Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Long Hikes

I've long been fascinated by the concept of the "long hike."  The original such concept in the U.S. is, of course, the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.  My interest has inevitably been drawn to the two western, and more recent, accomplices in this category: the Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from the Mexican border near Campo, California, to the edge of Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia (technically, of course, the trail ends at the border) and the Continental Divide Trail, which runs from the Mexican border at one of three southern termini in the New Mexican bootheel, to a northern terminus on the border of Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park (in Canada.)  The lengths of these trails is tremendous: the Appalachian Trail is about 2,200 miles of walking (not counting diversions to resupply or see scenic highlights off-trail, etc.) while the PCT is about 500 miles longer than that, and the CTD is about 400-500 miles longer still. 

As much as I am fascinated by this concept, I'm not really likely to ever hike one of these trails in its entirety, especially not as a single-season "thru-hike."  However, the trails have inspired me to consider rather lengthier backpacking trips, with possible resupply points and up to a few weeks off, to see certain highlights.  I'd love to hike the John Muir Trail, for example (220 or so miles), and the entire Sierra Nevada portion of the PCT (even longer, although picking specific start and end-points might be a bit tricky.)  I'd love to do a White Mountains traverse of a portion of the northern AT, including Franconia Ridge and the Presidentials.  I wouldn't mind doing the 100 Mile Wilderness portion of the AT as well. 

I was a bit disappointed, however, to see that the CDT takes a big westward "bite" just south of Helena and Butte, Montana, to ramble along the Idaho/Montana border, before turning sharply eastward through Yellowstone National Park and the Teton Wilderness to then traverse the Wind River Range.  This is sensible, of course, since the goal of the trail is to march as near as possible to the actual continental divide, but it misses some of the most beautiful scenery in the northern US Rockies to do so.  I'd love to traverse the Wind Rivers, but I'd also love to link such a traverse with a traverse of the Beartooths and the Absarokas.  To traverse, north to south, the Beartooth range in the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness, starting near Livingstone, Montana.  Get a friendly resupply somehow (maybe my wife waiting in the car, I suppose) on the Beartooth Highway, before plunging south to traverse north to south the North Absaroka Wilderness with another friendly resupply nearly a week later on the Greybull Highway, before plunging southward again to travese the Washakie and Teton wilderness boundary.

One more friendly resupply, and I do a Wind Rivers traverse, ending this epic, month-long (at least!) hike at the Bed & Breakfast in Atlantic City, Wyoming (an ambitious name, given that the latest census has the population of the place at 37.)  The southern portion of this hike; mostly the entire Wind Rivers traverse, would be the CDT (plus a few side-trips to see Titcomb Basin and Cirque of the Towers.  It'd be ridiculous to go there and miss those spots.)  The traverse of the Beartooth is on existing trails, with a route that's already mapped out (again with a few scenic side-trips, no doubt.)  I'm not aware of any traverse of the Absaroka range that are done routinely enough to be named, labeled and widely available to the knowledge of hikers; I'd probably have to stitch such a traverse together myself from existing trails, and if necessary, do some cross-country bridging sections.

I'd also love to hike much of the area north of here; a traverse of Glacier and the Bob.  But I'm a bit ambivalent about the connection between the Bob and the Beartooths, and I don't want to create a route that takes me more than about a month or so to complete, so a Glacier/Bob Marshall traverse will have to remain a separate trip.  I'm also quite anxious to hike much of the Colorado Rockies, but the Great Divide Basin in southern Wyoming that separates the scenic Wind Rivers from equally scenic northern Colorado is a wasteland in terms of anything I'm curious to hike.

Getting gear

Because my long backpacking trips that I yearn to do are not exactly imminent (it's the dead of winter, for once thing, and the majority of my vacation time for 2014 is already "spoken for" on a number of trips--which will include some nice dayhiking with the family on a lengthy trip, but no several nights in the backcountry backpacking trips, sadly.)  At the soonest, I'm looking at late winter 2015 for a Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains trip, or spring 2015 Grand Canyon or southern Utah trip, or late summer 2015 anywhere in the classic mountains.  This means that I'm not exactly running out to finish off my shopping list of backpacking gear, and picking up all of the things that I still need.

This doesn't mean that I'm not making an inventory and "wish list" of specific items I want to get and have ready for when that time comes, though. 

However, I'm finding that making a list that will last long enough for me to actually buy the gear is more difficult than I thought.  I've had to change the backpack on my list several times--sometimes because as I've done more research, I've found other models that I want, but surprisingly because one of my perenniel top contenders seems to have removed itself from common availability.  I can still get it if I really want it, but only from one of three outlets, where it used to be readily available everywhere.

I later picked up a new favorite, after it got a really high recommendation from Backpacker Magazine, and it promptly became unavailble other than through special order.  Did demand exceed supply?  Dunno.

I suppose it's not a big deal, until I'm ready to actually go pick up my backpack, but it's a little frustrating that I can't plan what backpack that will be unless I just go buy it now. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Newbie mistakes

A friend of mine shared this link.  I commented on one thing that caught my attention right away.  Later, I thought of another.  Later still, I was annoyed by another.  Finally, I decided that I needed to "rebut" the article point by point.  Well, not really--I agree with about half of what he says.  The other half is baloney, though.  Or at least, it's propaganda rather than fact, even when he has a point.

1) Wearing denim.  Denim is a soft, yet durable fabric.  It's considered bad news for hiking because it absorbs water and doesn't dry quickly.  You can get some serious chafing if you hike in wet jeans.  It can even freeze solid.

However, most people don't go hiking in conditions where any of that (other than maybe getting wet) is very likely.  I'd prefer not to hike in denim.  But I hiked for years in blue jeans as a teenager, and the notion that you can't do it without dying is patently absurd.  In summer hikes, or desert hikes--where I do a lot of my winter, spring and fall hiking when I can, there's no problem at all in hiking in denim.  For day hikes, where you know that you're unlikely to get caught in an unexpected rainstorm, there's no problem at all hiking in denim.  Denim's dangers are highly over-rated.

I still wouldn't take them on a backpacking trip, though.  Especially not one in the Rockies or the Cascades, where getting rained on at least a little bit, is almost a certainty.

2) Why are specialty outdoor stores more trustworthy?  They're certainly more expensive.  There's a few things that I really wouldn't want to buy at Wal-Mart (my boots, for example) but otherwise, I've found that plenty of what they sell is perfectly fine.  In fact, plenty of what they sell is the exact same stuff that you can get at department stores.  Sure, it's not necessarily the same as what you can get at REI, but let's face it--a lot of that stuff is over-priced.  You're paying more for the brand name than anything else.  Does it surprise you that this is an article written for Backpacker magazine, a publication who's major revenue source is advertising from specialty gear manufacturers and retailers?  Keep that in mind as you read this point.

3) Another often overpriced element of hiking.  I've done lots of hikes in Nat Parks with the Nat Park official map, for instance.  The Trails Illustrated or the USGS topos are plenty nice, but you need to know your area and what you're doing.  If you're going deep in the backcountry, by all means, have them.  If you're sticking to well-established paths, they're expensive overkill.

4) I agree with this one, only based on the notion that even back in the 80s, before this was trendy, I was taking stuff out of my pack that I wasn't using and couldn't really see myself as very likely to use.  A bandage for wrapping up a twisted ankle or binding a major cut is good.  Some smaller bandages.  Some pepto in case you eat something that doesn't agree with you.  Some ibuprofen and acetaminophen for the inevitable headaches when you don't sleep well enough or don't get enough to drink.  Or just for muscle soreness.  That's mostly all you'll ever need.

5) I agree with this one.  Don't mess around with lightning.

6) I sorta agree with this one: before you start thrifting your back of stuff, you need to have enough experience to know what you can comfortably live without and what not.  But everyone should give some serious thought to weight reduction.  It just makes hiking so much more enjoyable.  Ultralight itself is almost the fetishization of lightweight hiking, but a lot of its principles should be researched and used by even a first-time hiker.

7) If you get boots with a relatively soft (i.e., common) nylon and leather combination upper, and that fit you properly, and you have the proper hiking socks (a liner and merino wool is best) then you can absolutely do this.  This bit of wisdom is based on the old days with stiff, full-grain leather uppers for high-top combat boots style hiking boots were common.  Yeah, bad idea to go on a long trip with those straight out of the box.  But most boots will do you just fine, as long as you--again--make sure that they fit properly.

8) Newbie mistake, or just common sense?  I can see the same problem being applied to other endeavors.  Newbies probably are poorer at estimating how far they can walk in an hour, though--I'm sure.

9) I agree with this one.  Check the forecast before you go; if you see something really ominous, rethink your plan.  Otherwise, make sure at least that you're prepared for it.  Deep backcountry forecasts, especially if you're checking before a several days-long trip, are always going to be iffy at best anyway.

10) Leave No Trace is nice. It's important.  Everyone should learn and use its principles. It's also gotten a bit out of hand.  There's no way in the world I'm packing out toilet paper.  This isn't a newbie mistake, it's a change in paradigm as Left Coast hippies have taken over the hobby. Calling this a newbie mistake was a political statement, not actually a useful warning.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Wilderness Paradox

An interesting article, articulating the so-called Wilderness Paradox--the notion that to effectively protect wilderness, you need to raise awareness of the potential threats to it, but that to raise awareness brings crowds of nature lovers, and fundamentally alters the experience of being there.

However, I think the author overstates the case somewhat.  Looking at a place that's even more heavily used than the Wind Rivers one can take the example of Yosemite National Park, for example.  About 3.8 million visitors each year visit the park, mostly during the compressed "tourist season."  Very few of those visitors get out of the seven square miles of the Yosemite Valley, however. 

So yeah; Yosemite Valley is in and of itself a spectacular location.  No doubt about it.  But Yosemite National Park is almost 1,200 square miles.  If the visitation is concentrated on only seven of that, then there's a lot more park to see, and much of it is extremely lightly visited backcountry--again, by relative terms.

That's true of the Wind Rivers mentioned in the article above as well.  Sure, the Titcomb Basin and Cirque of the Towers areas are fairly heavily visited, especially considering that they are not easily reached by the casual--both being far from any road.  But the Wind Rivers are vast, and one can easily find days and days of solitude in the mountains, and enjoy scenery every bit as spectacular.  It's still easy to "have it all" in the Wind Rivers (or even Yosemite National Park) if one is simply aware of the issue and willing to do some minimal planning around it.

And, of course, in both cases, there are other nearby scenic wonders that are not national parks, and don't have the same kind of visitation numbers anyway.  The Beartooths or the Absarokas in Wyoming and right across the border in Montana, for example, or the Gros Ventres, have much of the same scenic grandeur as the Winds or even the Tetons--without the crowds.  If Yosemite isn't your speed, have you tried the Ansel Adams or John Muir Wildernesses right next door?  Or even going a bit further south to King's Canyon National Park?

And this is in California, near large population centers.  Going on a summer weekday, you can still find awesome solitude... if you really want it.

That doesn't mean that the issue of the Wilderness Paradox is nonexistant, just that it's over-stated.  Could it change?  Could the situation become worse?  Of course, but I don't see that has likely in the next few decades.  Backpacking and hiking are more popular now than ever before, and the population of the US has grown tremendously in the last century.  But that growth is slowing dramatically and backpacking isn't likely to become more popular than it already is.  A few locations will always have to be sacrificial lambs; offered up to the masses to enjoy in crowds.  Places like the Grand Canyon (where you can also find solitude, if you just get off the rim roads), Yosemite Valley, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone, or a few other such places.  Even, to a lesser extent, places like Cirque of the Towers, Titcomb Basin, Thousand Island Lake, the Chicago Basin, etc. meet this criteria.  But by serving as magnets for crowds, support for the protection of wilderness grows, we have a gateway avenue to introduce our less ruggedly inclined wives and children and friends to the love of the outdoors via easily accessible, day-hike accessible spectacular scenic areas, and they serve as magnets for people, oddly allowing other nearby areas, many of equal scenic splendor, to be left alone.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Backpacking bucket list, take 2

I had earlier made a list of hikes that I was interested in.  That was retroactively dubbed my Backcountry Bucket List.  Here's the updated version, with some commentary.  A lot of these hikes are based on itineraries highlighted in Peter Potterfield's books, and may be subject to modification once I sit down to actually plan them.
  • John Muir Trail: 220 miles, 18-24 days, through Yosemite Nat Park, Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness, and King's Canyon and Sequoia Nat Parks.  The longest single trail that I would consider doing as a single, non-stop trip.  Will require nearly a month to do and several resupply stops.  To be honest, what is more likely is a trip to Yosemite Valley and Mount Whitney, combined with the Rae Lakes Loop (see below) and a short trip from Devil's Postpile to the Thousand Island Lake area.  That way I get the John Muir trail experience (at least in terms of scenery) without having to commit an entire month to the venture, or to walk over 200 miles in one go.  And I still get to see most of the highlights of the trail.
  • Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim: 44 miles, 5-7 days.  A combination of two routes in Peter Potterfield's books.  A fall or spring hike, which doesn't impinge on the mountain season, which makes it nice too.  Best done in mid October through mid November, or mid March through mid April.
  • Chesler Park: 15 miles, 3-5 days, in Canyonlands Nat Park.  Lots of other day trip options in the area as well.  This is a lazy, sight-seeing pace, which is fine by me.  Tons of day-hiking, or short overnighters in the Moab area to fill out the corners and make this a real gem of a trip.
  • Maroon Bell's Circuit: 27 miles, 4-5 days, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, CO.
  • Buckskin Gulch: 24 miles (3-4 days) in the Pariah Wilderness.  Despite the desert setting, this is best done as a summer hike, when flash flood risks are a bit reduced.  Besides, I'll be out of the sun almost the entire time.
  • Wonderland Trail: 93 miles, 12-14 days, in Mt Rainier Nat Park.  Hard to get on due to quotas and lottery.  Also, weather conditions make this a difficult one to pull off.
  • White Mountain Traverse: 53 miles (6-8 days) on a northern portion of the Appalachian Trail.  Best done early summer, before the thru-hikers hit the area.
  • Coyote Gulch: 28 miles, 3-4 days in Grand Staircase-Escalante Nat Mon.  Love this area.  Did it as a teenager, and really want to go back and see it again.
  • Teton Crest Trail: 39 miles (with some variability depending on entrance and exit strategies.)  3-5 days.  I'd probably either hike up Granite Canyon and hike back out Paintbrush, or take the tram and hike out Paintbrush.  That all depends on my ability to get the backcountry camping permits I want, though--I may have to adjust the hike slightly.
  • Yosemite Grand Traverse: 60 miles (7-8 days.)  In the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Yosemite.  A kind of "mini JMT" even though it's still one of the longer hikes on this list.
  • Little Beaver-Big Beaver Loop: 35 miles (3-4 days) in the North Cascades.  I'm not as much of a Pacific NW guy (mostly because I think Seattle and Portland are such miserable places) but I do want to see their backcountry, and this looks like a good way to do it. 
  • The Enchantments: not yet mapped out, but this is a difficult hike to do in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, mostly because of permit issues.  Lots of destinations to see.  I would probably want to make this a 3-5 day hike and take my time.
  • Beartooth Traverse: 32 miles (3-5 days) through Montana's Beartooth Mountains.  I'll also drive through them this coming summer on the Beartooth Highway. 
  • Fish Canyon-Owl Canyon Loop: 17 miles through the Grand Gulch Primitive area in southern Utah, near Monticello.  Still relatively crowd free and offers much of what is best about Southern Utah.
  • Sawtooth Traverse: 28 miles--3-4 days in Idaho's Sawtooth.  The "traverse" is specifically referring to a Peter Potterfield agenda, but I'd probably pore over a map and make my own route.
  • Shoal Falls Loops: 19 miles in the Gros Ventres; this would be a great warm-up hike before the Teton Crest Trail!
  • Art Loeb Trail: 33 miles in the Shining Rock Wilderness and thereabouts.  Highly desireable in October for the fall color, although April would also be very nice. 
  • Mount Rushmore-Harney Peak Loop: 25 miles in the Black Elk Wilderness; this would be a relatively easy hike that doesn't have me traveling quite as far, and I can do it in the shoulder seasons.  Early summer (before snowmelt in the higher mountains) is probably ideal.  May or June.
  • High Uintas Basins-Utah Highline Trail: up to nearly 90 miles if I do the entire Highline trail; more likely half that, as I explore highlights of the Uintas.  Maybe even more than one trip.  I'd also love to summit King's Peak while I'm at it.
  • Mirror Lake and Eagle Cap: 30 miles in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of eastern Oregon.  An easy walk-up peak to boot.  Not yet well known on the major hiking circuit, so hopefully includes lots of solitude.
  • Rae Lakes Loop: Not much solitude on this 53 mile hike in King's Canyon Nat Park, which includes some of the highlights of the southern JMT.  Day hike or detours include Sicty Lake Basin, Vidette Meadows and Kearsarge Basin with the pinnacles.
  • Cirque of the Towers Loop: 20 miles from Big Sandy trailhead.  A heavily used but scenicly magnificent area.
  • Hobo Gulch to Grizzly and Papoose Lakes: about 45 miles in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.  Magnificent scenery.
  • South Rim Trail: 16 miles in Big Bend National Park.  Best done in the off-season: Jan or Feb.  Plus, lots of day hiking opportunities nearby to make an even bigger trip out of this.
  • Warner Mountain Loop: 45 miles in California's far northeastern corner.  Lower elevation makes for slightly longer season.