Monday, September 29, 2014

Gear experiments

Before I post details of the actual hiking in the Uintas that I did, I thought I'd take stock and talk about some of my "gear experiments" and how well they worked--or didn't.

  • Cheap vs. expensive specialty.  For the most part, I avoided expensive specialty gear from pricey brand-names like Mountain Hardware, REI, First Ascent, Marmot,  etc.  I bought my backpack in the Meijier sporting goods section for $50 fer cryin' out loud.  My conclusion, primarily, is that brand doesn't matter.  I was perfectly happy with my pack, my headlight, my sleeping pad, etc. even though they cost only a fraction of the expensive gear recommended by Backpacker Magazine (who, of course, pays their bills by advertising for backpacking gear suppliers.)  There were, however, a few notable exceptions.
  • 50L backpack plus a "fanny pack" for items I wanted to have more on hand--a lot of folks will tell you that a 50L pack for a longish expedition is pretty small.  I did OK, though--and I really liked the fanny pack addition to keep stuff handy.  I will admit that if I'd been backpacking in an area where I needed a bear canister, I'd probably have been in trouble without a 65-70L pack, though.  I kept my needs a little light by never planning on spending more than 4-5 nights out without returning to my car and moving to a new trailhead--conveniently reloading my pack while I'm at it.
  • Permethrin treated clothes.  Not sure.  I didn't get bit by any mosquitoes or ticks, certainly, but that may well be because I was there when the mosquito season was more or less over, too.  I'd like to try this experiment again.  I brought some 100% DEET spray in a pump bottle as a backup.  It ended up leaking in my pack and ruining some of my gear, by essentially starting to dissolve and destroy the plastic.  I'm not keen on bringing more again.  I'd also like to get the "real" Permethrin treated clothes; the way that bug-proof clothing actually does it, instead of the backpackers permethrin, which wears off quickly.
  • No cook food.  I'd make a few changes to my food, but not many.  This worked out well.  I was certainly tired of eating the same stuff day after day, but then again, I appreciated not having the weight of a backpackers stove, or worrying about having to prepare anything.  Most likely I will by a Jetboil Zip cooking system before I go backpacking again, but not because this particular experiment was a failure.
  • Lightweight sleeping bag with hat and base layers.  This didn't work out as well as I'd hoped.  Not because the concept is bad, but because I should have known that a 40° bag for $35 that actually performed as advertised was too good to be true.  I was cold every night; at least a little.  Next time around, I'll pick up a Kelty Cosmic Down sleeping bag--about the cheapest of the "nice" sleeping bags, and use that.  It'll probably take up a little bit more space, but not much, luckily.  Having a small sleeping bag is an important consideration.  Speaking of sleeping well, I'll also bring sleeping pills and some kind of inflatable pillow.  The worst part of my trip was not sleeping as well as I'd want, and not feeling rested the next day.  Without that, I could have had fun for several more days than I actually ended up doing.
  • Athletic shoes instead of hiking boots.  This was another mixed success.  For the most part, I enjoyed having lightweight, comfortable shoes that didn't need any breaking in.  However, it's important to note that this hiking advice was developed in the Pacific Crest Trail by through-hikers.  The PCT is famously a smooth, easy trail for walking on.  The Appalachian Trail, by contrast, is notoriously rocky, which leads to more sore feet if the soles of your shoes aren't sufficiently hard, and more possibility for turning or twisting an ankle in low-cut shoes.  Start wandering off-trail, especially in a place like the Uintas where above tree-line has a mass of loose rocks, and your possibility for an ankle injury goes up dramatically.  I spent some time on steep scree slopes, and I did not feel secure in my ability to withstand ankle injuries.  My shoes ended up being a limiting factor that contributed to my lack of success (and later, lack of attempts) on any of the summits in the Uintas.  Of course, it's not a false binary--$35 athletic shoes at J.C. Penny's (what I ended up spending) or $300 Asolo boots, of course.  For my next excursion, I'd like to split the difference, and get some high-top hiking shoes of an athletic variety.  I mentioned earlier some Cabela's XPG mid-hikers as a strong contender for what I'd like.  New Balance also has some that are about the same price, and another pair that are even cheaper (albeit also lower--but probably high enough to protect my ankles if they start to roll a little.)
  • I'm also going to ditch the rain pants.  I didn't get any really hard rain, but even if I had, I think the Frog Toggs jacket would have been sufficient.  My hiking clothes are sufficiently quick drying that I'm not worried about sitting around wet and catching hypothermia or anything like that.  To be honest with you, I didn't even use the jacket except for a brief moment the first day--it was sprinkling when I started out.  I ended up putting the jacket away after about 45 minutes or so of walking and never got it out again, even when I got caught in some other rain storms.  But like I said, I never ended up hiking in any really strong, hard rain either.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff National Monument

Last time I posted, I was all packed and ready to go.  I've now been back home for almost a month.  Time to start talking a bit about my trip!

I road-tripped to the Rockies from my home in the northern Midwest.  One advantage to this was that I could see things on the way.  I stopped for the first night of driving in mid-Nebraska.  It occurred to me that if I got off the interstate, I wasn't really going very far out of my way to see Scott's Bluff; a location I'd always wanted to see both because it's kinda fun and scenic, and because it's historical, as a pivotal location on three pioneer trails; the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and the Mormon Pioneer Trail.  Not only did I stop at a few historical markers in Hwy 92 (namely Ancient Bluff Ruins and the Brigham Young North Platte River crossing site) but what I really stopped for and got out and walked a bit were at Chimney Rock and the National Monument itself.  Chimney Rock doesn't have any maintained trails, but there is a small visitor center.  If you continue past the visitor center to the small dirt road to the right, you can go to a small turnaround, where there is a use trail (i.e., not maintained, but developed by persistent use) that heads to the base of the monument.

I didn't follow this trail all the way to its conclusion.  Not expecting it to be there, I wasn't really dressed for it, namely I was wearing shorts and the trail is thin and marches through unmowed thick prairie grass.  I did walk far enough to take some pretty decent pictures of the rock itself, and it looks like it continued all the way to the base of the rock were there is a small marker or some sort.  I'd really like to get back to the spot again (maybe with my family; showing them some history as well as some scenery to boot is always a worthwhile activity, right?) and walk all the way up to the marker, at least.  Just need to remember to wear long pants!
Chimney Rock approach.  I didn't have any camera batteries, sadly, at the time, so I had to take pictures with digital zoom on my phone, which are poor quality.  Sorry!

The scenery behind the rock.

More scenery behind Chimney Rock.  If you panned your view about a quarter turn to the right, Chimney Rock would be more or less centered directly in front of you.

Chimney Rock while approaching it on foot.

Closer up view.  You can just see the small marker at the base of the rock.  Unfortunately, as I said above, I didn't get much closer to it than this.
My stop at Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff National Monument was a bit constrained; although I started the morning pretty early, I had to finish this part of the trip and get back on the interstate before it got too late, because I was due at my sister-in-law's house later in the evening on the eastern end of the Uinta Mountains.  If I'd had long pants, I would have walked at least as far as the small marker you can see in the image above, but I didn't, so I turned around and came back quickly to I could proceed a few more miles into Gering, NE and from there to the Monument.

Scott's Bluff National Monument is relatively small.  There's a road that runs straight through it, and a small visitors' center.  From there, you can park your car and hike up to the top of the bluff itself, where there are a few smaller loop trails.  Or, if you're in a rush, you can drive up to a parking area near the top of the bluff and take the loop trails from there.  Because I was concerned about time, I drove to the top, but as it turned out, I hiked almost all of the way down the trail and back up again.  Next time around, I'll probably not even bother with driving to the top.

The entrance.
Either way, you can see most of what there is to see in just a couple of hours or so.  Scott's Bluff is not a pristine wilderness, it's a few hiking trails on a large rock formation next to two small but attractive little towns, surrounded by a vast sea of prairie.  From the top, you can easily see Gering and Scottsbluff, the two towns, as well as the North Platte River, a few other more distant rock formations (including Chimney Rock), and on extremely clear days, some of the distant mountains of Wyoming across the border.
Mormon handcart replica.

Famous view of Eagle Rock and the wagon replica.
Eagle Rock and a different wagon.

The wagon, but instead of Eagle Rock the slightly more distant Scott's Bluff itself...

The hike up the side of the monument is a scenic one, you get to see the saddle from up close, and you get to walk along a trail that hugs the sheer sides of the bluff too.  There is a small pedestrian tunnel that bores through the monument.  The early part of the hike is thus on the south side, but it finishes up on the north side.  It doesn't end at the parking lot, but rather at a far extremity of the north loop hike on the top.

At the Visitor Center looking at Mitchell Pass

Climbing the bluff on the hiking trail, you can see views like this.

Approaching the saddle on the trail.

The rocks of the saddle.  This is as close as you can get to these rocks without ignoring the signs and the rangers and pressing on across the top of the rocks.  I didn't elect to do that.  :)
On the north side of the bluff trail.

South side summit views. with a clear view of the tunnel that bores through the bluff for the hiking trail.

Visitors center from the south summit loop.

North side summit loop.  I tried to catch a hawk in flight here, but I missed.  Still, a nice view.

Further north side summit view.

The actual summit marker.

 After this, I drove to Vernal, UT, which was pretty fun too.  I was on the interstate most of the time, but got off to drive through Flaming Gorge to get to Vernal.  You can't go to Vernal and not look at some dinosaurs.  I didn't go to Dinosaur National Monument (although I'd love to on another trip sometime!) but I did see the dinosaur museum in Vernal itself.

The national monument straddles the Utah/Colorado border and is actually better known as a scenic destination than one that's really all about the dinosaurs.  It was uplifted in the same orogeny that created the Uintas (although the origin of the rock itself is different, it's usually considered the far eastern vanguard of the Uinta Mountains).

Although in spite of that, of course, a number of very productive fossil beds have been found in the area.
My niece in front of a Stegosaurus skeleton.

Allosaurus fragilis.  Always one of my favorites.  And part of my niece's head...