Friday, January 28, 2011

Flat Tops, Days 5 and 6

Day 5: Sometimes You Just get Lucky (8 miles)

We awoke the next morning to sunlight. I was the first up, and went to retrieve the food bags before starting a fire. We got a bit of rain overnight, but still had some dry wood under the tarp that started pretty readily with empty oatmeal bags as kindling. Breakfast featured an array of oatmeal choices, granola, dried fruit, and hot coffee. We packed up the camp in crisp MountainGuy fashion, and by 9:15 a.m. we were ready to hike. 

 Hiking out of the Deer Lake basin.

Clouds had started to move in again, and it was beginning to look like we would see some more nasty weather. Our trail headed up past the waterfall behind our campsite, then switchbacked up the steep rock wall that formed the basin for Deer Lake. The view from the top of wall was spectacular. Spires of weather-eaten rock stood like sentinels just below our vantage point, perhaps to dissuade anyone from climbing up the 800-foot cliff. They were certainly persuasive in making the case not to climb down. 

 Rock sentinels at the edge of the cliff.

 Dramatic views from the trail.

The trail we followed went south toward Island Lakes, then climbed a steep slope back up to the Flat Tops plateau. We had been hiking for an hour or so when we reached the junction between the main trail and the Island Lakes loop. This seemed a promising place to stop for a moment, have a snack, and get ready for the climb. However, black clouds were forming over the peaks to the southeast, and rain was beginning to threaten. The prospect of going over a ridge in the middle of thunderstorm seemed unpleasant, so we put on rain gear, hoisted our packs, and set off again.

From the Island Lakes junction to the base of the rock wall could not have been more than half a mile, but the weather continued to deteriorate. The rain started to fall, and to the south we could hear thunder coming from over the ridge. The climb was steep, but short. It took only 15 minutes, yet by the time we reached the ridge, the rain was really coming down and we could see and hear and feel the lightning not more than half a mile away. Hair on the back of the neck was standing up and sphincters were tight: there would be no gas allowed in that explosive environment.

The trail we had planned to follow took us southeast, right up through the area of lightning activity, so that seemed a bad alternative. The trail we had been following veered off to the west, back toward Trappers Peak and away from our destination on the southern flank of Shingle Peak. We might have spent a bit more time studying the map had the conditions been different, but now there were lightning strikes to the northwest, sandwiching us in between, and getting off the ridge in a hurry seemed the best bet, irrespective of the direction. We set out to follow an imaginary (brown) trail, but probably lost it before it was ever found. No matter, we were going down and down was a good place to go at that moment.

By my reading of the map, the imaginary trail traversed down through a broad valley, skirted a small pondlet, and then continued south to round Shingle Peak on the eastern side. Oliver was of the mind that the trail stayed up along the ridgeline to pass around Shingle Peak to the east. Oliver was probably right. My map reading throughout the trip was so bad that the MoutainGuy Editorial and Grand Oversight Board (MGEGOB) demanded that I return my prized Here-We-Be Badge, but I successfully argued that since we never exactly knew where we were while we were hiking, the board couldn’t really say I was wrong. I kept the navigation badge, but it is tarnished.

The rain had been intermittent once we got off the ridge, and by the time we got down to the small pondlet, it had stopped completely. From that vantage point we sighted a small copse of trees that appeared to offer a bit of shelter and perhaps a flat spot to stop for lunch. This proved to be the case. We shed our packs, got out some provisions, and sat down for a brief respite. The sun even came out for a moment, and we basked in our small island of warmth, for the clouds and the rain were around us on all sides. In that moment of good cheer, Dan observed that but for a bit of luck, a cloud shifts half a mile one way or the other, we might have been charbroiled MountainGuys.

Lunch was brief. The sun had been fleeting, and in short order the clouds closed in and the rain returned. We repacked our packs and got going once again. Though our plan had been to travel around Shingle Peak to the east, the slope of the land and status of the imaginary trail conspired to push us downhill to the southwest. When we reached the valley floor, it was clear that the easiest path would be to hike through Sheep Dip meadow and return to the Trappers Lake trail. Fortunately, all 5,000 sheep and the six immense dogs tending them were gone.

The hike around the west side of Shingle Peak was much longer than our planned route would have been, and it also meant that we had to retrace our steps along a trail that we had followed on the way out. This violated the loop principle, which is a central feature of an adventure, but in the event, we retraced our steps for only 39 minutes, which meant that the loop loophole clause (Section 7, paragraph 2: definition of an “Adventure”) applied and we were not condemned to the fate of a “Robust Jaunt”, or even worse, a “Pleasant Excursion.”

As we rounded the southern side of Shingle Peak, it became clear that the rain had been much more intense here than where we had been. The ground was wet and muddy, and small patches of hail-snow could be found in the sheltered spots under the trees. Hail-snow also covered the ridge to east of Shingle Peak. But for the heartfelt desire to get off that same ridge during the lightning storm and a bit of bad navigation, that snow could have been ours to trudge through. Sometimes you just get lucky.

 A dusting of hail-snow on Trappers Peak.

On the map, the small lake on the southern flank of Shingle Peak looked like promising camping territory. It was not. It was really more of a shallow, bilgewater and mud type of sump, so shallow around the edges that there was no way to float the prefilter for the water pump and avoid clogging the filter. However, it was also the only water source before we started our climb down Turret Creek, so this was our destination, good camping or not.

Our campsite for the night was located on a small saddle above the lake. It featured a couple of flat sleeping spots, a great view of the southern face of Shingle Peak, a small fire ring, and a lot of soft, wet ground. Not quite the campsite home run of the previous night, but good enough to discourage any further exploration.

Shelters were erected with some dispatch, as the weather was threatening even though the rain had stopped for a time. Oliver offered to make the long trudge back to the lake to get water, and Dan and I set out to rebuild the fire ring and start the fire. Anything lying open on the ground was wet from the rain, but we were able to forage dry wood from the nearby deadfall. By the time that Oliver returned from his water expedition, the fire was crackling and that homely little campsite seemed pretty hospitable.

Dinner that night was a perennial MountainGuy favorite: Mountain Jambalaya. And true to the original spirit of the recipe, no two jambalayas have ever been the same. This year, the recipe went like this:

Sauté 1/4 onion (or all that you’ve got) in olive oil with salami and bacon and tomato paste (8oz. tube). Add Dan’s secret Cajun Spices, aged a year in old film canisters in the garage, and cook until the tomato paste is nicely browned. Heat 2 quarts of water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the sauté, Jambalaya soup mix, and 1 box Uncle Ben’s Spanish Rice. Add crab now (if you’re Oliver). Simmer until done, perhaps 20 to 30 minutes. Add crab now (if you’re Dan). (The timing of the “crab add” proved to be the most contentious moment of the trip, nearly coming to blows several times. Fortunately, both combatants were weary from the long day, and no one got voted off the saddle.) While the jambalaya is simmering, take a tortilla and clean the sauté spoils from the frying pan. Add a small amount of oil to the frying pan and place the tortilla, spoils side up in the pan. Add cheese, habanero sauce, and garlic, and place a second tortilla on top. Flip the quesadilla and brown both sides. Cut into pieces and eat while warm.

The rain started to fall about 8:30 p.m. We smothered the fire and retired to our tents. It rained most of the night. The moon came out briefly and the rain stopped for a time round about midnight—I know because I took advantage of this moment to free my bladder of its burdens—but soon returned and did not stop. For all we know, it might be raining still.

Day 6: The Long Slog Out (8 miles)

The rain was falling when we woke up. I retrieved the food bags, which now weighed no more than 30 pounds, and brought them back to my tent for a cramped breakfast of cereal bars, dried fruit, dry granola, and dry instant oatmeal eaten straight from the bag. There was no coffee, and little cheer. This was strictly a utilitarian breakfast to get us going. Our plan was to get on the trail early (we were hiking by 8:00), and then stop for brunch when we reached the first crossing of Turret Creek. With our water supply replenished, we would then be able to make coffee.

 Snow on Shingle Peak in the morning.

Camp was quickly packed up in the rain. The snow level had crept down Shingle Peak to within about 200 (vertical) feet of us, so it was cold but not quite freezing. We donned our packs and started down the trail, which was more a muddy creek than a trail. Now, I have hiked muddy trails before, but this one was special. The mud was formed from a mixture of fine dust, decaying plant matter, and horse poop. It was slippery, black, and really smelled quite bad. By the time we had gone half a mile our boots were caked with this black goo, adding at least a pound to each footstep. Though the hiking poles had been little benefit throughout most of the trip, on this day they proved to be invaluable. 

 All dressed up for the hike out.

At the first crossing of Turret Creek it was raining, so we did not stop for coffee. At the second crossing it was raining, so we did not stop for brunch. As we hiked along the creek it was raining, our only stop to fix a broken shoelace. The rain continued nonstop for the first six miles, and did not stop for more than ten minutes all day. We never did get coffee or brunch. 

We reached the cars not much past noon, having hiked out at least eight miles in just over four hours. We were tired, hungry, and smelled of decaying plant matter and horse poop. But the cars started right up, Dan S. and Kevin had left their packs and taken their bikes, so we knew they were not lost in the mountains, and all was right in the world. It had been a fine trip, packed with adventure, good hiking, great food, a couple of adrenaline moments, and even a bit of challenging weather. There was just one thing left to do: lunch at the Sweetwater Resort and Recreational Complex.

Though we changed shoes and wiped off as much mud as we could, we entered the restaurant wet, scraggly from six days in the wilderness, and smelling of horse poop. In other words, we fit right in; we could even have been confused for locals. That 1/2 pound buffalo burger tasted great, as did the strawberry-rhubarb pie ala mode. Even the weak-ass swill they were serving for coffee tasted pretty good. A fine ending to an excellent trip. Next year: Utah!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Flat Tops Wilderness, Day 4

Day 4: Imaginary Trails (Part II), Thunderstorms, and Lakefront Property (6 miles)

Along about midnight the sky cleared up, and the nearly full moon came out to light up the landscape, but by morning the sky was covered by thin wispy clouds. Thicker clouds were building in the southwest, but at least for the time being continued to blow off to the east. I was up at first light, and though I had not been party to the food hanging, the bright yellow stuff sack guided me like a beacon around the small hill, across the stream, up the other hill, and into the small woods and to the food-hanging tree. About that point, I began to wonder if bears see well enough to follow that bright yellow “Eat at MountainGuys” sign, and whether a bear might interpret it as a bright yellow “Eat MountainGuys” sign. As I struggled to carry all six remaining bags of food back to camp, I have to admit this was not a comforting thought.

By the time I returned with the food, happily uneaten by hungry bears, Oliver and Dan were still sleeping. There was a bit of ice on the top of the coffee water, but before it had melted both Oliver and Dan were up and about. Once again, camp was quickly broken, a quick breakfast of Peet’s coffee, hot cereal, and granola was consumed, and at 9:00 a.m. we were ready for the trail. That is not a misprint. However, the trail led right past our picnic site from the night before, and we still had to break up the fire ring. By the time that was done, it was 9:15 a.m.

The imaginary trail was well defined for the first two miles or so, but as we started down into the valley to meet up with the trail from Trapper’s Lake, our imaginary trail disappeared. Fortunately there were dozens of “trails” leading in all directions from the spot where the trail vanished, with one exception: there were no trails leading in the direction of the trail shown on the map. Once again, we were on our own. It was at these moments that Dan would engage in the most mystifying behavior. While Oliver and I would scan and argue and ponder the direction of our next move, Dan would politely look at the map but then say nothing, as if he didn’t want to confuse us any further. Like that would be possible.

 Not many landmarks on a 10,000 foot plateau.

Since we didn’t know exactly where we were, the map was not much help telling us where to go (though I imagine Dan had some thoughts on the matter). But by following a mixture of game trails, hunches, and that uncanny MountainGuy directional sixth sense, we were able to meet up with the trail that would take us to Deer Lake, our destination for the night. We even caught a glimpse of the Chinese Wall, a huge cliff face on the east side of a deep canyon that cleaves through the high meadow landscape.

 The Chinese Wall.

After two days of hiking through high meadows, this third day of hiking offered very different terrain. We followed the Chinese Wall trail briefly as it climbed over the spine of a small ridge, and then met up with the Island Lakes trail, which would take us on to Deer Lake. The Island Lakes trail wandered through the meadows for about half a mile, past a hunter’s encampment decorated with horse shit, garbage, and thinly-veiled animosity, and then steeply down into a valley of four lakes. The lakes were quite scenic, but the stench and hostility of the hunter’s camp was such that we wouldn’t have stopped there even if it had been our destination.

As we climbed down into the four-lakes valley, we could see that the clouds that had been building in the south had pushed in closer. Throughout the morning, we heard thunderclaps off to the south, and by the time we reached the valley floor, thunderclouds had moved in to the west and the north, as well. It was beginning to look like rain, and now and again the occasional lightning flash could be seen to the north and west, followed by booming thunder that echoed around the valley.

Our first view of Deer Lake came as we descended a steep trail down to the lake edge. The trail skirted the western edge of the lake, but we left the trail to find a spot to stop for lunch and to perhaps set up camp for the night. The camping options once again appeared grim. We stopped at a level site not too far from the lake, but it was small, exposed, and water access was poor because of the thick bushes along the lake edge.

With rain looming, Oliver and Dan began setting up a tarp. In spite of the gloomy weather, I was unhappy with the prospect of another night in a substandard campsite, so I set out to scout the western side of the lake. Earlier in the day we had mused about the perfect campsite: soft, flat sleeping spots, a level open spot for the fire, lake frontage with a stream burbling nearby, room to play Frisbee, and a good food hanging tree. Jackpot! There, on the western shore of Deer Lake, was the near-perfect spot: lake frontage, a small waterfall behind the campsite tumbling into the lake, decent sleeping spots, a great fire ring, and a small lawn that would be perfect for pitching the tarp. Across the stream about 100 yards away was even a snag that would serve as a decent food-hanging tree.

I let out the traditional found-a-great-campsite yodel, and by the time I returned to our resting spot, Dan and Oliver had repacked their packs and were ready to hike. Good thing, too. The trip around the lake was only five minutes, but by the time that we had claimed the site, set up our tents, and collected a bit of dry firewood, the rain had arrived. Oliver and Dan set up a tarp over the small grassy sward, and for this bit of heads-up camping, they are awarded the Tarp-In-Time Comfort Badge. (This is to be distinguished from the Tarp-In-Time Survival Badge, which is only awarded for extreme acts of tarping accomplished under severe conditions.)

 The comfortable tarp.

With the packs piled under the center of the tarp and each of us claiming a corner, we sat on the little bit of lawn under the tarp, watched the rain, and made a lunch of cheese and bread, dried fruit, buffalo jerky, trail mix and nuts, and chocolate. With no real wind, the tarp provided just enough protection for all of us to stay dry. The lightning and thunder moved in closer along with the rain, and two or three times the lightning seemed like it was right on top of us. Thunder boomed almost the same time as the lightning, echoing off the cliffs behind the lake and shaking the near unflappable confidence of the MountainGuys.

The rain continued to fall for about two hours, though the thunderstorm only lasted for an hour. That time spent under the tarp turns out to be one of my favorite camping memories. We were warm and dry, we had lakefront property, our own waterfall, and snacks aplenty. The only improvement on this situation would have been a hot cup of coffee. So we made coffee. I have a picture of this moment in my mind, as we reclined under the tarp, ate snacks, watched the rain and the clouds, and sipped hot coffee, though unfortunately, we have no actual picture of the moment since none of us was inclined to go out and take it.

But no matter how pleasant under the tarp, I grew restless after a time just sitting, and announced that I wanted to scout the perimeter of the lake. Oliver opted to join in. We donned our rain gear and set off, while and Dan and Ricochet elected to stay behind and keep and eye on things. Ricochet had not moved since crawling under the tarp at the first hint of rain, and did not seem inclined to move any time soon.

Oliver and I started around the south side of the lake, following a vague trail every bit as good as any other imaginary trail. The trail skirted the edge of the lake to the outlet stream, which drifted through a log-choked passage, and then down a waterfall into the valley below. Okay, maybe not a waterfall, but a water-tumble for sure. The slope was probably 70 degrees, and the valley floor was a long way down. We contemplated the hard climb either up or down, and took solace in the knowledge that this was not our trail.

 Lake frontage and a waterfall, too.

By the time Oliver and I returned to the camp, the rain had stopped and the sun was flirting with coming out. However, the brief flirtation with warm sunlight lasted only long enough for us to decide to go swimming. With uncanny timing, the rain returned almost as soon as we left camp in search of the perfect swimming hole. Dan and Oliver did find it, but I wasn’t there. The rain chased me back to camp, where I finished my coffee, ate snacks, and talked to Ricochet (who still hadn’t moved). Oliver returned about 15 minutes later, a bit damp, but cleaner for his swim. Then the rain came down. Hard. Good thing Dan was swimming or he’d have gotten really wet.

The rain stopped shortly after Dan returned to camp, the sun came out just before sunset, and we were able to light a fire with the dry wood that we had stored under the tarp. Dinner that night was Tortilla soup, fortified with bread crumbs. None of the bread fared well on this trip, except the bagels, which were gone the first day. The foccacia was dry and crumbly the by time we tried to eat it on day 3, and the loaf of rye bread was nothing but crumbs by the end of the second day.

The recipe was simple. Heat two quarts of water. Add crumbled beef jerky to reconstitute and bring to boil. Add tortilla soup mix and cook for 10 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips and cheese, and add habanero sauce to taste. Thicken with bread crumbs for a hearty stew.

With the moon coming up, framed in the valley below Deer Lake and behind a veil of clouds, we hung the food and got the camp ready for the night. About that time, it once again started to sprinkle, sending us scurrying into our tents. I could hear Dan and Oliver laughing as they got ready for bed, talking about the day and trying to work around Ricochet, who had plopped down on his spot in the tent and wasn’t moving any more. I felt a pang of loneliness, sitting all by myself in my tent, but it lasted only a moment. Then I hear the following:

Loud FART. Brief pause.

Dan: “Oh my God, Oliver, what have you been eating?”

Oliver (in pugnacious tone): “Same things as you.”

Dan: “Yeah, but I can’t do that. . . Wow. Open up the tent flaps. . .”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flat Tops Wilderness, Day 3

Day 3: Imaginary Trails and Beachfront Living (6 miles)

Our plan for the third day was to briefly follow the Chinese Wall Trail until we came to an unnamed “brown” trail. There were two types of trails shown on the map: main trails in black, and imaginary trails in brown. This brown trail would take us past Surprise Lake, and if time permitted, we would continue on the next (unnamed) lake beyond.

I was up early in anticipation of our first cross-country day, and because I was no longer able to get comfortable among the hillocks and humps that made up my sleeping spot. The bear tree was well away from the campsite, over a small hill, through some bushes, around an old log, up a hill, over several more fallen logs, and then just right there. About half way to the tree, I was startled by the clatter of falling rocks down by the lake. When I looked over, I saw a bull elk standing atop the steep embankment at the end of the lake. This was the first elk I had ever seen in the wild, and I must say, he looked so much bigger without a fence between us.

 I figured I would have to make two trips to get the food bags, but I wanted coffee without delay and managed to carry all 90 pounds of food back in one trip. After a quick breakfast of hot coffee, oatmeal, and dried fruit, camp was packed up and we were on the trail by 9:15 a.m.

One of the odd things about the Flat Tops is that every small ridge and shallow valley looks the same. One could twist the map in any direction, and land features that matched the terrain on the map could be identified. However troubling this might be to some travelers, it was of little consequence to us. We found no trail whatsoever, imaginary or otherwise, where we believed the map to be showing a brown trail veering off to the northwest. No problem. The map was aligned in the general direction of our feelings on the matter, the path to be followed was agreed upon, and we set off.

 Real view looking south from our imaginary trail.

Going cross-country is always great fun, adding an element of uncertainty to the adventure. This morning’s hike was no exception. The broad meadows made for easy hiking, and as a bonus, we could choose a path around the bushwhack bushes, rather than through them as the ancient race of trail builders had done. All was right in the world; we’d be at Surprise Lake by 11:00 a.m.

Our imaginary trail appeared to lead over a high spot to the northwest, so we set out to traverse a high spot to the northwest. Wrong high spot, turns out. Despite the careful calibration of the map with our feelings, we had trended too far north. The high spot we traversed was the highest high spot around, but apparently the imaginary trail passed over a lesser high spot to the west. The lake off in the distance turned out not to be Surprise Lake, but the small, unnamed lake beyond. To reach the lake from our eagle’s perch on the highest high spot we would either have to backtrack or climb down a steep, crumbly cliff. MountainGuys do not backtrack.

In a situation such as this, there was only one thing to do: stop for lunch. A quick repast, in the lee of a large stand of bushwhack bushes to get out of the frigid wind, was just what the situation called for. Now filled with the kind of confidence that only comes from eating tuna on really dry bread, we once again shouldered our packs and set out for the lake. 

 Confident MountainGuys.

However, we did not get far before reaching the edge of the cliff. Large vertical monoliths peeled away from the mountainside, creating impassible cracks and unstable footing on the edge of a 150-foot drop. Perhaps this is why the imaginary trail shown on the map did not go over the highest high spot. From our vantage point we could see that the path to the lake would be easy once we reached the meadow at the base of the cliff, but there was no obvious way down. For the next half hour or so, we slowly picked our way down the mountain, working our way from one small shelf to the next. We managed to climb about half way down to the meadow by shelf hopping, but eventually reached a spot where the hillside sloped steeply up to our left and fell away down the cliff to our right. We would have to climb down or backtrack.

Just as we were starting to give backtracking a rethink, even though it’s against company policy, Oliver found what looked to be a way down. It was a small v-notch in the cliff face, with three distinct steps to a large boulder perched above a steep scree field above the meadow. Oliver continued to scout along the cliff face for another 100 yards, but no better path could be found. The climb down through the notch was not that bad, except for the loose gravel, the giant rock perched dangerously next to the notch, and the five-foot leap down onto the boulder at the top of the scree slope. This would have been hard with packs, though, so our plan was for Oliver to climb down to the boulder, and Dan and I would lower the packs to him on a rope.

But for one small detail, this was an excellent plan: Ricochet wanted nothing to do it, even though we explained it to him several times. He started down after Oliver, but quickly retreated back up to the top. Oliver called him, and Ricochet tried, but he could not climb down by himself. In the end, I handed Ricochet to Dan, who in turn handed him down to Oliver. There was one dicey moment where Ricochet could have sent both himself and Oliver tumbling off the boulder and down the scree slope, but Oliver was able to cradle him in such a way that Ricochet calmed down enough to be carried. There was another scary moment after we had climbed down through the notch when Dan’s footing gave way as he picked his way through the scree, but he was able to splay himself out and stop the slide. From my vantage point it looked as though Dan would have suffered serious bruises and scrapes, but fortunately he was wearing his leather undergarments and all was well.

 Climbing down from the cliff.

Once again hiking through meadows, our path traveled north toward the unnamed lake, and soon we came across the imaginary trail shown on the map. (I still hoped to find Surprise Lake, and even did a short reconnaissance mission down the trail to find it, but the surprise, I guess, is that there is no lake.) The unnamed lake lay at the edge of the meadow, ringed by steep hills on the northern and western sides. Once again, camping spots were hard to come by. Oliver and Dan scouted around the lake to the west, I scouted round to the east. Most of the ground was sloped, but even where it was flat it tended to be lumpy and choked with bushes.

We ended up camping in small dell between two hillocks on the southeastern end of the lake. It was a nice enough site to put tents, but there was no place for a fire except the tinder-dry meadow. Happily, the little lake featured a fine little beach that was just perfect for lollygagging, lying about, and picnicking, and there was plenty of room for a fire. With the tents set up, and a tarp erected between the tents in case the clouds drifting by portended more than just shade, we packed up all of our remaining gear and headed down to the beach for a picnic away from camp. 

 The best campsite we could find.

The beach was a fine, level spot with soft ground to lie on, and the afternoon was spent relaxing, napping, and laying about. We swam, we snacked, we played Frisbee, and generally just frolicked on the beach. Okay. The thought of three hairy, old guys frolicking is a bit disturbing, so forget that I said that. But we had a good time. As the afternoon wore on, however, the breeze picked up and there was a fall-like chill to the air, especially when clouds passed by. 

 Lively beach party.

With the temperature dropping, it was time to get back the business of camping. While Dan and I built the fire ring (Hot Rocks Badge!), Oliver scouted far and wide for a good food-hanging tree. But as with the previous two nights, such trees were hard to come by. He finally managed to get a rope over a good size branch in a tree about 1/4 mile from where our tents were set up (around a small hill, across a stream, up another hill, and into a small woods). Heck, just finding the damn tree is worthy of the Well Hung Badge.

Dinner was served on the beach with the fire going and the sun setting behind the hills on the western side of the lake. The clouds made for a nice sunset, the red and orange light dancing across the wind ripples on the water. Dan and Oliver reviewed the menu choices, and decided on pesto pasta, with “Cherry Blast” for dessert. The pesto was prepared in the skillet over the stove while the pasta water was heating on the fire. There was a lot of pasta, but even so the fire went hungry. Until the Cherry Blast. After carrying the same bag of this freeze-dried delicacy on at least three MountainGuy trips, we discovered that it really wasn’t good. Starved for any of the pasta, the fire ate it anyway.

 Lakefront kitchen.

In the last of the waning daylight, Oliver and Dan packed up the food and hiked up to the hanging tree while I tended the fire. By the time they returned, the last daylight had faded, but the moon had not yet peeked up over the hill. Even so, the bright yellow food bag could be seen hanging amongst the trees. The sky was covered in thin clouds, but a few stars twinkled in the sky and reflected off the surface of the lake. We drank a last toast, put out the fire, packed up our belongings and returned to camp. The picnic on the beach had been a great success.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Flat Tops, Day 2

Day 2: Meadows, Sheep Dip, and Undeveloped Real Estate (6 miles)

As with day 1, Kevin was the first to arise. Again, his first act was not to heat water. Damn. I was up shortly after first light myself, so Kevin must have been up and ready to go under the last of the setting moon. Together, he and I went to retrieve the food. Good thing there was two of us—probably had about 80 pounds a food in those seven sacks. A small burro wouldn’t have been unwelcome in carrying the food back to camp. 

 Adequate rations for a week of camping.

The morning was cold, and there was a bit of ice in the pans left outside. I built a fire with the leftover wood from the night before, along with a last piece of the Wall Street Journal (!?) that Dan S. had brought along. Nothing burns like Wall Street, so the fire was up and going in an instant. Kevin got water from the lake while I started the fire. By the time that Dan T. and Oliver emerged from their tent, the fire was hot and the water was heating over the flames.

Ricochet, who had slept outside, refused to move until Oliver got up. He would gratefully accept charitable handouts of attention, but he didn’t want to come closer to fire for any actual warmth. Once Oliver emerged, Ricochet got up and limped around, whimpering and looking mighty sad. He was cold and sore, and he wanted Oliver to know about it. When I got to thinking about it, I realized that while we had aged two years since our last trip together, Ricochet had aged 14. No wonder he woke up sore.

Dan S. remained a rumor for quite some time. Some of us began to speculate that he had walked back to Sweetwater Resort (that hotbed of liberal intellectualism), to pick up the current WSJ. This rumor was dispelled by the voice from the tent, which once again complained about the cold, the lack of hospitality, and the poor service in general. A nose briefly poked out of the tent, but quickly retreated when confronted with the cold of the morning and unadulterated odor of his fellow MountainGuys. We couldn’t really blame Dan for staying in the tent. With nothing but cold oat bran to look forward to as a morning meal, why would you want to get up?

Breakfast for the rest of us consisted of fresh coffee, oatmeal with dried fruit, and granola. With breakfast done, camp was quickly broken, food was packed, and the two groups of MountainGuys were ready to set out their different ways. Well not quite. Dan S. and Kevin were ready to go at about 9:00 a.m., but with at least 30 pounds of food to pack for each of us, Oliver, Dan, and I were struggling to make it all fit. We didn’t get out till 10:00 a.m., late even for us.

 More early morning efficiency.

Now, before continuing, it is important to recognize Kevin and Dan for their budding MountainGuyness. No, it doesn’t wash off. You either exude it or you don’t, and sadly for them, they do. When faced with a choice of trails, to hike back the way they came or to set forth and return on a new trail, to “do the loop”, as we say, they chose to do the loop. It is this spirit of adventure, this desire to see new things and to brag incessantly about it afterwards, that is essential to the MountainGuy makeup. (Not that kind of makeup, the other kind.) Yes, Dan and Kevin, you have what it takes to be a MountainGuy. Sorry.

While Kevin and Dan were seeking their adventure on the way home, back to bikes and traffic and hot springs, our trail led further out, away from such comforts of the modern age. The morning found us hiking through high mountain meadows like none we had ever seen. These meadows ran for miles between peaks and past streams and small lakes. From the top of a rise, one could see for 10 miles to the top of the next rise and the peaks beyond. 

 High meadows. Trappers Peak in the background.

Anxious to make up time, we set a blistering pace despite carrying about 35 pounds of food apiece. Dan found that the blistering pace was leading to real blisters on his feet, something he struggled with throughout the trip. On that second day, though, still hopeful that small pieces of moleskin might make a difference, he diligently tried different techniques and patterns to alleviate the pain. Nothing worked. (By the end of day three he would discover that by encasing his feet entirely in moleskin, like moleskin booties or slippers—very stylish really—he was able to hike through the day without making things worse.)

In the high meadows, it was not uncommon to have two or three trails running parallel to each other. These trails would merge, split off, recombine, and then disappear altogether. The major trails were marked with cairns, but the minor trails were not, and finding our way was sometimes challenging. The bushes proved to be a menace even in the meadows. The trail would run into a clump of bushes, splintering into a countless number of “trails” heading in all directions before simply vanishing. The going was slow, and despite the relatively level terrain, the hiking was not easy. Hiking poles were useless in these areas, and both Oliver and Dan ended up carrying the poles lashed to their backpacks.

Our trail found us rounding Shingle Peak, before descending to the creek that ran out of Shingle Lake. As we headed toward the creek, on a stretch of trail that was really quite good, we found ourselves wandering through the middle of a herd of about 5,000 sheep. Oliver quickly leashed Ricochet, and a good thing, too. A giant white dog came out to greet us and escort us past his flock. I suspect this dog could have given a good-sized bear a decent battle, so we quickly shelved the idea of grabbing a couple of lambs to add to our small larder. This decision was reinforced when five other large white dogs joined the party. Bit of a nervy moment, really. We never did see any shepherds—the dogs seemed to be taking care of business all on their own. But by radiating the ethereal calm and quiet self-confidence for which MountainGuys are so well known, we were able to walk on past without further trouble.

From the creek, the trail slowly wended its way toward a series of small lakes to the west of Trappers Peak. This was our destination for the night. Through most of the morning we had been traversing high meadows, but shortly after noon we entered a small woods. We had not taken ten steps before we chanced upon the most perfect forest duff, a soft spot within a small copse that called to us so strongly that I don’t doubt that it was the work of wood elves and magic. We had to stop.

 A most perfect resting spot.

Despite the wood elves and the magic, lunch was a pedestrian display of cheese, crackers, dried fruit, salami, cookies, and chocolate. The naps, however, were excellent.

The afternoon hike was uneventful. No dogs, no sheep, no elves, no magic. We made camp at a large lake (by local standards) that was over a small rise from the trail. The near side of the lake was a steep tumble of rocks and cliffs, but the far side looked promising. Despite that promise, the lake had little to offer in the way of a campsite. We did find a small site that had an old, spruce-needle-filled fire ring and a couple of flattish sleeping spots, but the site was so small that a fire could not be made without risking the trees or the tents. 

 View back to Sheep-Dip Meadow. Distances are deceiving--
it's four miles to the top of the meadow.

The one bright spot about this site was dinner, which we had carried in with us. Dinner that night was curried tuna with rice. The recipe went like this: First reconstitute vegetables and mushrooms in water. Cook 3 cups of instant rice, and add the reconstituted vegetables to the rice. Fry onions, apples, and curry in olive oil in the skillet, and then add tuna in yellow curry sauce. Add hot peppers, salt, and pepper to the sauce, and then combine it with the rice. Cook the combined rice and sauce for another 10 minutes. Yummy.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

MountainGuy News©
Celebrating Friendship, Fellowship,
and Flatulence, Volume VI

Flat Top Wilderness, 2006

 High meadows and broad vistas

The Flat Tops is a large wilderness area in the middle-western part of Colorado. It is an area of high mountain meadows, steep canyons, and countless small lakes. Our trail departed from the Sweetwater trailhead, which, as luck would have it, was just past the Sweetwater Resort, ancestral home of the 1/2-pound Buffalo burger and strawberry-rhubarb pie ala mode. The whole Sweetwater Resort and Recreational Complex (SRRC) is found at the end of Sweetwater Road, a short car trip up the Colorado River from Glenwood Springs. (For those of you who wish to split hairs, there is a road that parallels the river.)

Our plan was to meet at 2:00 p.m. in the public campground at the end of the road, just outside of the SRRC. A dowdier and more homely campground cannot be imagined. It was overgrown, under-developed, unkempt, and ugly. The sites were small, dirty, and the only flat spots to be found were on the road itself. So it was with a sense of uncertain relief that I did not find my fellow MountainGuys there. But where to find them? That was now the problem.

The problem resolved itself. As I pulled into the gravel parking lot outside the Sweetwater Restaurant, (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sweetwater Resort and Recreational Complex, Inc.), I was greeted with the familiar yodeling of the MountainGuys. There, on the second story balcony, was the rest of the tribe.

“You’re late,” scolded Oliver. I looked at my clock. It was 2:02 p.m.

“You were supposed to be in the public campground,” I responded.

“It was ugly, so we didn’t camp there. We found a much better site here at the resort.”

Our group this year included two new members, Dan S. and Kevin, both of Boulder, CO, in addition to the stalwarts, Oliver, Dan T., me, and Oliver’s dog, Ricochet. As I sat down to join the lunch party out on the balcony, I learned that Dan S. and Kevin were joining the trip just for the first two days, and that this implied a choreographed movement of persons and materiel as complex as any ballet, but without the tights.

The plan was that Kevin and Dan would join for the traditional arrival-night barbeque, the first day of hiking, and then depart after breakfast on Day 2. They would then hike back to the car, drop their packs, pick up their bikes, ride the 15 miles of gravel on Sweetwater Road, the 9 miles of pavement on Exit 133 road, and another 15 miles of bike trail squeezed between the Colorado River and the I-70 to Glenwood Springs. It was a bold plan, and one that ended in near certainty of a soaking in the hot springs there. These are our kind of guys.

One-half pound of ground buffalo is really more than anyone needs, and the strawberry-rhubarb pie (ala mode) was really more than any of us could comfortably finish, but by 3:00 p.m. we were done with lunch and ready to head back to the campsite to sort food and get ready for the arrival-night barbeque. Oliver, as usual, had done an excellent job of provisioning the trip. There were but two problems to overcome: 1) winnowing down the provisions to an amount that we could carry and might really eat, and 2) finding a way to make the new guys carry pretty much all of the food on the first day. Neither task was easy, but in the end, we got the job done.

Dinner that first night was fine fare, consisting of pork and chicken kebobs, grilled corn, roasted tomatoes, grilled skirt steak, grilled vegetables, buffalo sausage, and fresh apples. Wines once again were supplied by Mt. Vernon Vineyards, this time a 2003 Pinot Noir and a 2003 Cabernet Franc. Despite the festivities, all of the MountainGuys were in bed by 9:30 in anticipation of an early start the next day.

Day 1: "They ain't flat 'til you get to the top" (8 miles)

We were greeted that first morning with bright, clear skies. Kevin was up before first light, readying his pack and checking and double-checking his lists. I was momentarily hopeful once I realized that someone else was up first, but Kevin does not drink coffee, so his first act was not to heat water. Shame. Oliver and Dan T. were up shortly after me, but all that was seen or heard of Dan S. was a muffled voice from the tent, cursing the cold, swearing he wouldn’t arise before the sun was on his tent, and complaining that all the clods outside were making too much noise for him to sleep.

Dan did finally get up, bitter about having to emerge before the sun arrived, but up nonetheless. Preparations were quickly made. A breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, tomatoes, buffalo sausage, coffee, juice, and fruit was laid out and quickly consumed. Packs were packed with crisp efficiency, the cars were loaded, and the MountainGuys were on their way to the trailhead parking lot and ready to hike by 9:15 a.m. Uncanny.

 Crisp efficiency in the morning

A short, steep jog up a gravel road from the parking area led to the trailhead. The Shingle Peak trail and the Turret Creek trail led off through a gate on the right; our trail, the Sweetwater Creek trail, led off through a gate on the left. The first two miles climbed at a moderate but steady pace. The hiking was pleasant, through meadows and aspen groves. Aspens higher up the slopes were already turning yellow, and the occasional renegade aspen was turning red, but at the lower elevations the leaves had yet to turn. 

 Map of our trail through the Flat Tops

This was our first encounter with the open-meadow hiking with which we would become so familiar, and the miserable “bushwhack” bushes that would become an object of grave annoyance, if not dread. Hiking poles were of limited use, as they just hung up on the bushes—the bushes were stiff enough that they could not easily be pushed aside. Complicating the use of the poles was the tendency of the trail to be in a six-inch-deep rut, dug up by countless horses and pack mules, and liberally decorated with horse poop. In many places through the meadows, two and three trails would run along parallel to each other, the oldest trail a foot deep, another trail but six inches deep, and the newer trail more or less at ground level. Regardless the age of the trail, it was still decorated with horse poop.

Shortly after crossing into the Flat Tops Wilderness, about a mile and half from the trailhead, we passed a junction between the Sweetwater Trail and Rim Lake Trail. Ours was the latter trail, which, since Oliver picked it, proceeded up at a fairly steep incline. From the junction to Rim Lake is an elevation gain of about 2,600 feet over a span of six or so miles. Though steep in places, the trail was well graded and most of the climb was in the shadows of a beautiful forest of pines, spruces, and firs. These were among the largest trees we would encounter over our six days of hiking. A fire had gutted most of the area perhaps 20 years before, and almost all of the large trees were snags or deadfall.

Rim Lake is a pretty little lake perched just behind the ridgeline. The trail follows the stream that empties out of the lake through a low notch in the ridge, and weary hikers are treated to a view of the lake as they round the corner through the notch. A couple of mules were grazing alongside the trail as we reached the lake. As a veteran of last year’s Kings Canyon turf wars, pitting hiker against hiker and man against bear, I was immediately filled with dread that we would once again find ourselves in the company of thousands of other campers. Fortunately, such concerns were unjustified. The mules belonged to a fisherman who had rode over from Turret Creek for the day, and though he was wet to his waist and was sporting a broken fishing pole, he was nonetheless a happy fisherman. In his bag was a five-pound trout, which he had caught on a red and silver spinner that was itself as large as most of the trout I have caught over the years.

 First-night campsite at Rim Lake

Our camp that first night was on a small hill overlooking the lake. A well-developed fire ring told us that the site had been used quite a few times before, but even so, sleeping spots were hard to come by. Much of the hilltop was covered by the infernal bushwhack bushes, and the bare spots, though level enough, featured every variety of hillock, hummock and hump. Forest duff was scarce. The hillside behind the campsite was forested, but it was too steep to offer any sleeping spots.

One of the challenges we faced throughout the trip was finding a good food-hanging tree. We started the trip carrying no less than 70 pounds of food, and there wasn’t a live tree in that whole forest that had branches large enough to hold that much weight. Kevin and I scouted the hillside for about 10 minutes before finding a snag that was canted over at about a 30-degree angle and propped on another tree. Though not ideal, it would have to do.

Kevin secured a modest rock and tied it onto the pilot line. His first heave fell short. His second heave fell short. His third heave was mighty and almost dislocated his shoulder, but it too fell short. I stepped to the plate. Using a technique first popularized by David in his confrontation with Goliath, but currently out of fashion in this land of the manly overhand throw, I swung the rock around and around, and at just the right moment I let go. Up, up, up went the rock, neatly falling over the snag—about 50 feet up. A Well Hung Badge for sure. When the time came to hang the food, the snag could be heard creaking and groaning under all the weight, and there was no way we could counterbalance the sacks high enough. Dan S. had to pull all of that food up without the benefit of the counterbalance. Were it not for Kevin and Dan T. holding onto Dan’s belt, he probably would have ended up at the top of the tree while the food was back on the ground. There was that much food.

Dinner that first night was chicken burritos cooked over the fire. Onions and red and yellow bell peppers were sautéed in olive oil, and the chicken and spices were added. The whole mixture was then combined with refried black beans and served on heated tortillas with cheese. The burritos proved to be a bit messy, but nothing was left over to feed the fire and we all went to bed feeling fat and happy.

 MountainGuys at Rim Lake

The moon that night rose as the sun was going down, and would be full in three days. We would not get much star gazing with such a bright moon, but it did make getting up in the middle of the night to pee a lot easier.