Off The Map Flashback #1: Two Steps from Victory

Off The Map Flashback #1: Two Steps from Victory

The boulder I was climbing broke free of the mountain, and suddenly I was dancing atop it like a world-class barrel roller, trying to keep from falling beneath its mass and getting crushed.  I hopped across to the other boulders that were simultaneously tumbling down the mountainside, and somehow I managed to leap from the edge of the rockslide onto stable ground.

That was scary.  Sections of this ridgeline had broken loose during the record-breaking flood event of 2013, and apparently the boulders involved in that landslide had yet to settle into their resting positions.  I decided to change course and hike towards a slope covered with black and green lichen, for the organic crust indicated that the rocks had remained in place for several decades and weren’t likely to roll anytime soon.  One avalanche a day was sufficient for my tastes.

Rocky Mountain National Park, where I was currently hiking, had been close to the epicenter of a weeklong rainstorm last autumn.  Biblical amounts of water had been unleashed into the canyons along Colorado’s Front Range.  Homes were ravaged, roadbeds were chewed away, and quaint little mountain towns were cut off from the outside world for several days.  Miles of highway had to be reconstructed afterwards, and from the helicopter footage I saw of the flood’s aftermath, it must have taken a herculean effort by these communities to restore access before the summer tourist season began.

Most visitors to the National Park confine their explorations to established trails and roads.  Because I used to work as a guide within the park, leading families to popular mountaintops and lakes, my personal visits tend to be more… unorthodox.  Today’s mission was to scale three outcroppings on the side of a prominent mountain range: the Little Matterhorn, the Gable, and Castle Rock.  I had already climbed the peaks they were attached to – Knobtop and Gabletop.  Those summits were boring.  But each mountain possessed at least one icon that projected from its breast, and these rocky hood ornaments were more distinctive and memorable than the peaks themselves.  Together, they made a nice set of trophies, and I was determined to collect them all.

The first feature, the Little Matterhorn, jutted out from the front of Knobtop Mountain like the prow of a ship.  Gaining the slender ridgeline was easy, but accessing the farthest tip of the Matterhorn required careful navigation.  My route snaked around and over several large boulders along the knife-edge ridge, any one of which felt like it could roll out from underneath me like the smaller rocks had done on the slopes below.

I reached the tip of the monolith just as gathering stormclouds began to wring out some of their moisture.  One pinnacle down, two to go.  My next challenge was to drop one thousand feet into Tourmaline Gorge and climb up to where The Gable hung above Fern Lake.  One of my books suggested descending a snow gully, but it looked far too precipitous to attempt without an ice axe.  So I made my own path by plunging down the steep northern flank of the Matterhorn, hopping down grassy banks and altering my course whenever cliffs became too sheer to traverse.

I was almost to the bottom of the gorge when the angle of the mountainside became too vertical to continue.  It was frustrating and disheartening, but I saw no way to easily slide down the last thirty feet.  I would need to backtrack halfway up the Matterhorn in order to scout out an alternate route.

One possibility warranted investigation, however.  A tight crevice penetrated the band of cliffs, offering a seductive path to the valley floor.  But the crack measured only as wide as my shoulders, and instead of possessing an evenly-sloping floor, the cleft contained a series of six-foot drops where handholds were nearly non-existent.  I was looking at the world’s most confining and dangerous staircase.  If I fell down those steps, there would be no recovery.

I climbed down as far as I dared, then scrambled back up the stairs so I could sit for a while and ponder how badly I wanted to risk the final two steps.  Searching for a detour would probably cost too much time.  On the other hand, the earlier rainshower had made the rocks more slippery than I would have liked.  As I was dwelling on my decision, the clouds overhead began to release a second batch of raindrops onto the side of the Little Matterhorn.  Time was up.  If I was going to do this thing, it had to be now.

First, I tried texting my girlfriend so that someone would know I was about to attempt a boneheaded move, but the signal wasn’t strong enough.  Nevertheless, I headed down the stairwell and faced the penultimate step once again.  To ensure full mobility, I tossed down one hiking pole and used the other to gently lower my backpack to the next level.  When I let go of the second pole, it remained standing upright, with the sharp tip pointing in my direction.  Great, I thought.  Now I can impale myself before I smash my head open.

I turned to face the mountain and slowly lowered myself down the ledge backwards, using my upper body and hips to push against the walls and add friction.  My fingers grasped at any crevice I could find so that I wouldn’t slip before my feet touched a level surface again.  Somehow, I kicked the offending pole out of the way, dropped the last six inches to the ground, and then flung my arms out to brace against the sides of the crevice before my momentum carried me over the edge of the final step.

My nerves felt slightly shredded, but I repeated the process one more time and walked away from the stairwell of doom miraculously uninjured.  The cliffs of Little Matterhorn were now behind me, but unfortunately, the cliffs of the Gable ridgeline still lay ahead.  And beyond that, the battlements of Castle Rock also needed to be scaled.  None of these routes had trails; instead, I had to bushwhack vertically, fighting the limbs of trees and bushes the entire way and gaining countless scratches in the process.  But after four hours of mucking about, I acquired my last two trophies.  And as beaten up as I undoubtedly looked, I still managed to hitch a ride out of the National Park, which allowed me to recover my jeep and find a place to camp for the night before darkness fell.

I could have sworn that the ordeal was over.  But by far, the most painful experience of the day - and perhaps the year - occurred when I was safely ensconced in my tent that evening.  I had wrapped my injured left ankle in athletic tape as an experiment this morning, and it had felt amazingly strong… better than any time since I’d twisted it a month ago.  However, I’d neglected to shave the hairs from my lower leg before applying the tape, and when I ripped off my handiwork, all the hairs came with it.  Every single one.  I can’t remember the last time I screamed so loud.  Funny how our most painful injuries tend to be self-inflicted.

 

Off The Map Side-Stories #6: Seeding the Clouds

Off The Map Side-Stories #6: Seeding the Clouds

By mid-afternoon on Santa Rosa Island, the winds reached gale force.  50mph gusts tore through our worksite in the cloud forest, throwing grit in our eyes faster than our tear ducts could remove it.  Still, we labored to the best of our ability, working to retrofit a series of erosion control barriers beneath the island oaks before the sun set behind San Miguel Island to the west. 

I’d been expecting this.  The winds that fly above the Pacific waves and course through California’s Channel Islands can be intense, especially at upper elevations.  As our project was situated fifty feet below the highest point on Santa Rosa, a little turbulence was unsurprising.  Still, I was relieved as anyone when the call was made to retreat to the vehicles and return to staff housing.  It took several minutes inside the truck before the wind-induced tension began to drain from my body.  We were all a little dazed.  With luck, calmer weather would reach the shores of the island by morning.

Our efforts were worthy, and badly needed.  Santa Rosa, like most of the Channel Islands, had suffered greatly under the influence of European settlers.  In the mid-1800s, nearly a hundred thousand sheep were introduced to an environment whose mammal population had previously included just skunks, foxes and mice.  The sheep chewed native plants down to the roots, and subsequent rains washed the exposed soil into the ocean.  Although the worst damage had been done, cattle, elk and deer continued to degrade the landscape into the 21st century.  Forests of oak and chaparral dwindled to isolated groves atop otherwise barren ridgelines.  The island was purchased by the National Park Service in 1986, but because of a 25-year special use permit, the trophy hunting of elk and deer did not cease until 2011.  The remaining hundred animals were removed by hunters in helicopters, allowing the recovery of the ravaged mountains and valleys to begin at last.

But there were contradictions in the recovery process.  Scant rain falls upon the island, and the trees and shrubs that used to grow atop the ridgelines gleaned most of their moisture from fog, which condensed on the leaves and dripped down into the soil.  Before ranching wrecked the ecosystem, this condensation produced enough groundwater to cause streams to flow at the base of the mountains.  Today, there wasn’t enough vegetation to collect fog and dampen the soil.  And if the soil wasn’t damp, vegetation couldn’t grow on the barren hillsides.  To break the contradiction, humans had to step in and jump-start the natural processes of healing.  That’s where we volunteers from Channel Island Restoration came in.

In exchange for free transportation and housing, a small group of us helped for four days to build dams across gullies to trap sediment and reduce erosion.  We worked beneath the shade of the few island oak trees to survive the livestock hordes of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Vast quantities of soil had eroded away from underneath these ancient specimens, leaving them standing on stilt-like roots above crumbling bedrock.  Our dams would hopefully fill with soil during rainstorms and be watered continuously by droplets of condensed fog from the oak branches overhead.  Then new plants could finally grow within the cloud forest.  Until the dams filled completely with sediment, the mesh fabric lining the barriers would also serve as artificial fog collectors, pulling moisture from the clouds and helping nurture seedlings during their first years of existence.

Funding for restoration projects can be nonexistent at times, and park managers have to get creative with resources to accomplish tasks like these.  By using unpaid volunteer labor along with leftover staples from past projects, t-posts from old fencing and discarded eucalyptus logs, the managers were able to get these dams built and give the cloud forest a chance to recover before the majestic trees were lost forever.  I was happy to do my part.  In effect, I was helping make amends for my ancestors’ mistakes, just as my descendants will undoubtedly work to repair damage from my unwitting errors.

For our efforts, we were given time to explore the east side of the island, including the grove of Torrey Pines – a subspecies found nowhere else in the world.  The hillsides within the forest were carpeted with a smooth blanket of needles, which allowed the spherical pinecones to roll down the hill unchecked and collect by the thousands in depressions and gullies.  Thankfully, the native mice seemed to be successful in helping the species expand its territory by planting seeds in the grasslands above the grove.  Five-foot saplings dotted these adjacent slopes, which helped me feel more optimistic about the resilience of the island.

Part of me wished that twenty years could flash by in a heartbeat so I might witness the results of our efforts in the cloud forest.  I am often disheartened by the impact our species has had on the planet, from habitat destruction to the altering of our very climate.  To maintain hope, it helps to see evidence of recovery, for it nurtures my belief that poor decisions made for short-term gain can sometimes be healed and forgiven.

Such evidence swam by our boat as we crossed the Santa Barbara Channel on our way back to the mainland – a blue whale.  Whaling had reduced the population of these leviathans by over 99% during the 20th century, but now their numbers were unquestionably rising again.  If the largest animal in Earth’s history could mount a comeback, then something as big as the hydrology of an entire island stood a chance of recovering as well.  I chose to dwell on that thought as the beast exhaled a great burst of air and mist, then slid out of sight once again into an ocean lit by the last rays of a November sun.

To find out more about Channel Islands Restoration and how to become a volunteer or supporter, visit www.channelislandsrestoration.com.

Off The Map Side Stories #5: Mission Accomplished

Off The Map Side-Stories #5: Mission Accomplished

Maybe I shouldn’t have acted selfish by refusing to go to work early.  But I had already had my heart set on hiking to Mission Falls when I got the call from a co-worker requesting my assistance.  Rainstorms had crashed into the crest of the Santa Ynez Range all night, and I knew the waterfalls along its south slope might only flow for a few hours before going dry once more.  Considering how stingy the El Niño season was being with its rainfall, I might regret missing this window of opportunity.

The trailing edge of the storm still dragged along the top of the ridgeline, but I pushed my jeep through the mists to reach at the trailhead, four thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean.  Besides the cold wind, all seemed quiet.  I had hoped to hear the sound of water rushing down gullies, but I feared that the rainwater had drained away before I had gotten there.  Wet patches of snow lingered beneath the bushes, and yellow petals from the bush poppies lay scattered across the trail like confetti – another sign that I might have shown up late for the party.

But as I descended, a faint gurgling began to reach my ears.  The bubbling of water soon grew from a whisper into a joyous song.  Mere trickles merged into louder currents, splashing and diving through the gullies beside me.  I tried to keep pace, dashing down the trail while trying not to slip on the golden sand and wet sandstone. 

The excitement of these long-dormant streams was contagious and made me overlook the approach of fresh stormclouds until I stood near the lip of Mission Falls and felt the rain returning.  I tried to shield my camera long enough to snap a photo of the rare sight.  Water dove steeply down a hundred-foot sandstone cliff and crashed into boulders below before disappearing into the chaparral.  Elsewhere along the Santa Ynez Range, waterfalls like Tangerine, Seven Falls and the Widow’s Tear were experiencing a similar resurgence.  It was a hopeful moment in a time of drought and uncertainty.

The wind grew increasingly chill as I regained the trail and climbed back towards my vehicle.  An occasional snowflake slipped into the mix of precipitation and struck the sodden mountainside, melting quickly, but these mavericks were soon joined by more and more companions.  The ratio of snowflakes to raindrops kept increasing, and my nose grew numb from the cold, but I managed to reach the trailhead before my extremities and core made the subtle slide towards hypothermia.

Looking at my watch, it seemed I would manage to get to work early after all.  My conscience approved.  I would have to begin my shift with damp jeans, but that was a minor inconvenience.  If being a cheerleader for El Niño meant that more storms could be persuaded to pass through our mountains, then my soggy clothes would be more than worth it.

Gear Review #1: Luci Outdoor 2.0

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Gear Review #1: Luci Outdoor 2.0

Over the last year or two, I've been using Luci inflatable solar lanterns while car camping and backpacking.  These little lightweight beauties are great for tent and picnic table illumination, and run $15-18.  When my original lantern's components fried after being left on Charlie's dashboard for too long in Wyoming, the manufacturer MPOWERD was kind enough to send me a sample of their new product "Luci Outdoor 2.0".

I love this little guy.  The 2.0 has three brightness settings, plus a blinking emergency mode.  I tested the lowest setting, and the light lasted for 27.75 hours.  Amazing.  The medium setting is rated to last up to 18 hours, and it can definitely light up a medium-sized room during a blackout.  It's bright enough that when collapsed you can even use it like a shield-shaped flashlight.

Besides the improved battery and brightness, the 2.0 has a snapping plastic strap that makes it easier to attach to a tent ceiling.  But the best new feature is a charge level indicator, so you know when the battery needs more sunlight.

The 2.0 version weighs in at 4.4oz.  If you prefer a lighter model for backpacking, consider the smaller 2.4oz "Luci EMRG".  I picked up one of these from a Big 5 Sporting Goods this summer for $12 and had no problems with tent illumination.

Like dogs and small babies, beware of leaving Luci lanterns in vehicles where summer temperatures can cook them.  Direct sun exposure is best, but they can also charge while dangling from a backpack on the trail.

On the sustainability side, MPOWERD has partnered with NGOs to help bring these lights to many in the developing world without electricity, which increases productivity, saves money on kerosene and reduces CO2 emissions.  I appreciate every bit of that.

I fully recommend these for the renegade camper.  The Luci Outdoor 2.0 runs for $19.99, and you can find it at mpowerd.com along with other models.  You can also pick up the original light or the EMRG at Amazon.com.

Requiem for a Clutch

In September, my mechanic said he'd never heard of a clutch lasting 360,000 miles before.

Maybe that jinxed it.  Last Wednesday, Charlie's clutch finally failed in the midst of heavy Santa Barbara traffic, and I barely got over to the shoulder in time.  I wondered if it was time to say goodbye to my Jeep Cherokee... after all, he wasn't getting any younger.

I couldn't do it.  It cost me $1000 to put Charlie on the road again.  We're trying for 400,000 miles now.  Anyway, a moment of silence for an amazing piece of machinery...

Six Things I Learned Over My Summer Break

What I learned over my summer break...

After two decades of renegade car camping, I've got my systems down.  Still, I managed to learn a few new tricks during the Summer of '16 that I'd like to share with you all.  I learned:

1. Use furniture to keep your mattress clean during inflation.
Normally I lay the mattress on the roof of my jeep and inflate it with a pump and the 12-volt adapter.  But using a chair and the aluminum camp table I picked up this year, I was able to keep it free of dirt and dust during the inflation process.

2. Mosquitoes don't like sulphur.
A quarter of a mile away, I was being eaten alive.  But within Yellowstone's Shoshone Geyser Basin (found at the end of an 8.5-mile hike), the overwhelming smell of sulfur seemed to keep them completely at bay.

3. Don't forget to put on lip balm when climbing Colorado Fourteeners.
Besides sunscreen, you need to apply a high-SPF chapstick at high elevations to protect you from UV radiation, especially when the UVs are bouncing off the snow and hitting you in both directions.  I had puffy lips for the wedding I attended in Denver.  Not cool.

4. Starch + Iodine = blue
I wondered why my iodine-treated water slowly turned violet as I was using it to clean my oatmeal bowl... but then I remembered high school chemistry.

5. You don't need a lot of rope to keep bears from your food.
I probably brought 60 feet of rope to Glacier National Park to hang my food bag, but the bear poles in the campgrounds only require 25 feet.

6. Pine martens are adorable.
You're right, Bryan.  Pine martens are adorable.

Week Fourteen: And in Conclusion...

WEEK FOURTEEN: AND IN CONCLUSION... 

In the barren reaches of western Utah, far from absolutely anywhere, clear water flows from caves at the foot of a limestone mountain, splashes down waterfalls into sandy-bottomed pools before following a reedy path to a ranch and some lonely hayfields.  I spent over two hours driving dusty roads through the Great Salt Lake Desert before I found this oasis, and by then I was primed to absorb all the cooling amenities the springs had to offer.

I didn’t even bother with a suit.  Through a swiftly-flowing channel, I swam upstream like one of the native speckled dace minnows towards a log that hung above the creek.  Kicking my feet as hard as I could, I managed to grab hold of an old rope that dangled from the middle of the log, and then I simply clung to the line and let my body get batted about by the current.  All the sweat and dust from the long journey washed away, and when my arms grew tired, I released the rope and let the water carry me downstream to where my towel and sandals lay waiting.

As a setting for my final summer night in the wild, this place exceeded all my expectations.  It represented everything I’ve come to appreciate about public lands in that it was a national treasure without signs or posted regulations, whose beauty inspired respect and whose remote nature kept many who would be abusive to the land at a distance.  Perhaps it would not always remain so.  A growing human population breeds all sorts of individuals – environmental protectors, yes, but also callous users.  Sites like these owed their survival to obscurity, and in the age of instant information, obscurity is a rapidly diminishing resource.  Writers such as myself must be careful not to pull back the curtain too far, lest we lead the masses to the lands we hold most dear and unwittingly aid in their destruction.

Still, I longed to share this place with others, almost as much as I wanted to conceal and keep it safe.  Everyone needs experiences like these in their lives – to know what it’s like to have a peaceful night on a soft mattress with the dark skies above them, far from any cities so that the only glow in the sky comes from the silken tendrils of the Milky Way.  People need moments away from cell phones and TV screens, when the air is still, yet warm and alive with the sounds of crickets and rushing water.  My evening was full of those moments – truly a gift, as I was journeying home to California and didn’t know when I would experience such joyous solitude again.

In the morning, the rising sun peeked over the arundo reeds, bounced off the surface of the largest pool and illuminated the interior of a fern-lined grotto tucked into the mountainside.  I’d been waiting for the right lighting to assist in my explorations of this hidden realm.  Carefully holding my camera above water, I ducked my head underneath the overhanging plants at the entrance and waded into the cave.

The room was designed for fairies rather than human-sized creatures; I couldn’t raise my shoulders above the water without hitting my head on the ceiling.  And switching on my headlamp revealed a complete rainbow of color, beginning with metallic red and purple streaks along the roof of the cave and transitioning to blue rock at the outer edge where the green ferns hung down, beyond which dry orange and yellow grasses could be glimpsed on the banks above the pool.  It was also raining inside the cave, with droplets trickling down through cracks in the ceiling, falling and creating a hypnotizing pattern of concentric and overlapping circles across the pool’s surface.  Dragonflies and damselflies patrolled the entrance, and a persistent current tugged at my chest, indicating that greater mysteries resided deeper within the mountain, if only I dared to follow the water to its source.

The cave narrowed towards the back, and the ceiling lowered even further, forcing me to dip my head underwater to swim past the tightest section.  As the natural lighting diminished, I felt increasingly scared, excited and amazed… amazed that a tiny mountain in the middle of a desert could produce so much groundwater – nine thousand gallons a minute, to be exact.  The miracle must have owed itself to some complex system of hydrology that carried water from wetter regions hundreds of miles away.

Or perhaps there were more mystical powers at work.  The presence of magic felt irrefutable when I emerged from the passage into a chamber ten feet wide, dripping with flowstone formations.  This was truly the domain of fairies.  No elegant stalactites graced the ceiling… just membranous, wet curtains with coralline flourishes that made the room resemble a living organ.  Water seeped continuously from the walls and pushed into the room from tunnels beneath the surface.  Who knows what ancient secrets one might find on the other side of those flooded passageways if one had the right size and the ability to hold one’s breath indefinitely?  A man died back here in 2003, perhaps in an attempt to answer that very question.  I was content to let submerged mysteries lie.  When I had my fill of the cavern, I lifted my feet and let the current gently carry me down the emerald corridor and back into the sunlight.

I’ll never forget how lucky I am to have visited these enchanted places.  Not only have I been privileged to live in a country with so much public land to explore, I’ve also been given good health, a trusty vehicle, and the opportunity to share my experiences with thousands of people all around the world.  I’m undeniably blessed.

But there has been a cost.  I’ve paid for these adventures with years of unreliable income, minimal savings and strained relationships.  I’ve run my body into the ground several times, and now my strongest tendons are giving out.  Similarly, the rotors and joints of my faithful jeep Charlie are in sore need of a mechanic’s ministrations.  His scraping and wheezing sounds may go away for a time, but there are broken condensers and cracked manifolds that will probably never be fixed.  Our time navigating the rougher roads and trails of North America may be coming to an end.

And that’s okay.  A more grounded lifestyle might do us both some good.  New realms of adventure might open up to me if I wasn’t traveling everywhere, risking my neck every summer.  I can surrender my responsibilities to the next generation of explorers – perhaps some kids who are small and nimble enough to squeeze into caves where I can no longer fit.  They can keep searching for the moments of magic I know are still out there, in suburban backyards and in the depths of wilderness.

It’s been a long journey, taken in full.  I’ve crossed the Icelandic tundra, stood stunned by the aurora borealis in Alaska, walked through stone circles on Scottish islands, been locked inside castle towers, stared down thieves in India, paddled through fluorescent waters and wandered the slums of Nairobi.  I’ve seen rainbows and moonbows and fireball meteors bright enough to outshine the sun.  And the next day after leaving those caves beneath the mountain, I saw my home again in Santa Barbara.  Despite every bolt of lightning, every cliff, every bear and every freezing windstorm that I faced in my travels, I survived.  And you, dear reader, have been my silent companion all this time.  Thank you for being there, and for helping prod me to go a little further whenever I dove into the wild.  I hope what I have brought back, in words, has been worth your interest and reminded you to look out your window now and again.  There is magic out there.

With that, I bid you all farewell. 

Does it sound like I’m retiring, never to venture again into the mountains?  Maybe so.  Am I trying hard to convince myself to step back and pursue a sensible, less life-threatening career?  Maybe so.  But you’re read my stories.  Do I ever stay on the beaten path long before getting distracted and wandering off?

I will try.  But there’s always someplace wondrous that waits just off the map.  Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Week Thirteen: A Bridge Too Far

WEEK THIRTEEN: A BRIDGE TOO FAR

And then there was one.

All the other western state highpoints had left their mark on me.  Elbert.  Whitney.  Kings.  Wheeler.  Hood.  Humphreys.  Borah.  Rainier.  Boundary.  Granite.  Each had taken something of my body and had given something back to my spirit in exchange.  Just one remained – the most remote in the lower 48 states, twenty miles from a trailhead and protected by the largest glaciers in the U.S. Rocky Mountains: Wyoming’s Gannett Peak.

The reason I’d waited until the end of summer to confront this behemoth was because it hid deep inside the Wind River Range, where I’d once been attacked by a nightmarish legion of bloodthirsty mosquitoes - the worst I’d encountered anywhere on the planet.  In late August, I knew I’d be safe from the winged fiends.  However, I’d made one critical error.  I’d waited too long to research the route, discovering too late that I needed to cross a snow bridge to escape the glaciers surrounding Gannett Peak and reach the summit.  This late in the summer, the bridge might have already melted away or become so weak that a single footstep could shatter it.  If that happened during my climb, I’d fall feet-first into the bergschrund – a deep crevasse formed by the Gooseneck Glacier as it pulls away from the mountain.

For some reason, I could only get mixed secondhand reports about the condition of the snow bridge.  I would have to see it for myself and hope I would not be brutally disappointed. 

I rented an ice axe and set out from the trailhead on a sundrenched Saturday morning.  Surprisingly, all the other hikers had dogs.  So many dogs.  I could have built a bridge of dogs to get me off the Gooseneck Glacier… that’s how many there were.  At Island Lake I found a hillside free of canines where I could bed for the night and admire the unrivaled scenery.  Much of the Wind Rivers looked like a magical kingdom melted and scarred by dragonfire.  Towering peaks swept smoothly down to the flanks of rounded foothills, and delicate pools and lakes gave life to the valley floors.

The real origins of the landscape date back a billion years ago, when a vast reservoir of molten rock hardened deep beneath the earth, forming a granite batholith.  More recently, this mass of hardened magma was uplifted and eroded by glaciers, creating a stark but beautiful landscape that held forty-one peaks above 13,000 feet. 

I started to pitch my tent on a glacier-scoured ridge overlooking the lake.  Unfortunately, when I attempted to snap the tent poles together, I discovered that the grooves connecting one shaft to the central hub had eroded away after a decade of steady use.  The pole would no longer stay in place, even when secured with a few feet of athletic tape.  I set up the tent anyway.  It looked sad, deflated and even more claustrophobia-inducing than usual.  But it would have to suffice, if just for this one last journey.

The next morning I moved my camp to a field of rubble at the foot of Bonney Pass, then spent the afternoon brooding on the expansive glaciers that waited for me on the other side of the continental divide.  I had chosen a more scenic path to reach Gannett Peak than that taken by most hikers, but the price of admission was going to be a steep climb up and over a 12,000-foot ridgeline before dawn.  I would then need to descend the Dinwoody Glacier and climb the Gooseneck Glacier before encountering the bergschrund.  That moment scared me.  I was scared that I would do something stupid to try and complete my quest if the snow bridge was no longer there.  Funny… I began this summer cursing the snow that plagued my hikes, and now I was praying for it.

Beneath the headsman’s axe of Mt. Helen, I waited for sundown and grew lonely and anxious.  No other hikers came through my campsite bearing news or good wishes.  Even the guest appearance of a stray dog would have been comfort to me.  Instead, I watched the rudiments of a an alpine cat-and-mouse game, where pikas foraged in the boulderfields for grass, unaware of the weasel that would occasionally surface among the rocks, black eyes curious, nose twitching, before it plunged out of sight once again.

When my alarm went off in the middle of the night, I switched on my headlamp, padded and taped my injured heel, and crawled out of the tent to face the 1,200-foot slope leading to Bonney Pass.  Sunlight at this point was just an unrealized promise.  I preferred not to hike in the dark, but if the snow bridge was there, I needed it to remain frozen and solid enough to bear my weight.

Chased by a cold wind, I angled upwards towards the silhouette of a gap between two peaks.  The light of my headlamp caused the crystalline boulders to glitter, like I was climbing a hill of black diamonds.  I experienced flashbacks from the dark hours spent ascending Mt. Rainier last summer, although this time I was completely alone, with not even the sun for companionship.  Where was the sun?  I tried to remember that because of the snow bridge, the sun was not my friend today, but it’s hard to keep perspective when you’re feeling isolated and vulnerable.

The dawn trickled in as I gained Bonney Pass and could finally look across the guardian glaciers towards my goal.  Gannett Peak simply seemed like the tallest hump in a region of much sharper summits.  A prominent ridge would have provided easy access to the top if the Gooseneck Pinnacle hadn’t blocked the route, forcing climbers to brave the adjoining glacier.

I descended Bonney Pass and made the trek across the sprawling Dinwoody Glacier, jumping over snow-filled crevasses until I reached the base of Gannett.  The ridge stretched high above me, and on the upper reaches I finally spied the red helmets of another group of climbers.  I wasn’t alone!  When I caught up to them, they gave me the best news possible: the snow bridge was still intact.  It felt like Christmas Day on Gannett Peak.

When the Gooseneck Pinnacle rose up like a wall before us, I strapped on my crampons, readied my ice axe and jumped onto the glacier.  To get around the Pinnacle, we would need to ascend a treacherously-steep snowfield before we could regain the ridge again.  At the top of the Gooseneck Glacier, I found the base of the snowfield, and sure enough, a bridge still connected the two regions.  I saw not one, but two bergschrunds where the glacier had sagged and pulled away from the snowfield.  The two cracks had not yet widened enough to meet in the middle, so the way was open.

Leaving the others behind, I raised my ice axe, kicked the sharp tips of my crampons into the snow and hacked my way up the bridge and the vertical terrain that lay beyond.  I moved as quickly as possible, for never have I crossed a snowfield that steep while unprotected.  If my grip on the mountain failed, the yawning bergschrunds would eagerly swallow me up.

It felt glorious to reach bare rock again.  Though exhausted, I failed to be hindered by anything else the ridgeline threw at me.  Soon, I was able to throw my pack down onto the summit stones and claim victory over the mountain and over my final objective for the Off The Map series.

The panorama from the highest point in Wyoming was a dramatic change from the artistic contours of Island Lake and Titcomb Basin.  There was an air of brutishness about the surrounding peaks.  Without the tempering influence of water in the form of streams or lakes, these ice-clad, hypermasculine peaks acted like mountain men, gruff and utterly formidable.

Eight other climbers braved the snow bridge and arrived after me.  Wary of the rising temperatures, I started back down first, but when I reached the slope above the Gooseneck Glacier, I felt a desperate longing to have companions again.  Nothing seemed as stable as before.  In fact, I watched as a foot-wide block of snow slid down the slope past me and dropped into the bergschrund.

Thirty feet of softened snow tilted at a 55-degree angle separated me from the bridge and the crevasses.  I kicked my crampons much deeper into the hillside than before, and after every step I jammed the shaft of the ice axe down through the layers until it was buried to the hilt.  Movement was painstakingly slow, but I needed the anchorage that the axe provided; I didn’t trust my crampons to keep me on the mountain anymore.  One of the other groups said they were going to use a top-rope for the descent, and I wished I’d waited for them.  Pride and impatience might be my undoing.

By the time I worked my way down to the snow bridge, I realized that its potential collapse wasn’t going to be my biggest problem.  Instead, the issue was ice.  Between the two bergschrunds, the snow wasn’t thick enough to hold my axe anchor in place.  Only a thin layer of snow rested atop several feet of ice, and over the last two hours the previously-frozen snow had turned to slush.  I had no traction anymore; there was nothing for my crampons to grip into.  If I slipped while on the bridge, however, there was a chance I could slide between the bergschrunds, then bounce a hundred feet down to a more level section of the glacier.  I’d end up bruised, with the wind knocked out of me, but at least I’d be alive.  Then again, I could just as easily fall off the bridge into a crevasse and crack my head on the ice at the bottom.  Well… time to throw the dice…

“Hey!” a voice shouted from above me.  “Why don’t you try the snow bridge to your left?  That’s the way I came up.” 

I raised my head towards the top of the snowfield.  The only other solo climber on Gannett Peak had caught up to me, apparently, and he was waiting for me to make my move.  Looking to the side, I noticed the bridge he was talking about.  By no means was it without risk, for it required me to traverse the snowfield directly above the deepest bergschrund, but it seemed a lot less dangerous than my current position.

Thanks to the well-timed advice, I made it off the snowfield alive.  I wish it had literally been all downhill from there, but I still had Bonney Pass and twenty miles of uneven ground to cover before I could throw my pack in the jeep and head back to California.  That distance, I hoped, would give plenty of time for the vestiges of fear to dissipate from my system so that I could enjoy the Wind Rivers as so many others did – as a place of beauty, contemplation and unbridled wonder. 

Week Twelve: Parched for Glory

WEEK TWELVE: PARCHED FOR GLORY

Three miles down the trail, I finally noticed my water bottle was missing.  That wasn’t good, especially when my intention tomorrow was to climb Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana.  Nevertheless, I continued deeper into the Beartooth Mountains, sucking on pieces of candy to keep my mouth from feeling parched until I reached the shores of Upper Sky Tops Lake and could unpack my water filter.

I pumped the liquid directly into my cookpot and drank deep.  My body had proved it could handle ten miles without water reasonably well, even with a heavy pack, and tomorrow I suspected it could manage the eight miles to Granite Peak and back without deteriorating too badly.  Still, this mountain was one of the most difficult state highpoints, second only to Alaska’s Denali in some accounts.  If dehydration-induced altitude sickness hit me during the course of the ascent, I might become dizzy at a crucial moment, and on peaks of this magnitude, a strong sense of balance is sometimes the only thing that keeps a person alive.

Thankfully, for the first time in ages I believed I would have company on a major climb.  The mountain drew an assortment of adventurous souls to both sides of the peak - people who would be willing to support each other should catastrophe strike.  These crowds also had the strange effect of attracting mountain goats, who loitered on the fringes of our campsites, waiting for us to relieve our bladders onto the rocks so that they could lick up the salts and minerals.  A shaggy white billy goat and his sidekick harassed my neighbors and I all evening, behaving like wild-eyed junkies desperate for a quick fix.  At least by being strategic with my bathroom breaks I could make them perch on picturesque boulders and create scenes with photographic merit.

A pair of earplugs helped me ignore the stomping of hooves through the night, such that I slept deeply and failed to hear the passing of other climbers before sunrise.  Luckily, the weather seemed stable when I emerged from my tent.  I guzzled as much water as I could before striking out across the Sky Tops Basin towards the grim shadow that perched along the headwall.  When I last saw Granite Peak ten years ago from the windswept reaches of Froze-to-Death Plateau, I remarked that it looked like a tombstone.  From this side, the description was still applicable.  The mountain appeared dangerously steep, but there was supposedly a secret passage called the Southwest Ramp that cut across its face, linking the summit to a slick feature halfway up known as The Slab.  I just hoped that I would recognize the route when I saw it.

At the foot of the mountain I caught up to the leading group – a pair of young ranch workers who had escaped their responsibilities for the weekend.  I suggested teaming up, and they were glad to have the company.  Normally, I like being a lone wolf, but the biggest danger on this side of the mountain was loose rock material.  If a group of people are spread out in steep, crumbling terrain, dislodged boulders can have more time to pick up speed before they barrel into the lowest members of a climbing party.  Best to keep everyone close if one can.

The three of us crept underneath the smooth expanse of the Slab, careful to not accidentally rain rocks down on the climbers below.  I was worried that we might not find the Southwest Ramp on our first try, but at the Slab’s left edge, there it lay – a narrow, rubble-strewn gully that beckoned upwards toward the summit ridgeline.  We followed it for nearly a thousand feet, through icy sections where fixed ropes had been left behind to aid in the ascent.  I checked frequently on my female companions, but their climbing skills proved more than sufficient.  In fact, they seemed more focused on the beauty of the pink and yellow granite surrounding us than on the dangers of the route.  I did my best to keep us moving forward, though I had to excuse myself often for bathroom breaks  - a result of having overloaded on water back at camp.

After breaking out of the confines of the couloir and stepping into the morning sunlight, we high-fived and triumphantly ascended the ridge to the summit rocks.  We had reached 12,807 feet above sea level – the highest point in all of Montana – though we weren’t alone; several parties of climbers had approached from the direction of Froze-to-Death Plateau using ropes and technical equipment.  That route looked tedious and congested, but the weary adventurers who breached the eastern battlements still made for a good-spirited crowd. 

The views to which we were treated were fair compensation for all our efforts.  The Beartooth Range looked like a giant had taken a jagged collection of mountains and used a trowel to try and level them off.  Instead of dramatic summits, we were surrounded by vast, high-elevation plateaus with sheer sides that plunged four thousand feet down to the valley floors.  The rock material itself was beyond ancient, born of cooled magma four billion years ago, which meant we were standing on some of the oldest exposed rocks on earth.

I might have lingered longer, but the ladies still needed to hike fourteen miles to the trailhead and drive back to their ranch so they could report for work in the morning.  I’d grown fond of their company, despite my isolationist tendencies, so I led us down the Southwest Ramp once more.  I’m sure they would have been fine on their own; the path seemed not as dangerous as I’d been led to believe, though perhaps good companions can make all the difference.

Then I stumbled upon the blood.  A copious amount of dried blood stained the rocks red in one section of the Ramp, and I was surprised we’d overlooked it on the way up.  Apparently, five days earlier a nineteen-year old hiker from South Dakota had fallen twenty feet during his descent from the summit, gashing the side of his head, and he had to be airlifted to the closest hospital.  Seems I’d be smart not to underestimate this mountain… not until I reached level ground, anyway.

We made it back to camp safely and carefully, then packed up our tents for the long hike south.  I drank a potful of filtered lake water before hitting the trail, and that sustained me five hours until we reached our vehicles once again.  It was tough to part ways with my new friends, but darkness was descending fast, so instead of joining them for a drink at the nearest tavern, I drove to a hilltop campsite and prepared myself for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

The next day I hurried through Yellowstone and the Tetons so I could soak my weary body in a familiar pond – the minnow-filled waters of Kelly Warm Springs, just on the outskirts of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  I dunked my head beneath the surface, and when I emerged, I heard a woman holler from her truck as she sped past, “You’re gonna get rabies!”  That was odd.

That night, I read in a local paper that a “brain eating-amoeba” had just been detected in the springs.  Commonly found in geothermal water, the microscopic Naegleria fowleri consumes bacteria, but if it gets into nasal cavities it will switch over to a diet of human brains.  I guess nowhere is safe anymore.  Might as well keep risking my life in the mountains.  I might fall someday and get my brains bashed in, but at least they won’t be eaten by amoebas.

Week Eleven: At the Boundaries of Reason

WEEK ELEVEN: AT THE BOUNDARIES OF REASON

It was the moment of truth… or at least a compelling approximation of the truth.  I had wrapped my right heel in athletic tape and added wads of foam torn from a foam paintbrush, hoping to create an empty pocket within my hiking boot where the sensitive part of my heel could avoid feeling pressure.  As desperate tactics go, this was pretty desperate.  The bout of insertional achilles tendonitis that affected me in Glacier National Park had failed to heal over the last three weeks.  In fact, it had gotten worse.  I couldn’t wear shoes or boots because the area where my achilles tendon attached to my heel had become damaged and inflamed, and even light contact was painful. 

I carefully slipped on a sock and a boot, then nervously took a few steps.  My foot felt… almost normal.  This just might work.  If I could climb the mountain in front of me - which happened to be Boundary Peak, the highest summit in Nevada – it meant that I could go on to climb the highest in Wyoming and Montana, effectively completing a major chapter in my life… the culmination of eleven years spent chronicling outdoor adventures.

I needed to be able to climb without pain, though.  I wasn’t blind to the fact that I might be causing permanent damage to my tendon, but if I could make it up Boundary Peak painlessly, then I could justify postponing the healing process for a few more weeks.

I never claimed to be a paragon of common sense.

Time to hit the trail.  I said goodbye to my jeep Charlie, promising an oil change to repay him for his hard work in driving me up to 9,800 feet.  Charlie had put in a lot of extra effort to shorten my journey, though the road was washed out and treacherous.  I suspected the exertion had cost him, however, for his ventilation system sounded a bit louder than usual.

Soon enough, I had my own afflictions to worry about.  My Frankenstein splint showed early promise, but the soreness returned, and I leaned on my hiking poles like crutches, limping up the mountain.  I tried to focus on the scenery, but I’d seen plenty of sagebrush landscapes before, and Boundary Peak had little to offer in the way of technical challenge or physical beauty.  By many standards, it was a poor excuse for a state highpoint.  The 13,147-foot peak could be considered a bump on the extreme north end of the sixty-mile White Mountain range, almost all of which was at a higher elevation and situated in California.  The summit lay only a half-mile from the state border, and because of conflicting surveys, many believed it to be a California mountain until the issue was legally laid to rest in 1980. 

Its status as a “mountain” was still questionable.  Technically, Boundary was a sub-peak of its close neighbor, the taller Montgomery Peak.  13,065-foot Wheeler Peak on the east side of Nevada had a more credible claim as the state’s highest mountain.  But I’d already been there.  Today’s hike had more to do with stubborn list completion than glory.

The trail skirted past a grove of bristlecone pine trees, famed to be the most long-lived species of tree in the world.  Specimens older than five thousand years grew along the spine of the White Mountains further south.  I reflected on my own advancing age, but then paused in the middle of the path as I noticed something amazing: my heel had stopped hurting.  The taping job had actually worked.  I’d just needed to warm up the joints a little.

This was huge.  With renewed optimism, I threw myself at the upper slopes of the mountain.  By now, all vegetation had vanished except for a few scattered daisies.  The rocks looked like the color had been sucked out of them, leaving a paler version of a formerly vivid mountainside.  Only near the top did Boundary Peak start to make drab look good.  White outcroppings like the Sharkstooth gave the summit some fanged charisma, and when I stood on the official state highpoint, I truly felt I had accomplished something epic.  Especially considering my injury.

A succession of arid valleys stretched to the east and west.  On one side, the Sierra Nevada dominated the horizon, rising up from the smoke of a small brush fire.  In the other direction, a mirrored tower at the center of a solar power array burned like the Eye of Sauron.

During the descent, I thought about the remaining two state highpoints and decided that journeying back to the Rockies to attempt them was worth the risk, so long as I was willing to abort either mission should my condition deteriorate.  Rupturing my achilles tendon was a scary possibility… one that could happen while I was twenty miles deep into the backcountry if I didn’t play it safe.

Herds of wild horses and mule deer bachelors bore witness to the successful completion of today’s quest.  After reaching the trailhead, I pulled off my boots, threw on some sandals and guided Charlie back to the lowlands of Nevada.  To celebrate, I took us to Fish Lake Hot Well – a hydrothermal feature created by accident in the 1880s when ranchers were drilling for oil in a barren desert wash.  I rewarded myself with a long soak in a concrete tub, but I didn’t forget my promise to Charlie for his unselfish support.  The following morning I brought him to the first auto shop I could find and inquired about getting an oil change.  Unfortunately, they were booked for the day, but they said I’d have no problem finding help in the next town down the road.  A few more miles then.

Two blocks from the shop, at the only traffic light in the village, I detected an acrid smell coming through the vents.  Another block later, smoke began pouring out from beneath the edges of the hood.  I guess there would be no next town.  Charlie had finally reached his limit. 

I made a U-turn and nervously guided the jeep back to the front of the auto shop.  The moment I came to a stop, a loud and definitive SNAP shook the engine and made my heart leap into my throat.  I hopped out and raised the hood.  The serpentine belt was a tangled mess.  It seems the idler pulley had seized up some time ago, and the stresses had ultimately caused the belt to snap.  That explained some of the hissing sounds I’d been hearing over the last few weeks. 

Poor Charlie.  Essentially the largest tendon in the vehicle had ruptured, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between his injury and my own.  Maybe the decision to take my overused body up these last two mountains wasn’t such a smart idea after all.

Week Ten: Tangled up in Twilight

WEEK TEN: TANGLED UP IN TWILIGHT

Deerflies pelted the window of the Dodge Nitro, throwing their bodies at the glass with full force as if they expected to shatter the thin barrier and gain access to the human sheltering inside.  I really didn’t want to open the door.  Unfortunately, the sun was already low in the sky, and I needed to start hiking to Gooseberry Lake soon or else I’d be stuck searching for a campsite in the dark.

While visiting family in upstate New York, I’d been struck by the urge to visit this quiet lake in the northwest corner of the immense Adirondack State Park.  I hadn’t dived into its warm waters for over twenty years, and I hoped the place would be as peaceful as I remembered.  That expectation depended largely on being able to escape these deerflies at the trailhead.

I jumped outside, dashed to the trunk, opened it and began sifting through my backpack, searching for the best armor for this situation: a mosquito jacket.  With one hand, I held the hatch down to deflect the divebombers attacking my head, though their persistence caused me to retreat further and further into the trunk until I finally hopped in and slammed the door shut behind me.  From a severely cramped position, I contemplated giving up on this nostalgic enterprise.  If I had three days of this torment to look forward to, the trip down memory lane might not prove worth the detour.

Stubbornly, I struggled into the mesh jacket and slipped out a side door.  Five minutes down the trail to the lake, I began to feel better about my prospects.  The biting flies grew frustrated and recalled half their troops, allowing me to raise the jacket hood in order to better observe my surroundings.  Oaks and maples filtered the setting sunlight, creating dappled patterns on the forest floor.  White pines rained their soft, delicate needles onto the ground as well, forming an unusually deep, rusty blanket that immersed the landscape in mythological overtones.  The setting was perfect for fairy tales, though as the light grew dim, I began to imagine more primitive spirits haunting these woods… the non-human kind.

The path led up and over rock outcroppings that had once been part of a mountain range as dramatic as the Himalayas.  Glaciers had ground down and polished the low ridges while scraping troughs in the earth that were later filled with lakes and boggy wetlands.  Gooseberry Lake was one of these creations, and I came to a bluff overlooking its surface just as the sun touched the trees on the farther shore.  For a few minutes, an orange light bathed the pine trees around me.  Then the light faded away, and dusk came to the Adirondacks.

I needed a campsite.  Soon.  Further down the shoreline, a solitary Adirondack lean-to looked promising.  These shelters, provided by the state, were indispensible on rainy days.  They were built to resemble a log cabin, with a raised floor but only three walls.  The fourth side opened outward to face the lake.  It would easy to fit a tent inside, which I’d done on more than one occasion.

However, I disliked the amount of trash that had been left lying about.  A shelf on the wall also held crackers, condiments, pop tarts and a jar of peanut butter – a virtual feast of leftovers for whatever bear might come wandering by.  I wouldn’t be surprised if one did.  Once, I had to share a lean-to with a curious bear at a lake not far from here.  Finding nothing of value, he’d departed.  This time, I predicted the outcome would be far messier, and I didn’t care to stick around to see the disaster unfold.

Despite the impending nightfall, I decided to press on towards my favorite old campsite - a rocky peninsula that jutted out from the northeast shore of Gooseberry Lake.  It had the desired quality of isolation, because reaching it involved bushwhacking through a dense forest along the edge of a swamp.  If I’d brought an inflatable raft, I could have taken a shortcut across the water and saved myself a lot of time and grief.  But it looked like I’d be doing this the hard way.

I continued down the trail until my instincts prodded me to cut overland to reach the peninsula.  Rather quickly, my route came up against a series of rock outcroppings littered with fallen trees and wrapped in blackberry brambles.  The way was steep and thorny.  I didn’t fight as much as I ate my way through the tangled vegetation.  The abundant berries helped to sustain my spirits while I scaled one last hill and discovered… I’d gone in a complete circle.  Below me lay the trail I’d abandoned twenty minutes earlier.  So much for my instincts.

The local frogs chuckled deeply at my confusion as I regained the path.  My memories had grown a little fuzzy after twenty years, apparently.  For my second attempt, I waited until I had visual confirmation of the swamp I needed to skirt before I struck off-trail again.  By now, however, I’d lost the remaining light, save for the faint glow that gave the impression of open water on both sides of the wide peninsula.  I kept my flashlight off so I could still detect the borders of the landmass and keep myself oriented towards my goal.  I didn’t want to hike in any more circles if I could help it.

My immediate surroundings, however, were almost impossible to see.  I used my sense of touch to keep from crashing into too many trees, and I was thankful for the thick layer of dead pine needles that cushioned the boulders.  Their sponginess gave me the impression of climbing across the back of a big, shaggy dog.

At last I broke out of the woods and onto the bare rock at the tip of the peninsula.  The promontory appeared to be as seldom visited as I remembered, for lichen crunched loudly beneath my feet, as did the shriveled eggshells from several generations of snapping turtles.  Here I would build my fortress, pitching a tent on a patch of flat, ancient stone overlooking the entire lake.  For a garden, I had an expanse of lily pads where white water lilies floated like tea candles, tethered lightly to the shallow lake floor.  A beaver slapped its tail hard against the water to announce my arrival… or more likely to announce his displeasure at my arrival.  No matter.  Not a single fly had ventured out from the forest to join me, and that was the best endorsement of my new home so far.

The planet Mars burned overhead, outshining the first stars of evening as I stripped down and approached the dark waters.  The lake was warm and welcoming, unlike the frigid pools of the Rocky Mountains to which I’d grown accustomed.  But the black color of Adirondack lakes was always slightly disturbing; they retained their bottomless appearance even in the daytime, for the dark mud in the depths absorbed all light, whether from sun or stars.  Monsters from a thousand campfire stories dwelled here, beneath the surface.  Despite possessing an adult mind, I couldn’t help but let my imagination drift into unnatural territory.  I was even a little afraid to put my head underwater in case I forgot which way was up - a fear driven, perhaps, by my lack of buoyancy.

With the day’s sweat washed away, I toweled off and found an outcropping upon which to relax.  The giddy laughter of a loon family spilled out across the lake along with the occasional mournful cry that reminded me of a howling wolf cub.  It became dark enough that the hazy arc of the Milky Way was able to dive below the horizon and continue uninterrupted across the glassy surface of the lake, coming right up to the edge of my rocky refuge.

The lake almost matched my memories.  But there wasn’t enough topography in the region to block the hum of tractor-trailers on distant highways.  That seemed different.  In the sky, I also saw the blinking lights from more planes and helicopters than I remembered.  I guess some degree of change to this treasured space was inevitable.  Nevertheless, I felt there was still a place for me here among all the feathered, scaled and amphibious creatures, and room for new memories to grow.  In another twenty years, I hoped I’d be fortunate enough to return to the Adirondacks and find the same.

Interview #4: Adventure Sports Podcast update

This month I return to the Adventure Sports Podcast for a "Where are they now?" episode.  At about the 38-minute mark, I pop in and tell a story for twelve minutes about my recent misadventure in the Pintler Mountains.  It's a nice quick cameo, and I appear among an even more adventurous cast of characters... check it out!

http://www.adventuresportspodcast.com/2016/08/ep-188-where-are-they-now-update.html

http://traffic.libsyn.com/adventuresportspodcast/Update_Episode_-_What_Theyre_up_to.mp3

Week Nine: Night Rider

WEEK NINE: NIGHT RIDER

Once the last of the 165 horses drifted out of Robie Park and the clouds of dust began to settle back to earth, the support crew and I decided our next logical move would be to go back to bed.  Some of us had been awake since the neighing and braying started at 3:00am, and now that our team’s rider had been successfully ushered onto the road to begin an epic, hundred-mile trek through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we finally had a chance to catch up on sleep.  After all, the sun wasn’t due to rise for at least another hour.

Our rider, who happened to be my girlfriend Kitty, had been preparing for this race ever since she’d heard of its existence.  It was the culmination of a four-year journey for both her and her steed.  When they first met, Kitty was recovering from Stage IV breast cancer and Merlin had just been rescued from an abusive ranch environment.  The dark-coated Tennessee Walker suffered from spinal injuries and was deathly afraid of every rock and tree.  Kitty had to build his confidence and stamina up from scratch, and she fundraised to buy an orthopedic saddle so the horse could compete in endurance races.

This race – the Tevis Cup - was the granddaddy of North American endurance races in many ways.  It had been held for sixty-one years, and the demands on horse and rider were extreme.  Not only did the competitors have to complete the hundred-mile journey from the outskirts of Lake Tahoe to the Sierra Nevada foothills in under twenty-four hours, they had to pass ten veterinary inspections along the way.  If any of the blood tests, pulse rates or visual assessments were unsatisfactory, they’d be prevented from continuing.

The crew had no idea how long Merlin would last on the trail, although in a typical year, only half the riders managed to finish the race.  The percentage for first-year participants like Kitty was even lower.  But we took a quick nap so we would be ready for anything, then dispersed; some of the crew drove to the 36-mile mark, and others to the 68-mile checkpoint so that they could provide food and water and give Kitty time to rest so she wouldn’t fall out of the saddle. 

As for myself, I went alone to Michigan Bluff – a site at the 62-mile mark where riders would emerge after climbing two thousand feet out of a steep canyon.  Temperatures at the canyon’s base exceeded 110 degrees, but I could only wait with a bucket by the water troughs and hope Kitty and Merlin escaped the depths before they succumbed to the heat.

Meanwhile, Kitty was dealing with excitable horses, steep cliffs and tricky footing.  A couple mounts had even thrown their riders and gone trotting down the trail without them.  Fifty-two miles in, Kitty took some advice from a competitor and led Merlin to the shore of the American River to cool him off.  She sponged down Merlin’s fur, then remounted and attempted to guide Merlin out of the shallows and up the steep bank to the trail.

But he slipped.  While turning, his back legs stepped into a deep pool, and he struggled to regain his footing.  The black horse panicked and attempted to jump to safety, but the current pushed him out into deeper waters.  After the fourth leap, Kitty finally lost her balance and slipped off, forcing her body away from Merlin as she fell so that the animal wouldn’t crush her or pin her beneath him.  She landed in the river and had to watch as her steed flailed for a time, then swam to the opposite shore.  He emerged, dripping wet and shaking with fear, and Kitty waded across to examine him for injuries.

Poor Merlin’s legs were scraped up, and she worried even more about the damage to his psyche.  Her anxiety turned to anger when she walked Merlin down the path and quickly came to a trailside waterfall that would have been a much safer place to cool off.  The suggestion to take Merlin to the river had been poor counsel, but as a rookie, Kitty had to learn several things the hard way.  Unfortunately, in a race like Tevis, mistakes can have a high cost.  For the first time, Kitty doubted they’d be able to finish the hundred-mile journey.

When the trail grew too steep for a human to keep up, Kitty mounted Merlin once more.  At the Deadwood check station, some volunteers noticed that both horse and rider were badly shaken.  They gave words of assurance to restore Kitty’s confidence and dampened Merlin’s coat to keep him cool.  A treatment vet put ointment on all his cuts and checked for swelling.  Thanks to their administrations, in a half-hour Merlin was back to his old self.  He passed the veterinary exam and Kitty was allowed to saddle up and continue into the next canyon.

Back at Michigan Bluff, I glanced at my watch and fretted about the cut-off times.  Already, over fifty riders had dropped out or were disqualified because of injuries or overexertion in the high temperatures of the canyons.  I commiserated with other anxious crewmembers and looked up hopefully whenever a burst of applause heralded the arrival of another band of horses. 

At last they came, strong and smiling.  Merlin had found a reserve of confidence and energy in the depths of the last canyon, and they’d passed several exhausted teams on their way up.  I scooped water from the trough onto Merlin’s neck and restocked Kitty’s supply of carrot treats.  Alas, the ice cream I packed did not survive the heat of the afternoon, but Kitty wasn’t disappointed at all.  She was ecstatic at Merlin’s recovery.

I met Kitty again soon afterwards at Foresthill, where a mandatory one-hour break gave her the opportunity to eat dinner and shower in a crewmember’s camper.  The sun set before her period of rushed pampering came to an end.  Kitty rode off once more – this time, into darkness.  The next thirty-two miles would take place in shadows and moonlight.  In the meantime, the crew had a chance to pack up their gear and head for the finish line to prepare for her potential arrival.

Back on the trail, Kitty and Merlin soon found themselves stuck in a caravan of frightened animals twenty horses deep.  People were screaming at their companions to slow down, and the flashing headlamps made it impossible for her to develop any night vision.  Merlin began to panic again, so Kitty hid behind some trucks and waited for an opening so that they could ride by themselves in the moonlight.

This was Kitty’s favorite part of the ride.  Solitude, silver moonbeams and shadows.  But when a trio of girls came up quickly from behind, bearing powerful, blinding flashlights, Merlin lost his ability to see the trail.  He tripped.  Kitty went flying over his head and took a seven-foot fall into some bushes.  Remarkably, she was unhurt.  Merlin immediately stopped and blocked the trail until Kitty was able to collect herself and persuade him to let the girls pass by.

At the 85-mile mark, Merlin passed the vet check with flying colors – the first horse to clear the pulse threshold of 64 beats per minute on arrival.  He seemed to be getting stronger, not weaker, as the night went on.  If they could maintain their current speed, the completion of the Tevis Cup race within the twenty-four-hour timespan looked certain.

Three miles later, they reached the last river crossing.  Merlin would not touch the water.  The previous river episode had scarred him badly, and no forceful urging or cajoling could make him get his hooves wet.  This might have caused a critical delay… enough to disqualify them at the next checkpoint.  After ten minutes, Kitty mentally prepared herself to dismount and try leading Merlin through the chilly, waist-deep current.  Fortunately at that time, four riders appeared, and she was able to put Merlin in the midst of their group for the crossing.  The herd mentality prevailed.

Back at the Auburn Fairgrounds, the other crewmembers napped.  I couldn’t sleep.  I kept refreshing the webpage on my phone that tracked Kitty’s location using a GPS beacon, and I breathed a sigh of relief every time she reached a checkpoint just ahead of the cutoff schedule. 

A few hours before daybreak, our crew rallied and hiked to the finish line a half-mile outside of the fairgrounds.  We waited restlessly as the large, glowing clock ticked closer and closer to the twenty-four-hour mark.  Would they make it in time?

At 4:53am, with only twenty-two minutes to spare, Kitty and Merlin emerged from the darkness.  Our rider’s arms were raised in victory as they crossed the finish line.  Amazing.  As first-time participants, they had beaten the odds and completed what was arguably the world’s best known and most difficult endurance ride.  Out of 165 horses, only 87 made it to the end, and Merlin was number 72.

One final veterinary examination and a victory lap proved that Kitty’s horse was still in great health, and the next afternoon Merlin acted like he was ready to start racing again.  The same could not be said for nearly all of the other steeds, some of which needed medical treatment to help them recover from their exertions.

Kitty’s spirits soared with pride after the race, and she received a fancy silver buckle from the Tevis organizers to commemorate their achievement.  Her physical body fared worse than Merlin’s, however, stiffening after twenty-four hours spent in the saddle as well as from her fall into the bushes.  I took her on a tour of Sierra Nevada’s primitive hot springs to recuperate, while Merlin vacationed at a Central Valley ranch for two days.  It was a good time for both of them to rest, assimilate the Tevis Cup experience and dream of their next goals in life.  Who knows what else they might achieve together, somewhere down the dusty trail… but it was bound to be extraordinary.

Week Eight: Rainchecked

WEEK EIGHT: RAINCHECKED

Raspberries, strawberries, huckleberries, wild currants… the amount of fruit flourishing between the boulders in this avalanche zone was staggering.  I was surprised that more grizzlies hadn’t flocked to the site to take advantage of the bounty.  Of course, if they had, they would have had to fight me and my greedy fingers; the glossy red berries of the currant bushes were especially delicious, and the sugar rush they provided would have been a boon to any backpacker.  Come to think of it, the absence of other foraging backpackers was strange as well.  People must be getting more careful about what they put in their mouths these days.

Reluctantly, I pressed on further into Glacier National Park.  I’d been looking forward to this adventure for quite some time – a hike up to Boulder Pass in the quiet northwest corner of the park, just over a mile from the Canadian border.  12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, the great continental ice sheet retreated to the north, but glaciers continued to spill out of these mountains, scouring the valleys before them and gnawing away at the headwalls behind them.  The results were both raw and majestic, even if the modern glaciers were paltry remnants of their former glory, diminishing by the decade.

After twelve miles of hiking alongside the Kintla Lakes, I stumbled into the small backcountry campground feeling a little more footsore than usual.  I forgot about my condition, however, in the rush to pitch my tent before the first raindrops could erupt from a late afternoon thunderstorm.  We must have been right at the edge of the raincloud, for sunlight still streamed in fiercely from the west, illuminating every splash upon the surface of Upper Kintla Lake and turning the aquamarine waters into a field of glitter and gold.

One of my fellow campers nudged me and pointed up.  I craned my neck.  Unusually-large raindrops the size of pebbles sailed in currents of turbulent air.  Because of their dramatic proportions and sunlit condition, I could see them two hundred feet up in the sky and trace their path of descent.  It felt a little scary to watch; if one of the oversize drops fell in my eye, it could do some minor damage.

The stormcloud fled for the evening, but returned with several dreary companions the next morning.  I barely managed to pack up my gear in time before a steady rain began to fall.  It beat heavily against the broad leaves of the thimbleberry and false helibore as I forged up three thousand feet of switchbacks to the high plateau of Boulder Pass.  Vivid patches of indian paintbrush and columbine defied the grey mood of the skies.  But my right heel had become a major drag on my spirits… one that no amount of wildflower exuberance could cure completely.  Somehow I had damaged my Achilles tendon, and it throbbed every time I pushed off my right foot.  A saner person would have turned back.  Of course, I was too stubborn to react rationally.

A ranger had warned me that four groups had retreated from Boulder Pass during the last week because of lingering snow and ice.  I didn’t find any of the snowbanks that difficult.  But of the three campsites at the official Boulder Pass campground, two were still buried in snow.  Good thing I had no other company besides the marmots, or the one grassy campsite would have become pretty crowded.

When the rain subsided to a drizzle for a few minutes, I quickly set up my tent, threw my pack inside and crawled in afterwards, managing to beat the storm’s resurgence by just a few seconds.  Shelter is a precious thing, I once again realized.  Outside, I could hear the lilting song of the robin, the raindrops tapping against the tent fabric, and the ominous rumble of thunder.  I tolerated the cramped conditions inside the tent because once the stormclouds disappeared, I knew the views of the park’s rugged interior would be worth the discomfort.  I just had to wait out the storm.

A drop of water hit my foot.  I looked up from my book and noticed rainwater beading up in a dozen locations on the underside of the rainfly.  It seems that after a decade, the waterproof tape along the seams had decided to disintegrate all at once.  The droplets gathered in short order to form puddles along the tent floor.  I had to crouch on my sleeping pad and mop up the water with a washcloth every few minutes. 

What’s worse, I was freezing, even with all my clothes and raingear on.  I couldn’t unpack my cozy sleeping bag and crawl inside for fear that the stuffing would get wet.  It was all so depressing.  My tent had worn out just like my body seemed to have done.  Besides my right ankle, my knees and elbows also had decided to show their age during the last week.  I was falling apart fast, which didn’t bode well for my proposed conquest of several state highpoints later in the summer.

After a few hours, the rain finally stopped.  A jolt of solar radiation struck the tent, and I emerged from my soggy cocoon to survey the transformed scene.  The storm had spent all its energy and, like a fever breaking, had become bereft of power.  Its impenetrable clouds had torn themselves apart, freeing the setting sunlight just enough to warm my chilled extremities and bring hope for better explorations tomorrow.

In the morning, the marmots whistled a roll-call to make sure all the neighbors were accounted for.  Sadly, my prediction of blue skies had not come to pass, for swirling mists obscured the surrounding peaks, and the valleys below Boulder Pass were drowning in fog.  Still, the sun was doing its best to reassert its authority, and I had faith that the greatest views were yet to come.

Ignoring the protests of my right heel, I limped a thousand feet up to the top of Boulder Peak, ate an energy bar breakfast and waited for the slow reveal.  Over the course of a few hours, the mists burned away, and the cloudbanks rose steadily upwards, exposing one of the most dramatic scenes on the planet.  These were no ordinary mountains.  They were mountains as designed by a first-year arts student from Iowa who’d never actually seen real mountains before.  Masses of uplifted rock had been chewed away on all sides to form sweeping horns and twisted, knife-edge ridgelines.  Every peak showed the horizontal layering of sedimentary rock – the accumulated mud of ancient seas from a billion and a half years ago, back when multicellular life hadn’t even existed.  The mountains of Glacier National Park appeared to be breaking down under the weight of their own fantastical origins, shattering into slabs of purple, green and yellow stone.  The rocks atop Boulder Peak still showed the telltale ripples of their seabed origins.

I let myself be mesmerized by the logic-defying landscape until the clouds showed signs of wanting to regenerate.  Back at camp, I considered my next move.  Having made the effort of reaching Boulder Pass, I wanted to continue along the cliffside trails I’d seen from the peak, venturing deeper into the park towards the base of Thunderbird Mountain.  But my heel thought otherwise.  It needed time to recover, not more pain and stress.  Seventeen miles of trail separated me from the trailhead already… I didn’t need to make matters worse by indulging in outdoor obsessions more than I already had.  And besides, a decade from now, the mountains would still be there.

So I began the long walk back.  Incredibly, my right foot didn’t hurt in the slightest during the downhill portions.  Only the brief uphill stretches gave me any trouble.  I made friends in another campground and found a campsite encircled by raspberry bushes with dozens of ripe specimens.  Again, I was surprised the patch hadn’t been picked over, considering the popularity of the campground.  Didn’t anyone know what a wild raspberry looked like?  Well, that left more for the bears, I guess… if I didn’t eat every single one of those tasty little beauties first.

Week Seven: Watching the Sparks Fly

WEEK SEVEN: WATCHING THE SPARKS FLY

Three days until the Fourth of July, and already someone had burned their garage down.  Firework madness had overtaken the city of Anaconda, Montana.  Every citizen old enough to hold a sparkler had fallen victim to their pyromaniacal inner demon, carrying sacks of freshly-purchased toys into backyards and alleyways and setting off bottle rockets and roman candles long into the night.  At least that’s how it seemed to a part-time resident like myself.

I decided to split town and give my neighbors time to work this insanity out of their systems.  North of the city lay the Flint Range - a humble cluster of mountains with no technical wilderness but possessing a healthy component of subalpine lakes and wild scenery.  With a fishing pole strapped to my backpack, I struck up the boulder-strewn jeep trail towards the Dempsey Basin.  Because it was Fourth of July Weekend, unfortunately, a handful of off-road enthusiasts followed close behind me, dogging my steps with their fleet of four-wheelers, high-clearance jeeps and motorbikes.  The riders I met were quite friendly, but I hoped I could escape the machines if I climbed high enough up into the mountains.

I shouldn’t have expected a pristine ecosystem.  Unlike the wilderness regions I’d been exploring lately, the Dempsey Basin had its hydrological systems hijacked by valley farmers back in the 1930s.  Dams had been built along six or seven of the lakes, raising their levels so that the stored water could be utilized in the late summer and fall.  Once the last patches of snow melted from the mountain slopes and Dempsey Creek began to dry up, a water district worker drove to the first lake in the chain and opened some valves.  The lake would start draining, and the creek would be rejuvenated for a time, feeding more water to the farms and ranches at the foot of the mountains.  One by one, the lakes would be half-emptied, and the fish and wildlife would have to adjust once again to this yearly upheaval of their environment.

During my visit, snow patches still littered the upper forests, so every lake was filled with meltwater to capacity.  This caused some confusion when I reached Caruthers Lake.  I spent a while staring at my maps, unable to figure out why the jeep trail I’d been following had vanished instead of continuing on to Goat Lake.  I was forced to bushwhack west towards my destination, only to become doubly confused when the road mysteriously rematerialized.

It turns out that the jeep trail actually went into the waters of Caruthers Lake and emerged out the other side.  Driving higher into Dempsey Basin was only possible in late summer after the lake was drained.  Until then, the high country was free from motorized vehicles… an unexpected gift for a man in pursuit of isolation, like myself.

The obnoxious hum of combustion engines was replaced by the slightly-less obnoxious humming of flies – horseflies, blowflies and the curious hoverflies, which mimicked the shape and striped coloration of bees almost perfectly.  One couldn’t help but become slightly nervous when a hoverfly landed on one’s skin… at least until its telltale proboscis began probing for sustenance, ruining its disguise.  The bigger female horseflies were a much more potent threat, with mouthparts designed to stab through skin and others that could soak up blood like a sponge.

Once I reached the highest lake in this corner of the basin, however, the wind did its best to throw every fly off-balance.  Mountain Ben Lake lay cupped within the palm of a curved, nine-thousand-foot ridgeline.  Rock and talus spilled down from the encircling mountains to create the vast mounds hugging the western shore.  In between gusts, I pitched my tent in an old hunting camp along the eastern shoreline, next to what, decades earlier, must have been one beast of a backcountry oven – a stone fire pit capped by a rusty, hole-riddled iron cover.  If I put my fishing pole to good use, I could probably stoke up a fire and fry some trout on the heated metal surface, as long as I didn’t mind some flakes of rust clinging to my meal.

Sadly, the trout weren’t biting.  The wind was causing too much of a disturbance, blowing fierce enough to actually lift curtains of mist off the lake’s surface.  A little harder, and I think the wind would have scooped the fish right out of the water and thrown them into my campsite.

I had to content myself with my usual bowl of ramen noodles, which I carried to the lakeshore so I could enjoy my meal with some stark scenery.  The shallow waters at the eastern edge held an unusual scattering of grassy heaps – miniature islands where an occasional fir tree stood, looking lost and stranded.  I deduced that the small dam at the outlet to Ben Mountain Lake had raised the water level by just a foot or two, and over the last century, the coastline that had taken thousands of years to form began to erode away.  Waves from windstorms like this one had slowly washed the soil out from underneath these trees, leaving them orphaned upon ever-dwindling islands of grass.  I wished I could have welcomed them back into the forest and reunited them with their brethren, but that gift was beyond my means.

Humanity’s impact felt harsh, even this high in the Dempsey Basin.  But perhaps it was no harsher than the wind’s, which took its toll upon mountain, tree and camper alike.  Random gusts batted at the sides of my tent all night, then froze my fingers when I climbed a 9,611-foot mountain the next morning.  The wind even scared off the fish in every lake I visited during the hike back to the trailhead.  Despite my best efforts, trout would not be appearing on the dinner menu this Fourth of July.

A little dissatisfied by my Dempsey Basin experience, I returned to town just as the pyrotechnic indulgence was reaching a crescendo.  Pops, whistles and booms echoed down every street in Anaconda, and the only reason the streets were not filled with firecracker smoke was because the wind was working overtime to replace the fumes with fresh mountain air.  Most of the neighboring counties had just banned fireworks on public and private lands due to the dry conditions and extreme wind advisories.  But not Deer Lodge County.  They were fully committed. 

Resigning myself to the chaotic spectacle, I drove up to the hilltop cemetery to get a good view of the main firework performance.  Coincidentally, this happened to be the best place to receive advance warning if more garages caught fire.  The pyrotechnics seemed out of control; every quadrant of the town was doing its best to outdo the official government efforts.  Cascades of silver sparks rained down upon the city streets.  Starbursts made of blazing embers were quickly warped by the wind, even before they could expand to their full dimensions, and the air currents hustled each distorted form off to the side to make room for the next explosion.

I had to admire the townsfolk’s determination to press on with the celebration, despite the risk.  Freedom was worth celebrating, and if anything I could empathize with the desire to inject danger into one’s life from time to time.  Some do this by way of firecrackers, and others through an assortment of cliffs, lightning bolts and wild animals.  Who’s to say which group was crazier?

Week Six: Deadfall

WEEK SIX: DEADFALL

“Looks like you’ll be driving into a storm!” remarked the carpenter.

Sure enough, the skies to the west seemed ready to launch a furious offensive into the heart of Montana’s Pintler Mountains.  I threw my backpack into the back of the jeep anyway.  At least a hike would take my mind off the cost of these renovations to my tiny Montana home.

Thankfully, the rain let up after the first hour on the trail, though the wind remained a persistent presence.  It whistled across the tops of trees killed in the 2000 Musigbrod Fire, making a disturbing noise like the wailing of a thousand anguished souls.  Perhaps the ghosts of the dead pines were still active, reliving the moment of destruction and screaming in terror at the oncoming flames.  Groans also emanated from within several trunks as they strained and twisted in the wind.  I thought I might be pulverized by a falling tree, but the only thing that struck me was a douglas fir pinecone thrown by a mischievous squirrel.

Previous storms had dropped dozens of trees across the trail, however, and at Johnson Lake, a squadron of young Americorps volunteers was just beginning to stash equipment in preparation for several weeks of trail-clearing.  Their crew leader gave me his number and asked if I would report back on conditions deeper within the wilderness.  I accepted the mission.  In truth, I felt a little like a kid being given a plastic badge that said “Junior Deputy”.  It’s nice to be able to contribute to the upkeep of the forest, even in such a small way.

I took my job seriously and counted fifty downed trees during the next two miles, though the wreckage forced me to do some precarious balancing on tree trunks in order to continue.  Guess I was fortunate to have a trail to follow.  Martin “Seven Dog” Johnson – after which the lake was named – created many of these trails through the Pintler Mountains, beginning in 1887.  He worked as a hunter, trapper and guide, capturing several mountain goats and selling them to zoos across the United States.  A woodsman to the end of his life, Johnson died at age 79 by falling off a cliff while elk hunting.  I hoped to avoid a similar fate, but these ambitious hikes weren’t helping my chances.

After fourteen weary miles, I reached Warren Lake, dropped my pack and admired the prominent mountain that dominated the western edge.  Rugged, proud and nameless, it spat gusts of wind across the lake’s surface that quickly cooled my blood.  I had to make myself some hot chocolate to keep from freezing while I pitched the tent and built up a small fire.  Tonight was going to be a cold one.

I quickly realized that campfires during twenty-five-mile-an-hour windstorms were a fairly inefficient way to get warm.  The wind blew most of the heat sideways out of the campsite, along with a continuous stream of sparks.  I had to crouch down by the coals, hold out my hands and watch out for embers, brushing aside any that settled on my synthetic clothes before they could burn holes through to my skin.  Eventually, I gave up on the fire and went to bed.  Big, unpredictable day tomorrow.

When morning came, I ate a quick breakfast, tromped through the icy meadows beside my campsite and struck straight up the side of West Goat Peak – the highest mountain in the Pintlers.  The peak was a strange outlier to the rest of the range, rising a short distance away from its more dramatically-chiseled brethren.  This physical separation gave me the perspective I needed to consider my next move. 

I had about twenty-five miles left to go on my journey through the Pintler Range, yet only enough food for one more night.  In addition, more storms could be rolling in tomorrow.  West Goat Peak had been a worthy goal, but it had consumed a crucial amount of time and energy.  If I didn’t want to retreat the way I had come yesterday, I was going to have to get creative.

I needed a shortcut.  From my vantage point, I noticed that I could trim nine miles off my journey and avoid a long, circuitous path if I could just make it up and over the long ridge separating Warren Lake from Maloney Basin.  My map showed some extremely dense contour lines on the far side of the ridge, though.  If I hiked up there only to find impassable cliffs, I’d be in much worse shape than I was in now.  Even from the heights of West Goat Peak, I couldn’t tell what lay in store for me.

I decided to take the gamble.  I descended, broke camp and hauled my gear up the ridge to the one spot on the map where the contour lines looked reasonable, right where the ridgeline snuggled up against the twisted face of Warren Peak’s next-door neighbor.  From there, I saw several gullies that might take me down the cliffs into Maloney Basin.  Slightly reassured, I chose the least dangerous looking of the three, and began my descent. 

Careful not to slide on the rubble, I picked my way down the wide chute made of golden granite, which narrowed and grew more vertical the further I dropped.  I used every nick and crevice I could find to control my descent, but eventually the gully grew so steep that I couldn’t see the bottom anymore.  Before I was funneled into a point-of-no-return, I finally ditched my backpack and scrambled thirty feet lower to peer over what I soon realized was a precipice.  There was absolutely no safe way to continue to the valley floor.  In fact. after a rainstorm this would have been a fifty-foot waterfall.

Dismayed and unwilling to think about having to retrace my steps back to Warren Lake, I considered the unlikely possibility that one of the other gullies might provide passage to Maloney Basin.  More likely I would encounter the same band of cliffs and have to turn around again.  Still, I knew it wouldn’t hurt to peek around the edges of the gully to see if I could exit this one and enter another.

I clung to the few shrubs I could find and worked my way over the lip of the chute, where I noticed something promising: bare dirt where there should have been rubble.  A trail!  I’d discovered a mountain goat trail that cut diagonally across the cliff face itself.  Good thing “Seven Dog” Johnson hadn’t shipped every goat out of the Pintlers… otherwise I might not have found the path.

Of course, what mountain goats can do and what humans can do on mountainsides are sometimes two very different things.  If I lost control walking across the loose gravel patches, I’d go skittering right off the edge.  I must have some goatish DNA lurking in my genes, however, for I successfully crossed the precarious series of narrow ledges and made it to the base of the cliffs.

I stood amid the shards of boulders that had failed to survive the descent, looking up one last time at the treacherous ridgeline.  Another gamble had narrowly paid off.  Maybe I’d actually live to be 79.  Maybe not.

I spent my final night in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness at Carrp Lake, where the rainbow trout seemed quite interested in the bait I had to offer.  I caught several specimens and fried them up with spices and oil.  Unfortunately, my inexperience with backcountry cuisine quickly became apparent, for half the morsels I ate were raw, and the other half were completely charred.  I suppose if my risk-taking on mountainsides doesn’t kill me someday, my cooking certainly will.

Week Five: Mission Accomplished

WEEK FIVE: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

More than anything, I needed a machete.  On the banks of McDonald Lake, the vegetation had sucked up the extra daylight from the summer solstice and exploded across the trail to the Calowahcan Basin.  Spiny devil’s club and wild rose brambles tore at my skin, and I had to walk with my hiking poles outthrust to part the sea of undergrowth.

I nearly stepped in fresh bear scat, which made me wary about accidentally startling one of the beasts.  The local Salish and Kootenai Tribes had created a Grizzly Bear Conservation Zone on the other side of the lake, protecting the ladybugs and cutworm moths that grizzlies devour by the hundreds of thousands in late summer.  The moths congregate beneath rockslides above timberline and emerge at night to sip nectar from wildflowers.  During the daytime, bears will dig through the rocks and can eat 40,000 moths in a day.  Each tiny moth body is about 70% fat, making them a potent, calorie-rich food source for the grizzlies.

But this time of year, in the absence of moths and ladybugs, bears are not likely to be found above treeline.  The Conservation Zone nearby wouldn’t contain them.  They could be anywhere in this part of the Montana Rockies, and despite my skinny frame and low fat content, I might make a tempting meal for a particularly fearless predator.

That reality was pointed out to me by two Native American youth that I bumped into on the trail.

“You’re by yourself?”

“Yep.  Just me.”

“Why don’t you have bear spray?”

The question seemed almost accusatory.  I mentioned the expense and the possibility of “taking friendly fire”, after which one of the kids grinned and boasted that he’d accidentally sprayed himself three different times.

Finally, I admitted that I liked being a bit vulnerable.  I wouldn’t want to be completely safe, because then I’d be experiencing nature as more of a tourist than an active participant.  I liked being integrated into the whole system of predator and prey… of having to provide for my own food, water and shelter, and in their absence, being responsible for the consequences.  On the whole, the logistics of wilderness survival are a lot simpler than the accommodations we make to fit in within Western civilization.

Despite my bravado, I hoped I wouldn’t have to jab a bear in the eye with a hiking pole anytime soon.  The two teens accepted my answers and continued on their way.  I resumed my upward journey, heading deeper into the Mission Mountains towards a collection of alpine lakes.  As I gained elevation, the hands of time seemed to spin backwards, pulling the landscape from summer back into the early days of spring.  The plant life lost its photosynthetic vigor and began to shrink down into the soil.  White wands heavy with beargrass flowers shortened inch by inch and disappeared entirely.  Fresh willow leaves pulled back into their buds and hid.  Patches of dirty snow appeared suddenly, multiplied and enveloped parts of the forest.

By the time I approached Summit Lake, I began to worry that I wouldn’t find a dry campsite until summer got around to reclaiming the high country.  My fears only deepened when the trail led me to a puddle the size of a small swimming pool.  I could see the path continue beneath the waters, and as I looked closer, I was instantly repulsed by a scene that could have been pulled from a horror movie.

Sections of water were literally black with the bodies of tens of thousands of mosquito larvae hanging from the surface.  These half-inch cylinders of skin and fuzz wriggled down and away when I came too close.  The larvae siphoned oxygen from the air and actually helped filter the water by eating algae, bacteria and other microbes.  But I was worried about what would happen in a few days’ time when the mosquitoes pupated and began to hatch.  The legions of hell would be unleashed upon the denizens of Summit Lake.  I listened nervously for their telltale high-pitched whine, wondering if camping here was such a good idea after all.  Hopefully I hadn’t awakened them and triggered some kind of accelerated maturation process.  At least the local trout would soon be happy.

I detoured around the breeding pit and found a campsite on higher ground above the southern shore.  Summit Lake held a dramatic position beneath Eagle Pass and the towering face of Mount Calowahcan.  Submerged shelves of rock were scattered throughout the shallows, and from a distance they looked like the remnants of an Atlantean city.

A logjam blocked the outlet of the lake, and dozens of trout lurked within the labyrinth of tree trunks, waiting to ambush anything tasty that might try to exit the pond.  As I balanced on a log and dunked a washcloth in the moving water, I wished I’d brought a fishing pole with me.  Then again, I’d seen a pole snapped in half along the trail, and with all the overgrowth and deadfall, I doubt that mine would have survived the journey.

A blob of grey fur with a rat-like tail dashed onto the logjam bridge while I was washing up.  I think we noticed each other at the same time, but the meadow vole was quite shocked by my presence.  It immediately slipped on a log, crashed full speed into the water and disappeared.  I wondered where it had gone… perhaps snatched up by a hungry trout.  Surprisingly, the rodent managed to swim the remaining distance under the logjam.  It sprung from the water on the other side of the outlet and, without bothering to shake itself off, sprinted to the safety of a pile of boulders.

I lit a fire that evening, just in case the mosquitoes decided to speed up the hatching process for my sake.  They didn’t, but I was woken up twice during the night by other voracious animals.  Some rodent – perhaps that very same meadow vole - tried to chew its way into my tent to sample my trail food.  I finally wised up and triple-bagged my snacks so the smell wouldn’t be so attractive.  Should’ve been following that policy anyway, camping in grizzly country.

In the morning, I climbed Eagle Pass and scaled Calowahcan’s south summit to get a good view of the rest of the Mission Range.  Somewhere to the west on the Flathead Reservation lay a 120-year-old church and the remnants of the Catholic mission that gave these mountains their name.  My own mission, so to speak, was nearly complete.  I dropped 5,500 feet in the next four hours, my downward momentum helping me plow through the dense vegetation.  Despite losing the overgrown trail several times, I managed to regain my bearings and bushwhack across to Lake McDonald to reunite with my jeep once more.

In my absence, the vehicle had been invaded… by mice.  The little vermin had nibbled away at a cache of granola bars and peaches, leaving behind a dismaying number of fecal droppings.  They’d even taken a napkin and begun to build a shredded nest beneath the back seat.  I should have known better than to leave food at a trailhead, too.  As I always suspected, it’s the littlest creatures – not the thousand-pound giants - that you really have to keep an eye on.

Week Four: Feel the Burn

WEEK FOUR: FEEL THE BURN

As fires continued their sweep through the Santa Ynez Range of Southern California, one thousand miles to the northeast I was busy exploring my own piece of singed territory.  In 2003, the Hidden Lake Fire scorched the slopes of Montana’s Pioneer Mountains, burning thousands of wilderness acres, including the route to Sawtooth Lake that had captured my current interest.  On a June afternoon in 2016, the forest along the trail was a mix of the living and the dead.  A few survivors stood tall, but scattered across the forest floor lay the fallen soldiers of the incendiary war.  The next generation of lodgepole pines had taken root in the graveyard, promising a return to shadier times in the distant future.

In the back of my mind, I was slightly worried about what the media in California was calling the Scherpa Fire.  Sparks from a wood splitter had ignited the 8,000-acre blaze, which now smoldered less than four miles from the red cabin I called home.  My girlfriend Kitty was prepared to rescue any material goods from the cabin if necessary, so I tried to relax and focus on the task at hand.

Hiking to Sawtooth Lake was simple.  I could clamber over most fallen trees, and a few had even collided above the trail to create archways that I could pass through without ducking.  But upon reaching the lakeshore, I was able to choose among destinations with more adventurous potential.  Two mountains cast their reflections in the subalpine waters.  Sawtooth Mountain had a broken and toothy ridgeline.  If I tried climbing along that blade, I’d likely get slashed, if not outright sawed in half.  I felt drawn instead to Highboy Mountain – Sawtooth’s slightly higher and more approachable brother.

To reach Highboy’s upper slopes, I had to chart my own course through a lodgepole forest that had been untouched by the Hidden Lake Fire – for which I was extremely grateful.  Bushwhacking through fire-burned lodgepole pine is the worst.  The charred trunks slowly topple over the course of decades, creating dense thickets of spindly material that are guaranteed to trip up the most light-footed hiker. 

In contrast, bushwhacking through fire-burned chaparral in Southern California is the best.  The Mediterranean climate there supports a dense, drought-resistant plant community of shrubs and grasses, and fighting one’s way through it is an exercise in self-punishment.  There’s no winning strategy; the best one can do is use brute strength to crash through the brush and suffer the scratches and lacerations as well as one can.  After a conflagration like the Scherpa Fire, however, everything is reduced to bare soil and grey ash.  A person can hike anywhere, and the unrestricted mobility is a revelation.  I looked forward to seeing if any new opportunities for exploration had opened up when I returned in the fall.

Where the forest ended, the stairway up to the Highboy ridgeline began.  I didn’t mind the steepness, so long as I found room to avoid the snowbanks and unanchored boulders that the mountain laid in my path.  In short order, I breached the gauntlet and rested atop the mountain crest, content in my victory. 

Around me grew the makings of a stunted garden – scattered bits of alpine vegetation that nestled in the scraps of soil between the stones.  The plants scarcely dared to poke their heads out above the rocks, for the wind at 10,431 feet was fierce and cold.  They seemed to use their flowers like a blanket, growing them in tight layers of baby blue, yellow and magenta to help shelter their tiny leaves.  As attractive as the flowers were, I wasn’t surprised to find a lack of butterflies at this elevation, even with the temptation of deliciously cooled nectar.  Their wings were too fragile.  The task of pollination fell instead to the flies, who were less likely to be torn apart by the gusts that frequently swept Highboy’s summit.

A solitary pika, shaped like a lumpy potato with little ears and whiskers, played hide-and-seek with me in the talus for a while.  Eventually it decided that I posed no threat, and it made the unusually brave move of bounding to a nearby patch of grass and nibbling some blades in plain sight.

I chewed on some granola bars myself and surveyed the scenery, which included a dozen mountain ranges, some extending all the way into Wyoming and Idaho.  Ice floes were still breaking apart on the lakes beneath Highboy.  To the east, multiple grey scars discolored the foothills of the Pioneers where the Hidden Lake Fire swept through over a decade earlier.

The regeneration strategy of lodgepole pine forests depends on specialized pinecones sealed with resin that open to release their seeds after being exposed to extreme heat.  Lodgepole pine bark is rather thin, so this is the only way the species can endure a severe forest fire. 

Back in California, the shrubs along the devastated hillsides use different tactics to ensure survival.  Scrub oak and manzanita invest energy and nutrients in creating “root crowns” that grow fresh shoots whenever the vegetation above ground is completely incinerated.  Other plants like ceanothus form thick coats around their seeds that only crack at high temperatures, allowing water to enter so the dormant seeds can germinate.

I had no concerns about the chaparral landscape of Southern California being able to restore itself.  My cabin was a different story, however.  I’d have to keep my fingers crossed and hope the firefighters could spread enough retardant along the ridgeline that separated my home from the Scherpa Fire.  Much of the foliage there contained highly-flammable natural oils, so if the wind picked up, suppressing the flames wouldn’t be easy.

I took a short cut off of Highboy Mountain, glissading a thousand feet down a network of steep snowfields.  My sneakers served as rudimentary skis, and whenever the snow became too soft to keep me from falling through the crust, I simply dropped onto my backside and began sledding.  Hands and hiking poles helped to control my descent, but once I noticed I couldn’t feel or move my fingers anymore, I decided the merriment had to come to an end.

I traversed over to some rocks and tore off my soaked, threadbare pair of cotton gloves.  As circulation returned to my frostbitten hands, they burned, as if every nerve ending had been lit on fire.  But the flames eventually subsided, just as they would, sooner or later, in California.  I flexed my fingers to keep the blood moving, and continued down the mountain.

Week Three: The Boiling Point

WEEK THREE: THE BOILING POINT

The confrontation was inevitable. 

Throughout the Rockies, snowmelt had been trickling down into meadows and marshes for weeks, creating the perfect breeding ground for mosquito larvae.  Now the larvae were old enough to hatch into their winged forms and start venturing forth from the waters in search of their first meals.  For males, that meant nectar from flowers.  For females, that meant people like me who dared to think they could walk into the wilderness without attracting the insects’ bloodthirsty attentions.  I should have known better.  In the month of June, the mosquitoes always win.

Granted, in Yellowstone National Park I should have had a lot of other competition as a blood donor, what with all the bison, wolves, elk and grizzles wandering about.  There were very few humans, however… none in fact, after I hiked three miles down the trail towards Shoshone Lake.  Back at the ranger station, I had wondered why I’d managed to acquire camping permits on such short notice, especially for a popular lakeside campsite in a park that gets over four million visitors a year.  The lake even had its own geyser basin containing one of the highest geyser concentrations in the world. 

Halfway down the trail, I began to understand why I’d such good luck with permits.  For one, the mosquitoes were atrocious, and my “natural ingredient” bug spray only seemed to tickle their antennae for a few minutes before they regained their composure and renewed their attacks.  Secondly, the trail was still encumbered by snowdrifts - guests from the long Wyoming winter who had overstayed their welcome.  The snowy barriers gave Shoshone Lake a feeling of great remoteness, even if it lay only nine miles from the trailhead.

I found my campsite, pitched my tent in the trees and fled down to the lake where the mosquitoes weren’t quite so persistent.  After wading out into the shallows and washing off multiple layers of bug spray, I decided to relocate my tent to a gravelly terrace by the shore.  But the meager wind died, and the mosquitoes found me there, too.  I had to start up dinner on my camp stove and flee to the safety of the tent.

The transparent mesh of the tent fabric provided only a dim view of my surroundings, so the soundscape of Shoshone Lake became the focus of my senses.  There was the drone of hovering mosquitoes as they probed tirelessly for weaknesses in the tent lining.  Elsewhere, a beaver made sneezing sounds, clearing its nose while it paddled across the lake.  The noise from a bubbling hot spring cauldron drifted across the bay, remarkably similar in nature to the rice simmering in my cookpot.  And the honking of geese echoed fourfold as it bounced from lakeshore to lakeshore, occasionally rising to a cacophony as the birds struggled against their squabbling natures to get along.

The next morning, I decided that despite my two-night permit, I didn’t really need an extra day at Shoshone after all, even if it was the largest lake in the lower 48 states inaccessible by road.  The mosquitoes had convinced me that I’d seen enough.  I packed my gear and made a beeline for the Shoshone Geyser Basin, which lay behind a hill on the western shore.

To have a geyser basin all to oneself at Yellowstone National Park was like stepping back in time.  No crowds, no boardwalks, no guardrails, no informational pamphlets… this was a chance to study bubbling hot pools and geysers closer than ever before.  I still had to be extremely careful to stay on the crumbly, white sinter, and not just for my own sake.  I didn’t wish to disturb the rust-colored ribbons of bacteria that flourished in the thin sheets of water that ran from the hot springs down to Shoshone Creek.

I stepped lightly as possible around the turquoise pools and steaming fumaroles, knowing that a man had been boiled alive here in 1988 after falling into one of the hydrothermal features.  In some places, the ground simply hissed at me, though I could detect no heat or steam arising.  I still felt the same tension as being around an angry rattlesnake.

Other elements of the basin were more visually dramatic, none so much as Minute Man Geyser, which unleashed a twenty-foot jet of superheated steam every sixty seconds, more or less.  It certainly stole attention away from the other pools on the hillsides, though Union Geyser had a louder plumbing system.  The ground around Union vibrated ominously with a low-frequency rumble, like the sound of a distant jet plane. 

It was hard to fathom what could be transpiring in underground passages beneath the spring, but geologists have a pretty solid theory that starts with water percolating down towards Yellowstone’s great magma chamber, five miles below the surface.  The immense pressure at those depths keeps the superheated water from boiling, though periodically the water will rise and start to depressurize, forming bubbles of steam.  These expanding bubbles fight to escape upwards through constrictions in the passages, surging so violently that the water above them is ejected from the earth.  The internal pressure then decreases and the clock is reset until the next geyser eruption.

As safe as I tried to be around the fragile crusts, I was forced to take some unexpected risks when I encountered a strange species of bee in the basin.  These insects with black bodies, yellow legs and green eyes were swarming in great numbers across patches of grass, holding low flight patterns and circling around each other at great speeds.  They had perforated the ground, including parts of the footpath, with small holes, which they occasionally entered for unknown purposes.  Not knowing what behavior would set them against me, I had to detour from safer terrain into the danger zone, closer to the geysers than would be normally prudent. 

As the sulfuric mists washed over me, I noticed one side effect: no mosquitoes!  In fact, I’d scarcely been bothered since I entered the geyser basin.  Sulfur must be the bloodsuckers’ kryptonite.  If someone put that stuff in an aerosol can, I’d bet they could make a fortune. 

I let the vapors infuse my clothes before departing the region and decided that if it weren’t illegal, I’d camp right next to Minute Man Geyser next time, bees or no bees.  My food might taste faintly like poisonous chemicals, but at least I’d be able to eat in peace.