through, you would think that long-distance hikers from the world over would flock to it every year. Instead it lingers in obscurity. The best explanation I can find for this incongruity is the ‘brutality myth’ that has been built around the Great Divide Trail by members of the long distance hiking community. Through a lack of useful information and games of telephone in the hiking community, the GDT has earned a reputation as being “the most brutal trail in North America”. Or something like that. And while I won’t deny that it has its challenges, every challenge is more than worth the rewards from the experience. If my opinion isn’t enough, here’s what other GDT hikers have had to say about it:

Justin Lichter: “The GDT is a difficult trail it dwarves the cross-country of the CDT, but everything you have to go through is well worth it. The GDT goes through some of the prettiest places that I have ever been. ”

Jim and Ginny Owen: “The Great Divide Trail is beautiful, remote and very challenging. It is, in theory, what some thruhikers want in a trail. Reality is that it has more of the “remote and challenging” parts than some thruhikers care for. Which is good – it keeps the traffic down.”

Chris Willett: ” The difficulties from the trail are potentially very high. Route finding, while not much of an issue, may present difficulties for those expecting a blaze system like the AT. River crossings can be present a significant hazard. I had excellent weather, mostly, but the potential for extended bad weather is high. Large parts of the GDT are very remote and help is far away if you get into trouble. There is no trail culture. People will not be out doing what you are doing. Even weekend backpackers were rare. Except for Blairemore/Coleman and Elkford (far, far from the GDT), you will not find the towns very inviting or restful. Forget about getting a motel room. Resupply can be hard. Trails might not be maintained. Mosquitoes are worse than anything on the AT or PCT. Parks Canada (with the exception of one warden in Jasper) was uniformly unhelpful and annoying, unlike the Park and Forest service personal along the PCT.

All this being said, however, I think that the GDT makes for an excellent hike, particularly if one has experience on something like the PCT or CDT.”

But as magnificent as the Great Divide Trail is, finishing my trip at its northern terminus was just as anti-climactic as I expected. Nothing hammers home the cliche “It’s not about the destination” like a thru-hike and since this wasn’t my first one, I knew that there wouldn’t be any fireworks waiting for me at Kakwa Lake; just a 103 kilometer roadwalk to the nearest highway where I could catch a ride to civilization followed by the swift jolt back to the reality that is life after hiking. Anyone with a thru-hike under their belt is familiar with the process: the quick switch from the freedom of the trail to the realities of society, night skies to fluorescent lights, mountains beyond mountains to claustrophobic city streets. As I sit at home, lazily enjoying such creature comforts as “being indoors”, my mind is easily distracted by thoughts of what I can do next and how quickly I can get back out there. I’ve spent more time exploring routes in Google Earth than exploring employment opportunities.

But I accomplished what I set out to do and of that I am very… happy. It was a challenging trip with few familiar faces along the way and I’m admittedly enjoying a little R&R and being back with friends and family in Portland. I’m still wrapping my brain around the whole trip: what lessons I learned, what place it has in my life as I move forward, to what extent I should try to share the experience with others… After walking from Kakwa Lake to the Yellowhead Highway at the very end of my trip, I hitched a ride to Jasper. After explaining to the driver what I’d just finished, he immediately asked me what I’d learned about myself. I reminded him that I had literally JUST finished the trip and I thought it was a little soon to be drawing any conclusions. And I think that’s still true.

July 30, 2011 – In the Prime

It’s finally summer. Since leaving the Wind River Range, I haven’t hit any significant amount of snow (i.e. it didn’t affect navigation or hiking speed), the weather has been almost perfect, trees are in full foliage, wild flowers are in bloom… and, of course, the mosquitoes are buzzing, swarming, biting, and exploding under my palm. This is the type of hiking I really love.  Some of the hiking on this trip has very much been Type 2 Fun – not particularly enjoyable at the time but great to look back on. But the hiking right now is pure Type 1 Fun – complete ‘in the moment’ enjoyment.

And between 1) not having any snow to slow me down 2) being at relatively low elevation (think 8,000 ft versus 12,000 feet) where there’s more oxygen, 3) long daylight hours, and 4) being in the best shape of my life from having hiked ~4,000 miles this year, I’ve been putting in some pretty good miles. It feels good to finally be off of snow’s leash and able to really push myself and see what kind of pace I can keep up. An off-the-top-of-my-head estimate puts my mileage over the last 10 days at just under 35 miles/day.

I should reach the Canadian border in two weeks at the most but from there I still have nearly 900 miles of hiking through the Canadian Rockies. I’ve been looking forward to the Great Divide Trail since Day 1 and it’s a little startling that I’m almost there. From everything I’ve seen/heard/read about the Canadian Rockies, I think it’ll definitely be the grand finale of this trip. So, to say that I’m excited for the miles that lay ahead would be a gross understatement. But, right now, I’m in Anaconda, MT and need to a) find some food and b) take a nap.

July 8, 2011 – Snow Fatigue

Long story short – I’m feeling snow fatigued. There was an enormous amount of snow just north of Steamboat Springs and I ended up detouring around it by taking roads from Buffalo Pass to Rawlins. The trail from Buffalo Pass to Rawlins certainly wasn’t completely covered in snow – some parts were, some parts weren’t – but at this point I was so tired of encountering snow that I really just wanted to be able to hike without any constraints. So I stuck to roads and cranked out the miles about as fast as I could. A 51 mile day into Rawlins followed by a 36 mile day out of Rawlins. Then two ~45 mile days after that to get me to Highway 28 in Wyoming, where I hitched into Lander last night.

And now I’m at the southern end of the Wind River Range and am once again faced with enormous amounts of snow ahead of me. As mentioned, I’m feeling snow fatigued. Tired of it. The occasional stretch of hiking through snow can be great fun – it’s challenging, there probably won’t be anyone else around, the scenery is spectacular – but I’ve either been hiking through snow or have had it influencing my decisions ever since I entered Colorado about 50 days ago. I imagine that the conditions in the Winds won’t be particularly worse than anything I encountered in Colorado but just the idea of continuing through those conditions seems very unappealing. So I’m mulling over my options, deciding what to do next: push on ahead along my original route? Improvise even more low-elevation alternates using forest service roads and trails? Curse the snow gods? I remain undecided at this instant but I’d say there’s a good chance that I’ll be detouring around the snow as much as possible.

On the upside, I do think that this section is the last (major) snow-hurdle I’ll encounter. It appears that once I hit Yellowstone NP, I should be almost entirely out of the snow and can finally get back to what I really love: hiking in summer conditions.

EDIT – July 9: I’ve decided to head up into the Winds. The plan right now is to approach from the east side (where there is supposed to be less snow due to the rain shadow of the Winds), enter the Cirque of the Towers (Google it), cross the continental divide at Texas Pass, then parallel the divide along the west side of the divide. I still feel snow fatigued and would really prefer to not be returning to the difficulties of snow travel… but life is short, I may never be here again, and the Winds are just too damn spectacular to pass by because of a little snow. And so it’s head first into the high country. Next resupply: Yellowstone National Park in approximately 240 miles, 8 days from now.

June 29, 2011 – Through Colorado

I’m in Steamboat Springs for the night, staying with a couple I met way back near the AZ-UT border – thanks Howie and Debbie! With only about 50 miles to go until I reach Wyoming, I’m pretty comfortable writing about my overall experience through Colorado. I could probably write an enormous amount on all that’s happened in Colorado but I haven’t got all night so here’s the quick and dirty on Colorado:

The snow: Snow has been the defining feature going through Colorado so I’m addressing it first. This has been a huge snow year – 20-30 year records were broken in a lot of areas. But overall it really wasn’t as bad as I originally feared. When I reached Silverton, CO I was so uncertain and downright afraid of the conditions that I thought might lay ahead that I took a day off to talk to some locals, buy snowshoes, and just clear my mind. No one had been up to the CDT in that area yet (that I know of) and so I didn’t have any good idea of what to expect other than that there was supposedly record-level snow. With unknown conditions ahead, my mind imagined the worst case scenario and I psyched myself out a bit. But I walked out of Silverton and up to the divide and eventually made my way here to Steamboat Springs. I encountered everything you’d expect along the way: waist-deep postholing, continuous miles of snow, treacherously steep snow slopes, wet feet and frozen shoes, etc etc. But there were also plenty of snow-free stretches and great hiking conditions. It may have been a hell of a snow year but the trail was by no means impassable.

The solitude: For the majority of the CDT through Colorado, I’ve been breaking trail (as far as I can tell) for the season and have rarely encountered other people. Between Silverton and Monarch Pass, I went nearly 5 days without seeing another person. The CDT through Colorado traverses some of the most beautiful terrain in the United States and it’s been incredible to be able to have it completely to myself. But it also made the experience more difficult at times. When I hiked through the Sierra on the PCT last year, I was with other hikers for most of the way. When the conditions were tough, there were other hikers to turn to for comfort or support. But in Colorado I’ve usually had no one to turn to but myself. Sometimes this just meant digging a little bit deeper, other times it meant seeking out comfort to offset the hiking-related-stress.

Unexpected amounts of leisure: While hiking through Colorado, I took unplanned zeroes, made unnecessary (i.e. not to resupply) stops in town, took three days off to visit a friend in Boulder, and spent two days doing non-forward-progress hiking in Rocky Mountain NP. Given that I was behind schedule from the moment I returned to Colorado from Portland, I really didn’t “have time” to do any of this. But hiking solo through Colorado before anyone else had been through was stressful at times and all these different forms of leisure helped keep me sane and happy. They put me slightly further behind schedule but they also kept my morale high. In the end, I’d rather be happy than on schedule.

It’s not about the destination: And as I’ve fallen behind schedule, I’ve increasingly become completely at ease with the idea that I may not reach my original destination in the Canadian Rockies: Kakwa Lake. Kakwa Lake is an almost completely arbitrary destination, it’s only significance being that it is the northern terminus of the (completely unofficial) Great Divide Trail. There is a chance that I will get hit by fall/winter weather as I’m hiking the Great Divide Trail and that that will be enough to stop me from reaching Kakwa Lake. But as long as I feel like I’ve challenged myself, learned a thing or two, and had some great outdoor experiences… it’d really be fine if I don’t hike the entirety of my original route. Of course, with that said, I still have every intention of trying to reach Kakwa Lake and plan to demonstrate the meaning of haste for the next several months in order to make that happen.

Back to the trail tomorrow morning. I’ll try to get my next written update in from Lander, WY.

May 29, 2011 – On Leaving the Trail and Looking Ahead

For as long as I’ve known that I’d be entering the Colorado Rockies in mid-to-late May, the lingering snow pack has been one of my biggest concerns for this hike. Conventional wisdom holds that northbound Continental Divide Trail hikers should enter the San Juan Mountains of Colorado sometime around mid-June. My itinerary, however, had me joining the Continental Divide Trail at Stony Pass (at least 100 miles north of the San Juan “entry point” on the CDT) in mid-May, nearly a month before most CDT thru-hikers would be passing through the same area. My confidence was bolstered by the fact that it had been done before (see http://goo.gl/LC82i, for example) and by youthful optimism. I kept my fingers crossed that the conditions would swing in my favor – that the snowpack would be below average, that summer would arrive early – and started hiking.

But luck wasn’t with me and by the time that I reached Gateway, Colorado (my last resupply before entering the Rockies) there was as much as 200% of the average snowpack (http://goo.gl/MylW5) in much of Colorado. It had been a tremendous snow year and, despite being well into May, it wasn’t done snowing yet. The day I hiked into Gateway, I was snowed on at 8,000 feet and could see the Uncompaghre Plateau ahead of me being coated in fresh snow.  The weather forecasts announced a winter storm warning, which read in part:

“A Winter Storm Warning means significant amounts of snow are expected or occurring. Strong winds and blowing snow are also possible. This will make travel very hazardous or impossible.”

The fresh snowfall meant that once I left Gateway, I’d have over 100 miles of hiking through a foot of powder as I made my way along the Uncompaghre Plateau. I had set out with the mentality that I could handle hiking on a lingering snowpack that was melting out from underneath me – I had done it the year before in the Sierra Nevada – but I was not ready to hike for days on end through fresh snow in winter weather conditions. Additionally, the avalanche danger in the Rockies was high after the fresh snowfall – taking some time off would let the snow re-consolidate and decrease the avalanche risk. So, I decided that my best option was probably to take some time off to let the storm pass through and the snow melt off a bit. With a heavy heart, I hitchhiked home to Portland, OR.

Since I’ve been home, everything I’ve read has confirmed that this is a record-breaking snow year and that taking a break was a good decision. For example:

Late Storms add to Historic Flood Worries in West

Record Snowpacks Could Threaten Western States

I’m returning to where I left off in Gateway tomorrow and will start hiking again as soon as I get in. Looking forward, there are several different challenges that result from the unusually high snowpack this year:

Increased amount of travel on snow: Once I get back on the trail at Gateway, I should have about 100 miles of hiking along the Uncompaghre Plateau that will be snow free. I’ll then ascend to the 10,000-12,000 foot range when I reach the Sneffels Range near Ouray, CO and I’ll remain in that elevation range for over 500 miles through Colorado. Based on SNOTEL data (http://goo.gl/IuDqk), it looks like most areas above 10,000 feet still have snow. There’s also a good chance I’ll get actively snowed on at some point while hiking through Colorado but for the most part I expect to be hiking on consolidated snow pack that will be OK to walk on except during the warmest parts of the day, when it will soften up and I’ll post hole . Colorado isn’t the only area to get huge amounts of snow this year – Wyoming and Montana did as well. It’s possible I’ll run into snow in either of those states as well.

Increased risk during river crossings: Rivers will be running higher and swifter because of the increased snowpack and because of a late spring that has delayed regular snowmelt. My route generally sticks to higher elevations and any river crossings are going to be relatively high in the watershed but there may still be some dangerous fords to be done. Fortunately (?) I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with river crossings so I feel pretty cautious in approaching them now.

Racing to the finish: In order to compensate for the time I’ve just taken off and still reach the end of my route before winter arrives in Canada, I’m increasing my mileage goals through Wyoming, Montana and Canada. I’ll be aiming for approximately 30-32 miles per day through Wyoming and Montana and 28 miles/day through Canada, an increase of 3-4 miles per day. I’ve historically been able to average 25-30 miles per day without TOO much effort, so I expect I can average 30-32 but it will be a pretty challenging pace. Historically I’ve found that my itinerary tends to create my reality, i.e. I will generally do what I need to do in order to stick to my itinerary.

All in all, despite the setbacks behind me and challenges ahead, I’m just happy to be leaving Portland and getting back to my hiking. The act of getting off the trail and returning to civilization has been disruptive and just hasn’t felt right in any way, other than probably being the right thing to do.

May 21, 2011 – One Day at a Time

I’m temporarily off the trail and back home due to the current snow conditions in Colorado. I’ll write more about getting off the trail later. In the meantime, I’ll talk about the several days right before I got off trail. My updates so far have been broad looks at the trip, partly because that’s what I have time to write and partly because that’s more in line with my writing style. But right now I have some extra time and these were a pretty shitty couple of days (which is usually more interesting to read), so here’s a day-by-day account for four days of hiking:

Sunday, May 15th – After a relatively short day of hiking I reached Salt Valley Road in Arches National Park, just 2 miles from the Hayduke Trail’s eastern terminus. While I had been hiking through southeastern Utah, my parents had been touring the same area in their RV as part of a two month trip they took this spring. We’d coordinated our schedules so that I’d been able to meet up with them (and spend the night indoors) on a handful of occasions – near Hanksville, at Hite Marina, in Moab – and now they’d driven out to Salt Valley Road to meet up for the last time before they headed back to Portland and I headed into Colorado.

It felt like everything was going perfectly at this point: I had successfully navigated the Hayduke Trail across southern Utah, I had covered about 1,300 miles (or 30%) of my overall route, I was on schedule, and I was well rested and fed from spending so much time visiting with my parents. I spent the night with my parents and eagerly anticipated beginning the 200-mile route that I had created in order to connect the Hayduke Trail to the Continental Divide Trail.

Monday, May 16th – The day started out well, if a bit lazily. I had invited my dad to join me for the first six miles of hiking along my self-made route and he’d agreed. From Salt Valley Road, we would cut cross country to the Dark Angel formation in Arches National Park and then follow existing hiking trails to the Devil’s Garden Campground. We’d then meet my mom at the campground. Mom and Dad would head home to Portland from there and I would keep on hiking. The six miles of hiking with my dad was excellent: the trail navigates through the sandstone fins in the area, passing by a number of different arches (including Landscape Arch) and occasionally leading directly across the slick rock top of a fin. I definitely enjoyed the company of my dad, being able to share a bit of the experience with him, and turning the father-son dynamic on its head (i.e. the son taking the father hiking). We reached Devil’s Garden Campground ahead of schedule and said our goodbyes. My parents drove off; I hiked on.

After splitting ways with my parents, the comfortable lifestyle they’d treated me to during the last few days stuck with me and I struggled to regain my energy. I spent the rest of the day chatting with tourists, ogling geological formations, and generally walking along at a leisurely pace. My route took me past a few more of Arches incredible formations (including Delicate Arch) before exiting the park through its southeastern corner and heading cross country towards the Dewey Bridge over the Colorado River. I camped next to Yellow Jacket Wash and made the rare decision to pitch my tarp.

Tuesday, May 17th – I woke up to a light but persistent rain, what we would call drizzle (or October through April) back home in Portland. It continued until I reached the Dewey Bridge over the Colorado River around 10 am, then stopped and faded into an overcast sky punched through with the occasional sucker hole. From Dewey Bridge, my route took a combination of jeep roads and cross country travel for about 28 miles in order to reach the town of Gateway, Colorado. I was supposed to ford the Dolores River on two occasions but it was flowing at 1,700 cfs (nearly 10x its summertime flow rate) and I probably would have had to swim it. I quickly improvised an alternate route that wouldn’t necessitate fording and would re-join my route just a little ways upstream. And thus my long detouring began.

The no-fording-alternate actually worked as planned. The real detouring began after that. I avoided the fords via dirt roads, rejoined my route at along the Dolores at Utah Bottoms, and hiked along the river for a few miles. While heading upstream, the terrain gradually ascended into a bench that paralleled the river and was bordered on either side by cliffs. When I planned my route, I thought I could break through the riverside cliffs by descending a side canyon of the Dolores. From the confluence of the side canyon and the Dolores Canyon, I would be able to go cross country upstream for a bit and then jump onto a dirt road that led straight into Gateway. It would have been a good route: it was relatively direct. It contained some cross country challenges but also some roadwalking that would let me keep my pace up. The only problem was… the side canyon didn’t go through. I hiked just a short ways down before I reached a large, impassable pour-off. I could have descended it if had a length of rope and knew anything about technical canyoneering. But I didn’t and I don’t. So I began detouring again.

I jumped back on a jeep road and followed it to Fisher Creek, a much larger side canyon of the Dolores. I started descending it. It looked promising for a bit then abruptly pinched into a narrow pour-off with a waterfall dropping into a deep punchbowl with cliffs on either side. I turned around and hiked out of the canyon and back to the jeep road. Having failed to reach the Dolores River via the two most likely options, I decided I would have to follow dirt roads to Gateway. I had no maps for this route but had taken a picture of a broad-scale road map that roughly showed the way. Because of the cliff-lined mesas and canyons in the area, the roads do not provide a very direct route to Gateway. I crunched the numbers before writing this and it looks like taking the roads vs my planned route added 28 miles and 4-5,000 feet of elevation gain. So, with a sigh, I abandoned hope of reaching the Dolores and committed to taking the roads. I also activated the tracking feature on my SPOT and tucked it into a pocket on the outside of my pack. The tracking feature would broadcast my location every 10 minutes, allowing me to look back later and figure out where I had hiked.

Several uneventful hours of hiking followed. I hiked continuously until dark then stopped to take a break and check the map photos I had taken. Checking my maps, it turned out I had taken a wrong turn just a short ways back. I was determined to get closer to town that night so after a quick dinner, I strapped on my headlight and kept moving. In order to correct the wrong turn I had taken, I traveled cross country for a short ways, scrambling over boulders and ducking under trees on my way down a wash. I then reached an old jeep road/current cattle trail and followed that out of the drainage I was in to about 8,500 feet on a ridgeline. I stopped at the top and took off my pack to grab something. My SPOT wasn’t in the pocket I had left it in. I searched my pack for it (which doesn’t take long when you have less than 10 pounds of equipment) but couldn’t find it. I decided it must have fallen out while I was traveling cross country down that wash. I had planned on hiking more in order to make up for the bonus miles I had earned with my poor route planning but the discovery of my lost SPOT was enough to make me stop my day then and there. It had been a 16 hour day.

Wednesday, May 18th – The sky had been clear enough the night before that I hadn’t set up my shelter. I woke up in the middle of the night to a light rain and hurriedly set up my tarp before going back to sleep. I woke up again around sunrise and saw small snowflakes falling outside. I quickly packed up and started hiking with the intent of reaching Gateway as quickly as possible. For the first several hours of hiking, I stayed above or around the 8,000 foot level. The snowfall increased until it began accumulating on the terrain around me but I didn’t even bother to put on my rain gear because it was cold enough that the snow dryly brushed off of my clothing. Despite being frustrated from the delays and mistakes of the day before, it was hard not to appreciate the beautiful, snow-covered hills and trees of the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

I eventually began to descend as the roads dropped out of the La Sal Mountains and back down to the Dolores River and Gateway. As I descended, the air temperature increased and the snow that had dryly brushed off of my clothing turned into just-above-32-degree drops of water. Because you lose body heat 25 times faster to water than air, cold and wet conditions are the easiest way to become hypothermic. I threw on my poncho to keep relatively dry and hiked continuously to generate body heat.

I hiked like this for several hours. The poncho kept my torso dry but my arms, lower legs, and extremities were all wet and cold. I wasn’t concerned about getting hypothermia – I was too close to Gateway to really be concerned – but my morale was crumbling. Partly I was angry with myself for doing a poor job of researching my route (which was the whole reason I was taking this long detour in the first place) and for losing my SPOT because I hadn’t secured it well enough. Partly the current weather conditions were miserable and I simply wasn’t enjoying myself at the moment. And partly I knew that my route ahead of me along the Uncompaghre Plateau was being covered in fresh snow with every rain drop that fell on me here at lower elevations.

I kept hiking towards Gateway and my mind filled with thoughts of warmth and comfort: my bed at home, cups of hot cocoa, fleece blankets, hand-dryers that you find in bathrooms. The juxtaposition of these thoughts with my current and seemingly inescapable position overwhelmed me. Hot tears of anger and frustration sprung to my eyes and expletive-laced yells ripped the air. It felt like everything was going wrong: my route had failed and cost me time and miles, I had lost my SPOT, I was hiking in hypothermic conditions, and my route ahead of me was being covered in fresh snow even though it was late May. I had lost control of the situation. All my planning hadn’t accounted for this and I didn’t know what to do.

I did the only thing I could at the moment and kept hiking until I reached Gateway, which ended up being about 20 miles from where I had woken up that morning. My mood increased considerably once I got inside but my immediate prospects didn’t. It continued to rain all day, eventually tying the precipitation record for that day of the year. I checked the forecast and weather reports and found no good news. A winter storm warning had been issued for the area and it was forecast to be cold with precipitation for at least the next five days. If I kept hiking, it’d be through winter weather conditions and a foot of fresh snow for the next 100 miles. I wasn’t prepared to do this and before I knew it, I had made a decision I never really considered to be an option for myself. I left the trail and headed home, unsure of when I’d be back. Once the decision was made, I slipped into an apathetic, ‘accept what you cannot change’ mood and spent the next couple days hitchhiking back to Portland.

May 21, 2011 – I’m here now for an undetermined amount of time. I have plenty to keep me busy but am eager to get back to hiking and will probably try to once Colorado is in more of a “consolidated snowpack, summer weather” state than the current “fresh snow, winter weather” situation. But that’s as far as I’ll speculate for now. Look for a “Why I decided to get off, what I expect to happen from here” type entry in the next few days.

May 15, 2011 – Hiking the Hayduke

From when I left the south rim of the Grand Canyon until I reached Arches National Park yesterday, I’ve been following a backcountry hiking route known as the Hayduke Trail, named after George Washington Hayduke, a character from Ed Abbey’s classic work ‘The Monkeywrench Gang’. I didn’t hike the entire Hayduke Trail (I skipped the sections from Zion NP to the south Rim of the Grand Canyon and took an alternate route that bypassed the section that follows the Escalante River) but I hiked enough of it that I can draw some conclusions about the trail. So, without further ado and in no particular order, here are some broad conclusions and impressions from my time on the Hayduke:

The Hayduke is not a trail: I’m not even sure why the word “trail” is in its name because very little of it actually follows trails. It combines existing trails (such as those found in national parks), canyon systems, washes, jeep roads, and cross country overland routes in order to span about 800 miles across the Colorado Plateau. Whereas long-distance hiking trails like the PCT and AT are uniform in character, the Hayduke is constantly changing from mile to mile. The route usually follows the path of least resistance which can be a very relative term. For instance, if you’re trying to climb onto a cliff-lined mesa, then the path of least resistance only needs to be easier to ascend than a cliff face. Overall, I found the Hayduke to be a more engaging experience because of its diversity. Because much of the ‘trail’ isn’t actually a trail, I was rarely able to disengage from the hiking and simply trot along with my head in the clouds. I was more immersed in the experience and that was a good thing.

The Hayduke is tough hiking, except when it’s not: Sometimes you’ll be hiking on a jeep road and can crank out 3+ miles per hour. Other times you’ll be hiking cross country along the Colorado River and barely logging 1 mph. Sometimes the navigation is obvious, like when you’re simply following a wash and would have to actually climb up and out of the canyon to get off of your route. But other times you’ll need to navigate across a uniform landscape with pinpoint accuracy in order to find the one and only way off of a mesa – I’m thinking of the Red Benches in particular. There are Class 3 and 4 climbs, pack hauling or lowering will be necessary sooner or later, and you’ll ascend/descend the occasional 45 degree tallus or scree slope. When things go well and you manage to stay on route, you’ll have some slower days than you might be used. But when things don’t go well and you get off route, things can get uncomfortable quickly. And even though the Hayduke may have a lot of tough hiking, I was surprised at how I was able to keep my mileage up.

Water is surprisingly abundant: Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I found water sources to be so abundant, considering that the Hayduke spends much of its time in canyons, washes, and other water-shaped landscapes. But nonetheless, I was expecting the Colorado Plateau’s desert environment to less hospitable than it ultimately was. Water sources were not only relatively easy to find but generally of pretty good quality. The occasional source was cattle-fouled or slightly alkaline but these were the exceptions and not the rule. I can count on one hand how many times I even treated my water. Most of the canyons that I hiked through had water in some form, either flowing, pooled up, or lingering in potholes. I even encountered snow on a handful of occasions – the Kaibab Plateau, Bryce Canyon, Henry Mountains – and was treated to fresh snow runoff.

On a per-mile basis, the Hayduke has more and better sights and scenery than possibly any other trail: One of the drawbacks of long-distance trails is that in order to create a really long hiking path that connects different areas of interest, you’re going to have to cross some boring areas too. The Pacific Crest Trail spans from Mexico to Canada, passing through the Sierra Nevada and almost the entire Cascade Range in the process – but it has to cross the deserts of southern California and the flat, forested areas of Oregon in order to do so. But the Hayduke doesn’t seem to have this problem, probably because it’s on the Colorado Plateau where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a national park, monument, or incredible geological formation. For the entire length of the Hayduke that I hiked, it just seemed like a non-stop tour of incredible sights: the Grand Canyon, the Wave and Coyote Buttes, Buckskin Gulch, Bryce Canyon, Paria Canyon, Hackberry Canyon, Round Valley Draw, Harris Wash, the Escalante, Silver Falls Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park, Lower Muley Twist Canyon, Dark Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, etcetera. If seeing all of things for yourself isn’t enough to convince you that the Hayduke Trail traverses some of the most spectacular sights on the planet, then the panoply of languages you’ll hear spoken as you pass through the various national parks will remind you that people do, in fact, come from all over the world to see the areas you’re hiking through.

I could say a lot more about the Hayduke but this covered the biggest points. Looking forward, I’m just a short ways from entering Colorado and climbing into the Rockies. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, there is a lot of snow up there still and I imagine it’s going to be rather difficult. On the other, the scenery should be stunning and I’m not one to be deterred by a challenge.

So onward and upward, into the Rockies I go. I’m hoping to post an update from the Ouray/Silverton area, after I’ve passed through the Sneffels Range and gotten my first taste of high-altitude hiking in Colorado during mid-May.

April 15, 2011 – Staying Focused on a (Really) Long Hike

When I got back on the trail after taking a day off in Phoenix, I was tired, hungover, and confused. The first two didn’t bother me, they were just side effects of a really good zero day. But the confusion was troubling me. Leading up to Phoenix I had just started to feel like I was getting in my groove. My daily routine was becoming consistent, I’d knocked out a couple of resupply stops, and my overall mileage was slowly but surely increasing. But taking a day off took me out of my routine. While I’m on the trail, I rarely look much farther ahead than my next resupply stop. All the details are planned out before the trip starts but once I’m hiking I only carry enough resources (food, maps,  supplementary info) to get me to my next maildrop. The obvious reason for this is to reduce the amount of things I’m carrying but a very beneficial side effect is that it breaks the trip up into shorter, more easily comprehended segments. The goal is no longer to hike 4,300 miles into Canada, it’s to hike 150 miles to the next resupply stop.

But taking a day off has a way of letting your mind relax and expand its focus. So when I hit the trail after Phoenix, all I was thinking about was the entirety of my trip: how I’d been hiking for two weeks and was only done with a fraction of the hike, how I still had to navigate across the deserts and canyons of Utah, how the snow in Colorado was still piling up rather than melting out, and how once I left Colorado I’d still only be at about the half way point of my hike. So, amidst all these looming challenges and the comfort of civilization I’d just left, I was feeling slightly confused as to just what the hell I was doing out there.

But experience had taught me to just keep moving forward and so that’s what I did. And just a few hours after getting back on the trail, I ran up against the base of the Superstition Mountains and a several thousand food climb into their heights. As my legs began to mechanically crank out the steps uphill and the sweat began to pour, my focus narrowed on the immediate challenge: reach the top of this ridge. My concerns about what lay hundreds of miles ahead disappeared and I reminded myself to meet my short-term goals: get your 25 miles today. So I pushed on through the Superstitions and hiked until I reached Reavis Ranch, just before dark and just past 25 miles from where I started. At  Reavis Ranch, a chance encounter with a group of backcountry horse riders turned into a night of amazing food (highlight: a Dutch oven dessert of apple crisp with whipped cream) and great company and once again I was back in my groove.

And that’s really the key to staying focused on a (really) long hike. Don’t think about reaching the end – you’ll lose your mind trying to figure out how you’re going to walk that far. Since that first climb into the Superstitions that forced me back into tackling the immediate challenges instead of worrying about future ones, there have been plenty more to keep me focused: more huge climbs into the Four Peaks and Mazatzal Wilderness areas, hundreds of blown down trees in the northern Mazatzals, a late-season snowstorm during my first day above the Mogollon Rim and the several days of hiking through snow that followed it. And these challenges have all been worth it, for the amazing views, the days of isolation, and the feeling of accomplishment that only hiking through a snowstorm in shorts and a poncho can give you.

And as I sit in the Grand Canyon’s library typing this, I can’t help but let my mind relax a bit and think about what lays ahead as I transition from the Arizona Trail onto the Hayduke Trail. The challenges: the route finding, the occasional Class III scramble, more water scarcity issues… And also the rewards: the remoteness of the Colorado Plateau and the unparalleled geological formations that occur across it, hiking the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Escalante, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks, and also the company of a friend who’s joining me here at the Grand Canyon.

April 1, 2011 – Arizona So Far

I’m taking a zero today in the Phoenix area to visit with a friend and get in a little R&R after hiking about 300 miles in the past 11 days. So far, Arizona has been:

-A giant desert. It’s dry, it’s hot, it’s windy, and everything that grows seems to have a vampiric desire to poke me full of holes and make me bleed. None of which is to say that it hasn’t been beautiful and captivating almost every mile of the way. The views from the sky islands stretch for miles, the sheer rock faces in the canyons and on mountainsides loom high overhead and even the wide open spaces are interesting in their austerity. The more time I spend in the desert southwest, the more I love it. It can be completely inhospitable at one moment and you’ll wonder how anything can possibly survive in such an environment and then the next moment you’ll arrive at a barely-there water source and think you’ve found paradise. It’s easy to hike through land-of-plenty type environments where water is widely available and almost every condition is favorable to hiking but it can be much more rewarding when the environment seems completely indifferent, if not openly hostile, to your needs.

-Dry. Despite drinking up to two gallons of water a day, I haven’t had to carry more than four liters of water at a time, yet. But there have been a few times where that was cutting it pretty close. Some of the water sources have been terrific (artesian well in Walnut Canyon=amazing) and some have been pretty bad (my sister said a picture of one of the cattle troughs that I drank out of reminded her of photos of ‘undrinkable’ water sources in developing countries that she was shown in grad school). You gain a whole new appreciation for good old H2O when it’s so rare and so necessary.

-A rollercoaster. From the very beginning, the AZT has lung-busting ascents and knee-grinding downhills. It hits sky island after sky island and only briefly levels out while traversing between mountain ranges. Which results not only in a great workout but also amazing views and enjoyably cooler temperatures at higher elevations.

An odd story: a packrat, or some other kind of object-stealing animal, stole my titanium spoon one night. After eating dinner I was feeling lazy and decided to bag up my cookset and spoon the next morning, so I left them all sitting out. The next morning, my spoon was nowhere to be found. Losing a spoon may not be a big deal when you’re in civilization but for me it’s a slight inconvenience. After losing my spoon, making dinner became a bit of a hassle and getting the last bits and pieces of food out of my cookset an exercise in patience. I even briefly attempted to whittle a spoon out of a stick before deciding it was too much of a time investment and I’d be better off just making due until I could get a new spoon in town. I thoroughly appreciated my spoon – it was incredibly lightweight and utilitarian in its design – and lament that it is doomed to spend the rest of its days as architectural support in some packrat nest.

I’ll be back onto the trail tomorrow and headed into a great (but challenging) section of the AZT. Over the next few days, I’ll pass through the Superstitions, Four Peaks, and Mazatzal Wilderness Areas. I’m looking forward to it.

March 20, 2011 – Leaving for Arizona tonight, on the trail tomorrow morning

In under 18 hours, I’ll be starting the AZT to GDT by taking my first steps on the Arizona Trail. My last hours in civilization are being spent in San Diego, calmly watching “Great Migrations’ with friends and relaxing. Am I excited to be starting? Absolutely. But it’s also difficult to wrap your mind around how big a trip like this is and so I find myself breaking the hike down and focusing on short-term goals like making my daily mileages and reaching major landmarks along the way (e.g. Grand Canyon). Broken down, the hike is much easier to manage mentally and I can calmly set out with as few “Wait… I have to walk 4,250 miles in 6 months?” sort of thoughts as possible.

Biggest concerns at this point, in no particular order:

  • Snow in Colorado – if I stick to my itinerary, I’ll be climbing into the Rockies in late May. Snow will be a certainty. I’m sure I can manage it but I’m not particularly looking forward to it and don’t expect it to be easy.
  • High miles for months on end – I know the mileages I’m expecting to do are possible because they’ve been done by other hikers. But can I do them? I certainly think so, but don’t actually have proof yet.
  • Having TOO good of a time – I mean, what if the best months of my life occur when I’m 22 or 23?

Most anticipated sections:

  • The Hayduke Trail – I’ve done a couple trips in Utah before this and they were two of the most memorable and influential trips I’ve done. I expect the Hayduke will only continue that tradition.
  • The Great Divide Trail – if you want to know why this is one of my most anticipated sections, just Google search for images of the Canadian Rockies.
  • 240 mile/8.5 days without resupply from Lander to Old Faithful Station – I’m planning to cross the Wind River section of the CDT (and then some) without a resupply. It’ll take 8.5 days at 28 miles per day as I cross the Winds rugged terrain along the Continental Divide. I expect it’ll be one of the most challenging (and rewarding) stretches between resupplies I’ll have.

I’m missing out on the soothing sound of Alec Baldwin’s voice narrating the details of bird migrations so it’s time to wrap this up: I’ll post a written update and add photos and videos when I can, follow my SPOT updates in the meantime.

March 9, 2011 – Finishing planning

My resupply boxes are (mostly) packed, all the gear I’ve order has arrived, and I’m more or less ready to go. I won’t actually start hiking until March 21st but I’m leaving Portland this Friday so I can spend some time visiting friends in California. So the deadline to finish planning is Friday. If I had more time available I’m sure I could find ways to use it but overall I feel about as well prepared for this trip as I could be.

Here’s my “finalized” itinerary: