Saturday, August 29, 2015

Backpacking the High Sierra Trail

Day 2 1

"In every walk in nature, one receives far more than he seeks" - John Muir

For most people who have spent any time in the Sierra, you get it.

Back in the January time frame, I started getting an itch to do a through hike. Partly reminiscing about my week in Utah with a splash of inspiration from Toby, Dax and Paul's JMT through hike, some ideas started-a-brewin' in my noggin. Through some odd circumstances, Toby and I ended up doing a run on Mission Trails one day (which, actually, isn't that odd), and I casually mentioned I was thinking of doing the High Sierra Trail this summer. Within about 15 seconds, Toby went from "Dude, I've always wanted to do that" to planning out at least 50% of the logistics right there on the spot (while dodging other people on the trail of course).

Fast forward about 6 months, and the High Sierra Trail delivered everything we expected it to (actually, the week before we did our little trip, mother nature delivered plenty of snow, wind and rain, but fortunately, we didn't get to experience that early Christmas gift). Granite walls and spires, waterfalls, meadows, few people, lots of elevation, bouts of low oxygen, a sense of peace and feeling small in the vastness of mother nature is always good for the mind, body and soul.

Day 2 3a

The High Sierra Trail cuts longitudinal across the Sierra Nevada, with start/finish points of Sequoia National Park and Whitney Portal - or vice versa. As there are no roads that span this area, you are left to your devices and appendages to traverse across this beautiful expanse, and quite frankly, there really is no better way to do so. For our logistics, we opted for the eastbound direction, as the gradual acclimatization would set us up (no pun) for ascending Mt. Whitney on our last day, rather than grinding up that beast right out of the gate.

Day 5 All

Full Link Here

We were reminded very quickly why we must seek out adventure and time in nature immediately upon entering the park. Not even going into the headaches of traffic entering the park on a single lane, windy road, we were quickly reminded of national park summer status when we checked in to get our permit. Noting the crowds and getting that uneasy feeling one would get at the end of a trip when dealing with assimilating into the masses, we actually opted to start our trip about 16 hours early, opting for a 6 mile trek into the first campsite. The mental crisis swiftly mitigated by Toby and a park ranger making this happen, we happily traded hairy plumbers cracks surrounding us and "guacamole" paste that better resembled something we'd see as leftovers on the trail, for the actual not-so-well-traveled (thankfully) trail.

Honestly, our trail logistics were executed near perfectly, so in the interest of letting others know what our plan was so that they may enjoy it as much as we did, here was the breakdown.

Saturday - 6 miles
Crescent Meadow to Mehrten Creek camp

Sunday - 9 miles
Mehrten Creek Camp to Hamilton Lake (these 2 days were our original first day)

Monday - 20 miles
Hamilton Lake, up over Kaweah Gap, down to Big Arroyo, quick offshoot to Moraine Lake, and ending at Kern Hot Springs

Tuesday - 16 miles
Kern Hot Sprints to Crabtree Meadow

Wednesday - 16 miles
Crabtree Meadow to Whitney Portal via Whitney Summit

Note that all camp sites had bear bins!

While below I describe the things that stuck out the most to me the trip, there was ample filler based on what you'd find on such a trip with 3 other dudes: useless and endless banter, extended bouts of quietness, sounds of cameras snapping, birds chirping, philosophical conversations, dare I say a political conversation, the ability to complete a thought, not once wishing I had cell service, struggle, elation, the sound of mountain streams, the small rustling of leaves in the subtle mountain winds, the sound of wind in the pines above you that I can only hear about 5,000ft it seems - and any other fond memory you have of being in the mountains.

Great Western Divide - Part 1 - First Viewing
Upon arriving into Bear paw high sierra camp, you start getting a hint as to what you are about to go over the next day. Spend another 5-10 minutes hiking towards it, and you are greeted with this view, and it just never gets old! Hamilton Lake is situated beneath the farthest peak (Mt. Stewart) in the center.

DSC06204 edit - Edited

Hamilton Lake
Getting to Hamilton Lake a bit on the early side of the day was nice. It is an incredibly peaceful lake, and the clouds overhead constantly went in and out of threatening to dump buckets of rain on us, to retreating to showing the craggy peaks up above. Entertainment provided by mother nature in the form of seeing bears scale rocks and an 8 point buck running through camp with a fresh claw scratch on it's side (presumably from a bear). It's one of those alpine lakes that 2/3's surrounded by mountain peaks at least 3,000 ft higher than it, forming a bowl that makes you crane your neck near constantly to the point where you realize that just laying down and taking it all in is really the best way.

Day 2 5
Hamilton Lake

Day 2 6
Mt Stewart

Day 3 1
530am wake up call

After leaving Hamilton Lake, you have a 2,000 ft climb to put you at the infamous Precipice lake

Day 3 2
Ansel Adams was here

Great Western Divide at Kaweah Gap

Shortly following that is a rather peaceful alpine meadow at 10,000ft culminating at Kaweah gap, the top of the Great Western Divide on the HST. From here, it's obvious that there had been some glacial activity prior to our arrival to carve such a large canyon for us to barrel down.

Day 3 9
Glacial effects
Day 3 8
From the other side

Mt. Whitney

This was actually my first time up at Mt. Whitney and a memorable one at that. We left the meadow around 5am, and I felt great out of the gate. With a lighter pack and fully acclimatized to the elevation, I stormed up the mountain to it's peak around 14,500ft, never really feeling the effects of having 40% less O2 than I'm used. While the summit was crowded, it wasn't as bad as the tales I had heard about in the past.

Day 5 1
Morning Stillness
Day 5 2
Alpine Glow from afar
Day 5 3
Fax and Josh powering up from Guitar Lake
Day 5 5
Day 5 12
Sunglasses and suncreen
Day 5 13
Mt Whitney's needles
Day 5 14
Reflecting on the 99 switchbacks

Couple random thoughts and nuggets to pass along 
  1. My training preparation for the trip involved consistent 20-35 mile run weeks with some hiking for about 3 months and I felt like that was sufficient. In hindsight, I definitely wished I spent more time hiking with a weighted pack with the shoes I wore during the trip, especially with the superfeet insoles. One thing I would have worked on would be leaning over less while climbing up hills. My ankles were pretty achy most mornings around 3am from dealing with the extra stress of 25+ lbs in a somewhat hunched position I wasn't used to.
  2. I was the biggest hater of trekking poles for about 4 years before this hike. It took until about day 2 before I realized how AMAZING it is to use poles, especially with a weighted pack, huffing up a 10,000 ft pass. After borrowing Paul's, I bought a pair of Black Diamond Carbon Z poles that day after I got back home!
  3. I used a 40L pack that I ordered at the last minute because I felt like my 30L pack was too small. Next thing I know, Dax, who is taller than I, was using a 32L pack and had 10 less pounds in it. 10! I didn't think I was bringing the kitchen sink, and while there were some nice to haves in there, I could definitely cut out some more things to make the weight better and also go with a smaller pack. I actually look forward to that fun little project to minimize to the essentials. Couple things worth mentioning:
    • I'd probably go with a down quilt for my next trip. Even though I'm happy with my REI Flash sleeping bag, this could cut almost a full pound out of weight not to mention less volume
    • Having a second set of clothes was a nice to have, but not necessary 
    • Bring a lightweight flask with less bourbon next time
    • "The sleeping setup". Josh and I went back and forth about how to make more apples to apples weight comparisons. For example, even though one has a really light weight sleeping bag or quilt, recognize that bivy sacks, down jackets and even pants are part of the "sleep setup" weight. Not once on this trip in mid-july did I feel like a down jacket, down sleeping bag, gore-tex pants and a bivy were all needed. But 2 out of 4, and maybe once 3 out of 4 were nice sometimes, just not all the time. It sounds obvious, but look for functional overlap to save weight (ps: this includes the dude who had a 60 lb pound, radio, camp chair and probably some of the longest days of life out there)
  4. I took a shit at the highest point in the contiguous United States
  5. We lucked out by one of Toby's friends doing the HST in the opposite direction as us at the same time, so a car swap made logistics incredibly easy.
  6. Camp Sandals are a pretty cool idea
  7. We had bear bins at every campsite on our trail. This was HUGE as we did NOT need to bring bear canister (and have to deal with the weight and bulk of them). We also did not see any bears
  8. Altra Lone Peak's - there is no question that this was the right call for my feet
  9. I only drank coffee once. Seriously. Waking up in nature on a backpacking trip is more energizing than the espresso I have at home.
  10. I wish I had written in my journal more on the trail so I could better remember and come back to laugh at the true memories of trail butter, bearritory (pretty intuitive actually), what abc I wouldn't xyz (question from Dax not fit for print), atrocious songs we had stuck in our heads for DAYS on end, and lest we forget, a quarter inch bolt stuck in our tire on the way up to start our trip

In closing, I leave one last quote from Edward Abbey:

"One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Zion National Park

First blog post in forever!

After a rather long hiatus, it’s good to be back writing again, and so I’ll pick up where this blog ended and this road trip was continuing.

After a brief stop in Bryce Canyon and Kodachrome, I headed down the road to spend some days in Zion. I had been to Zion once, though it was a brief trip, happening 2 days after Ironman St George (about 3 years earlier to the week!), which didn’t make for a very exciting experience. It was a total take-the-tram-everywhere-but-not-really-go-anywhere-because-I’m-tired type of visit based on that typical post-Ironman fatigue. I was a total tourist that day and was not a fan! I even probably slept after the measly 2 hours of walking that day...

First stop was actually going to be home base, the Zion Ponderosa. The ponderosa is an outdoors-persons resort, sitting at about a mile high, 20 minutes outside the east entrance to Zion. It’s got a ton of open space, activity areas setup (volleyball courts, climbing wall, etc), available excursions (4-wheeling, canyoneering), a full-fledged restaurant, a personable owner, tent camping, wagon wheel camping and cabin camping – all for very good prices.

On top of all these great benefits, you also won’t have to deal with the park crowds nor having to reserve a camp site months in advance. I reserved my tent site only 2 weeks out! If you stay here, I also highly recommend eating at East End Pizza on your way back from the park after your daily excursions. I’m not sure if they had the best pizza, or if it’s because I was surviving on oatmeal, nut butters and bars for most of the day but this place rocks! Awesome artisan variety slices with a salad for cheap!

The ‘That's Deep Bro’ Part of this post

Warning! Deep philosophical tone approaching...

I was really looking forward to this part of the trip, as there was a (large) part of me that wanted to live minimally on this trip. I wanted to live on the bare essentials, so that's what I packed. I purposely chose a tent site over wagon wheels and cabins. I wanted to spend distraction-free time in nature. I wanted to trade blue digital screens for falling asleep shortly after the orange and red sunsets because that’s when we ‘should’ be going to sleep. I wanted to trade WiFi, 3G and 4G for 5-to-6 Hour hikes. I wanted to feel hunger. Not the hunger most comfortable people have, but real hunger - hunger that resets priorities and perspectives for the long term.

It was a nod to life when I was was growing up - being content with the more simple life but hungry for better opportunities. It was somewhat of a stark contrast to the excess I lived and experienced for so long (no pun) with Ironman’s, RAAM’s and running across one of the world’s wonders and back. While these long distance adventures have afforded me extremely memorable experiences, lasting friendships, re-affirmation of and the new development of personal values, I couldn't help but think that that chapter of life was about to close and a more back-to-basics approach is what was best for my life.

It’s funny, as I look back on what I wanted out of life about 9 years ago, I remember distinctly saying something to myself one day on a surfboard. I was (and still am) living half a block from the pacific and surfing every day was fun, but I really wanted something – a hobby perhaps but maybe something different – more. Something more new, adventurous, challenging, gratifying, social and engulfing - something I could live - and I definitely found that with these adventures I've experienced.

You’ll have to pardon all the deep thought, but the reality is that this trip changed my life both at the time, shortly thereafter, and well after it was done.

So why say all that? I want to share with anyone who might be going to Zion how freaking awesome the hikes I did are, and also touch on the importance of spending time in nature as a means to cleanse (if not quiet) the mind, rejuvenate the spirit and provide some perspective.

On the latter topic, as described in the Grand R2R2R post, life had thrown me a curve ball, but in the end, it was exactly what was best for me (and it's nice to write that confidently, as I just got engaged!). A good friend of mine strongly encouraged me to charge the Grand Canyon because I’d get a lot out of it and that it’d be my own version of vision quest. Further, James was no stranger is describing how clarifying his R2R2R bout was. These were huge words of encouragement for me but the reality is the 4 days I spent in this national park was the one of the most mentally clarifying experience I've ever had. I can offer up 2 lessons that I found profoundly valuable:
  • When throws you that curve ball, it’s human nature to surround yourself with distractions (hell, people do that enough with their phones these days). It would have been way easier for me to go home after the Grand Canyon, and engulf myself in the near constant distractions offered by daily life in the form of phone notifications, work emails, “Hey, let’s a grab a beer” and anything else I could have done. Instead, I hiked for 4-7 hours every day, mostly by myself, in arguably one of the most beautiful places in the country, where the only distractions I had were birds chirping and bugs buzzing. I took this opportunity to confront and process all the thoughts that would have otherwise been suppressed in modern day life. While the aesthetics of the park provided its own distractions, they were welcome and the power of nature coupled with some solitude and occasional run-ins with close friends can be thy best healer.
  • Travel logistics can prove to be fun projects to make worthwhile experiences happen, no matter how difficult. To most, I'm stating the obvious, but travel - especially somewhere different - always offers a makes for a fresh mindset. The transportation logistics on this trip alone might have been enough for anyone to say “it’s just easier if I go back home” (but obviously, I didn't opt for that). The fact that I was driving on the open road with great music, in very beautiful places, was an awesome added plus. Here were the logistics, that involved at least 3 different cars over the course of 9 days:
    • Drive from San Diego to the Grand Canyon with a friend in his car
    • Leaving the GC, Ron goes out of his way and drops me off in Flagstaff to pick up rental car
    • I drive to Page, then to Bryce, then to Zion
    • I meet friends in St George on their way back to San Diego, and they help me drop off the rental car in Vegas (no fees for drop off in a separate location!)
    • We demolish a buffet in Vegas, and head back to SD
    • Catch a ride from a friend in SD meeting place back home

The Hiking Part with Photos!

OK, enough of the deep philosophical stuff, here are the hikes I’d highly recommend anyone do!

Angels Landing + West Rim Trail (Heading North)

Angels Landing is the iconic hike in Zion and for good reason! It is totally worth it, and here’s how I’d describe it: Was I ever frozen or scared for my life? No. Did it have my full and undivided attention? Yes. Was I amazed that our national parks presented normal people with this level of risk? Yes. Did I see people who I would consider less fit and adventurous than me doing Angels Landing? Yes.

In other words, make it happen!

Here are some photos from the hike:

Angels Landing

After that, I moseyed on over to the West Rim Trail for some more exploring. This hike was pretty cool because I was away from the crowded valley and nearing some backcountry-ish area. I had done no research on the area, so I had no idea if bears, mountain lions, or any other hazards were out there or not. Having also started this hike in early/mid-afternoon, I ran out of daylight towards the end, which invoked some feelings of simply feeling alive, even if I was in the comfortable confines of this park. What I really liked about this part of the hike was the exposure going up the main mesa rim was similar to Yosemite – it wasn't idiot proof. There was a double wide trail but a very steep drop off for quite a ways. There was comfort, but risk as well. Very fun!

Observation Point + Hidden Canyon

Another “totally worth it” hike, and somewhat similar to climbing the West Rim Mesa, there was a long climb up a double wide trail, going up a mesa with very steep drop offs on both sides. The canyon heading to the base of the climb was also very beautiful, and extremely diverse in its topography, colors and terrain. Do note that if you haven’t done much downhill training, this hike may beat you up a bit on the way back down.

Morning View overlooking the Virgin River

When you go to Zion, don't spend any time on your phone (like these two)

Observing at Observation Point
How it felt when weather moved in

Wicked Cool!

Feeling small in a big canyon
Good Evening

East Rim to Cable Mountain, then down to the Valley

This one required some logistics planning with Airey and Lynn. I was able to leave my car at the east rim trail head (near the east entrance) and finish in the valley, and we would meet up and they’d drive me back to my car (it also helped that they were staying at the Ponderosa as well).

This was the trip of the trip that everything really ‘clicked’ for me. After leaving cable mountain, I was returning in a flat sun drenched meadow, where as I mentioned below, the only sounds I could hear were birds and bugs. In fact, I took two videos to remember that moment, and if this doesn't elude peace, I’m not sure what would:

Here are a few random photos:

West Rim Trail from Lava Point (heading south)

After spending 3 days hiking in, out, up and down the Zion Valley, I opted to head to a different part of the park. Lava point (aptly named) is situated about a 45 minute to an hour drive from the south entrance, provided a completely different Zion experience. As you drive up, gone are the Sandstone mesas, which are replaced with Aspens and Volcanic rock. With a starting point of 8,000ft above sea level, it just feels different too.

I had some friends that were doing the Zion traverse this day and I wanted to hike backwards to catch them around the mid-point. This hike, with its different topography was equally as gratifying as the valley hikes, also offers greater solitude, as it’s less traveled (likely because there is no park transportation up here). Here are some photos from the hike/run:

Sunrise in the Aspens

Single Track Heaven

About that solitude… as I was enjoying the relative silence of my own footsteps and bees buzzing, I faintly heard a voice off in the distance. I checked my watch, and sure enough, it was the boys heading north bound at about the area I’d expect to meet them. Quickly assessing the area, I found an old fallen down trail just off trail to hide behind. As the crew approached, I felt bad for whom was out in front, because I jumped out from behind the tree screaming at the top of my lungs to scare the shit out of them! Toby almost lost it, Mike yelled obscenities, Airey instinctively came at me with a haymaker and Paul sat in the back laughing his ass off! Completely derailed, we all spent a few minutes laughing and sharing some stories. Despite offering to join them, the fatigue from R2R2R was still readily apparent and so I passed and headed southward to continue to explore more country.

After about 20-30 minutes, I started getting hungry, sat on a stump, took in some calories and realized it was stupid to let my friends run off without joining them. I then took off in a fury, wondering how long it would take me to catch them. I wasn't exactly fresh, but I also wasn't running at “50 mile pace”. While the elevation was definitely making me suck wind, it was fun playing cat-and-mouse.

After about 30-40 minutes I caught them, and ran/hiked with Toby and Airey until we got to their halfway point, where there was a bunch of other people from their crew hanging out, taking in some calories before tackling the second half of the traverse. Airey, having done - and crushed! - St. George 70.3 the weekend prior, called it a day, and hiked back to the car with me. We headed back to the Ponderosa, grabbed some food, and took in my last sunset of the trip. The spring sky was painted in its typical southwest colors, and it was sweet to head to bed with that was my last visible sight.

After that, it was an early morning to meet the crew in St G, before heading to Vegas where we absolutely demolished one of the local casino buffets. Despite the ‘deep’ and minimalist tone at the beginning of this blog post, the Vegas buffet was also one of the best ways to finish the trip. Solitude in the wilderness while not living on much was great, but so was the nice change of hanging out with friends and ‘topping off our tanks’ in what might be the place most known for its excess. I've written before on the benefits of balance and counter balance, and this trip just reaffirmed that you really need both in life. After gorging ourselves to the point of almost needing to get rolled out, the trip back to SD was filled with war stories of their R2R2R (Mike and Toby had done it a few years prior), farting, bullshitting, laughter, and philosophies on life. Good times and good friends, indeed.

Thanks for reading!