Far From Home

After finishing the NOLS course in the Wind River Range, I went right back out into the mountains for a short trip with a college friend to climb a peak we had passed by on the course. Wind River Peak, at 13,192 feet, is the highest peak in the southern portion of the Wind River Range, and was a prominent landmark for the first several days of the NOLS course as we walk below it. And as the topo map shows, the ascent to the summit is amazingly straightforward from the northeast along a feature I heard referred to as “The Ramp.” I’m sure you can guess what that is by the map snippet below.

WindRiverPeak

It was a straightforward hike, but certainly not an easy one, especially as we brought our packs up and over the peak, dropping down the south side of the mountain to Tayo Lake. The descent was also fairly simple, if time-consuming due to picking our way across boulder fields for a few miles. We were rewarded at the end of the descent with the icy waters of Tayo Lake, and a freshly-maintained trail heading down to the valley. A volunteer crew from the Sierra Club was on a work trip for the week, which certainly helped speed up the end of the day for us.

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking here, since as I write this I’m still getting adjusted to life at home after all that time in the mountains. From the summit, there are plenty of views across much of the range, and I could see plenty of places I know I’ll have to visit again later.

Second Deep Creek Lake at the base of Wind River Peak.

Second Deep Creek Lake at the base of Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake below the cliffs of Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake below the cliffs of Wind River Peak.

Temple Mountain and Frozen Lakes from the summit of Wind River Peak.

Temple Mountain and Frozen Lakes from the summit of Wind River Peak.

Tayo Lake, from the long descent of Wind River.

Tayo Lake, from the long descent of Wind River.

Looking back from a crossing of the Popo Agie River.

Looking back from a crossing of the Popo Agie River.

Only a day after arriving in Colorado, coming from sea level, I was up above 9000 feet and wouldn’t come back down to a reasonable elevation for the next five days. Hiker Box, whom I’d hiked with in New Hampshire in our snowy 2014-2015 winter, had moved to Boulder after hiking the Continental Divide Trail last year, and I had let him come up with all the hiking plans for the week that we would spend backpacking. We would enter the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness of the Rio Grande National Forest and spend five days bouncing between peaks. I had no idea what to expect, having spent very little time off-trail climbing 14,000 foot peaks.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

After a breakfast at the tiny town of Crestone, we started up Crestone Creek, outrunning clouds of mosquitoes despite our heavier-than-usual packs. Five days worth of food in Gossamer Gear Kumo may be a little much. Hiker Box probably had the better idea with a slightly larger Gorilla. Sometimes a little extra volume to the pack and a solid frame isn’t such a bad thing. Anyway, we peaked out in the afternoon at 13,000 feet on Venable Peak, then dropped down to 11,500 in the Venable Peaks basin. Remember, this was now less than 48 hours after I’d woken up in my bed about 40 feet above sea level. Luckily, charging up and down the White Mountains of New Hampshire for the past several months helped keep my lungs spry.

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Day two was our crusher day, charging up four more 13k peaks (Commanche, Horn, Fluted, and Adams). All of this was off trail, climbing steeply and clambering over boulders like any self-respecting New England hiker. As we reached the saddle between Fluted and Adams, a menacing-looking cloud front moved over, and we huddled in the saddle for an hour as it passed uneventfully. That was a little different from my usual experience. Then it was on to Mt Adams, the highest peak of the day at just under 14,000 feet, and requiring several short 4th class climbs. At least one of those caused us to name the hiking route, “The Dirty Pants Route” for a very scary bit of climbing.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

This was where a smarter person might have taken a rest day for the third day, but instead we turned the dial up, climbing Kit Carson, Challenger, Columbia, and Obstruction peaks (two above 14,000 feet). The last part of the day was a long traverse toward another 14er, but the two of us were so exhausted by the constant rock-scrambling for the past two days that we decided to bail on Humboldt and just head down toward South Colony Lakes, a pair of beautiful mountain lakes at the bottom of the basin below Humboldt Peak. This area was more crowded than other places we’d been so far, probably because of an easy hike to a 14er and another less easy 14er’s primary route coming up from the valley. A freezing dip in the water, and then an early bedtime for a long day.

Scrambling to the top.

Scrambling to the top.

The next morning we cruised up Humboldt Peak with empty packs, then back down to where we began the day, and then back up the other side of the valley toward Broken Hand Peak. The path we followed to a pass between Crestone Needle and Broken Hand Peak was pretty popular, but every single person going that was was heading for the taller Crestone Needle. We opted for the pretty peak of Broken Hand, and got to hang out with some goats to boot. What a difference a few hundred feet makes when you’re that high already– the peak is just as gorgeous, but not a soul had been there in who knows how long.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

We finished the day down at Cottonwood Lake, a pristine and seemingly unvisited lake below Crestone Needle, where we waited out our first thunderstorm of the trip with a legion of marmots. There I discovered just how much marmots actually like human urine– you know how they say not to pee on vegetation because critters will tear up the plants to get at the salt? Turns out that’s true! They really like it.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Day 5 was supposed to be a quick walk out, although the abandoned and overgrown trail made the first few miles a slow bushwhack through dense willows. Once on trail, we had to rush to outrun the mosquitoes again. I’m pretty resilient when it comes to biting insects, but as we got closer to the trailhead, they seemed to understand that they would soon lose a large source of blood, and attacked with gusto. Hiker Box estimated he killed well over a thousand of them in the few hours of walking down the hill.

Aww, nice marmot. They may be cute, but they're relentless when chasing your food bags.

Aww, nice marmot.
They may be cute, but they’re relentless when chasing your food bags.

By the time we ended the day back in Boulder, I had had an eye opening experience with this trip. There are a heck of a lot of mountains to play around in in Colorado, and if you stay away from the popular list of 14,000 foot peaks, you can go days without seeing a single person. Hiker Box and I already decided we’ll need to do more like this.

Last week, I joined a group of Gossamer Gear’s Trail Ambassadors for a retreat to the canyons of southeast Utah. Many of these Trail Ambassadors are currently schmoozing it up at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Show in Salt Lake City, but I only stuck around for the less overwhelming group activities with an amazing bunch of hikers.

Twinkle, showing off a new Kumo in Canyonlands National Park.

Twinkle, showing off a new Kumo in Canyonlands National Park.

After an evening visiting one of my co-instructors from NOLS, I met Glen Van Peski, the founder of Gossamer Gear, in Salt Lake City, then drove four hours to Moab, passing mountains, mesas, and canyons along the way. We arrived at a house that Grant, the president of the company, had rented for the occasion. I was originally pretty hesitant to join the event because I can’t stand being put in close quarters with people I’ve never met before (and sometimes even with people I have met), but the opportunity to meet many of the people on the guest list was too enticing. Luckily, after the first night, when everyone was so excited to meet each other, the night owls and the morning people separated the sleeping quarters well enough to make everybody happy.

Hikers acting like normal people in a house.

Hikers acting like normal people in a house.

And what a crew it was! We had AT and PCT record-setting hikers Snorkel and Anish, writer and podcaster Disco, BackpackingLight guru Will Rietveld, Arizona Trail gateway communities ambassador Sirena, The Real Hiking Viking, and many more. Most of the ambassadors, in fact, are not superhuman hikers– they’re just people who really love to hike, and love to do it with light packs. They’re all super enthusiastic, and all love to hear about each other’s stories and lives. This is the kind of group that makes me very happy to be a part of a hiking community.

Grant watches sunset from Grand View Lookout.

Grant watches sunset from Grand View Lookout.

Several of us (mostly those I mentioned in the previous paragraph) are what I like to call “Trail Famous”, which generated some entertaining discussion. Trail Fame is very different from Actual Fame, because it’s a vague kind of notoriety among a small group of people. For instance, a good bunch of Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers know my name, and know that I make apps for them, but they don’t have any clue who I am. Even at the Trail Ambassador retreat, I heard from a few people, “I thought you’d be a lot older”. (On the AT last summer, I also heard, “I envisioned you as a middle-aged, overweight guy with Doritos stains on your shirt”. Sorry to disappoint!) But along the same line, it was great to be able to put a face with each name I’d heard so often before, and, not surprisingly, find that all of these hikers are just normal people who do what they do really well because they love to do it.

Jan photo bombs Barefoot Jake and Will Rietveld.

Jan photo bombs Barefoot Jake and Will Rietveld.

Will planned and led each of the four day-hikes, which allowed most of us to relax our brains and follow his route-finding through the canyons. There’s quite a bit to say about the alien landscape of the Utah canyons, but I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. In the meantime, hanging out with all these passionate hikers has made me itch to get on a long trail again.

The La Sal Mountains, and a 1000 foot cliff over Arches National Park.

The La Sal Mountains, and a 1000 foot cliff over Arches National Park.

Allison looking off into the canyons.

Allison ponders the canyons.

Another clifftop view over Moab.

Another clifftop view over Moab.

Going down into the Canyonlands.

Going down into the Canyonlands.

At the rim of the canyons in Canyonlands.

At the rim of the canyons in Canyonlands.

Sunset colors in Arches National Park

Sunset colors in Arches National Park

Duff, Trigger, and I left Front Royal after a half day at the Quality Inn, drying out and recovering from the nasty conditions of the previous day. I’m always amazed at how quickly the body can heal with just a half day of rest on a long backpacking trip— my feet had been in a lot of pain when we got into town from the huge miles I’d done in the national park, plus the mad dash to town on the rainy final day (14 miles to town in the rain by 11 AM), but by the morning my feet felt totally fine. My mind wasn’t quite back to 100%, but I’ll get to that later.

Welcome to the jungle... of Northern Virginia.

Welcome to the jungle… of Northern Virginia.

We all decided to hike on the same schedule to Harper’s Ferry, since I had a train ticket, Duff had family meeting her, and Trigger was right on schedule hiking, all of us aiming for a Monday arrival. So we set out into the last bit of the AT in Virginia, the section between Shenandoah and Harper’s Ferry, a section that is often overlooked because it just flies by for most AT hikers. It is, after all, a section with no major mountains, little exciting terrain, and a lot of filler where the AT is routed between tightly packed roads and private property. Much of the trail in this area was practically a jungle, with undergrowth so thick it was impossible to get off trail for anything like camping or using the facilitrees.

What few views the trail passed were mostly overlooked by the through-hikers I saw, everyone focused solely on getting to the 1000-mile mark of their grand journey. I must admit, I felt much the same way, as I was now in the stage of the hike where I was mostly just eager to get home for some rest and relaxation before heading west to teach at NOLS. The heat and humidity weren’t as oppressive as they had been in southern Virginia, but they were still more than I ever care to deal with. To add another nasty side to the hike, pulling ticks off my legs was now a daily occurrence. At least none made it past my shorts, with their heavy duty permethrin treatment.

Sky Meadows State Park was a highlight for scenery in this section.

Sky Meadows State Park was a highlight for scenery in this section.

The last few days before Harper’s Ferry highlighted the biggest problem of this trip for me— as I had feared from the beginning of this trip, I had wound up right in the middle of the giant herd of through-hikers. The crowd had thinned out since Shenandoah, thankfully, and the folks I hiked near for the last few days were all wonderful people, but the trail was packed none the less. Being so close to Washington DC, being in the middle of the through-hiker crowd, being in an area that has such mellow hiking— I can’t even count how many people I ran into on a given day.

Before long I was standing in the little office at the edge of Harper’s Ferry, just as I had seven years ago, feeling a little bittersweet about the end of the trip. I stayed at the Teahorse Hostel, a fine place within walking distance from the ATC headquarters, with a great group of fellow hikers. We all had a relaxed evening in town, with dinner and a World Cup match at a bar, and that was it. Early the next morning, I was on a train to DC, then Boston, then Portland. I had my parents send my computer to me at Harper’s Ferry, so I was able to get right into working on updating my apps.

Happy to be done, happy to be at the ATC.

Happy to be done, happy to be at the ATC.

It’s always best after a long hike to stay busy to avoid post-trail depression, but that doesn’t stop you from missing the hiking lifestyle. I have a love/hate relationship with long distance backpacking, and this time was no different. I was so sick of the heat, the blisters, the younger partying hikers, the crowds, the humidity (again), but as soon as I changed into some cotton clothing and packed my things up for the train ride, I felt like I was leaving home rather than going there. Luckily, I had a few days in Portland with my best friend before heading further up the coast, and then a big dinner at Conte’s with one of my best hiker buddies, Uncle Tom. And I’ve been plenty busy ever since.

The best place for a post-hike dinner, Conte's 1984 in Rockland, Maine, with my buddy Uncle Tom.

The best place for a post-hike dinner, Conte’s 1984 in Rockland, Maine, with my buddy Uncle Tom.

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From my 2007 through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I have only two memories of Shenandoah National Park: that it was easy hiking, and that it was fairly boring. This time through, I wasn’t so excited for hiking this section of the AT, but I did learn that my old memories weren’t entirely accurate.

Morning miles are the best miles.

Morning miles are the best miles.

Coming out of Waynesboro, I had lost all of my previous week’s hiking partners. A few had gone into the park earlier in the morning (I chose to take a half day on the first day in the park), but most I had just lost track of in the large town. So for the first three days in Shenandoah I saw no other hikers I’d met before there. With the easier hiking on mellow grades in the park, I was moving faster without trying, wandering through many grassy meadows and crossing Skyline Drive almost a dozen times each day. There were more day-hikers out now– I mostly ran into other backpackers at the few campsites at the end of each day.

Setting sun on Stony Man summit.

Setting sun on Stony Man summit.

My memory of Shenandoah being fairly boring, with all the views concentrated on the road, turned out to be just plain wrong. There were several jagged peaks and cliffs with wonderful views down into the valleys below. The humidity this week was just as bad as ever, so I would try to hike early in the morning and late at night, as the haze and stickiness in the air was settled in the valleys. This turned out to be a good plan. Some of the best views came when the sun was low in the sky, there were fewer people crowding the trails then, and I was able to move faster by hiking long hours. On my third and fourth days in the park, I covered 60 miles of trail, the highest mileage I’ve hiked since the PCT.

Later sunset from Skyline Drive.

Later sunset from Skyline Drive.

Then there was the food. Since Shenandoah is primarily a park devoted to motorists, there are several Waysides and camp stores near the trail. I was able to eat town food almost every day in the park, which turned out to be good and bad. I ended up spending a lot more money on this trip than I’d expected, and probably lost a lot of time that I could have been hiking while I lay on the lawn of the Waysides, incapacitated after gorging myself on pancakes, burgers, ice cream, and soda. Not exactly a healthy diet, but burning 4000 or more calories per day, I finally let my inhibitions go.

More humidity is on the way, but early in the morning I could rise above it.

More humidity is on the way, but early in the morning I could rise above it.

That was the good part of hiking through Shenandoah. Unfortunately, being crowded in with a new crowd of through-hikers at cramped campsites in the evenings began to take its toll on me. As I’d feared before this trip, I was smack dab in the middle of the partying, obnoxious, entitled crowd of mostly early-twenties hikers, and I did not care for them. I started to lecture one hiker after he’d complained that the trail maintainers didn’t do enough for through-hikers, which is utter bullshit, but I realized I was essentially talking to a brick wall. In the past few weeks I’ve seen more than two dozen coolers left at road crossings, and countless instances of people going out of their way for through-hikers, but none of those people or the hikers have ever done any trail maintenance themselves, or even joined their local trail club. I’m so sick of the attitude that the hikers matter more than the trail itself, but it seems to be the prevailing mentality.

Leaving the Shenandoah, this was all I could see.

Leaving the Shenandoah, this was all I could see.

The last night in the park summed up my feelings pretty well. After having lunch at the last of the Waysides, I stopped at the next campsite, which was already overrun by backpackers at 4 PM. The site was a reasonable size for a campsite, with a shelter and half a dozen tent spots, but by evening there were more than thirty hikers crammed into the dense woods around the site. Without any space for tents, most of us ended up camping on trails around the site, wedged in next to the spring, next to the shelter, and all around. That’s when the mother of all thunderstorms hit, flooded every tent in the area, and left everyone grumpy and soaked. With the ground so heavily compacted by overuse, water had nowhere to go but into pools under each tent. I was up at 4 in the morning, headed out of the park and into the town of Front Royal to dry out in a hotel room with a few of my new hiking friends (including Duff, whom I’d hiked with in Washington on the PCT).

I had a lot of time to think in the night about the overcrowding at the campsite, and in the National Park and Appalachian Trail in general. There’s been a lot of talk about this on the trail this year, since the numbers of hikers continue to grow. I don’t fault anyone for the overcrowding, since the trend has always been that the numbers are growing, but the problems of overuse can’t be fixed by complaining about trail conditions and not doing anything to help the trail maintainers. That’s the only behavior I saw in Shenandoah, and it left a nasty taste in my mouth about the state of through-hiking. At least I was able to sleep well on a hotel bed the next night to raise my spirits.