Ski: Bloody Couloir

The alarm was set for 4:10, but it never went off. I was up at 3:59, having heard Mark’s wake-up call beat mine to the punch. I felt strangely awake and ready to go – equal parts full-moon-so-bright-you-could-read-at midnight and never having really gone to sleep.

I love sleeping out. With no tent between you and nature, you’re exposed (literally) to the side of the world that wakes up when you go to bed. And sure, you get the normal nocturnal fauna – the sound of a jackrabbit near your head is terrifying until you identify it, BTW – but this night, I was also visited by a lesser-known species: the truck RIPPING right past your bivy site at 40 miles an hour! Wow! I went to bed sure that I would hear anything coming from a long distance (wheels on dirt/gravel, all that), but I didn’t wake up until this vehicle was literally passing 8 feet from my head. I was terrified!

Anyway, back to 4am. It was warm – warmer than it was a few hours earlier, for certain, and I was worried that we hadn’t gotten a hard freeze. We were still about 6,000 feet below the high point of the day, so our weather wasn’t necessarily indicative of what we’d find above, but it still concerned me. The full moon sped the final packing of the bags, we were soon on our way up the Laurel Lakes road, en route to the day’s objective: Bloody Couloir.

Progress is quick on this old mining road. Sure, it’s even faster if you are able to drive some or all the way up it, and many do – at least those with high-clearance 4WD – but even though we were probably taking the longest of all approaches (ever), the miles were coming relatively easy.

As the sun came up over the White Mountains behind us, the world began to awaken, and we came around a bend to our first view of Bloody Couloir. It looked downright close!

looking upcanyon to the couloir

The road was used for mining in the distant past, but it now serves outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe: skiers, hikers, fishermen, and those that just like ruining a perfectly good vehicle suspension.

Eventually arriving at a few large switchbacks, you too may find yourself having to convince your partner that these switchbacks, while yes, technically “longer” in distance, are a sure thing. He will counter that the (still frozen snowfield) that cuts them is shorter. Ensure that you persevere in this debate. While no doubt a viable or even preferred route in the winter with good snow conditions, the road is clearly the way to go in spring.

After crossing a few snowfields, the largest of which necessitating a change to boots and use of axes, you’ll come to the gate. Now, if you’ve just walked nearly 5.5 miles and more than 4,500 feet of vertical gain with skis on your back, seeing the gate is kind of a conflicting experience. On the one hand, the gate means that you’re at the base of the couloir. On the other hand, the gate means that some people are able to drive here, and you’re kind of an idiot for having walked it. Or at least that’s the way I felt.

We planned to take the line to looker’s left of the vertical rock pillar in the couloir and set out. The snow was still firm and had clearly gone through a hard freeze the night before. Bonus. It was also clearly warming – fast – and we could see remnants of a wet slide higher up, and a big rock release near the middle of the apron. Negative bonus.

The whole apron is skinnable, and has a great mellow angle for making good time. Things were looking up. Or rather, I should have been looking up more often. We’d seen small (golf ball and baseball) sized rocks careening down the apron past us since we’d started, and occasionally heard the sound of rockfall, but it had never risen above a level of nuisance. That is, until the time I looked up while making a turn in my skin track and literally shouted “OH SHIT!”. There was a desktop PC-sized (strange reference, I know, but it works) sized rock FLYING towards me, and I had only looked up in time to see it in its final 50 feet before it intercepted my elevation. I knew in an instant that I could not dodge it effectively and simply tried to crouch. The rock whizzed past me, missed Mark, and continued down to the base of the apron.

I was spooked. Some trip reports had talked about rockfall in the sub-couloir to looker’s right. Yeah… I could see why. If that rock had made contact, it could have been fatal, simply owing to the incredible speed it had acquired by the time it reached us. I decided it was time to stow the skis and boot up, thinking that it would allow me to keep my eyes ahead/up more often than skinning. The tactic seemed to work, though while there were more small rocks, we saw only that one killer missle.

In the end though, it proved enough to be our undoing. By the time we reached the base of the pillar, we surveyed the totality of the situation. The rockfall had freaked us out, and would likely intensify in the right sub-couloir along with the temperature. The left sub-couloir was filled with large, ulgly, wet slide debris. Not only not fun to ski, but clear evidence of a propensity to slide. The snow, while still in good shape, was going to be subject to rapid warming from the ambient temperature rise.

It was a tough decision, but we knew that this wasn’t the day to take it to the top. We paused at the foot of the pillar dividing the two sub-couloirs, ate and drank a bit, and pulled the skins off our skis. As we fueled up, we saw the guys we KNEW were somewhere behind us (they were in the truck that woke me up, and we had passed them, still sleeping, on our hike in) hit the bottom of the apron. We went through the drop-in rituals: boots to ski mode, bindings locked down, poles lengthened, and cast lots for who got to go first. I dropped in a little aggressively – the angle was mellow at about 30-35 degrees, and I expected the snow to be much softer than it actually was, but it was a fine wide-open line… all 60 seconds of it.

A long walk for a short, mellow, ski for sure, but one that remains on my tick list – to be done from the top.

Postscript: the walk out kinda sucks. That is, of course, if you’re like us and had to walk ALL THE WAY back out to the turnoff for the Laurel Lakes road. Fortunately, a kind soul let us jump in the back of his pickup for about the last half of the journey. Absolutely spent, we headed for Mammoth, visions of a shower and pizza dancing in our heads.

Beta:

It pays to take a high-clearance vehicle to cut out some/most/all of the approach. I will never again do this with the approach that we tried (park at the Laurel Lakes turnoff and walk…. walk…. walk…).

We both agreed that this would probably be an awesome two day tour in the winter, given the ability to ski back out to the car on day two.

Rockfall in the couloir is very real.

Postscript:

The next day we went to extra innings and hit Mammoth. Absolutely UNREAL corn conditions from 8a-11a.

Yours Truly, in Hangman's Hollow

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Run: Marin Headlands (Old Bunker / Coastal / Wolf Ridge / Miwok)

5 miles // 1350′ gain/loss

This is a great run for:

-holding a max HR

-working on downhill speed.

Bay Area > Marin Headlands > Rodeo Valley Trailheads

MAP HERE:

http://www.hillmap.com/m/agtzbG9wZW1hcHBlcnIQCxIIU2F2ZWRNYXAY9KsBDA

Directions:

Take the Alexander Av. exit from the 101. Take a left on Bunker Road and follow the main valley to the right turn marked “Roads Division” just at the crest of a hill with Rodeo Lagoon on your left. Park on the road or in the Marine Center overflow parking. Run through the car gate at the end of the road, headed west, on old pavement.

From here, follow signs for COASTAL TRAIL, eventually hitting some stairs (!). When nearing the top of the hill (and fully experiencing hypoxic hallucinations), you’ll see WOLF RIDGE TRAIL on your LEFT. You can go up and tag HILL 88 (recommended – very weird James Bond set-esque place, though recent extensive rehab is taking a lot of the “spook” out of it). Follow WOLF RIDGE TRAIL until it ends at MIWOK TRAIL. Turn RIGHT on MIWOK, following it back down in to the valley. At your FIRST INTERSECTION, turn RIGHT, following a flat trail back to Rodeo Lagoon.

See if you can maintain a run – any speed will do – through the entire uphill portion (I do not run the serpentine scree at the top of the Coastal Trail stairs) and really open it up on the downhill section.

One of my favorite short (brutal) runs in the world.

Coastal Trail Stone Stairs

View (North) from Wolf Ridge

Hill 88

Hike: Grand Canyon

Tonto Plateau looking north, east of Tonto/Boucher Junction

Tonto Plateau looking north, east of Tonto/Boucher Junction

Jen and I knew that we wanted to spend her (two week!) Spring Break outside, neither of us had ever been to the Grand Canyon, and it was on her list of things to do in 2009, so our choice was easy. In our usual hyperbolic fashion we took to calling the trip GC09, GCSB2k9, or other semi-random permutations of the characters G,C,S,B,2, and 9.We are a little long on enthusiasm sometimes.

Planning wasn’t bad. I simply fired up my search engine of choice, et voila! I found this gentleman’s very helpful website (http://www.bobspixels.com/kaibab.org/bc/hikelist.htm), containing a list of trip itineraries and mileages, along with suggested number of days to complete. Funny enough, opening it again just now, I see this prominent statement quite high on the page:

“Please use caution when planning your backcountry trip, check the trail descriptions and make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into.”

No thanks! I’ll just find something that fits our desired trip length and go blindly from there. Ok? Ok. Great. Thanks again.

We settled on a 4 day itinerary, tracing roughly a loop.

Day One:

Hermit’s Rest Trailhead

Dripping Springs Trail

Boucher Trail

Boucher Creek Campsite

Day Two:

Day trip to the Colorado river

Boucher Creek Campsite

Day Three:

Tonto Trail (east)

Boucher Rapids Campsite

Day Four:

Hermit Trail

Dripping Springs Trail

Hermit’s Rest Trailhead

Of course I immediately excluded all trips including the so-called “corridor trails” – the superhighways of the canyon – trails wide enough to walk three abreast, full of mule dung, and offering semi-luxurious accommodation (if not large campgrounds with running water) at regular intervals. We are not the bourgeois of the outdoors! We do not need your trail improvements and access to “emergency services”! Ha! The very idea of these well-trod paths seemed at once pathetic and worthy of contempt. We would instead find some random little piece of the canyon to call our own – something sure to offer a unique Grand Canyon experience, inaccessible simply by choice to those unwilling to buy a map and strike out on their own. We, you see, are explorers.

Oh, how wrong I was.

So having chosen our adventure,  I dutifully sent off for permits and generally let other things in life take over, knowing that we had two months or so until the trip was upon us. Then it came: a fat envelope from the National Parks Service! We got our itinerary approved with no modifications! Success! I then dug a little deeper into the package to find that they had helpfully included brief one-page  descriptions for each trail that we’d be using. Great! I love narrative. But what’s this? In the Boucher trail description the NPS opined thusly: The Boucher challenges even experienced Canyon hikers. The trail consists of tough, tedious traverses linked together by knee-destroying descents, with a section of exposed hand and toe climbing thrown in for good measure.

(me with a look of sliiiight consternation on my face).

The leaflet ended with this: IMPORTANT NOTES: The Boucher trail is arguably the most difficult and demanding of the south side trails. The overall condition of the trail, especially in the Supai and Redwall formations, presents an obvious hazard. The trail through the Supai is hard to follow when covered with fresh snow. Map reading skills are essential. The Boucher is best left to highly experienced Canyon hikers.

(me feeling a bit… what’s the word? irresponsible?, rash? over-ambitious and under-informed?)

So…. Jen and I are not precisely experienced Canyon hikers. This is our first time, as you recall. And well, Jen has this thing with heights…. Yeah… she does not “do heights”, so ummm…. TO THE INTERNET!

A blatantly tardy web search revealed trip reports where people spoke of the Boucher as a “moderately hazardous route involving a brief section of exposed scrambling”. Others, though, showing perhaps less restraint in their choice of words called it “a potentially deadly undertaking”. Well, this, as you can imagine, had me a bit worried.

Shall we try to amend the permit (he asks his ever-patient partner)? No, says she, let’s stick with the plan. I mean, they let people take this trail. How bad can it be?

With that, the weeks rolled by. Food and other sundry items were purchased at the local REI (why no dividend on food purchases?!?), reservations for fido made at the GC Kennel (no dogs allowed below the rim), and soon enough the car is packed and we are on the road, taking I-40 across the Mojave desert towards Flagstaff, killing innumerable butterflies on the way. Our hearts are light! The audiobooks are playing, the gas stations all offer a selection of cold drinks to rival that of any minor African despot’s palace, and we are on VACATION.

Our first “real” stop was Flagstaff. Neither of us had been before and we both came away really liking the town – a good progressive vibe and REALLY good Thai food will get you a long way with us, though. We planned to crash on Forest Service land north of town and south of the park, and I had secured directions to a cool-looking little spot in the shadow of Arizona’s highest point, Humphrey’s Peak, beforehand. When we got there, though (in pitch darkness), a gate blocked our way. Oh well, said I, let’s just throw a tent up here a little ways off the road. It’s all Forest Service land, so camping is permitted except where otherwise explicitly indicated. Good plan! Except  for when Jenna came across what by all accounts looked like a gravesite while we looked for the best place to put up a tent. Come on, people. I don’t need this. She’s a girl. Shes allowed to be creeped out by this stuff. Me? I just have to PRETEND that I’m fine with sleeping near a gravesite in the middle of nowhere.

Well, we weren’t blair witched during the night, so the next (cold!) morning we took a beautiful walk through the forest towards Hart’s Meadow. Streams were partially frozen, the dog was running and jumping, and we were en route to adventure. After our walk, we entered the park, which looked to us a lot like a big forest. The Grand Canyon National Park isn’t the Tetons or RMNP, or any number of other parks where you can see the “why” from a great distance. Instead, GCNP is a whole lot of “oh, that’s nice” until you are literally yards away from the rim, at which point you kind of get quieter and realize that there was a reason you came after all, and oh by the way, this is pretty spectacular. So we killed the day geting a rat-sack (so rodents don’t eat all your food from your backpack), dropping the dog off, and sorting gear in our campsite in hurricane-force winds.

One cafeteria-style meal and a night of sleep interrupted by the campers next to us showing up loudly, vomiting, and then proceeding to boot and rally, the beginning of the adventure was upon us. Oh, and 4 inches of new snow was upon us as well. Seeing snow in the high desert is always really cool.

Srrrsly!

We passed the gate on the way out to Hermit’s Rest (they give you the code in your permit), and after each of us made all of our final preparations, we were on the trail at about 9am, now only patches of snow remaining but the air temperature hovering in the high 40’s. The Dripping Springs trail lets you know where you’re going in a hurry: down. The trail is like a yellow-brick road in to the canyon, replete with hand-fitted paving stones quarried locally. The trail was constructed by and for the Hermit trail’s namesake: Henry Boucher.

Boucher Stairs

Boucher was actually not a hermit at all, but that’s gonna be the rap you get if you’re a dude who builds a house damn near the bottom of an isolated corner of the Grand Canyon. The trail switchbacks down and down and down to a large sandy tarn after about 30 minutes, marking the trail junction for the Dripping Springs and Hermit Trails.

Hermit/Dripping Springs Sign

Here we stayed on Dripping Springs, but would return to this  same junction via the Hermit Trail on the return. Dripping Springs gains a bit of elevation here, then begins a sometimes spectacular traverse of a very remote-feeling piece of the canyon. One never gets expansive views, but there is a lot of vertical relief to be seen. After another hour or so on the DST, there is a subtle junction with an inconspicuous sign for the Boucher Trail.

Boucher/Dripping Springs Sign

The Boucher Trail, at this point is an indistinct footpath through a drainage, providing the first taste of what an unmaintained (no trail crew in 40+ years) trail in the Grand Canyon looks like. The BT immediately cuts up and across a fairly narrow plateau, offering a completely different flora than we’d seen so far. Microclimates in the desert aren’t so pronounced as in coastal climates, but to see the subtle variations in life based on sun/shade and aspect was very cool.

The plateau continues narrowing until completely interrupted by a rockslide of car-sized  boulders. The path across is trivial (for me, Ryan) but requires a bit of routefinding and easy downclimbing. We ended up stopping here to eat lunch.

First View

The mild dread of when we’d encounter the principal difficulties and exposure had not yet consumed us completely, but did accompany us through every blind turn. Jenna has a serious aversion to heights, and the trip descriptions we’d read on the internet were a recurring theme of conversation. The topo wasn’t precise about when exactly we would hit what others had decided was so deadly, since they provided elevation on an absolute basis, while trail descriptions (and experienced canyon hikers) calibrate height in the canyon according to which rock strata one is in.

Red flower (I am ignorant)

Lizard (again, ignorant)

Having passed the easy scrambling, both of us wanted to believe that the worst was passed. The spring in our step was dampened pretty quickly when we met another party coming up trail (the only other group we would see, in fact, on the Boucher Trail), who asked unnecessarily salacious questions like “have you guys done this trail before”, and upon hearing that we had not, informed us that “it’s like, so dangerous back there. if you slipped you might die”.

I went in to damage control mode. I pointed out that we’d read different opinions on the seriousness, that people tend to play up the excitement of something that they’ve recently done and are proud of, and finally, the fact that they did not look like wizened veterans of the canyons. These were no desert rats, attuned to the fickle balance of life and nature’s whim in a place where humans are at a natural disadvantage. Nay, these were the folk of GAP sweatshirts and non-load bearing carabiners holding myriad camp accoutrement to an already bloated external frame pack. In short, we were hearing from the farm team of canyon walkers. We, Jen and I, we were a cut above.

The descent, in retrospect

It was with some amount of dread, though, that we made progress across the next hour or so of non-descript traversing, always scouting the route ahead for where the inevitable but unenviable break came in the Supai. Finally, it was upon us – a loose gully dropping down at more than a 45 degree angle. Well, Jen soon blacked out, an emotional mixture of fear on one hand and blind trust in my ability to guide her through the ordeal on the other. From my perspective, this was a trivial 3rd class downclimb through short sandstone towers and semi-consolidated scree. From Jenna’s perspective, we were making out with Death after the lights were flippped for last call in a bar you’d never been to before but with great drink specials, all of our friends having left an hour ago. In other words, a really bad idea gone too far to abort. Suffice to say that there were alternate bouts of crying and pleading, punctuated by whatever response I thought would work best in the moment, and yes, I ran the whole range:

ANGRY: Get a hold of yourself! You need to be sharp right now! There is no place for emotion. Cry later, focus now!

EMPATHETIC: I totally get that this is scary. Just go slow and you’ll be fine.

GUIDING: Your right foot goes here. Turn around. Do this part facing the rock. This block is loose.

BARGAINING: If  you do this we’ll never have to do it again. It’s over after this, babe.

CONFIDENCE BUILDING: That’s it! Great work! See, you’re doing it! Just one more step! Great! Now again, here. Goooood.

And in the end, the attitude that works most often in life was the right one here as well: calm and assertive. Jen was still freaking out, but trusting that I didn’t take her here so she could die, and we were making progress – never really stalled out long enough for her to completely melt down.

In all, the gully probably loses 300 feet of elevation, after which it dumps you pretty unceremoniously in to a broader drainage. This is the routefinding crux of the entire route, and we while we didn’t blow it, we definitely wasted some time. It’d be impossible to describe how to do it right (or even how to do it wrong), but the path here varies between pure cross country travel and very faint use trail. This is the only place where one could get cliffed out by following the wrong path, and though consequences are low if one does choose incorrectly, I think most people are mentally ill-equipped for any disappointment at this point in the day.

Having picked our way through this last tricky section, I, silently, was worrying about the amount of daylight remaining. Jen was totally baked, moving along but fully exhausted by the mental toll of the descent. Now, at least, only Travertine Canyon lie between us and our objective.

In some act of cosmic recompense, the next logical place to stop after the descent is on a pleateaued penninsula just before White’s Butte. This is a dry campsite but must be one of the most spectacular that we’d seen. Huge boulders dotted the landscape and expansive views to the east had us thinking, in our totally mentally friend state, about posting up for the night. The distance to our intended campsite convinced us to press on.

Unfortunately, we were doing our map-reading with a Trails Illustrated 100 foot contour map. While the Travertine Canyon descent looked, well, manageable, a USGS quad would have told the real story – endless swithbacks down nearly 2000 feet still stood between us and the end of our day. But hell, who am I kidding? The contours were there on my map, all 20 of them. I just didn’t want to cop to reality.

The relief of knowing that we’d passed the technical crux soon gave way to the quad-destroying reality of a 2000′ foot descent (in about a horizontal mile) to END your day. We were cooked. Talk of dinner did nothing to brighten things. Footing seemed precarious, even when it wasn’t, simply by virtue of carrying full packs on tired legs. Talk of headlamps may have happened. Honey was eaten. And finally, after a somewhat demoralizing trail junction with the Tonto (Jen was not happy to be passing in descent what we’d only have to climb to return to in order to continue the loop), we made it to a beautiful little patch of tent sites along a stream. Or rather, a creek. Boucher creek, to be precise.

We woke up the next day incredibly thankful that we’d planned a full day at Boucher Creek. Jenna, the first day, had kept saying that she felt like we weren’t TRULY in the canyon yet. Our day trip to the Colorado River proved that we were indeed IN the canyon, and could not get any more IN THE CANYON, as the freaking river was the BOTTOM OF THE CANYON by default. Overall a cool experience more for the opportunity to see the geological force that created the entire thing rather than a destination unto itself.

The rest of the day was spent scrabbling (our big weight luxury item for the trip was travel scrabble, a very thoughtful Christmas gift from John), reading, and hanging out in the little pools of Boucher Creek. There was one other group in the area the first evening but we had this incredible and remote place all to ourselves the second night.

Day three dawned and found us shouldering our pack for the easiest of our hiking days: a traverse across the Tonto plateau. I had gone up on a restless-legs reconnaissance mission the day before around sunset to find one of the most magical and peaceful places I’ve ever found on the earth. Even better, it was damn near flat up there! The panoramic at the top of the post is from the Tonto Plateau.

Jen cruising the Tonto

In the end, the magic of the place was far more inspiring than the topography. Our legs were fresh and we were able to chug along at a great clip while enjoying incredible open vistas and a great selection of wildflowers. There is one sketchy section for those that don’t like heights; a weird little jog around a decomposing pinnacle/slope, but otherwise this is an area and a trail where you can make major mileage in fantastic surroundings.

We pulled in to our final campsite, Hermit Creek, fairly early in the day, jarred by the first signs of civilization. Multiple tents? Graded sites? Composting toilet (that was only kind of working…)? It felt like an RV park compared to our isolated and totally primitive experience of the previous few nights. Hermit Creek Campsite did come with the dual benefit of being situated in an incredible, improbably lush, canyon, and sitting right at the junction of the trail that would take us out the next day.

Beautiful Hermit Creek Campsite Tree

The afternoon was spent swimming in the even larger pools of Hermit Creek (where the fingerling fish nibble at you!) and, predictably, reading and playing scrabble. For the first time below the rim, wind was again a factor, brink enough that it forced us to cook inside the tent.

We had decided to go with an alpine start to beat the heat on the long climb out. Funny how a 430 wake up call is much easier in the desert than the mountains (in the mountains I’m usually cold and full of excuses at 430). Up and making our final pack preparations at by headlamp and under a bright moon, we hit the trail at first light around 530 am.

At least you know what you’re in for on a walk out of the Grand Canyon – you’re going up. The Hermit Trail “was built to serve a luxury campsite near Hermit Creek. Hermit Camp predated Phantom Ranch by 10 years, and in its heyday was complete with a tramway from the rim, a functional automobile for transportation within the facility, and a Fred Harvey chef. Operations ceased in 1930, but for two decades Hermit Camp was the last word in gracious tourism below the rim.”

The HT headed out is defined for most hikers by a feature known as the Cathedral Staircase. Unfortunately for Jenna, it was also marked by another feature: the angle of repose slope. This formerly high-tech, semi-paved, trail, without maintenance, has degraded so completely in parts that it is nothing more than singletrack beat in to a decomposing scree field. I think that without the first day’s experience, the Hermit wouldn’t have caused a second thought, but after our trip in on the Boucher, nerves were raw and some of these areas seemed daunting.

Jen and I strategized before we started the hike: we would take the flats as fast as possible but manage to breathing and heart rate on the major inclines. Soon enough we hit the Cathedral Staircase and were pushing but not redlining. Both of us had our own best reason to get out; I wanted a beer and Jenna wanted to be anywhere NOT associated with the words steep, exposed, or treacherous. The subsequent flats and steady climbs were fairly a blur. When we met a group of three ladies hiking down and asked them how long they’d been walking since the rim we were incredulous when they responded with a figure of 1.5 hours. Our exact goal or expectation for outbound hiking time has been forgotten, but we knew then that we were motoring. The dogs had been loosed. Instead of dreaming about dinner, we were dreaming about lunch, and instead of sleeping another night in the main campground on the rim, we started to talk about how far west we could drive.

Soon enough we came across Santa Maria spring (which would be a way cool dayhike, complete with rest area and ROCKING CHAIR!), ate some more honey, and began the final push. We breezed through the Dripping Springs / Hermit junction we’d passed through on the way in without so much as a pause to reflect and were back on the Yellow Brick road that had carried us in.

The climb was a slog, yes, but motivation was high. Occasional dayhikers wanted to stop and talk about where we’d been and how long we’d been in the backcountry, but Ma and Pa Kettle couldn’t compete with the allure of another bland cafeteria lunch and beers while wearing anything but trail runners.

In the end it wasn’t a cafeteria meal but a trip to the Deli that made it all worthwhile (we ate most of the food between them handing it to us and getting to the register). We were satisfied – me that I’d finally “done” the Grand Canyon (and via a respectable route, at that) and Jen simply to have survived it.

We went to the kennel, picked up a dog that had apparently been unwilling to poop for 4 full days of our absence, and spun tires back towards Flagstaff and our next destination: the East Side of the Sierra Nevada.

All those stories and more in the next posts…

Hike: Sitton Peak

Sitton Peak sits at 3,273 ft. in the Cleveland National Forest. A fine enough half-day outing; don’t miss te Ortega Oaks Candy Store at the trailhead – just stick with the candy and pastries: the sandwiches aren’t that incredible (though they are a throwback at $4.25).

We hit water at Pigeon Spring (enough for the dog, anyway) and passed a total of probably 50 cub scouts – some coming out after a dayhike, others camping and making the summit push that afternoon.

I’d recommend Bear Ridge trail rather than Bear Canyon in all but extremely hot weather, though doing this exposed and dry route in hot weather is not advised in any case. Bear Ridge has much better views and adds a trivial amount of distance and vertical to the overall hike.

Hike: Solstice Canyon

First real walk with our new addition, Didi.

DiDi is an Australian Cattle Dog, between one and a half and two years old, about a week out of the San Pedro dog pound. Her original name was to be Darwin Drover, though that was selected when we thought Didi was a he. She is not. Yes, there are many obvious questions here, but just… we were wrong.

At once a very typical ACD (smart) but also garners comments from all who know the breed about how calm she is. She’s been great for us and we were happy to reward her with some trail time.

Solstice Canyon is a beautiful little walk just off PCH –  many other websites have the details so I’ll spare them here and limit my commentary to saying that this is a great place to take a walk in the winter, and one of the most verdant canyons I’ve seen around L.A.

We walked in hours after the last of LA’s fairly torrential rains in the second week of February 2009 and had the entire walk in to ourselves. The rain, though, had turned the creek in to a fairly raging river, forcing us to miss the ruins in the back of the canyon and retrace our steps back to the car.

Hike: Kalalau Trail in a day

22 miles // 10,000 feet gain/loss

South Pacific Ocean > Hawai’i > Kaua’i > Napali Coast State Park

Kauai is the ultimate embodiment of a place that’s wonderful to spend a week or ten days of your life while being totally unsuitable for long-term habitation. At least for me, though the thousands of denizens and untold millions more longing to move there contradict my sentiment. Our time on the island was great – the perfect mix of active and passive – and the highlight of my activity was the Kalalau trail.

I can’t quite remember how I even became aware of the Kalalau. I’d probably searched for Kauai trail runs or some such nonsense, only to come across this  masochistic gem of a dayhike.

The trail is 22 miles along the Na’Pali coast, round trip, from Ke’e beach (the road’s end on the north side of the island), to Kalalau beach, gaining and losing about ten thousand feet of vert (!) for good measure.

While the intervening years have made any sort of running commentary a bit of a stretch for my memory, I can share the following with  anyone sizing this excursion up:

-I did this in June. Temperatures were hot but far from unmanageable, but I do wish that I had carried electrolyte tablets or gel.

-I missed the near-clockwork afternoon rains, but am confident that they would have turned the tone of the trip much darker (see below).

-Consider getting a pre-dawn start and using a headlamp. The trail is easy to follow, provided you have a map. I did not.

-If you, like me, decide to strike out on this walk without a map, DO NOT GO HIGH on the grass path immediately out of the parking lot at Ke’e! Although the trail is basic and fairly idiot-proof, the first 1/2 mile is the only bit that threw me. Instead of going high, stay along the shore on the very well-trodden dirt path with views of the small Ke’e bay. Taking the high trail leads  to some exceedingly interesting (and also spoooky, given my early start and solitude) indigenous ruins and waterfalls (dry in May), but this ain’t where you want to be. Visit this another day, or perhaps on your way back.

-Cache Water: I carried 3 liters of water, plus a tallboy can of Arizona Green Tea. This, in retrospect, was definitely a sub-optimal amount given the heat and length of exertion. I could have made the whole endeavor easier, however, by stashing part of my water for the return trip along the trail, perhaps halfway in (i.e. at a quarter of the total distance).

-Carry enough water: Roughly 3.5 liters of water was not enough for summer conditions. I was hallucinating and losing coordination in the final 2 hours of the hike, and I this was at a time when I regularly ran 3+ hour trail runs at an 8:30 pace in the Marin Headlands (similar topography). When you do the hike on the way in, you’re likely to note clearly that there are MANY portions of the trail where a complete loss of footing could be disastrous and potentially fatal. Carrying electrolytes could have mitigated some of my symptoms,  but more water is the other half of the solution.

-Don’t believe that you’re going to run. Some will – yes – but go in to it without that expectation. I expected to run/jog about half of the miles and ended up powerhiking (fresh) and dragging myself along (tired). Thoughts of running were dashed quickly by the roots and rocks endemic to the trail. Also, while I’m comfortable with exposure, there are a good many “no fall” stretches on this trail simply unsuitable for anything beyond a brisk walk.

The Kalalau trail in a day stands as my most gratifying single outdoor experience. I’m not sure how, given that I’ve spent most of my time in the mountains and have slowly amassed a proud amateur’s list of backcountry exploits in the Sierra Nevada.  This one day, though, tested my resolve – and rewarded it – in a singular way.

PS – feel free to have a car drop in the AM and hitchhike back to your accommodation. I held my thumb out for about 2 minutes before a couple (with child! not the kind you often think of as amicable to picking up a hitchhiker!) took pity on me.

Permit: I rolled the dice as a day-tripper. I got a away with it. Though I’m not able to find any information on the fine amount online, I imagine it’d be steep.

-Ryan

State Park Map

Permits

Backpacker Magazine Article on the Kalalau (10 most dangerous hikes feature)

Rain. Rain.

Woke up at 5:!5 yesterday to drive up to Bishop and do a 3 day ski tour. Things started good across the Antelope Valley.

rainbow in the antelope valley

rainbow in the antelope valley

5 hours later I rolled in to Bishop CA, pulled into Wilson’s East Side Sports and asked about conditions. Basically they told me that everything depended on where snowline was for the storm currently underway. Bishop is at about 4K’ in the eastern rainshadow of the Sierra. Walking out of lunch, there was not a drop of rain coming out of the sky. I jumped back in the car and headed up towards the Lake Sabrina trailhead. Rain started around 6K, and it was pouring. The trailhead, though sits at 8K, right where snowline was forecast. I drove through the tiny burg of Aspendale at 7,500′ with some trepidation – still rain, and about 30 seconds later (said it was small), pulled up to the access gate. Uh-oh. The road you see is where I was supposed to be skiing. Seriously.

Lake Sabrina Trailhead

Lake Sabrina Trailhead

Ok. I’ll just drive _further_ north to Mammoth Lakes. Back in the car and another hour later, I step out at 8.5K’ to…. rain. Fine. June Lake looks a littlle higher. I’ll try that. Another 40 minutes in the car and WHAT? It’s raining even harder here. I turned it back towards Mammoth =, now having driven about 450 miles, including my little backroad detours. It’s 3:30 and I can’t fathom doing the ride back today. I drove so far for this! So I found a coffee shop with free wifi in town, posted up, and began to look for BLM or Forest Service camping in the area. No dice, at least not in winter. The ranger mentioned that they prohibited it because of snow and mud on the roads. Screw it, I figure, I’ll just go up some FS road and throw the tent up – they’ll never find me tonight.

Well, mission accomplished. I had myself so scared that I would be stuck that my chest was tight with anxiety. I drove half an hour out past Owens River Gorge on some godfoorsaken road (home of a supposed incident where a Bigfoot killed a person!) road, so soft and so slick that I was four-wheel rally drifting the turns just to stay afloat. By the grace of god, full time AWD, and plenty of tread left on my tires, I made it out of there but was absolutely burned out. I was defeated.

But wait! What’s this? A lovely meadow, fairly near the road? It’s beautiful.

where to sleep - outside Tom's Place, CA

where to sleep - outside Tom's Place, CA

Where should I sleep? Oh, probably not here, the whole thing is a STEAMING CAULDRON. The meadow was a huge seep for a geothermal hot spring.

Near Convict Lake, CA

Near Convict Lake, CA

Fuck it. I’m driving home. It’s 7p and 350 miles. I stop at a place called Giggle Springs to fill up and get a Vitamin Water. The ignorant 16 year old girl at the counter enforces their $5 credit/debit minimum on purchases at the counter – even after I explain to her that I’ve just spent $30 outside to fill my tank. (Expletive rant from email to friends edited)

Only one nap stop in a random McDonalds on the way home before hitting Home at 12:30a – about 20 hours and 800 miles after I started.