Category Archives: Climbing

Elkhorn Peak, Wallowas

August 8, 2022.

Photo album

Mountains majesty.

When I re-planned my trip to the Wallowas, knowing I would now be going solo, I wanted to choose a route that would involve a base camp and day hikes. The first half of my trip was very strenuous, which is not sustainable forever. Ideally, on the second half, I’d be able to have some chill days and at least one summit day. That led me to the Copper River basin and Elkhorn Peak.

Elkhorn Peak, standing at 9238′, is the twelfth highest peak in Oregon. I decided to make this the central feature of the trip and scouted a basecamp from there. That line of reasoning took me to likely the busiest trailhead in the Wallowas, Two Pan. But my solitude-finding-superpower kicked in and I only saw about a dozen people in four days on this leg of the trip.

Solitude in the Wallowas?

I arrived at the trailhead around dinnertime on August 6, drove by tons of cars parked along the road and parked in a spot in the lot. I unpacked my car camping gear, set up camp at one of the free campsites and ate a pint of ice cream for dinner. I had no neighbors that night.

The next morning, I woke up and got my backpack loaded with ALL the creature comforts for a luxury three-night trip. A tenth of a mile off the trail, I turned off the main route to the lakes basin, then a couple more miles up I turned off the trail again to a lesser-traveled area, meaning I saw no one that morning. As Elkhorn Peak came into view, I began looking for places to camp. Despite the trail following the river closely on the map, there were not many great spots with water access. The river often flowed down in a rocky canyon for much of the way.

The trail kept climbing, but eventually leveled out right before a gentle creek crossing and voila! I spotted a beautiful, large campsite just off the trail with multiple “rooms,” plenty of hammock trees, a flat tent spot and easy river access.

The best campsite.

When you know, you know. That was the spot. I dropped my heavy pack and began unloading. Hammock in the den, tent in the bedroom, kitchen on the rocky ledge, bathroom tucked in the trees. I did a few camp chores, painted a creekside watercolor and read my books.

Elkhorn Peak and west ridge scramble

The next day, I left camp in search of the climber’s route that led to the impressive-looking south gully on Elkhorn Peak. I’d read the summitpost description a thousand times and I spent the entire previous afternoon and evening staring at the gully. I felt ready to go.

I discovered the climber’s path pretty quickly. It zig-zagged through the forest, crossed another creek, climbed to a rocky bench with a beautiful miner’s cabin, then descended to the base of the gully. Based on the topo map, I knew I had to climb 2000 vertical feet in about a mile. Here we go, I thought…

Miner’s cabin

Perhaps based on my recent experience or just my experience in the mountains in general, the gully felt remarkable stable and straightforward. It was steep and hard yes, but not scary, not that difficult, and before long I found myself standing at the summit in a tornado of butterflies. I called Aaron to check in and during that phone call I started rubbing my left eye. “Stupid sunscreen must have run into my eye,” I said. And kept rubbing.

elkhorn peak wallowas
Okay views from the top.

In an effort to make a loop, I’d eyeballed the west ridge, which at “only” a mile long seemed like a reasonable connection to a nice trail leading through stair-stepped meadows to my camp. At any rate, it would be more interesting than slip-sliding back down that gully. Or, so I thought.

Dear reader, I am a slow learner. I should have realized that based on the ridge connection I just did, that this was going to be more difficult than at first glance. It started pretty benign, luring me into such an obstacle-ridden cluster of ups and downs that I fell into the sunk cost trap. “Well I can’t just turn around now, I’ve made it this far.”

The ridgeline consists of a junky, blocky series of rocks that are sometimes passable, sometimes not. Either side of the ridge drops steeply into the adjacent basin. I mostly stayed on the south side due to exposure. While it was annoying and steep I was in no danger of just falling off the mountain. But that meant I had to go up and down and up and down on a combination of scree and solid rock in order to stay in the “scrambling not climbing” zone. Several solid rock ribs intersect the ridge at roughly ninety degree angles, and they were almost never traversable. I fought the urge to want to stay high on the ridge for views and joy with the urge to just drop low and get this shit over with.

My ridge is on the left side of the photo behind the tree.

Meanwhile, my eye was still really irritated and weeping uncontrollably. Even with sunglasses and a hat on, sunlight made it feel worse. I couldn’t watch my surroundings very closely through one eye, but seeing with both eyes didn’t help either. Then my nose started running.

Did I mention it was hot? The sun felt extra vicious and I had only packed enough water to do a straightforward scramble, not an exhausting one. There were a few trees along the way that offered small patches of shade; they quickly became my intermediate targets. My body fully resented me from taking on this extra challenge.

Approaching what appeared to be the last major obstacle, I faced a big, loose down climb to get around the last monster rib. I was so frustrated that I stopped to get my bearings and wondered aloud “Is the north side any better?” I looked up, and it seemed so far away, but I knew it wasn’t. I noticed that a solid slab of rock led almost to the top from where I stood. I went for it.

The slab.

That was actually the most fun part of the day’s scrambling! Once I took a look at the other side of the ridge, I concocted a new plan. It wasn’t going to be easy in any sense of the word, but I felt like I had more and better options on that side. Here we go.

Two hours after leaving Elkhorn’s summit, I arrived at a broad, rolling meadow that I knew would drop me back on a trail. I collapsed in a patch of snow, rubbing it all over my skin to cool me down. My water supply was low, but certainly I could ration it in a way that would last til camp. As soon as I found a creek, I dunked my sun shirt and hat in the cool water and put them back on. I felt human again.

My legs moved forward but my brain was toast. Some part of me knew I was moving through an exceptionally beautiful place, but I couldn’t enjoy it. All I wanted to do was get back to camp, change out of sweaty clothes and lay in the hammock.

Once I returned, that’s what I did. I dunked a bandana in the creek and made a compress for my still irritated eye. Now it was puffy, red, weepy and painful. I had no mirror to see if I had something stuck in it or what was going on. I hoped some rest would help.

A note on ultralight backpacking

Let’s start with something you likely know already: I am not a person who follows trends. The ultralight thing is no exception. I come pretty close to despising backpacking altogether. My body does not carry weight well. “Then Jess, shouldn’t you love the ultralight approach?” No, and here’s why:

I can tolerate being miserable while I’m walking if that means I can be comfy at camp. Packing light means carrying a finicky shelter that takes 20 minutes to set up, not having luxury items like books, painting supplies, stoves, nice food, hammocks etc that are excellent ways to spend time at camp. It means stopping to filter water every time you see a source instead of loading up for the day. It’s expensive gear that doesn’t hold up to repeated use. It’s more chores than I want to deal with. Those are simply trade-offs I am not willing to make.

So my rules for backpacking are:

  • There has to be a peak involved, or…
  • There has to be something really amazing on the route that cannot be experienced in a day hike.
  • I need to have something fun to do at camp like paint, read, etc.
  • I must have hot food and hot beverages.
  • Since I’ve learned this is an option, I must have my hammock!
  • I have to be able to keep myself warm.

I am willing to tolerate a LOT of suffering on my outdoor adventures. But a terrible time in a backcountry camp is where I draw the line.

Also, stay tuned for when I roll out my plans for the SKT website: Slowest Known Time. If I could name one trend I find even more annoying and elitist than ultralight backpacking, it’s the Fastest Known Time nonsense :vomit:.

Rest days

After that debacle, I took a full on rest day. I slept in. The clouds looked marginally threatening, so I took that as my cue to lay in my tent all morning doing crossword puzzles and listening to podcasts. Eventually, I rolled out into the world and packed up my painting supplies. I had to return to those picturesque meadows to stop for every wildflower and to paint.

A horrible place to hang out and paint.

A short hike brought me back to the place I scouted on my miserable return to camp the previous day. I found a nice perch with some shade on a rock outcrop. From there, I looked down on the winding alpine streams and delicate meadows. In the distance, jagged peaks rose up at a seemingly vertical angle. Wispy clouds, eventually turning into blanketing clouds, twisted and swirled over their tops.

It was my thirtieth plein air painting session of the year. My goal: fifty. At the start of 2022, I declared it the year of the watercolor and I knew I’d need some sort of direction to keep me on track. I sat and observed the colors, textures and shapes in my view. I struggled with the usual challenges of outdoor painting: changing light, bugs flying into my paint, wind blowing my pages around, the general lack of flat surfaces. It’s all part of the fun and learning.

Painted til the wind got too annoying.

All that was left on my Wallowas adventure was reading and napping, so I headed back to camp to do just that.

Later that evening, water began to fall from the building clouds. A gentle rain fell all night. I tucked into my sleeping bag, pleased with how kind the weather gods were on this trip. And, no mosquitoes either! A short walk and a long drive stood between my current reality and my future reality. I wish the amount of time I spent in each was reversed. And I’m working on that.

Sacajawea-Matterhorn-Hurwal Divide-Point Joseph

August 4-6, 2022.

Photo album

So pretty.

Thorp Creek

My adventure began on the Hurricane Creek Trail, one of the gateways to the Wallowa Mountains in Northeastern Oregon. I’d been to the Wallowas three times before, but never to this particular access point. I had dreamed up a route connecting several range highpoints on a three-day long loop, starting and ending at the Hurricane Creek Trailhead. My vision put together pieces from other people’s hiking, climbing and trail running reports; none exactly matched what I wanted to do. So, despite having one big hole in my plan, I set out to see what I’d find.

I used Barbara Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon book to piece together the first day’s route. About 1.8 miles up Hurricane Creek trail, I was to look for a place to cross the (cold, ragey) creek and pick up the long decomissioned Thorp Creek Trail to access a base camp just downslope of Sacajawea Peak. At about that mile marker, I found the start of a well-worn use trail through the dense cover at the edge of the creek. This quickly disappeared, so I crashed through the brush and made my way to the water. I found a good place to cross, but no trail on the other side. No matter, I mucked around in the boggy grass, stopping to ogle all the pretty flowers, until I stumbled into bits and pieces of trail. Eventually the trail became continuous and I was on my way uphill.

Nice climber’s trail.

Since the trail officially doesn’t exist anymore, it is not maintained by the Forest Service. As a result, I had to step over a lot of downed, charred trees. It was nothing compared to what I’d eventually have to do, but in the moment it felt like some extra work. Where there weren’t downed trees, the trail was surprisingly nice, albeit very steep.

The trail climbed and climbed until it roughly leveled out on a grassy bench. All the surrounding trees were burned and either standing like a charcoal stick or littered across the ground. I could see the elegant north ridge of Sacajawea paralleling my route as I continued. The wind whipped across the bare rock and through the burnt forest, creating an eerie and foreboding sound. I walked alone, into the unknown and towards the Thorp Creek meadows I’d read about online. It was described in a mountaineering trip report as a beautiful place; mountaineers rarely wax poetic about the scenery so I had pretty high expectations.

Cumulus clouds over my camp.

Despite that, reality exceeded my expectations. I wandered along two small, braided creeks in a lush and open valley surrounded by high peaks. When I found a sufficient place to string up my hammock, I called it a day and dropped my heavy pack on the ground. From my camp, I carefully surveyed the surrounding landscape and memorized the features I could see. For the first time, I could see in person all the places I’d just read about online. It was happening.

I used my downtime in camp to paint, eat, recover and plan for the next day.

Sacajawea and Matterhorn

At 6 am, I started hiking. I knew I had a long and challenging day ahead. Sacajawea, the highest peak of the Wallowas, stood 2300′ above me and I’d cover all that elevation gain in approximately 1 mile of walking. With my overnight pack on. With all the water I’d need for the foreseeable future, since I would have no water access until I completed all the highpoints. I grumpily hauled myself up the relentless climbers trail under a clear und unsympathetic sky.

Sacajawea Matterhorn
On the way up Sacajawea.

From my camp, Sacajawea looked daunting. But the climber’s trail continued to provide a relatively easy and safe way to get up there. Before I knew it, I stood on the top. It was a bit disappointing, as the summit was merely a slightly higher blip on a rocky ridge, but oh well. No summit register, no fanfare. I walked uphill until I couldn’t go up anymore, then I started going down.

The gendarme ridge. This is what I had fretted about for weeks before the trip. Everyone talks about how sketchy and scary it is. And those people were mostly wearing daypacks. I agonized over how smart it would be to tackle this ridge with an overnight pack, alone, having never done it before. Exposure. Rock scramble. Knife edge ridges. Oh my. After consulting with my friend Matt, who’d done it himself, I decided I was up for the challenge.

Sacajawea Matterhorn ridge
One of the gendarmes.

On the other side of the ridge, I thought, “that was it?” Sure, there were some sections that got a little confusing, but as long as I poked around enough I found a way. Some spots were even marked with cairns! I moved slowly, intentionally and always took time to look for a reasonable way to go. If I started going over or around something and got uncomfortable, it was not the way. And so, with that behind me, I celebrated on the more interesting summit of 9775′.

This highpoint was smack in the middle of Sacajawea and Matterhorn. I’d return here to continue along the Hurwal Divide, so I joyfully dropped my backpack. With just a fanny pack and a half liter of water, I scampered along the solid and enjoyable ridge to the Matterhorn.

Yet another letdown. Sheesh. It was cool up top, to be sure, but I didn’t feel like I had to do any work to get there. If only I’d known how much work was in front of me, maybe I’d appreciate it more. There were 4 people milling around the summit, all of whom had come up from Ice Lake.

Sacajawea Matterhorn traverse
Matterhorn ahead.

I decided to enjoy myself a little more on the hike back to my pack, marveling at the interesting shapes and colors that some geologist could explain better than me. I stopped to gaze down the mysterious big hole and also made sure to take in the spectacular scenery in all directions.

Hurwal Divide Traverse

Underneath the full weight of my pack, I set off in an easterly direction along the long ridge making up the Hurwal Divide. It was not as scary and sheer as it had looked on the climb up Sacajawea, and for that I was grateful. I had a handful of photos from other people’s trips to go by, but no real sense of what to expect.

I mostly walked to the right of the ridge proper, avoiding the most exposure and traveling on what I dubbed “safe but annoying” terrain. The ground underfoot crumbled under each step. I skidded along the talus and scree for mile after mile, up and down, up and down. I’d scrambled on far more difficult terrain before, but the mental exhaustion of having to choose each step carefully really took its toll. Each time I slipped more than twice in short succession, I stopped to take a rest, sip some water and look around. It was so fun to actually see, up close, my view from camp.

Close up of Hurwal Divide.

Hurwal Divide Southwest (9508′), check. I tapped the top of this rubble pile among rubble piles, then kept going. Back down, again. This part was steep and loose with several gullies to negotiate. My brain was so tired from all the routefinding and my legs were tired from not being on solid ground for 90 percent of the day. I suppose it would have been easier to have better beta for the route so that I would have been able to mete out my energy and expectations over the course of the day.

But, I was in it now, so I pulled out every mountaineering self-talk trick in the book. Calling out moves helps me a lot: “right foot there,” “oh I don’t like that,” “that looks better,” “grab this rock,” etc. That, and singing songs, telling myself stories, faking some positive self-talk and occasionally just yelling “fuck this sucks.” My favorite strategy for keeping things moving is choosing intermediate goals. For example, to keep walking until that red boulder or that flat spot. Once I reached one goal, I’d look ahead on the ridge and select the next one. If I needed a break, I’d take a break at one of the spots I reached.

Despite all these tricks, I still moved slowly. The Hurwal Divide proved to be a formidable challenge!

The next major destination was the point at which the ridge abruptly turned north. I sat down here, took off my socks and shoes, watched the butterflies swirl around me. Buckwheat poked up from between the talus. And below me, Ice Lake glistened in the sun. I briefly considered bailing out to Ice Lake and hiking out to Wallowa Lake instead of finishing my route, but that thought didn’t last long. Let’s keep going, I thought.

Buckwheat and Hurwal Divide, looking towards Point Joseph

Belly full of snacks, I slogged along to the summit of Hurwal Divide. It didn’t look too bad on the map, but at this point in the day I couldn’t be fooled by that sort of nonsense. My journal describes this section as “and annoyingly loose shit pile with several little ups and downs, that at this point in the day, didn’t feel so little.” Fortunately there were a few sections of goat trail that made my life a little easier as I finished up this leg of the journey. I put my head down and walked; in about an hour I saw the cairn marking the top.

Here, I smiled wide at the sight of that cairn as well as something else. Ahead, on the ridge, I noticed a small knoll that had trees and a snowfield. C A M P ! My original plan involved continuing to Chief Joseph Mountain and descending to one of the creeks below. However, this looked incredibly inviting and I decided to shift my plan to spend a night on the actual divide. It’s the happiest I’d felt all day.

I still had to get there. Descending 1000 vertical feet in less than a mile, then climbing back up another 200 feet took some effort. As soon as I found two whitebark pines sturdy enough to support my hammock, I called it a day. I settled in for a painting session, a delicious dinner (and snow-chilled cider) and watched one of the most spectacular sunsets in my life.

Sunset to end all sunsets.

Point Joseph

“Not one mountain goat,” I grumbled to myself as I got up to make coffee. I was sure there had to be goats in the area, but despite all the time I spent at elevation the day before I had not seen one.

As I watched the sun rise and packed up my camp, I noticed a white rock on the hillside that I didn’t see during all the time I spent painting a watercolor of that same slope. Could it be? I zoomed way in on my camera phone and confirmed, in fact, it was a mountain goat! I was excited and quickly finished getting ready so I could see what would be in store for the day.

In the crisp morning air, I dropped off my magical knoll and began climbing up the next bump, a steep slope that got steeper and looser as I went. I followed the goat until the goat moved no more. Two goats, actually. Confused, I paused there to watch their behavior and decide if it would be safe to proceed. Goats have big pointy horns.

Stubborn goats

They paid me no mind, and the larger of the two plopped right down on the ridge. They had no plans to move any time soon. So, I followed suit and sat down too. For the next forty minutes. I put my puffy on, ate another bar, took some photos. I couldn’t believe my day was being held back by mountain goats, and I had some un-scouted terrain to cover!

Suddenly, they began to move…towards me! I found out why; what I couldn’t see was the steep cliff on the other side of them that apparently none of us could descend. So I ended up having to do a hairy downclimb to skirt around the cliff before re-joining the ridge. Ugh, this was already a morning. The rest of the ascent to Point Joseph proceeded smoothly and soon I stood atop its interesting brown cap. The entire mountain, save for the summit, looks like a hill painted in delicate pastels. But dark brown boulders create a fortress shape on the top, strange rocks I hadn’t seen anywhere else on this traverse.

Point Joseph’s fortress cap.

From the summit, I eyeballed my route down and checked the waypoints I’d put in my map. On the hike in, I tried to note good places to cross Hurricane Creek. I just had to work backwards to connect my current position with a reasonable creek crossing. What lay in between was my choice of rocky ridges plummeting into steep forest of unknown quality. From what I’d seen so far, I assumed it would be brushy and/or burned. I was right on both accounts.

Looking down the rocky ridge.

I dropped off the summit, followed a rocky ridge peppered with delightful wildflowers and descended through a steep forest. I ended up in a dry drainage, which I had hoped would be easy to follow. It was not. Back up on the steep, steep hillside.

At each point of the day, I thought I was at the hardest obstacle. I was literally never right. I sat down, took out my map and tried to gain perspective on the situation. I had one mile to go and I’d be at the creek. “I can do anything for one mile,” I asserted. Two elk, hearing my desperate affirmation, spooked and crashed through the forest. I got to watch them for a bit, since even they had trouble navigating the blowdown and tangle of weeds. Great, I thought.

The steep, forested hillside turned into a slightly less steep, burned hillside. It was at the state of the burn where some regrowth had begun. So I alternately was stepping over charcoal-crusted trees, crashing through ankle-grabbing brush, stepping into soft holes, weaving between incredibly sharp, twisted dead branches and looking for some path of least resistance.

Burnt forest.

There was none.

And then, it got worse. The regrowth became denser, taller and seemingly more angry with me. At points I could take a step and not know if I was on the ground or not. I’d step on a solid-looking log and crunch right through it. At one point I stepped down into thin air, dangling over a rushing creek, my hands grabbing for anything solid but the earth disintegrated in my hands. I CANNOT GET HURT HERE, I yelled into the abyss.

My frustration levels maxed out several times on this heinous descent through hell. Each step was carefully calculated, and even then, was often a failure. I had to downclimb, re-climb, backtrack, crawl under, scramble over and pull myself around an endless string of obstacles. Once I somewhat got the hang of the obstacles in front of me, the character of the forest changed and I had new things to figure out. There are no words to accurately express the degree of Type 3 Fun I experienced in that long, long mile. Skipping ahead two and a half hours, I made it to the creek.

Hurricane Creek.

It may be called creek, but it felt more like river. I couldn’t just walk across at any point. It was flowing cold and deep in some narrow channels. The point at which I arrived was not a good spot to cross. Upon checking my map, I learned I was further downriver than I wanted to be. What did that mean? More backtracking. Regardless, I was dying to get my shoes off so I swapped into my trusty Bedrock sandals and hoofed it through the (of course) thick, brushy riverside up river.

I ended up finding a place where the creek split into several broad channels, spreading out the water so it wasn’t so deep. But cliffs lined the other side of the creek, with no way to get up to the trail. Regardless, I went for it. On the other side, with nowhere else to go, I walked in the actual creek bed until the slope above me mellowed out. There was a little bit of bushwhacking and then…

THE T R A I L ! ! ! !

Elation.

I was so elated, I also do not have the words! I felt all the opposite feelings I had just minutes before. My eyes moist with tears, I practically ran along the well-graded trail all the way back to my car. It was the easiest mile of my life.

After changing my clothes and throwing all my gear in the car, I drove to Terminal Gravity brewery in Enterprise for a burger and a beer. I picked up a pint of ice cream at Safeway for dinner. And I drove to Two Pan Trailhead, where I’d camp for the night in preparation for the second half of my Wallowas adventure the next day.

arc dome

Arc Dome

May 27, 2022.

14 mi. | 5000′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.

arc dome wilderness sign

On one of several long drives on Nevada’s lonely roads, I spied the Arc Dome Wilderness in my atlas. For some reason, it captured my imagination. And, it’s featured highly on many mountain lists due to its overall height (#7 in Nevada) and prominence (#8 in Nevada). Prominence, if you’re not acquainted with mountaineering speak, is basically how high a peak is relative to the lowest point around it. So, since Arc Dome is 5213′ higher than the nearest low point, it has a prominence of over 5000′. There are only 57 peaks in the continental US that have a prominence of 5000′ or greater.

It was so far from everywhere that it was never on the way to or from another destination. I had to explicitly build it into a route itinerary. And it was so that this year would be the year I’d tackle the long hike to the top of Arc Dome.

Aaron dropped me off at a campground right at the trailhead, where I’d spend the rest of the day and get some sleep for an early get up the following morning. From there, he drove back to town to get some work done and sleep in a real bed. I also find it helpful while on a multi-week road trip with your partner, to find some quality alone time along the way! It was too hot for activities, so I relaxed with my feet in the creek while reading a book and drinking a pre-mixed margarita before calling it a night.

Climb time

The alarm rang before sunrise and I started walking under a dim sky at 5:40 am. The trailhead sits at almost 9000′ elevation, so I could feel the thin air struggling to fill my lungs right from the get-go. The trail switchbacks up through a lovely aspen forest, then transitions into an interesting sagebrush desert with big, old trees that looked a lot like bristlecone pine. Tiny wildflowers dotted the earth in even the most inhospitable places. It was a landscape like no other.

The Columbine trail climbed and climbed up to the Toiyabe Crest Trail, which I’d use to access Cirque Mountain, North Arc Dome, and Arc Dome, one by one. The trail skirts just below the first two on the way to the notable Arc Dome, but I couldn’t help scurrying up to tag the other two.

I quickly warmed up, despite the cool air and breeze, for all the effort it took to walk among giant peaks. It was worth it, however, to finally step foot in a place I’d dreamed of for so long, and to appreciate all its nooks and crannies. Plus, the views couldn’t be beat; I could see for literal miles.

arc dome

I hit my first highpoint just before 8 am under blue skies. In the summit cairn lay a register with entries dating back to 2015. I love reading the old entries and seeing how many people each year sign in on Cirque Peak it would appear, just a handful.

Coming off of Cirque, I met my first major obstacle of the day: a steep snow wall clinging to the east face of the ridge. Luckily, I’d packed microspikes just in case of such a situation. They helped me get on top of the snow with relative ease and I was back on route.

Next, I skipped right up to North Arc Dome, just a few hundred feet lower than Arc Dome itself. But, I had to drop back down to a 10,700′ saddle and then back up another thousand feet or so in over a mile of walking to get to the highest highpoint. It looked so far away from where I stood. This is why it’s important to get an early start and bring lots of good snacks. That’s just good life advice.

Forever was actually about ninety minutes, after which I plopped down at the top of the Toiyabe Crest and chilled out. This summit canister, made out of a mayonnaise jar, was filled to the brim with mini notebooks and scraps of paper upon which people signed their names. It’s amazing what being featured on a list or two will do to your popularity. Just a couple miles away, the book had hardly a few entries. Even so, I was the only human on the trail today and I was one of the first this year to stand on the top of Arc Dome. Kind of incredible.

As I sat on the summit relaxing, the sky got to work. What was formerly a beautiful blue backdrop became a swirling gray mass of clouds. I’d checked the forecast and all looked well, but I trust what I see and feel right in front of me much more than what I intellectually know. Besides, I had at least 5-6 miles of ground to cover before I’d cross paths with a single tree; if it started to thunderstorm, I would be a sitting duck.

With a big sigh, I packed up and quickly hauled out of there. As soon as the terrain allowed, I broke into a quick walk/slow run. There was plenty of talus and loose stuff that could easily sprain an ankle or worse. In that situation, there’s a fine line between walking quickly enough to get out of perceived danger and walking slowly enough to control your extremities and avoid getting hurt. This is just one of many judgment calls one must make while hiking in the mountains. To me, this is part of the excitement and joy.

While moving quickly, I still had to stop and admire the wildflowers, which had now fully opened up. I saw hundreds of asters that on my hike in had been completely shuttered. Whether it’s exposure to heat or light that makes them open I’m not sure, but they were expressive and jubilant now! They made me smile as I raced down the mountain.

To shake things up, I descended the Toiyabe Crest trail to Stewart Creek trail, making a loop. That meant I was out of the trees for a little while longer, but I got a fuller picture of the landscape and I stumbled across a small herd of wild horses, too. It was a beautiful loop; since I’ll probably never be here again, I wanted to cover as much new ground as possible. Despite the ominous clouds and wind, it didn’t rain one drop on me during the hike, and storms barely grazed the edge of camp later that evening.

What’s next?

So that’s two peaks on the Nevada top ten list for me so far: Wheeler and Arc Dome. I got stormed off a planned attempt at Boundary a few years ago. If I could pick one to do next, it would be Ruby Dome. I’ve walked into the base of the Rubies once before and their magnificence took my breath away. Nevada is a wonderland of unspoiled vistas and long mountain ranges. I’ll be back soon.

Thompson Peak

August 27, 2020.

Thompson from our camp

Photo album

People love superlatives: the highest, the farthest, the steepest, etc. When it comes to mountains, the highest ones always get all the attention. At this point in my life, I’m not that concerned with bagging the peaks that everyone knows about. But Thompson Peak, the highpoint of the Sawtooths, caught my attention for a few reasons. One, it has a non-technical route to the top. Two, it is located close enough to the road that you coul do it in one long day or two easier days. Three, compared to other well-known highpoints, this did not seem to attract a ton of foot traffic. And, since we had the opportunity to get up there on a weekday, I knew I had to go for it.

For the sanity of both myself and my partner, we decided to split up the climb into two days. We were in the Sawtooths for our first time anyways, and thought it would be cool to spend a night in the high country. I don’t regret that decision one bit.

Day 1: to camp, the hard way

5 mi. | 2440′ | 3:30 hr.

Since we didn’t have much ground to cover, our day began with a late get-up, breakfast fried rice and time packing up gear for one more overnight. After lugging around a bear canister for four days, I was thrilled to carry only a hang bag and a few items to get me through the night.

Into the Wilderness…

We started hiking at a casual 10-something am. After signing in at the trailhead (so cute!) we began hiking on the trail towards our camp. According to my research, much of the distance we’d cover was on trail. I settled into a comfortable walking pace behind LeeAnn.

The trail led up to, then just below, a ridgeline that taunted us with partial views for a good portion of the hike. I eagerly anticipated the big reveal. Which one was Thompson, I wondered. Craggy peaks reached toward the sky ahead of us, but as I was unfamiliar with the area, I couldn’t tell which was which.

As the trail ducked into the forest I obsessively checked the GPS on my phone for the point where we’d need to leave the trail. LeeAnn suggested that we’d find a good climber’s trail to get to the basin below our peak; my experience with climber’s trails taught me never to expect a good one. So, I got more and more anxious as our supposed trail failed to appear.

“I think we should just leave the trail here,” I said. I wasn’t psyched about it, but we’d walked a half a mile past the alleged junction. So, we thrashed headfirst into the woods, climbing over downed trees, traversing steep, grassy slopes and grabbing on to shrubs to help stay upright. We advanced at an agonizingly slow pace as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter.

“This sucks, no wonder more people don’t do this one,” I thought.

Our off-trail debacle

Our hairy traverse led us to even steeper slopes above an unnamed puddle and the only way to go was up. I picked a route up a somewhat stable talus slope interspersed with flowers, shrubs, and one heinous patch of alder. I’d occasionally come across a small stretch of trail-like passage that would disappear almost as quickly as it began.

On the other side of the boulders, something magical happened. I hopped onto one of those aforementioned trails, and…it kept going. Yahoo! We continued along the climber’s trail, faint in places, across a flat meadow, to more rock piles and eventually the lake just below Thompson Peak. The rocks dropped steeply into the lake and much of the surrounding terrain was exposed, rugged, and decidedly *not* flat. With a little bit of searching, however, we found a great little spot to pitch our tent among a small cluster of trees. We made it.

These things are basically designed to dry socks.

I hung our food while LeeAnn set up the tent, then we went for a quick dip in the lake. A couple who had just come down from the mountain sat at the lakeside and we chatted a bit. The mountain looked awfully daunting from this side.

That evening, gray clouds passed overhead. We waited for the first sign of a thunderstorm, the security of our tent just steps away. But, the rain never came. Our tent site was solidly sheltered from the wind, and we enjoyed a fantastic time in high camp without another human in sight.

Day 2: the climb

4.3 mi. | 1970′ 5:30 hr.

Sunrise

In the morning, a hazy sunrise quickly gave way to calm, blue skies. A perfect summit day! LeeAnn made pancakes for breakfast and we hit the trail just after 7 am.

Our climber’s trail disappeared almost immediately, so I did my best to read the landscape to choose the best route. I knew we had to spiral all the way around the mountain to end up at a couloir on the south side. According to my conversation with the couple at the lake the day prior, we wouldn’t have to cross any snow on the route, so I avoided snow patches as we walked.

The route took us up and across several alpine benches replete with cascading snowmelt creeks, thick patches of green vegetation and slabs of rock. If you close your eyes and envision an alpine paradise, you’ll picture exactly where we were. I smiled from ear to ear.

Well, the slab looked steeper in person.

Our first obstacle was a tall, yellow-gray rock slab that looked completely impassable from afar. But, as we approached, I found a weakness in the rock that offered up good hand holds and ledges. We put on our helmets and scurried up the slab. Next, we wove our way across a large, shaded bench system with some new obstacles to avoid: steep drops, icy ponds, flowing water, slick snowfields. It was like American Ninja Warrior, mountain series.

Chilly up here.

As we negotiated a path through these features, I remembered the other advice that couple had given me the day before: you’ll want to go high early, but stay low. We did just that, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gain that we’d need to downclimb later.

The next obstacle was one we’d conquered just a few days ago: a massive boulder field. All that we needed was patience and time. Most of this side of the mountain was shaded and breezy, so an extra layer helped, too. One foot after another, we plodded up and left to continue our spiral path towards Thompson’s south ridge.

I paused at the saddle, taking a moment to look at the new scenery that came into view from our high perch. The higher we climbed, the more peaks we saw. This was truly a mountain-lover’s destination.

Walking along the ridge, I envisioned the route ahead. It was never obvious until I got right to it. We found our couloir and scrambled up to the top; it was easier-going than the slab we surmounted earlier in the day.

At the top of the Sawtooths, we split a Kit Kat bar and read some of the many entries in the summit log. From the top, I pointed out an interesting lake that I wanted to check out on the way back down. I also wanted to tag an adjacent highpoint before returning to camp. So, we made a plan: LeeAnn would hike down to the lake, I’d go on my highpoint shenanigans and then join her at the lake.

We downclimbed to the saddle together, then went our separate ways. My goal was to traverse west, maintaining my elevation across the bouldery slope to the saddle near Mt. Carter. It was just over a quarter mile away. While Mt. Carter didn’t look all that interesting, I couldn’t get this close without tagging the top.

I shuffled across the boulders, making good time to the saddle. From that point, it was an easy walk up a broad ridge to the top. When I got there, tears began to well up in my eyes. I couldn’t believe the panoramic views. That subtle shift in perspective was everything; row after row after row of serrated ridges and peaks lay before me. Even in the haze, I felt a depth of perspective that I don’t get in the Cascades. We get basically one row of well-spaced volcanoes, with a smattering of rounded buttes all around. But there, from that summit, I felt incredibly small surrounded by hundreds of distinct, rocky spires. It was heaven.

Alpine wildflowers

While waiting for my InReach to send a check-in, I wandered around the large, open summit, making sure to look closely in all directions. Once I started down, I’d not see views like this for a very long time. I could have sat up there all day, but I knew LeeAnn would be waiting for me at the lake. I collected my things and began the descent.

Scree-skiing down from Carter, I aimed for the blue-green alpine lake that had grabbed my attention earlier that day. Sitting on a rock, writing in her journal, LeeAnn sat contently. I stopped to make a Del’s frozen lemonade with the glacier ice and my packet of dried lemon and sugar, something I had waited the entire trip to do.

Wouldn’t you go off route to check out this beauty?

Since the lake was off our original route, we charted a new course through the maze of obstacles between us and the rock slab.

We found the downclimb easily, then roughly retraced our steps back to camp. I made one wrong turn that brought us to the top of some cliffs near the lake, but otherwise it was pretty smooth sailing.

The hike out

4.8 mi | 15′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

Back at camp, we leisurely began breaking down and packing back up for the walk to the car.

“Hey, did you see a group of four people up there?” Hmmm…someone got separated from their friends.

I must have done a double-take when I looked up, seeing an older lady wearing a sun hat and carrying a fanny pack; she did not seem like the mountaineering type. How the hell did she get up here, I thought? Was I being too judgmental?

“No,” we replied, and then got to thinking. If this lady made it to this location, there had got to be a decent climber’s trail that breaks off the main hiking route. I was determined to find it in order to avoid the horrible off-trail route we took the day before.

Lo and behold, I FOUND IT. As we began to descend among the boulders, I caught some faint whispers of a trail. It was clear for a short while, then got a little confused among the rock jumble, then clear again. We had a trail for the whole walk out! I wanted to laugh cry.

Why does a grouse cross the trail?

All was right in the world again. No more thinking. It was an easy hike out. Along the way, we stopped for several minutes to watch a little family of grouse sauntering across the trail. Unlike every other grouse I’d seen in my life, they didn’t fly off as soon as I came close. Instead, they stopped, watched us for a little bit, then carried on with their business. They were fun to observe up close like that!

The Sawtooths captured my imagination with their lonely trails, endless peaks and pristine lakes. I am already planning a trip back…

Eagle’s Dare, Acker Rock

September 7, 2019.

The beautiful morning sun

Photo album

After climbing the Peregrine Traverse in August, I determined that I’d be ready to tackle Eagle’s Dare with my friend Linda. Rated 5.9+ by most sources, it felt well within my ability to lead. After all, it was totally bolted. The catch: the route starts at the bottom of 7 or 8 rappels, and the only way to get out is to climb…

When we rendezvoused at the gate early that morning, the air was heavy with moisture. Linda pulled out a stack of pages filled with beta about the route. I thought about the crumpled post-it note with beta I’d shoved in my pocket the night before. We divided up the gear and hiked up to the lookout. The sun poked up above a sea of clouds as we prepared to descend into them. It looked just like all the photos I’d seen of the climb!

We left extra gear in a pack at the top of the climb and located the first rap anchors. It was now or never. I rigged up my rappel and stepped backwards into the abyss.

Into the nothing.

We repeated this ritual six more times until we reached what was presumably the bottom. Along the way we passed by wildflower gardens, patches of lichens, shrubs, trees and various textures of rock. It was a beautiful series of rappels, with big, beefy anchors just where we needed them. With our 70 m rope, none of the raps felt like rope-stretchers.

I reached the ground first, got out of the rope and began searching for the first bolt. In the process of walking through deep grass, I soaked my pants and shoes. I scanned the rock, high and low, looking for some shimmer of metal to get me on track. After much futzing around, I finally located what looked like a single bolt up a lichen-encrusted slab. “I think I found it!” I yelled. I looked down at my feet and there it was, a cairn, marking the start of the route. My gaze had been aiming high and I’d completely missed the obvious stack of rocks. Sigh.

We were completely socked in; I couldn’t see the next bolt or guess where the route went from there. We sat and waited for a sign. And waited. A 1-minute sun burst was all I needed to get excited to lead. I didn’t know that it was the last glimpse of sun I’d see all day. It was 11 am.

See the first bolt?

Pitch one felt runout but very easy. Although the air was wet, the rock felt dry and sticky. Relaxed climbing took me to anchor one. I belayed Linda up and then set off on pitch 2. I’d been anxious about this pitch, the technical “crux,” and I was delighted to see how well-protected it was. I made the dreaded step-across move, which was not that hard, then breathed easy.

The next pitch consisted of what was described in the book as pitches 3 and 4. There was one wonky high step part-way up the otherwise lovely climbing. The position was exciting and I could only imagine the views that we could have had if the sun was out.

We could hear another team climbing the Peregrine Traverse the entire time we were climbing; but they were only visible for about 5 minutes as the clouds briefly parted. I wondered how alone we would have felt if we couldn’t hear any other humans all day. It probably would have amped things up a bit.

Our neighbors on the Peregrine Traverse

Next, the “Terrible Traverse,” which I re-named the “Terrific Traverse” after climbing it. Perhaps the loose stuff had dislodged since the first ascent. I thought it was thin, but quite interesting and enjoyable. Very well-protected, too.

Linda climbs the Terrific Traverse (p5)

After that, I simply played connect-the-dots with the bolts over varied terrain. Some awkward moves at the bottom gave way to enjoyable movement later up the pitch. I carried just enough alpine draws to clip all the bolts before the anchor. On the following pitch, the hardest part was getting through the PG sections where it felt especially runout, given the bolt spacing on the rest of the route. Near the top, I went right around a little rock spine, then cut left to reach the anchors. As a result I had horrific rope drag bringing my partner up. As far as I could tell, that’s how the route went, so I’m not sure what I could have done differently to avert the rope drag.

The final pitch was the weirdest and least enjoyable: a short, leaning rappel to a narrow ridge with a big drop below, followed by a traverse around a blind corner and up into a gully leading to the top. All the descriptions we read of this last bit described a scramble but we clipped into a set of bolt hangers and belayed that last bit up to the lookout.

Coming up the last vertical pitch

All in all this was a fun, adventure climb. Despite the gloomy weather, the rock was perfectly climbable and there was enough visibility to feel safe proceeding. Kudos to the efforts of the FA team who put this up! The only drawback is that Acker Rock is far enough away from anywhere that I can’t see myself getting back there anytime soon. Now it’s your turn. Get out and enjoy.

American Fork Twin Peaks from the tram

August 26, 2019.

2.4 mi. | 960′ ele. gain | 2.5 hr.

Photo album

With only 5 days to experience Salt Lake City and its surroundings, I wanted to pack in as much as I could before having to leave. So after we hiked up the Pfeifferhorn, I set my sights on American Fork Twin Peaks. According to the 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Salt Lake City guidebook, I could snag another highpoint by taking a tram up to nearly 11,000 feet and then hiking just over a mile to get there. CAKE! I thought.

We bought our tram tickets and rode up to the top of the ski area, covering something like 3000 feet in 8 minutes. Now that was an efficient way to climb a mountain! The tram was packed full of people and loud; I couldn’t wait to get off.

Once we unloaded, we followed the book’s description of the route to the base of a little hill that led out towards the ridge. After a short walk the ridge became narrower and rockier, with steep drops on either side. I had to point out good hand- and foot-holds for Aaron, reassuring him as we moved forward.

But not soon into the difficult sections, Aaron said he wanted to go no further. We were atop a gully that he felt was an adequate escape route; he’d meet me back at the tram so I could finish my highpoint quest. After a little bit of debate, we decided this was the best choice and we parted ways. I watched him descend the gully before setting out towards the peaks.

The wind blowing across the ridge made the scramble feel even more serious. I suddenly noticed my aloneness. But I’d climbed, scrambled and hiked solo over all sorts of diverse terrain; why was this getting to me? Taking my time, searching for good hands and feet, I plodded slowly ahead. Partway across the ridge I stopped and gasped, or, was it laughed? A shiny bolt hanger drilled into the rock by my side let me know that I was not the only one who felt a little sketched out on this ridge. Apparently others had chosen to protect the “scramble” with ropes and bolts. I felt justified in my gut feelings and slowed down even more to ensure no slips and falls on this exposed route.

The book description felt laughable at this point. How was the author selling this as a “hike” to a casual adventurer? It was irresponsible, at best. But there I was, determined to finish the route and use it as an opportunity to dial in my breathing, footwork and focus.

Once I was through the “no fall” zone, I scrambled up the loose, slabby rocks on the main face of the mountain. Atop this ridge, it was a quick jaunt to the first peak, followed by a gentle amble to the second. There, I dropped my backpack and sent a text to Aaron that I’d made it and I would be on my way back shortly. He replied that he was back at the tram building watching me the whole way.

I worked up the nerve to return, being mindful of both the tram schedule and our dinner meetup with my friend later that evening. This adventure had taken me much longer than I’d anticipated. With focus, I descended the loose rock and regained the legitimate knife-edge ridge. I’ve often said that I can’t meditate sitting on a pillow in a room surrounded by candles, but get me on a rock climb and I can meditate there. This is exactly how I felt as I eased my body across the rocks on the ridge, choosing each step and body position deliberately. Grateful that I could pay attention only to myself and not have to worry about a partner or a team. One of many reasons why I love solo trips so much.

As I approached the end of the ridge I noticed a group of about eight twenty-somethings hanging out on a wide patch of ground, watching me move closer. I moved quickly, hoping that I would not have to pass them coming in the other direction. But, they never moved, and as far as I could see, they chose to turn back at that point. Probably a wise decision!

Aaron met me as I popped off the ridge and we walked back up to the tram together. Utah had really surprised me with its rugged routes just beyond the city limits! I had just enough of a taste that I knew I would have to return for more. I may decide to cross-reference my route choices a little better the next time, instead of relying on a single book for information. Fortunately there’s a plethora of information available, should you choose to use it.

Monkey Face, West Face Direct – Monkey off my Back

June 22, 2017.

Photo album here.

In almost ten years of climbing at Smith Rock, I’d never gotten on Monkey Face. One of the most recognizable features at Smith, Monkey Face is a 350 foot tall spire with multiple climbing routes leading to its summit. ¬†Today, my climbing partner Keen and I decided to go for it.

We hiked up and over Misery Ridge to get to the base of the west face. From here we’d follow West Face Direct (5.8), a 2-pitch trad route that followed a few crack systems to reach a large ledge. I geared up for the first lead.

Still brushing off the cobwebs after several years of climbing little to no trad, I struggled to get past the first 20 feet or so, wriggling up an awkward chimney. Eventually I figured it out and got up to some easier climbing. But since I’d loaded up the crack with several pieces of gear, I had heinous rope drag that prevented me from climbing further. I set a piece and downclimbed back to the top of the hard section to clean a few pieces and help the rope move freely. Then I climbed back up and finished the pitch.

From my nice belay ledge, I belayed my partner up, traded gear, and he set out on the second lead. I watched him climb across a sloping ramp with lots of huecos to a crack/dihedral that disappeared out of sight. Once he finished, I followed the second pitch up to Bohn Street, where we’d sort out gear for the famous bolt ladder.

 

Keen had done tons of aid climbing but I had done effectively zero. So I watched a few videos on aid technique and he talked me through the first few clips. Then, I was on my way. I learned that aid climbing was all about getting into a routine and moving methodically. This was easy aid: I had no pieces to place, I just had to clip bolts. The only difficulty was in the bolts that were reachy for me, and also getting over the lip into the cave. There was a lot of yanking on gear, which I am not used to doing, and it was actually much more strenuous than I’d imagined. It was an awesome learning experience and it was fun to problem-solve and get up in the cave.

Once we were both securely in the cave we sorted gear again. Keen needed some quickdraws for the final 5.9 pitch to the summit. Everything else went in the backpack, which I would carry up with me.

The exit of the cave is called Panic Point, and for good reason. You’ve got to step out of the cozy cave onto the face of the rock, with nothing but air below your feet. There are good handholds and foot placements, so most climbers are capable of doing this route. While it is technically moderate, it is mentally challenging. Here, the wind blows, you’re fatigued, excited, and totally exposed. Hikers watch in awe from the trails all around you. And, I had a backpack constantly trying to pull me off the wall into the void.

Lucky for me, my partner led the route so I was on toprope. I fought my way up the last pitch and was delighted to reach the belay station. I scrambled up to the summit, took the pack off, and enjoyed the endless views from on top. One of the ladies on the trail nearby yelled “woooo!” and threw up her arms in excitement, as if to say “nice job, you made it!” That was cool. ūüôā

But the climb wasn’t over yet. We still had to get down. At the rappel station, we carefully tied our two ropes together and I set up the first rappel. After the first section, the rock became overhanging, leaving me dangling a couple hundred feet off the ground. The wind pushed me in a gentle spiral and I took in the 360-degree views all around me. What a fun ride down! I landed as another pair of climbers was heading up the Pioneer Route, then my partner descended to the ground.

We walked around to the base of the route and sorted gear in the shade. While most of our climb was in the shadow of the towering rocks, our hike out would almost entirely be in the sun. On a hot day like today, the sun can drain the energy right out of you.

We took the long way back along the river. The Crooked River flowed by swiftly. The vegetation on either side of the river looked impossibly lush and green. We stopped a few times to look back at the Monkey and watch the other party make their way up towards the top. Along the hike, we saw several different varieties of wildflowers and shrubs. Several people were out hiking today, which was crazy considering the high temperature and the fact that it was a weekday. Smith Rock is popular almost any day, any time, no matter what the conditions are.

I was happy to have completed a climb on Monkey Face, finally… The route was varied, enjoyable, and just challenging enough. It required a wide range of skills: traditional, sport, aid, and multipitch climbing all rolled into one experience.

South Sister after dark

September 11-12, 2015.

Photo album on Google+

Ever since I’d read the first trip report of someone hiking to the top of South Sister in time to catch the sunrise, I’d had this trip on my to-do list. The thought of having the scenic advantages of being camped on top without having to lug all my overnight gear up there was very tempting. And so, at 11 pm on a Friday night, I set off on my quest.

It was 55 degrees out and the air was still. My headlamp afforded me a good 20 feet or so of visibility before fading into an inky abyss. I knew the trail well, and even under the darkness of night it was rather obvious. So many people hike this mountain every year, there’s a freeway packed into the earth. Well, at least on this part of the hike.

I was told to hike slowly to modulate my temperature and avoid sweating. But I don’t think I traveled any slower than normal. I was in a tee-shirt and light pants, and was sweating like crazy because of my gaiters.

In an hour I reached treeline, the first view of South Sister. I could barely make out a shape on the horizon that was slightly darker than the night sky. That was my mountain.

I wandered ahead, crossed the plateau, briefly distracted by two pairs of reflective patches that looked like eyes. Deer, maybe, or sasquatch. Whatever they were, they weren’t moving, so I kept on walking. It’s amazing the stories you can dream up when you’re alone in the dark for hours on end.

I began climbing again, this time on the shattered, gray rocks that lead up to the Lewis Glacier. This is where the trail became braided. I anticipated this, and kept looking for the cairns reinforced with tall, ghostly tree limbs. This worked great until I reached the end of the cairns. I knew there was a small rock outcrop to the left that I needed to skirt around, so I cheated to the right a bit…too far.

Routefinding

As I continued climbing, I knew I’d gotten off track but I figured I would stumble back onto the route soon enough. Instead, I kept walking up and up an increasingly steep slope that forced me up on a ridge with steep drop-offs in every direction. At the top of this feature, I stopped to assess where I was.

The lack of visibility put me at a huge disadvantage, but I had a map, compass and the GPS track that was running on my phone. After poking around a bit and using the tools I had to approximate where I was, I caught a very faint reflection of what I knew was the lake at the foot of Lewis Glacier. Bingo.

I scrambled back down the narrow ridge to the lake. Back on track, I sent a check-in SPOT message and took an extended snack break.

The wind began to pick up. I was way ahead of schedule so I packed on some layers and started walking, hoping that the extra clothes would force me to slow down. One foot in front of the other, I marched ahead on that final push to the crater rim. From the top, it was an easy traverse over to the rock pile marking the summit.

It was only 3:45 am and darker than ever.

I put on my big down jacket, hat, gloves and rain pants. I crawled into my light bivy sack that isn’t much more than a reinforced emergency blanket, and hunkered down until sunrise. I wished I would have brought a foam pad for comfort and warmth. I closed my eyes, but only got a few minutes of sleep here and there. The wind was blowing just hard enough to be annoying but not freezing.

Sunrise

At last, the giant headlamp in the sky began to shine. It was just after 6 am. I’d never paid attention to how much a production the sunrise really is. Chilly and bored from having sat around for hours at 10,000′ I was amped up to keep walking. I poked around a bit, looking for good angles to look at the scenery without being too exposed to the wind. A half an hour later, I gave in and packed up to go.

I walked counter-clockwise around the summit rim, taking lots of pictures the whole way around. It’s a beautiful route that few people bother to take. There were¬†only a few spots that were¬†a little sketchier than walking on the climb route, and easily navigable if you’re paying attention. From the other side of the crater, there were¬†changing views of Middle and North Sister, and you could¬†see down the rugged north side of South Sister. Looking back at the summit area, I saw one person emerge from an orange tent and walk out to enjoy the same views I was having.

I slowly progressed along the rim, savoring the changing colors of sunrise. In one spot, what appeared to be rock was actually scree-covered ice, so I took a nice little tumble and whacked my knee. I chose a route on higher ground and got back to my circumnavigation.

As I wrapped up my circular route I saw another person sitting at the edge of the crater and prepared myself for the onslaught of humanity I was about to encounter.

Going down

On my way down I had to explain to several groups that, no, I didn’t camp up there and yes, I hiked alone. There was the usual parade of archetypes trudging up the mountain. I’m always fascinated with the broad cross-section of people that make the pilgrimage up Oregon’s third highest peak. Matching shirt and fitness tights babe, REI-from-head-to-toe guy, bouncy youth group with¬†tired leader in the back, grizzled old dudes, boyfriend carrying the backpack¬†for girlfriend couple, these are all frequent fliers up here. But I was surprised to encounter a new character: guy hiking with a duffel bag in his hand. If I’d have seen him in any other context I’d be tempted to report him as suspicious.

But none of that bothered me much. I was thrilled to be on my way down as the temperatures climbed up. Predicted to be in the 90’s that day; no thanks. I enjoyed seeing the scenery that I’d missed in the night. First, the fire red cinder bursting with color in the early sunlight. The dirty¬†glacier and associated lake, plus the hill I’d inadvertently ascended on my night hike. Then, the dusty gray expanse snaking down to the broad plateau. The sky was hazy from nearby wildfires, so views of the surrounding peaks were obscured. Along the plateau, plants began to re-emerge. Tiny groundcover plants, prepared for the coming winter, lay flat against the earth, while rugged trees stood twisted and stubborn, anchored in for any kind of weather.

It was, and always is, a stunningly beautiful landscape. It’s a no-brainer why this area sees so much visitation.

I got back to the parking lot 2.5 hours after starting my descent. The parking lot was positively overflowing with cars. I wonder when this area will get a permit system. Seems like only a matter of time. I couldn’t believe how many people were starting their hike well after sunrise. It would be interesting to see what percent of hikers actually make it to their destination.

Another adventure in the books, another hike checked off the to-do list. Strangely, no matter how many I cross off the list, it doesn’t seem to get any shorter… I’ll be heading back to this mountain at the end of September with a group of (mostly) first-timers. It will be so much fun to experience the mountain through fresh eyes; I am thrilled to accompany each of them on this trip.

As for my next solo adventure, well, I’ve got some ideas.

North Guardian Angel

April 23, 2015.

East Ridge | 7.5 miles | 750′ ele. gain | 7.5 hrs. | Photos

We met up with Rick at a coffee shop before sunrise, and caravaned up to the Wildcat trail head in the central part of Zion National Park. With less publicity and several road closures planned for the day, we anticipated more of a wilderness experience on the trails.

Aaron, Rick and I hiked down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and turned on the junction towards Northgate Peaks. At trail’s end, the two Northgate Peaks stood like stone lions guarding the gate of some VIP’s mansion. We bushwhacked down the overgrown blocks of dark lava rock to the sandy valley floor. Heading directly towards our obvious target, we picked our way through scraggly shrubs and the occasional pine tree as quickly as we could. Once we reached the impressive sandstone slabs of North Guardian Angel, Aaron turned back to hike up East Northgate Peak while Rick and I harnessed up for our climb.

The first bit was a fun, third class scramble up the horizontally scarred slab to the long, flat landing zone above. My approach shoes felt incredibly sticky on this rock. We weren’t in Oregon anymore…

Once we hit the plateau, we roped in and I led up the first pitch of actual climbing. The hardest moves (as always) were right off the ground‚ÄĒwithin the first 30 feet or so‚ÄĒand so it took a little mental magic to push myself through on lead. Since I rarely ever climb rock anymore, my brain gets a little rusty on exposed, unprotected climbing, even when it’s technically easy.

Once past the tough spot I breezed up to a good anchor point and brought Rick up. There may not have been anywhere to place nuts and cams on this climb, but there were plenty of Ponderosa pines along the way. Each pitch ended at one such tree, and was almost always shared with a massive throng of red ants. That kept the pace moving. We consulted a photocopy from one of Rick’s climbing books that had a play-by-play route description to keep us on track, but mostly the pitches ran out whenever there was a convenient tree to sling.

We ended up climbing 4 or 5 roped pitches, then carried the rope up the final ascent. The climbing was really enjoyable and never that challenging, but the exposure made us pay attention. It felt nicer to be roped up, even though belaying up my partner was exhausting (since he was cruising along so fast).

Near the summit block, we had some options. We decided to go left and traverse around the “face” of the ridge, since it looked pretty vertical. The traverse was pretty easy, minus one airy step that Rick assured me was no big deal. After that, it was a straightforward scramble up some loose but not exposed sections of rock.

On the summit, the views were incredible. Pale, slickrock mountains jutted up from the forested scrubland all around it. Voices echoed out from the Subway, a popular canyoneering route nearby. We hung out and ate snacks for the first time today, admiring the colorful mountains and valleys in all directions.

Seriously, 360¬į views:

On the way down, we walked to the edge of the summit block wall and set our first rappel. This saved us some time and hassle negotiating the exposed section we passed through on our way up. By combining downclimbing with rappelling we comfortably descended the ridge back to the plateau. One last slickrock scramble brought us to the base of the mountain, where we packed up our gear and headed out.

It was now pretty warm and we were both ready to be done. We aimed for the gap between the Northgate Peaks and I scrambled back up the lava to the trail while Rick stayed low in the valley. After much yelling, waving of hands, and wandering back and forth on the trail, we met up once again and retreated towards the trail head together.

At our final trail junction before the parking lot, we came across a group of young women with overnight packs on, who were paused for a break. Rick asked if they were headed to the Subway, to which they basically replied: “whatchutalkinabout?” They clearly had no idea what the (most popular route in the universe) Subway was, where they were or where they were going. We marched away from the confused ladies, remarking on the utter lack of preparation the average visitor seems to have in the National Parks.

We then continued marching along the (wrong) trail for another mile, wondering why we hadn’t reached¬†the car yet.

It then occurred to us that we’d mistakenly taken the connector trail to the Hop Valley trail head and had overshot our destination. After a brief moment to reflect on the irony of the situation I pulled out the map and noticed that we could bushwhack up the cliffy rock band to our right once we reached the general area of the parking lot, instead of hoofing it all the way back to the aforementioned junction. Conveniently, there was a break in the vertical wall right where we needed it and we clambered up the rocks to the field just south of the lot.

Meanwhile, Aaron had gotten concerned that it was taking us so long to return, and had decided to hike back up the trail to look for us. Fortunately he ran into a couple who had passed us on the wrong trail and based on their conversation, he figured out what happened. We eventually reunited and all was well. Just a hiccup in the adventure.

This would be our last foray into Zion National Park. I enjoyed the solitude, the outstanding views, easy climbing, and unique perspective of the park. I left Zion with a positive vibe and I was ready for the next stage in our road trip.

Route information

Doing more research? Here’s a very bare bones route description on Summit Post.¬†And another from Mountain Project. Bring a rope, material to build belay anchors and a handful of slings; leave the nuts and cams¬†at home.

Great Basin National Park

April 18-20, 2015.

View the photo album from this leg of the trip.


Spring arrived, so was time for another big adventure. The decision on where to go was made easy when I was invited to climb a pair of peaks in Zion National Park in late April. In order to make the most of my travel time, I crafted a road trip that would last nearly 3 weeks and take us through 4 states. Fortunately, my partner was up for it and the two of us set out from the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon to explore some new territory.

Getting there

After spending a night in Northern Nevada, we got up early to make our way to Great Basin National Park. Driving down highway 50, or the “Loneliest Road in America,” we took a lunch, car maintenance and tourist break in the town of Eureka. I wandered into the Eureka museum, which chronicled the rise and fall of a mining boom-town. There were rooms full of old printing machines, newspapers, kitchen items, and relics of old stores, homes and businesses. There was little information to accompany all these items so it was kind of like walking into a crowded antiques store. Nonetheless, it provided a nice diversion and the woman working there was very helpful in providing information about the town and the area.

As we approached the park from the west, Wheeler Peak came into view. That would be our target for our first and most challenging hike of the trip.

We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to ask about current conditions and one of the rangers suggested an alternative route, involving climbing a couloir, that might be easier and more straightforward given the time of year. I thanked him for the suggestion and we settled into camp at Upper Lehman Creek.

Wheeler Peak

16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours

In the summer, Wheeler Peak is a challenging but accessible high peak. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet so there’s less than 3,000′ of vertical climbing to get there. A nice path leads 4.3 miles one way to the summit.

But now the road to the trailhead was gated due to snow. We’d have to start our hike from the Upper Lehman Creek campground at 7,750′. That nearly doubled the mileage and elevation gain. No worries, we were ready for this.

Living at sea level doesn’t quite prepare you for being at elevation for any period of time so we woke up early in the morning feeling short of breath just walking around camp. We packed up and hit the trail before 6:30 am, with only one group signed in ahead of us.

We walked along the steadily rising trail through stands of cactus, aspen, sage and juniper. About an hour into our trek we looked across a meadow to get our first view of Wheeler Peak. The bump we’d been staring at from our campsite was not, in fact, our mountain but some insignificant neighbor. The view was stunning. We’d see the mountain several times from many more angles through the course of the day.

After crossing the creek, we began to encounter patchy snow. Two hours into the hike we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground. Picnic tables and grills stuck out of the tops of snowdrifts. We followed the road, as the ranger had suggested, about a mile up the road to find the Wheeler Peak trail. Signs at the trailhead  warned us of the challenges that lay ahead and suggested some easier alternatives.

We¬†followed the trail to a junction to Stella Lake. From here, according to the ranger, we’d find a couloir that would take us straight to the ridge below the summit. It would be easier than trying to find the main trail under snow. Besides, it sounded like more of an adventure.

The couloir was an obvious ribbon of snow to the left of the lake. We circled around the southwest side of the lake and then headed cross-country over the hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. I was surprised to see so many trees here, clinging to life at over 10,000′.

The snow texture provided enough grip in most places to allow us to climb up without any gear. Yaktrax would have been helpful in some of the icier spots, but I found that if I moved quickly and stepped firmly enough it was possible to get past the worst of it without slipping. Poles were essential.

Once we reached the ridge we were both a little disheartened to look ahead and see how much further we still had to go. The combination of being at a high elevation and climbing was knocking the wind and energy right out of us. We took a few extended snack and water breaks to keep moving forward.

Along the ridge, the views were stunning. There were snow-capped mountain ranges in every direction. Wind farms were visible in the valley bottom. The sheer rock face of Jeff Davis Peak became more dramatic with each step forward. And the weather was so pleasant! Sunshine, dry skies, and moderate temperatures helped us keep taking steps forward.

Once on the summit, we really took a rest. It was time for lunch and some backpack-free exploration. There was a summit register placed inside a mailbox that someone left in a windbreak. We watched flocks of small birds swooping above the snow in search of food. And we celebrated the success of our efforts: a panoramic view that very few park visitors have seen, especially off season. Click the link below to get an idea.

Of course we were only halfway done and it was already 2:30 pm so we needed to start moving down. Aided by gravity we quickly ambled down the ridge and were back atop the couloir in no time at all. Going down was much faster and much more fun than going up. By the time we reached the snow above the lake the sun had softened it up considerably, so it was an agonizing slog to get back to the trail.

Knees wobbly from the cumulative effort of the day, it felt good to be on packed, dry ground and we made good time back to camp, arriving in time for a reasonable dinner. While I cooked many elaborate meals on this trip I had very little energy on this night. We settled for hotdogs and beans, a classic camp meal.

Lehman Caves

Before leaving for our trip I booked a Lehman Cave tour for 1 pm for the next day. I knew we’d be beat after our climb and could use an opportunity to sleep in. We did just that, had a delicious campfire brunch, and packed up our camp. We arrived at the Visitor Center just before the tour and layered up for our descent into the cold, damp cave.

Unlike many of the caves in the Northwest, which are nearly all lava tubes, Lehman Cave is made of limestone. Our tour guide took us into several rooms of the cave. In the first room, she discussed how crazy it must have been for the first visitors to this space. She turned off all the lights. It was completely dark. Then she proceeded to tell us about experiments that demonstrate how quickly people go insane when they’re held in complete darkness. I could believe it.

Each room had interesting features, including some that were apparently pretty rare to find. There were the usual stalactites and stalagmites, plus several that had welded together into columns. There was cave popcorn and soda straws. What was most impressive to me was how many intricate features there were in every room. The cave was well-lit so we could appreciate the formations in the cave. Early visitors must have had a harder time appreciating it by candlelight.

After the cave tour we ran to the small cafe attached to the Visitor’s Center to satisfy my milkshake craving, then hit the road. We had to book it to Zion National Park.