Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Beartooths Part Deux

Well, I got that caltopo made quicker than I thought.  Here's the skinny:

Part I: The "stick" of the lollipop for the Bear's Tooth hike is the easternmost red section.  At 5.07 miles and nearly 1,500 feet of elevation gain, this might be the better part of a day, depending on how early I can get to the trailhead.

Part II:  The purple loop is the exploration of Black Canyon Lake and the country all around Beartooth Mountain itself, including Spirit Mountain and Sky Pilot Mountain, numerous lakes, a lot of climbing (especially over that pass at Beartooth Mountain) and essentially no trail at all to speak of for most of the route.  At 13.78 miles, and with nearly 5,000 of elevation gain, this is either a very long, hard day, or better yet, I'll stop somewhere partly through it at one of those lakes.

All in all, I see this lollipop taking 2½-3 days.  The total mileage is Part I x 2 + Part II, or 23.92 miles.  Not a bad little loop.

Part III: Assuming that I'm starting this fairly late, after doing the loop above, this is the "stick" of the second lollipop.  It's 9.51 miles long, and gains over 3,000 feet of elevation gain itself, so it's not a picnic, exactly.  I would tend to see it as the better part of a day's hike by itself; if I can't start 'til late, I need to camp somewhere inside the trail; maybe at either Elk or Rainbow Lake.  If it's really late, I can always camp right there near the trailhead at Rosebud Lake somewhere.

Part IV:  At 18.73 miles, this is the real meat of the whole trip.  Continue on the "Beaten Path" trail to Fossil Lake at which point you break cross country to get to the Aero Lakes, go through the valley between Mount Villard and Cairn Mountain, have a good, up-close look at Granite Peak (the highest in Montana!) before heading back down to Big Park Lake and rejoining "the stick."

Part V:  This little spur is completely optional, but goes up the hanging valley to the wonderfully scenic Martin lake, Glissade Lake, etc.  The climb up to the hanging valley is supposed to be pretty brutal, but once you're there, it's not too bad.  At only 3.11 miles, this is just either a day trip, or a nice, secluded camp site if I start it in the afternoon.

In total, this second lollipop is 43.97 miles (37.75 if I forego the optional hanging valley spur) which is still a good 4½-5 days.  Both hikes together are, at a minimum, 6½ days, more likely 7½ or 8.  That's a long time in the wilderness (I tend to find that after 4-5 days, I sometimes have had enough and am ready to come back) but after missing 2016, and assuming that I've been successful in getting in better shape before starting this year, it'll be doable.  Plus, that means that I won't need to worry too much about coming back this way anytime soon, and I can see something else in 2018's summer.

The Beartooths

It looks like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is on my radar again.  Now I've got two contacts that aren't too far away, and one in particular that looks promising as a "staging area"—so rather than taking my summer 2017 trip in the Uintas again, which I've blogged about here probably ad nauseum, I'm thinking of a GYE hike.  I'm really spoiled for choice in the GYE, but I've kind of focused on four areas as "highest priority" for the area that would trump all other potential options; at least until their done:

  • The Teton Crest Trail
  • The Wind Rivers, including Titcomb and Indian basins, and Cirque of the Towers.
  • An exploration of the Gros Ventre; the least ambitious option is only a night or two in a tent; the most ambitious is a good week and a half
  • The Beartooths
I'm thinking of applying for Teton Crest Trail permits in my window and if I get it, then doing that (a probably 3-5 night outing, so I could do a minimalist Gros Ventre hike maybe as part of that trip) but if I don't—and I think that's the most likely, then I need to have a Plan B (which in many ways is actually the Plan A.)  And for this, I find myself leaning towards the Beartooths.

I long ago came up with a caltopo map that shows a bunch of stuff in the area, and with the exception of marking the Sphinx and Helmet Trailheads, it's all right there in the Beartooths.  However, I don't think these routes would work for me without a bit of modification.  For the most part, they're point to point hikes (Lake Fork Trailhead to Rosebud Trailhead and Rosebud Trailhead to Cooke City/Colter Pass—which is the so-called "Beaten Path" route.)  In addition to the point to point hikes, I've added a few options, but all of them require some kind of car shuttling.  While it's not impossible that I could have access to easy car shuttling, I'd much rather be able to do all this independently on my own, which requires making loops out of these hikes.  I'll need to spend some work and time on figuring out what the "greatest hits" of the Beartooths are, in that case.  

From the attached/linked map, you can see that the purple route can rather easily be converted into a lollipop by simply ignoring the second half where you go over Sundance Pass, up West Fork Rock Creek and up onto Rosebud Plateau to get to Rosebud Trailhead, and heading back to the Lake Fork Trailhead from Keyser Brown Lake.  It's a bit of a bummer, but it's really Black Canyon lake, the actual Bears' Tooth, and then while I'm at it, since I'm so close, Sky Pilot Mountain that I want to see on that hike.  The second half was more about linking the two routes than because anything on the second half was really a "must see."

The "Beaten Path" (the Red Route) can be converted into a lollipop easily as well; if I follow it as far as Fossil Lake, which is almost all of the dramatic portion of the scenery, I can then hop on the light blue route (all of which is actually off trail, although I'm given to understand that use trails make up some of the route) I can rejoin the "stick" of my lollipop near Big Park Lake.  I could even do the green option at this point if I'm not exhausted from all of this hiking and all of these days in the mountains at this point, although I've been told that the pass between Snowbank Mountain and Point 11,848 (that connects Bergschrund and Summit Lakes) is not a fun one; I might do either of those hanging valleys as spurs and not try to link them; assuming I do either of them at all.)

Later when I have more time, I might whip up a caltopo of those two proposed routes and see how many miles it really is.  But for now, it's reasonably easy to see what I'm talking about based on the map above.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Uintas "Alpine" Traverse

I've been tinkering a bit in Caltopo with what I call the "Alpine Traverse" of the Uintas.  For those who may not have read any of my earlier posts, here's the High Concept of this hike: the Uintas, if you look at the entire range in satellite view, look like a rugged green tadpole with a kink in the tail.  The Uintas are an interesting range, and I often divide them into three sections that have three very distinct characters (summitpost.org divides it into four, but two of them are more distinguished by land use differences rather than by actual physical characteristics per se); I've described my divisions in this post.  It's worth pointing out, however, that even my section C can be pretty fairly divided in half, at the Green River Canyon.  Looking at the satellite image, on the east of the canyon the mountains are very desert-like in nature, while west of the canyon, up until we get to my section B, they are semi-desert, gradually starting to change into the more alpine forested High Bollies or Flaming Gorge section.  Section C between the section B boundary and the Green River canyon is therefore a hybrid between the more overt desert and the more overt mountain forest.

What does all of that mean?  Well,  relative to my own potential hiking plans, it means a few things.  First, the season in which to hike the alpine section of the Uintas does not coincide well with the season to hike the desert section of the Uintas.  What is great for the alpine section is terrible for the desert section because it's too hot and dry in the desert, whereas what is great for the desert section is terrible for the alpine section, because it'll be when snow is heavy on the ground in the alpine area.  Therefore a traverse of the entire range becomes somewhat impractical, or at the very least, undesirable.  I would much rather stick with the alpine section and leave the desert off.  As it happens, it's easy to jump on at the Green River canyon, at the so-called Gates of Lodore Ranger station (to be technical, right across the river from it) and hike my transition section into the High Bollies, and then all the way across the alpine High Uintas area.

So, I've been twiddling around with what I call the "Alpine Traverse" of the Uinta Range, leaving off only the most dry little tadpole tail rump of the eastern desert mountains untouched (as well as a foot traverse of the Green River canyon itself, which I'm not 100% sure is doable.)  This is still a pretty epic hike; it nearly doubles the official complete length of the actual Highline Trail, which is 96 miles—but how close to doubling depends on a number of potential options, scenic detours, and other potential diverges.  The longest the route could possibly be is 196 miles.  But it could also be as short as 161 miles and still be considered "complete."  What are the various options?  I've divided the route up in Caltopo into various segments, numbered 1-8 (going from east to west, although it could also be reasonably hiked the other way too, I suppose) with other labels for some of the other spurs, detours and alternate routes.  Let's have a look, shall we?

Segment 1:  This is the starting point at Gates of Lodore, and requires a fair bit of bushwhacking through the scrubby semi-desert until you get to Allen Draw.  Allen Draw is the terminus of this section, and Allen Draw is actually (relatively) easily reached by the road that goes through Crouse Canyon, so it represents a kind of alternative starting point.  But if you want to catch the Gates of Lodore experience, this segment will add nearly 16 miles—probably a good two days given the bushwhacking, although maybe it can be done in less time—of more of the transition between the Dinosaur National Monument terrain to the Flaming Gorge/High Bollies terrain.  Because it walks to the alternate eastern terminus, it becomes completely optional, and the hike can be easily done without it.  Except for a fairly steep initial climb, it's relatively flat, once you get up on Diamond Mountain.

Segment 2:  This segment, on the other hand, is part and parcel of the entire concept of the expanded hike; that is, to add a bunch of the Flaming Gorge alpine and semi-alpine miles to the total.  Whether you drive through Crouse Canyon to Allen Draw, or hike from the Gates of Lodore, either way, this is just over 27 miles that can't be missed without abandoning the high concept of the hike altogether.  Combined with Segment 1, this adds over 43 miles to the Highline Trail.  Admittedly, a fair bit of this segment is on rinky-dink dirt roads rather than trails, which may not appeal to many.  On the other hand, this is a very little used area of the range, and it also has a not insignificant number of miles of bushwhacking.

Segment 3:  2 ends at the official eastern terminus of the Highline Trail (albeit, that far eastern leg is rarely done—even after a big effort at trail clean-up and maintenance from the nearby town of Vernal.  This is also a potential spot for a food drop, as is the western portion of this section, Chepeta Lake—the last road before you really dive straight into the High Uintas Wilderness.  Chepeta Lake is also the most westerly "eastern terminus" that you can hike and really credibly claim to have hike the Highline Trail; although many people consider themselves as having hiked it if they do the Hacking Lake TH midway through this section.  This is almost 37 miles long; nearly as long as the entire two sections before it, and it gradually transitions from the Flaming Gorge character of its eastern edge to the High Uintas true alpine nature at the western edge.  By Chepeta Lake you will have hike, if you do all three segments, 80 miles, and you're close enough to the midway point to count it as a potential celebration.  If you hike fairly quick, you can probably make this your only food drop (or if you carry an awful lot of food).  If you average somewhere between 10-12 miles a day, you will have taken a complete week to get this far.  You'll also have eased yourself somewhat into the higher elevations, above tree-line alpine tundra that you'll face for much of the next section, and will have gone over a few good passes.

Segment 4:  From Chepeta Lake, this goes to the Smith's Fork Junction deep in the High Uintas wilderness.  It also will have taken you over Anderson Pass, less than a mile from the summit of King's Peak, the state high point in Utah.  Few consider that a natural place to end a segment, except that at the junction, you need to make a decision; to stick with the official Highline Trail (a shortcut) or take a scenic detour to see the Red Castle area while you're at it.  This crosses two big passes, North Pole pass in the east and then after crossing Painter Basin, Anderson Pass.  There's pretty big elevation gain to summit these passes, but otherwise, you spend a great deal of time in Painter Basin (and then Yellowstone Basin) enjoying relatively flat and scenic views of unobstructed alpine tundra, with forest only in the very lowest portions of the river valleys.  At 29 miles, this is a good two and a half or even closer to three day section, probably—especially when you consider the summit spur option below.

King's Peak Summit Spur:  This is optional, but hardly anyone who hikes the Highline opts not to summit King's Peak while they're right there.  It's just an up and back, 1.5 miles round trip.  The summit is just under 1,000 higher than the Anderson Pass summit, and there's reportedly an easy to follow social trail to the top.

Segment 5:  My default route includes this and the official Highline as an unofficial shortcut, but of course, most people hiking the Highline would consider it the opposite.  This is 11.5 miles where you turn off of the Highline in Yellowstone basin and summit Smith's Fork pass instead into the Smith's Fork basin.  Keeping going north and then west to round the horn of the Red Castle massif, probably spending a night at Lower Red Castle Lake, which is one of the scenic highpoints of the entire range.  Going back south (and up again) over the pass behind Upper Red Castle Lake (which isn't labeled on my map or on Caltopo, but which I've often heard called Wilson Pass because of nearby Wilson Peak) you can get back on the Highline nearly right away in the "Oweep Basin."  There isn't a marked trail over this pass, but scuttlebutt is that much of the route is actually a social trail, with relatively little route-finding/scree-whacking required.  Although there is some.

Alternate shortcut:  On the other hand, if you just stay on the Highline and ignore the allures of the Red Castle area, you knock nearly 6 miles off of your route—at least half a day, maybe more if you spend some time actually enjoying the Red Castle scenery.  You cross Porcupine Pass from the upper western Yellowstone Basin into the upper Eastern Lake Fork Basin (this spur is often called "Oweep Basin" because Oweep Creek runs through it.)  This is a super scenic pass in its own right, although you get similar views from "Wilson Pass".  If you do the Red Castle option, you will have hiked 122 miles by the end of this section, and if you hike this shortcut instead, you're still at 116 or so miles.

Segment 6:  This 16 and half mile section mostly follows the Highline up and over Red Knob Pass and to Dead Horse Lake, where there's again a choice to be made.  It does include a very small detour from the main route to see Crater Lake, though—the deepest lake in the Uintas and one to which no trail (and therefore extremely few hikers) goes to.  The top of Red Knob Pass looking into the West Fork Blacks Fork (Dead Horse) Basin is one of the most scenic views in the entire range.

Segment 7: 22 mile segment 7 is closer to the official Highline Route.  However, even it has a few detours, including the "north trails" detour that most hikers use in the Rock Creek Basin to see all of the lakes along the edge of the basin, like Helen, Lightning, Gladys, and Rosalie Lakes.  I have a little off-trail detour to see several lakes in a very small sub basin in the upper northeast portion of Rock Creek; Boot Lake, Jodie Lake, Doug Lake, Reconnaissance Lake, and Triangle Lake.  Once you get back on the Highline, you cross Rocky Sea Pass and continue on to the official western terminus of the Highline Trail... but of course, the concept of this hike is that that's not the end.

Alternate Northside Route:  This alternate is actually shorter than Segment 7 by about 4 miles, but is probably much more difficult, given that instead of crossing two passes, you're going over twice as many... all without trails.  I know that it's doable; I've seen trip reports of hikers who have hiked all of these sections (although not strung together like this).  Although it misses Dead Horse Pass and the scenic Rock Creek Basin, at the same time, the North Slope basins here are almost uniformly considered among the most scenic in the entire range; Allsop, Priord/Norice, Amethyst and Middle Basins.  They get relatively more traffic, because they're closer to the Mirror Lake Highway, and relatively easy to reach, but that's still relative.  I'm a little unsure about this; it depends on my confidence and condition while hiking a putative through-hike of this route, if I take this or opt for the more standard route of Segment 7.

Packard Lake Spur:  This small spur; just a mile and a quarter one way (which has to be hike back again (would be a desirable camp site if doing Segment 7 that's off the beaten path a bit, and gives a great view of the very scenic East Fork Canyon; a small spur canyon that joins the Duchesne River canyon.  You can get great views of the latter too if you go off trail from Packard Lake and pole around the edge of the canyon rim near the eastern edges of Wyman and Wilder Lake spurs.  If I do Segment 7 instead of the Altnate Northside Route, I'll absolutely stop here.  I'm actually more likely to stick with the official route of Segment 7 rather than my more ambitiouis Alternate, but either one that I pick, I'll be disappointed in missing the other.

Segment 8: 25 mile Segment 8 is linking trails with a few minor spots of bushwhacking to see the western end of the Uintas beyond the Highline Trail.  There's a lot more usage of this area, because it's closer to the Mirror Lake Highway and easy to get to; in fact, you will actually have to walk along the MLH for a small distance (three quarters of a mile.)  While its usually considered less dramatic than the actual wilderness area to the east, there's a lot of really beautiful spots here, and this route is designed to try and see some of the most important of them.  At the end of the segment, you have to decide which finishing spur you'll use.  The one that goes to the Yellow Pines trailhead is probably what I'll do, as it's easier both to hike and to leave a car.

Terminus Spur:  At just shy of 4 miles, this is just the last afternoon of hiking to get from Yellow Pines lakes to your car.  You won't see anything really dramatic here (I don't think) except for trees.  But it has to be done to get to your car.  On the other hand, the other option was a little bit of ridge-walking left, and takes you all the way to the literal very edge of the mountain range, as you walk out Hoyt Canyon literally onto the streets of Marion, a small town that's in the big valley between the Wasatch and Uintas mountains.

Alternate Western Terminus: As described above, this is one last gasp of scenery before you're done, although after what you've already seen, it's no doubt going to be understated and less impressive.  Walking out Hoyt Canyon on a 4-wheel drive road may be less impressive, but I've seen great views from Hoyt Peak, which you'll be very near.  In fact, it might be worth a small jaunt up to this final summit for a last look at the mountains before you come back out.  This route is 11 miles, and probably adds another day to the route.  With the right vehicle as your ride, you could cut part of that off and drive out Hoyt Canyon instead of walk out.

Although obviously this comes with options and spurs and detours and diversions, some of which could be cut out to shrink the total, as measured by my desired route, this is almost a two hundred mile hike—and even shortened it's well over 150 miles.  To really do proof of concept, maybe I should start at Cross Mountain even further to the east, but as I said, it's got problems.  Averaging 10-12 miles a day, and giving some slack for potential bad weather or just the need for some down time (or days that are short for other reasons; like we arrive at a highly desirable camping spot early and don't want to go on because we're already at where we wanted to be) it's still three weeks in the wilderness.  With at least one food drop (and potentially three) this really works best if well planned in advance, and with a friendly local who can help you move your cars around and stuff.

It's very, very ambitious.  But one of these days, I'd like to do it...

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Missing gear

I'm not quite sure how this happened; but my two younger sons borrowing some of my gear is no doubt at least partially to blame.  But I find myself having to replace a few items of my backpacking gear that have somehow gone missing.  Sigh.

  1. Lost my waistpack.  I'm considering ditching it entirely, though, and not replacing it.  I'll have to be a little bit more judicious with how I pack my stuff, but I think I can pull it off.
  2. Lost my SteriPEN.  I actually really liked that, so that bums me out.  I'll have to replace it, I think, although I could go with iodine tablets or a filter for less money.
  3. Lost (both of my) pack rain covers.  I think I'm going to ditch these too, though, and just line the inside of my pack with a plastic bag from now on.
I'm also thinking of not bringing my tarp anymore.  When I camp in more xeric climates, like most of the west, I don't really need to worry about water getting in the tent anyway.  When I camp in rainier climates, like here in Michigan, I've actually had water pool up on the tarp and soak into the tent; I don't think it actually helps keep my tent drier at all.  It does protect the bottom of the tent from the ground on which it stands, but honestly, I'm not worried about getting rips in the bottom of my tent anyway.  If I truly do ditch the waistpack, that means I really only need about $50 to get back into backpacking, replacing the gear that mysteriously went missing.

Sadly; there is no urgency around this; I won't be able to make time in my vacation schedule for a backpacking trip this year.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Palo Duro canyon

About a week ago, I got to hike in Texas' Palo Duro Canyon State Park, not far from Amarillo.  It's a beautiful place; maybe a bit understated compared to some of the Colorado Plateau badlands like the Grand Canyon or Canyonlands or Zions or Arches, but comparable in many ways.  The Llano Estacado is a large flat plateau that makes up most of the Texas panhandle as well as eastern New Mexico and some of the area just north as well; it is the southernmost portion of the High Plains and the largest mesa area in the North American continent, of over 37,000 square miles.  It's edges on both the west and the east are marked by rather abrupt north-south running escarpments.  Although there is a very slight slope to the entire Llano Estacado rising from east to west, both ends are still marked by drop-offs of a few hundred feet, and at this edge, erosion has given us some fascinating terrains, including Palo Duro canyon and the nearby Caprock Canyon area.

I also made a number of mistakes on this hike.  My initial intention was to take Palo Duro fairly easily, doing a number of small hikes; I ended up hiking a loop of about 8-miles instead.  I originally intended to go early in the morning; I ended up leaving Lubbock, where I was staying at 8:30, so by the time my boots hit the trail, it was 11:00 or 11:30.  And I had plenty of water, but only two small bottles that were portable in my little day-pack.

In terms of weather, a cold front was just ending, which lured me into thinking that early May was a good time to hike.  It ended up not being.  Had I been able to go 3-4 days earlier, I could have faced highs in the 60s; as it was, I faced highs in the 90s.  Combined with not a single cloud in the sky, hardly any shade at all on the trail, insufficient water for the miles I had staked out, and the fact that I'm not exactly in the best shape, I ended up limping back to the car dehydrated, over-heated and very uncomfortable.  Had I brought my water bladder I probably would have been OK; had a brought my bladder and started two hours earlier, I certainly would have been.

Better yet, had I gone in early April, or even mid March, I probably would have been fine even without worrying about either of those.  As it was, it was a challenging hike; not because the hike itself was difficult, but because it's hot, it's dry, there's no shade and no water.

I started the hike at the big P listed above, which is the trailhead for the Givens, Spicer, Lowry trail (clearly marked with trail markers every tenth of a mile as the GSL.  This wanders in a remote part of the park, and I saw only a handful of other users on it for a little over three miles along the edge of the canyon bottom.  Had I started earlier (and had more water) I would have also taken the Fox Canyon Trail lollipop, but I could tell even then that I needed to move on and get back to the car before it got too hot and I ran out of water, so I skipped it.  That's OK; for various reasons, I'd love to come back and see more of the canyon anyway, so I'll have a shot at it later.  When the GSL joins the Lighthouse Trail, continue on to the formation known as the Lighthouse, the most iconic element within the canyon (which sadly I didn't get a great picture of up close.  But I think the best pictures are from the more northerly canyon rim trails, which I didn't even attempt anyway.)  Go to the end of the trail, take the left-hand branch to avoid too much scrambling, and climb up to the base of the formation.  Then take the Lighthouse Trail back to the road.  At this point, you can take the short Paseo del Rio (PDR) trail back to where you started.  I had expected the PDR to be shady and cooler; in fact, it wasn't much shadier than the Lighthouse or GSL had been, although the trees managed to block the breeze, making it actually hotter.  I did have to stop under a big cottonwood tree in the shade and cool off before finishing, which was a shame because I was pretty close to the car.  This completes the 8-mile (or so) loop.  Like I said, in spring or fall, with lower temps and a full water bladder, this would be a lovely hike, and anyone who can walk 8 miles can do it; the terrain is not difficult and the trail is very well graded and groomed.

Although I was warned about rattlesnakes, I suspect that you only see them on the trail in the early morning as they come out to catch some rays.  By the time I hit the trail, they were back in the shade to avoid overheating.  I did see a number of lizards of various types, including a horny toad, lots of birds, including a flock of wild turkeys, and very briefly, a coyote popped around the corner right on the trail about 50 feet in front of me.  As soon as he saw me, he disappeared into the brush, and I didn't see hide nor hair of him again.

The trailhead is also kind of confusing.  There are two readily apparent trails at the trailhead, but only one on the map.  As you can see, the PDR doesn't actually come all the way to the trailhead on the map, but in reality it does.  If you take the left-hand trail, you'll end up in short order on the PDR, even though it technically has a different trailhead (although it's only a couple hundred or so yards away.)  Take the right hand trail that goes slightly uphill to end up on the GSL.  Because all of the trails are so well marked with markers every 10th of a mile, you can hardly get lost unless you really try.

One of many strange eroded hoodoos on the GSL trail.

Another GSL hoodoo.

If you look closely, you can see the Lighthouse in the distance.  From the GSL.

Hoodoos and the canyon wall.  You can also see the spring bloom of the mesquite and Texas juniper, which gave the canyon a greener than normal appearance.  In reality, it had hardly had any rain all year and was in a serious drought.

Very dry grass and distant cliffs from the canyon bottom.

Swinging wide towards this hoodoo on the GSL.

Typical Palo Duro scenery, including dry grasses, mesquite, cedar and prickly pear.

A bone dry creek bed that I crossed on the Lighthouse trail.

You can see the high quality of the trail here.  This was also one of the very few spots where you can catch some shade if you need to cool off a bit.  I did.

More hoodoos and badlands terrain.

Getting much closer to the Lighthouse, which looks like a double formation from this angle.  The one on the right is the Lighthouse proper.  The left one is actually a fin viewed front on; up close, and from other angles you can see that it is not actually a spire like the Lighthouse is.

Another hoodoo near the Lighthouse trailhead.  Some poor guys I passed thought this was the Lighthouse.  They were only a half mile in and had two and a half to go.

Another bone dry creek bed.

Thursday, April 7, 2016


In this political season, flip-flopping is generally seen as a pejorative, but in the world of long-distance hiking, it's actually a derived strategy for completing thru-hikes that are a bit more nuanced than simple point to point hiking, and which offer some interesting possibilities.

Over lunch today, I allowed my imagination to be indulged.  Suppose I had a corporate sponsor to do the Triple Crown over the hiking seasons of 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively.  How would I do them?  I decided that each of the long trails actually merited a flip-flop.  So how would I do it, if this is what I'd do, and why?

Summer 2017: The Appalachian Trail.  My initial reason for wanting to do a flip-flop on this trail is the infamous party atmosphere of the so-called People's Trail, or the Social Trail as it's also sometimes called. Because there's a huge surge leaving Springer Mountain in mid-April, I'd start at Harper's Ferry at... I dunno, probably about that same time, and head north, before coming back to Harper's Ferry and heading south.  Harper's Ferry isn't literally the center of the trail, but it's often considered to be so for spiritual and symbolic reasons, since it's the headquarters of the Trail's Conservatory, and it's close enough to the geographical center to make everyone shrug and just say why not (it's actually probably closer to about 2/5s of the way through, so it's a bit shy.)  However, there are some other advantages that I didn't really consider.  1) There's no rush to get to the end.  For most thru-hikers, getting to the peak of Katahdin before the park closes for the season can actually be a challenge.  With my itinerary, I'd arrive right in the middle of the season.  Plus, I can actually take as long as I'd like, because there's much less of a rush, if any at all, to even finish the hike.  I can hike at my own pace near the end.  Although by then, I imagine that my pace would be pretty good after the better part of five months or so of walking.  2) This also avoids the plague of black flies up in the New England portion. And it minimizes the risk of ticks, for that matter, too. 3) As the weather starts to turn more autumnal, I'll be in the south, heading southbound from Harper's Ferry again, so I really get the best of the climate at all stages of the hike, without ever having to deal with the hottest weather in the worst spots for that, or the coolest weather at the worst time for that.  It truly optimizes the hike based on the climate as well.  4) It also starts the hike at a relatively easy and flat area.  When I hit the difficult "Rocksylvania" portion of the hike, I'll be plenty warmed up, but not yet at all beat down by fatigue.  I'll hit the 100-mile Wilderness and White Mountains stretch (which compared to conditions in the West isn't nearly as wild or remote or rugged as all that anyway) while I'm also still (relatively) fresh.

The average time to completion for an AT thru-hike is about 5½ to 5¾ months, which if I start in mid-April would have me finishing at the beginning of October.  I don't know about what my pace would be like, but I don't intend to try and beat anyone, that's for sure.  I despise being in too much of a hurry during this kind of activity.  But I don't want to drag it out either.  I predict 5½-6 months with up to 6½ or so at the absolute longest.

Summer 2018: The Pacific Crest Trail. Although the surge from Campo, CA is nothing like the surge from Springer Mountain, GA, it exists, and it's growing very, very quickly as awareness of the PCT has grown.  Just in the last five years, the number of permits issues to thru-hikers has more than tripled, and it's estimated by the PCTA that about 50 hikers start their hike at the southern terminus every single day of April and a few days into May.  For climate reasons, i.e. southern California gets really hot and dry if you wait any longer than that, but would still be prohibitively cold and snowy at higher elevations if you started any earlier, that's really the only thing that you can do.  But once you hit Kennedy Meadows or so and start the High Sierras, you often have to wait on snow-melt.  On the flip-side, you're often racing against potential snowfall that blocks your access to the northern terminus in early October.  This could be avoided if I jumped the Sierras up to Ashland, OR, and then hiked northward to the terminus, avoiding high elevations (and latitudes) during the portion of the season that they're at risk of being snow-choked, as well as leaving the crowds (hopefully) behind.  After hitting the northern terminus, I'd need to go back to Kennedy Meadows and doing the highest portion of the Sierras while it's still early enough that snow is not a significant risk.  I may well get snow in Northern California while I'm finishing up, but my chances of it being really bad, or of being prohibitive to my goal of finishing the hike are much lower this way.  Plus, like I said, hopefully I get to leave the surge of hikers behind and not worry about finding them again.

Although the distance is greater than the AT by almost 500 miles, the average time to complete it is 5 months.  It's actually an easier, more well-groomed trail to hike, by report, so you can tend to make better time day to day.  Plus, by then after having done the AP the season prior, I'll probably be walking longer, faster days on average just by virtue of being more in shape.

Summer 2019: The Continental Divide Trail.  The CDT doesn't yet have a surge to speak of.  There are still relatively few people who are willing to take on this beast, which is not even complete in every section, which doesn't yet have an "official" route for all areas, which means that a lot of variation is common, and which lacks much of the infrastructure that AT or even PCT hikers might take for granted.  In part, because of this, the actual length is under a bit of dispute.  According to Wikipedia, the length is another 500 miles longer even than the PCT, but lowball estimates as low as 2,500 exist, and the most reports indicate that the "typical" hike (depending on exact route chosen) is actually probably comparable to doing the PCT.  As with the PCT, a start in mid-April heading NOBO from the Mexican border is generally seen as ideal, and as with the PCT, there are constraints that have to do with seasons and altitude.  With the PCT, you may be facing lingering snowpack when you hit the Sierras, with the CDT, the same thing happens with the San Juans (at about the same elevation and latitude, curiously.) As with the PCT, if you go to long you'll get stranded in potential snows in the mountains near the Canadian border, so you can't be too slow.

The secret for this trail is, I believe, to pay attention to conditions.  Some years, there may be snows still in the San Juans when you arrive, but the north might be drier, in which case flipping to the northern terminus and finishing the trail SOBO at Cumbres Pass, or somewhere thereabouts.  But if could be the other way around; the San Juans might be drier and clear early enough to pose no problem, while the northern or central portions of the trail might be clogged.  Unlike on the PCT where after the Sierras, you encounter (relatively) lower elevations, you still have big sections of reasonably high elevations all through Colorado, and through portions of northern Wyoming too, for that matter.  It's a little harder to flip-flop the trail in a way that consistently avoids the risk of either lingering snowpack in the early season or early snowfall in the late season.  It just all depends on the year in question and what happens that year.

Although it might not be a bad idea to skip the from the San Juans to somewhere in the middle of Wyoming if the snow isn't so bad in the Winds.  Go back to Cumbres Pass and continue hiking NOBO, and you'll end the season in the Red Desert.  Water availability might be an issue, but weather shouldn't be.  Water in the Red Desert is a challenge no matter what, but at least you'll end the hike at a relatively low elevation, and early snowfall should be an insignificant risk.  But the CDT is the one most likely to avoid a flip-flop entirely, or to do a more simple flip-flop where halfway through you drive up to the northern terminus and finish the hike SOBO.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

7 Patagonian Andes hiking destinations

I'd really like to think that one of these days I'll be able to really hike the kinds of hikes that I want to do on a regular basis.  At least three big trips each year; a July or August (at the latest, early September) trip to the Rockies, Cascades, Coast Range or Sierra Nevada—the big alpine mountain ranges in North America.  A shoulder season desert trip, most of which are in the Colorado Plateau area of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and a bit of New Mexico—although places like Big Bend and Death Valley offer more alternatives too. Can mix this up with some shoulder season hikes in the Appalachians or other, lower, eastern ranges.

And finally—a big international trip where I can take advantage of the flipped seasons of the southern hemisphere to do some mountain hiking in the season that is blacked out by inclement weather in the north.  New Zealand is often considered the gold standard here, since it's relatively easy to reach, has beautiful scenery, is a hospitable, English-speaking country, and is quite developed.  I also tend to really gravitate towards the Patagonian Andes, however—in part because I lived for a little while in Argentina (on the eastern side of the continent, however) and can still put together some conversational Spanish if needed, but also in part because it's less of a gold standard; it's much more wild, much more remote, much more adventurous.  Not to say that it doesn't have its "hiking Meccas" so to speak, but it's still as of yet a relatively untrammeled set of routes.

Here's what I think are the top half dozen or so destinations that I'd love to do:

Nahuel Huapi Traverse: A 5 or so day trip in and around the Bariloche region of Argentina, in the Nahuel Huapi National Park.  It's only about 25 miles, but it's pretty rough country, passing by the famous Laguna Frey, which has become a technical climbers paradise, and then going further and deeper into the backcountry.  Like many traditional hikes in Patagonia, it's been somewhat built up with refugios and whatnot.  I don't know if you are required by park regulation to stay in the refugios, or if everybody simply does, but at the very least, it does offer decent shelter from the notoriously fickle Patagonia weather.

Cerro Castillo Circuit: I absolutely love the look of Cerro Castillo.  There's a semi-standard route that goes through the National Reserve and is about 38 or so miles, but which is much less developed than the option noted above (or two of the options noted below, for that matter.)  One neat advantage (of most of the hiking options in Patagonia, actually) is that the absolute elevation isn't as high as you'd think, so things like altitude sickness aren't really a big deal.  You wouldn't think that to look at the mountains, which are extremely impressive, rugged, and even fairly seriously glaciated.

Cerro Castillo in the autumn
San Lorenzo Circuit: This route might actually be harder to do, because it requires a handful of back-country border crossings.  I'm going to throw it out there because I've seen absolutely stunningly beautiful pictures of it, because getting good beta on how doable it actually it is and the legality of crossing the border from Chile into Argentina and back again deep in the backcountry is difficult.  It can be done, however, as two trips; one that stays on the Chilean side, and another that stays on the Argentine side, although you may not be able to link them together or make a loop of sorts out of them anymore.

Future Patagonia National Park: This is actually a really cool traverse of three contiguous areas; the Jeinimeni National Reserve, and then with a stop on the stunningly beautiful Valle Chacabuco, and then crossing the Tamango National Reserve to end in the small town of Cochrane.  This is really close to San Lorenzo; maybe the two of them should be done together?  This is a big hike, though—over 100 miles.  Absolutely wonderful.

Ignore the granola whining, and just drink in the scenery.  Ignore the running too—I'm a hiker and backpacker, and I don't get the ultra-running hobby really.  I want to enjoy and savor the experience and the scenery, not race through it.

Los Glaciares National Park:  As it happens, this is less of a backpacking trip, and more of a base from which to do lots of day hikes and exploration.  There are, of course, some backpacking opportunities, but most of the best things to see in Los Glaciares can be seen without pitching a tent for more than a few nights, unless you go off-trail and do some real bushwhacking (I've seen some great options explored here and there in this space.)  Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy are, of course, not to be missed.  The Cerro Heumul circuit is turning gradually into the multi-night backpacking jaunt of the park.

Torres del Paine National Park:  This is a very structured route, the W (plus the back end) is a classic route, where you go from refugio to refugio, and are generally discouraged from deviating from your path to a great degree.  There probably are great opportunities for deviating from the route, but it's very difficult to get much beta on what to do in the area other than the W—I've seen at least one guy (and his wife) post a picture gallery of following an old nearly abandoned gaucho horse-route from PN Bernardo O'Higgins to the gates of the Torres del Paine, and then see the park inside while they were at it.  But that's outside the park proper.

If you aren't already familiar with the area, I suggest a simple google search.  Chances are you've seen pictures of the Paine massif; it's more famous than you'd think.

Navarino Circuit: This final Patagonian "must hike" has to be the circuit of the Teeth of Navarino, a very rugged 30 mile (or so; depending on exactly how it's measured) circuit of Navarino Island, a sub-antarctic island in the Tierra del Fuego region at the most remote southern stub-end of South America.  In spite of the fact that it's getting more press, this is still a very remote and untraveled route, and recent stats suggest that fewer than 100 hikers do this route every year, and that when you do it, the chances of seeing nobody else the entire time are... pretty good.  While Torres del Paine and the W have become darlings of the international backpacking set, this is just barely starting to get on its radar.

Others:  There's certainly more to do in the Andes.  I've been focused on the Patagonia section of the range, but if you head up north, to Ecuador, Peru, northern Chile, etc., there's all kinds of things to see.  Volcanoes to circuit or summit.  Aconcagua.  The matoral and the Valdivian temperate rain forests and the monkey puzzle trees.  The bizarre cold flora of the p├íramo ecosystems.

I like both the remoteness of most of these destinations (Torres del Paine and probably Los Glaciares excepted; maybe the Bariloche area too) their exoticness, their light crowds, and, of course, the fact that they offer mountain hiking in the "off season" relative to North America or Europe.  Plus, I'm kind of jingoistic about the Western Hemisphere.  Who needs the Alps when you've got the Rockies and the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas?  Who needs New Zealand when you've got Patagonia?  Sure, I'd love to see those places too... but I've got plenty to keep me busy closer to home in the meantime.