2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,000 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 17 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Racetrack Playa – Death Valley National Park

Since I am busy with end-of-semester work here is a quick link to a really neat video and accompanying podcast about the Racetrack Playa in death valley. For those of you not familiar with Skeptoid – Brian Dunning does a weekly podcast that is well researched investigating claims of the paranormal and other supposed mysteries. This one is right up my alley and adequately explains the phenomenon. What is really neat is that he has captured video of the Racetrack flooding.

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Notch Peak – into the cold desert canyon

Notch Peak from looking east

If ever there was an inspiration for the title of this blog my most recent outdoor adventure – albeit short – is such an inspiration. I finally got a chance to flee the demands of graduate school’s first semester for a visit to Notch Peak in the House Range. Notch Peak is one of Utah’s most appropriately named mountains. It is a great block of dolomite whose roots run deep into the Great Basin just north of Sevier Lake. It is surrounded by dunes and salt flats and eroded alluvium pushed into the valleys of ancient lakes and seas that form the low platform of the Great Basin’s sky island ranges. It was torn up from this base and its western side forms a massive blocky cliff while the climb up the canyons on the east side of the range is generally gentle.

We had our first significant snow of the winter this past weekend and the early morning drive down US6 was treacherous. The snow added to the cold desert quality of the experience. The waters of Sevier Lake reflecting the snowy range to her south erase the immediate image of this land as any sort of real desert. Staring at the lake bed from near the summit of Notch Peak in this season forces the viewer to hold a number of paradoxical thoughts at once in their mind. Those still actual waters appear to be a mirage. They do not belong to the landscape the way a mirage should.

Remnants of taller times

I kept remarking the entire weekend at Notch Peak how much this adventure reminded me of Death Valley. It is essentially the same circumstance of geology and climate. Notch Peak is at one end of this long blank region and Death Valley is at the other. The House Range does not, of course, experience the same harshness of temperature that Death Valley does. But Sevier Lake does not look all that different from Badwater Basin. The Sawthooth Canyon is much greener than the hike we took in Death Valley, its trees are much taller and of course in this first week of November, the canyon held about a half inch of snow. Something no modern human has seen in Death Valley. And were it not for the firewood we lugged up the canyon, we would have had an extremely cold night. (Leave No Trace principles were followed for the fire.)

We did not make it to the top of Notch Peak itself. It gets a bit confusing on the backside of that long cliff and we took a side canyon to the summit of a lesser peak just to the north of the actual Notch. The views were still incredible and the snow added a quality to the landscape that is hard to see in the summer. It changes the shadows and the sound of the land. A snowed in desert is something else entirely for the mind and the imagination to process. The desert here is a margin. It is a borderland between the harsh environments further west and the mountainous water-catching regions to the east. We could still see the snowed-over peaks of the Wasatch to the east. I might attempt some other cold weather trips to the West Desert and Nevada over this winter to get a fuller feel for this marginal paradox.

View of Sevier Lake from near the summit of Notch Peak

This little weekend trip marks my third or fourth adventure in the area this year. I seem to have spent more Utah adventure time this year in this odd landscape than in the Uintah/Wasatch mountains or southern Utah’s canyons. There is something intriguing about this landscape – empty, foreign, and stretching across half a continent. It presents certain paradoxes greater than mountains or redrock canyons. One understands water in a canyon. The Great Basin’s waters are oddly different. This entire region contained lakes – or properly a lake – larger than Superior, Huron, and Michigan combined. They were cold and icy and lapped at the foot of huge dolomite ranges like the House Range. It is no wonder these ranges are limestone and dolomite and other carbonates with all that water to dissolve them. All that water. Consider that thought in the epoch we live in now. An epoch where Sevier Lake is an ephemeral shadow struggling against its salty base. In that icy epoch preceding human settlement, one could have rafted Huck Finn-like from Mt. Olympus near Salt Lake City passing range islands all the way down to the inland sea’s southern end. A lake rafter could have sat atop Notch Peak Island and looked out over the green tops of the islands towards Wheeler Peak Island in what is now Great Basin National Park. The evaporative temperatures that reduced Sevier and Great Salt Lake to almost nothing should send a chill down the spine of anyone who hears the term ‘climate chage.’ Especially in this region where our water’s course is eternal and our engineering cannot outrun its downhill run. We live in a region where climate change is evident on the very rocks we enjoy climbing, yet it is such a slow calamity that we do not recognize it for the beauty, but it is all really there. How we can deny our climatic fate when looking at and living in the Great Basin takes a level of cognitive dissonance that only the human brain can deal with. There is dissonance too in nature; in the force that gives rise to a thing like a cold desert.

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The Notch Peak album

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Time to ski

Last year I took this video at Redpine Lake. I forgot to post it here, so here it is now to get everyone in the mood for the season.

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Northern Wind River Range – Near Granite Lake

Sun above the Teton Range photo: Chad Henderson

I spent the week of August 8, 2011 hiking with my buddy Chad from Denver. He is a former resident of both Dubois and Lander, Wyoming and a former NOLS instructor. He has spent a lot of time hiking in the Wind River Range and knows the area quite well. I was excited to do this trip because this would be the first multi-day backpacking trip I had done with Chad. Chad deserves major respect for carrying ten extra pounds of camera gear through mosquito infested timber slopes above the Seven Lakes near Union Pass. I was also perversely excited about the possibility of seeing a bear. There is now an established group of grizzlies in the Wind River Range and black bears are of course present. The only time I ever saw a bear on a trail was on my first big long-distance backpacking trip in Tetons National Park when I was thirteen years old. I will disclose right up front that we did not see much wildlife at all – we surmised that most of the large mammal life was far up the mountain in summer grazing territory. We did see a group of three bighorn sheep staring down at us as we crossed the Continental Divide from Divide Lake to enjoy the view of Three Waters Mountain. Chad was, again, the perfect hiking mate for bear country with several years’ experience hiking in bear country from Wyoming to Alaska.

Chad and Zach above Granite Lake photo: Chad Henderson

Our hike began about three miles down the 4WD road from the Union Pass Road into the Seven Lakes area of the Northern Winds. Our drive was quickly halted by an overflown stream and we were forced to start the hike toward Granite Lake on foot from this point. Chad has provided pdf of the USGS quad which can be viewed here. He has even highlighted our in-out hike and the day hikes we took from our base camp. It does give some idea of the type of topography we had. This area is full of lakes so we had expected to find some fishermens’ trails between them. There were some very faded game trails leading to water, but full human tracks were extremely difficult to locate.

Chad in full mosquito garb pointing toward Deep Lake

We decided not to camp too close to any lake or marsh because of the legions of vicious mosquitoes this summer. We had not really planned for the swarms that would attack us during the hike itself. I was in Idaho last month doing trail work, so knew they would be bad in timbered areas. But I thought at this point they would have died down a little. If anything, they were more vicious. As winter gets closer they are becoming more desperate because of the short summer they have had. After an hour or so of hiking, Chad justifiably had a mosquitanxiety attack. We both needed to stop for water and snacks, but the relentless horde kept us pressing on through the timbered hillside above Granite Lake. We eventually climbed the ridge to the south of the lake and found a nice flat space above the trees to make a camp.

Snowfield water source and food hiding place

There was a convenient late season snowfield with a nice trickle of icewater near our campsite for a water source. The snowfield also formed a nice protective shelf where we hid our bear canister at night. There is something really satisfying about being able to drink perfectly fresh runoff from a snowfield trickle in the middle of August.

Day 2: Divide Lake and Three Waters Mountain

We spent our first day exploring the higher elevations in the area. We hiked first over the Continental Divide, then to Divide Lake. The lake still had plenty of remaining snowfields surrounding it on all sides. It appears that this year’s snow is actually sitting on the normal permanent fields. And has melted back only partially by the second week in August to reveal the multi-year permanent fields. I have never had the opportunity to see snow last so late into the season, and it really is incredible that by the second week in August it is still covering the actually permanent field;

As if it was not already obvious, there is a lot of water in this area and the Continental Divide splits these waters into three drainages. From here, the snow melt flows off of Three Waters Mountain to on of three river systems the Snake River, the Green/Colorado River or to the Missouri River. These systems are the major waters for the entire western half of the continent beyond the 100th meridian. This place is the origin for a significant volume of that water which will eventually be consumed by farmers, ranchers and urban households from this point to the Gulf of Mexico, Astoria, Oregon, and Baja California. The water flowing from our little snowfield near our campsite eventually flows toward the Teton Range to water our nation’s largest potato patch in southern Idaho. Three Waters Mountain is a long expanse of crags that when approached from the west looks like a long battlement of granite. The entire area is a series of streams and underground trickles leading to small lakes who let the waters out to larger lakes downhill. The larger lakes, like Granite, Divide, Deep, Cliff and Dollar lakes all have significant size with large marshes and willows surrounding them.

Bighorns on the cliff photo: Chad Henderson

We crossed and recrossed the Continental Divide on our way to higher altitude. At one point we came upon a group of three bighorn rams peering down on us from atop a cliff. Chad did not have the correct lense on his camera so we did not get a real good picture of them. Once they saw us, they quickly disappeared further up into the cliffs. Elusive creatures.

Pika in the rocks

We spent the rest of the afternoon moving further up the mountain. This is a pretty rugged area and there are no trails – or any evidence of human passing. We scrambled several cliffs and found a few small puddles of lakes. We also came upon a few pikas hiding in the rocks.Pikas are some of my favorite creatures. I am always amazed that the survive in such a harsh environment and are able to sustain themselves on the meager calories provided by the tundra.

Day 3: Finding the Henderson Campsite

Old Pictures to help find the route to Deep Lake photos: Chadd Henderson

One of Chad’s goals for the hike was to locate a campsite near Deep Lake that his parents had frequently used while living in Dubois, WY. Chad noted that the campsite does not comply with Leave No Trace rules but we can forgive it since LnT was not as developed a concept in the previous decades. There is a definite trace of the campsite remaining – a small mossgrown fire ring and a stack of wood. Chad estimates that his parents had last used the campsite at least twelve years ago. Even though there is an ORV trail that runs quite close to Granite Lake it does not appear that many people access the other lakes in the chain.

Chad at Deep Lake

As I noted previously we had an incredibly difficult time locating a social trail that fisherman would have used to go from lake to lake. It is therefore a bit surprising that there is a trace of the campsite at all. It also emphasizes the need to follow Leave No Trace rules if preservation of wilderness in a pristine state is the goal since the evidence of human passing lasts for years. People debate this concept of pristine-ness and the sharp division we make between urban and wild endlessly and I will not get into it in this particular post. Consider though, that here in Utah we value ancient evidence of human interaction with wilderness, but are much less pleased with the degradations that occurred in the wild in the last century with the arrival of Europeans. Are we ashamed of the way we interact with the wild? My short answer: yes, and we should be.

Cliff Lake

Chad and I had fun hiking to the campsite. His dad had marked its location on our map and we had some photos he had marked so that we would know which way to approach Deep Lake and locate the campsite. The campsite itself was quite easy to find on the far side of the lake and we spent a while enjoying the view of the lake. I regretted that I did not have any fishing gear because there were some nice looking trout in the water. There was a recent caddisfly hatch and a light dry caddisfly with a quick twitchy cast would have netted a couple of nice trout. Since this area is full of bears, I think I would have been very careful to engage in catch-and-release since the odor of cooking fish would be too much for any bear. After Chad took his video footage of the lake we hiked uphill to Cliff Lake where we had lunch. We found a small meadow full of white columbine and paintbrush. On our way up we had to pass through some fairly dense willows and we quickly changed our shouted ‘hey bear!’ warning to ‘hey moose!’ This is a proven backcountry technique. Bears only respond to ‘bear’ and moose to ‘moose.’ If you get this confused they get sensitive and spooked and they will charge.

Day 4: The Hike Out

We decided to take a slightly different route on our way out because we wanted to engage in some more archaeology and locate the exact spot of Chad’s Dad’s photos and take similar pictures. Sort of a then-and-now exercise. We took a slightly different route on the way out and we did locate a social or game trail for part of the way. This made our hike a bit faster. we followed the drainages uphill to get back the ORV trail. Along the way we searched for the exact rock with the view of the mountains behind granite lake that Chad’s dad had taken twenty years ago. I began to lose a bit of patience because I was getting hungry and I was just about ready to give up when we located the exact rock where Chad’s uncle had been photographed twenty years prior. It was interesting to note two things in the scene: 1. the growth and death of the trees and 2. the way the cured wood from a previous burn had not decayed at all. Here are the two pictures side by side:

Chad in his uncle's spot

See upper left for the same view

This was a really fun adventure in an area I had not previously explored. It was also the final adventure for ‘Summer of Outside.’ I am now into ‘Autumn of School.’ I have not been outside at all since this trip. I hope to get outside again real soon. I hope to get back to the canyons and deserts for the Autumn and Winter. There are certain of my hiking network that now live on this side of the 100th meridian so we expect to see you on an outside adventure very, very soon. You know who you are.

The bear expert's bear

I would also like to thank Chad for being a most excellent guide and bear expert on this trip. He was a ton of fun to have along and I hope to do another trip real soon.

Back to schoolwork…

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Wind River Video

Chad has put together a nice video of our trip to the Wind River Range. You can view it here:

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Summer of Outside

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I have been terrible about posting this summer, mainly because I have been enjoying “Summer of Outside.” To keep all two of my readers interested, here are some pictures of recent adventures. (This summer should also be known as the … Continue reading

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Snowy July 4 Hike

The view above Redpine

The weather for the July 4 holiday this year was cool with intermittent rainshowers, but I decided to hike to Redpine Lake. The last time I was at Redpine was almost exactly five months ago – see post on snowshoeing from February 3 of this year. On July 4 this year, the lake was still entirely frozen over and there were plenty of backcountry skiers and snowshoers enjoying the July 4 snow above about 9,000 feet. I had the idea to at least hike to the lake and perhaps to Pfeifferhorn. I had not been up Big or Little Cottonwood Canyons since the end of ski season this year and I knew there was a massive amount of snow since people were still skiing up the road at Snowbird. I came well prepared with my ice axe and cold weather clothing. I planned at least to do some glissading on the slopes above the lake.

Still frozen in July

I reached lower Redpine Lake early enough in the day and decided to climb all the way to the ridge connecting the Redpine basin to Pfeifferhorn. The amount of snow remaining on the slopes and ridges was surprising. I have never seen so much snow at such relatively low elevations. The conditions were similar to those seen in late April or May – not July.

Pfeifferhorn choked with snow

Once I got high enough on the ridge I finally had a good view of Pfeifferhorn. The ridge and the climb up was completely choked with snow. It had also begun to rain and sleet on the ridge and I decided that it was perhaps not the best day for an attempt at the peak. So I enjoyed the views of Utah Lake, Mt. Timpanogos and back down to the valley to the north side of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The views were stunning and I had a good view of the upper basins on the southwest-facing side of the Wasatch above Draper, Utah.

A funny thing happened to me on the way back down from the ridge to the lake. I had my ice axe in hand the whole way up the snow slope in case of a slip or a mis-step. As I traversed ed the upper slope coming down from the ridge over the lake using a track of footsteps set in the snow, I looked down. I suddenly froze, panicking that I might slip in fall. It took me several minutes standing on the slope to convince myself that even if I did slip, I had my ice axe ready for a self arrest. Further, the wet summer snow would probably not allow me to slip very far anyway. I made my way back down the slope after the panic subsided and actually had some fun glissading all the way back to lower Redpine Lake.

The hike back down to the trailhead was uneventful except for the moose feeding on the willows in Little Cottonwood Creek. Unfortunately, I only got some very blurry photos of him – and I do say him since he had quite a head of moosey horns.

Coming soon…trail working in Idaho…

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The Park Service’s Best Kept Secret

View across the Snake Valley to Utah from Pole Canyon Trail

This month’s adventure was to Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. I had never spent much time in Nevada – other than a quick overnight in Las Vegas on the way to Death Valley back in January and driving a Uhaul truck from San Francisco to Salt Lake City after too much revelry at a friend’s wedding the day before. Thus my limited impressions of Nevada were of strip malls and hangovers. This past weekend cured me of those initial sickly impressions.

The park makes up most of the Snake Range and is the highest range in the Great Basin. Most of the trails and the developed portions of the park are all on the east side – facing Utah. By virtue of this, it offers some amazing views of the successive ranges of the Utah portion of the Great Basin. The visitor center itself offers clear views of the Confusion Range and the House Range with prominent Notch Peak. Clearer days provide even more distant views.

Blue sky and late spring snowpack at Johnson Lake

The park has received similar amounts of snow as Salt Lake City and the snowpack is around 200% of normal. I had wanted to climb Wheeler Peak, but with this much late season snow, it would have made for a very strenuous hike. We decided to stick to some lower altitude hikes for our three-day weekend. Upon arriving on Saturday we found a nice campsite in the Upper Lehman campground. Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I prefer to pack in to my campsites and generally I am not a fan of camping within view of one’s vehicle. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Much of the campground space in the park is tent-only since it is impossible to get a heavy RV up the narrow park roads. There are toilets and running water, but the campsites themselves are secluded and still feel relatively primitive.

Osceola Ditch Hike

Osceola Ditch trail

On our first day we hiked the Osceola Ditch – a nineteenth century water project that was a system of sluices to ferry water to the north side of the range for placer mining. The project was unsuccessful and the town of Osceola flourished and died with minimal profit ever derived from the lode. I could comment here about the booms and busts of the West’s mineral wealth especially since just yesterday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar essentially announced an end to Uranium mining in the Arizona Strip citing concerns for water in the Colorado River. This announcement was of course met with the usual collective ‘harumph’ from the locals complaining about ‘environmentalists’ and jobs. Leaving aside the fact that there are few uranium mining jobs in the strip now, most of these mineral projects are big, expensive and return less in the longer term to the locals than a permanent national park. Most of the mining jobs fall to outsiders anyway and when the resource is collected, the jobs follow the ore. Such was the case with the town of Osceola.

Wildflowers along the Osceola Ditch

The ditch now provides a nice introduction to the park’s topography as the trail follows the old route of the sluices. Wheeler Peak and Mount Moriah are visible over the ridges and at this time of year and with this much snowfall the wildflowers are stunning. The trail follows a line on the range that is perfectly between the dry sagebrush flats of the basin and the aspen and pine groves of the range. The streams were all quite swollen with runoff as well. I also noticed a good variety of local songbirds.

Lehman Caves

Lizard outside entrance to Lehlman Caves

Our second day dawned with intermittent heavy rain – this is the very first time since I returned from abroad in the fall that I have camped and had to deal with rain of any sort. Of course when one plans trips to Southern Utah or Death Valley, one greatly increases their chances of having nice weather. We decided to take a tour of the Lehman Caves and wait to see if the weather would dry out a bit. Again, anyone who knows me better, knows that I do not often opt for the organized tour, and again, I was pleasantly surprised. The park staff were all very knowledgeable and I was very impressed with our tour guide for the caves. I learned that very recently seven (!) new species of cave dwellers have been discovered here and are unique to the caves in the Snake Range. These include a cave millipede and and several arachnids including pseudo-scorpions. The cave was rather mistreated by early visitors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the park now maintains much of it in a pristine state and offers tours of the parts that were degraded in the early period of the park when it was still a national monument for just the cave itself. I detected the new philosophy in park management of discussing earlier (mis)uses of resources and putting them in proper context.

Pole Canyon Hike

Pole Canyon signpost and young natural arch

Aspen and sagebrush on the Pole Canyon Trail

After lunch on Saturday we explored the Pole Canyon trail and hiked just to the Timber Creek cutoff. Reading both the very general and not-to-adequate navigation scale park map and the 1:100,000 map I had with me I saw that there was a trail that continued up the ridge to Johnson Lake. Once at the cutoff, I could find no trace of any other trail. We spent some time hiking a bit in the woods following illusive game trails but eventually gave up and headed back down the canyon. Again on this hike I was impressed with the variation between semi-arid sagebrush desert and alpine range. I have never seen such an interesting mix of aspen and sagebrush. The June wildflowers were also impressive -a product of the massive winter snowfalls we have enjoyed.

Johnson Lake Hike

The highlight of the weekend was our hike to Johnson lake from the primitive campgrounds on the south end of the park. The hike starts at about 8,000 feet and climbs to 10,800 in about 3.6 miles. It crosses some of the same sagebrush and aspen areas then up into the more alpine zone. Once we reached about 9,500 feet we encountered deep snow and the last mile or so we had to cross the heavy remaining snowpack. Once in the basin of Johnson lake it was still full winter. The sky was a brilliant dark alpine blue and the lake and the surrounding peaks were still well hidden in snow. The ridges still have impressive cornices and there is evidence of several slides on the higher slopes – avalanche season is still active. It is mostly wet avalanches at this point, but the amount of snow is impressive for the very last day of spring 2011.

The most jaw-dropping aspect of this hike was the view to the east. We were rewarded with an expansive vista of the ranges marching eastward across the Great Basin in Utah. In the far distance almost ephemeral I could just make out some snow-capped peaks. These, unbelievably, were the southern extent of the Wasatch Range. In the view from this high alpine lake then, one can see half of the Great Basin. If we could see through the ridge backing the lake, might we have been able to see all the way to the Sierras? This makes me eager to actually climb Wheeler Peak on a crystal clear day to find out.

As with all of my adventures, I am now motivated to do more. The drive to the park goes right past Notch Peak in the House Range and I had recently read about it. It is a spectacular cliff face and the remote range should offer good prospects for future hikes. Even more, I am interested in exploring more of Nevada’s ranges and they seem to offer some unique backcountry experiences. They are unique islands rising out of the basin wastelands and I look forward to many more Nevada adventures free of strip malls, hangovers, and slow moving Uhaul trucks on the Interstate.

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