Off The Map Side-Stories #10: The Wrong Way Down


Off The Map Side-Stories #10: The Wrong Way Down

I stopped a few miles from the trailhead, turned around, drove a few miles towards home, then turned around again and stared hard at the snow-covered summits.  Did a hike in the Pintler Wilderness make sense?  Sure, the weekend storms had dropped plenty of snow on these Montana mountains, but if the sun had sufficiently warmed the south sides of the peaks, maybe the conditions up there were better than I could see from my northern position.

Turns out, not really.  But I desperately needed a break from bathroom renovations in my tiny Montana house, so I dealt with the slippery and treacherous conditions and tried not to faceplant whenever stones shifted beneath the thin veneer of snow.  The Pintler Mountains were mostly gray, undistinguished and lacking in hospitality or humor, but I appreciated their isolation and independence.  Most travelers and locals visit the trout-laden lakes at their feet; very few seek out the summits, especially the lesser-known peaks I was investigating – Little Rainbow Mountain, Mount Howe and Mount Evans.  

I really shouldn’t have climbed the third mountain, based on the speed I was going, but snow makes for sublime scenery, especially as the sun is nearing the horizon.  I soaked up the views, then struck out for my predetermined shortcut – a ridgeline that would eventually provide a safe route down to a trail in the valley below.  If everything went according to plan, I’d reach my jeep right before darkness descended on the Pintlers.

I should never have changed the plan.  Soon after gaining the ridge, I was tempted by the first gully that dropped off to the left – a steep shortcut to my shortcut that I guessed would allow me to reach the valley an hour ahead of schedule.  The route had the usual complement of unstable rocks and scree.  I kept my balance up until the point when a boulder the size of a refrigerator came loose underneath me.  I would have gone tumbling down the mountainside along with it, had I not immediately clutched at the branches of a dwarf pine tree.  The needles were slick with snowmelt, but I somehow managed to keep my grip. 

After two thousand feet of this sharp and messy terrain, I began to feel the relief of almost having reached the floor of the valley.  Then I came to the cliffs.  The way was blocked.  There was no safe passage anywhere in the vicinity.  I did not want to retreat all the way back up to the ridgeline, so I almost decided to risk my life downclimbing the remainder of the cliffs.  Almost.  I hate being defeated by geology, but I resigned myself to one last upward battle.  I was definitely not going to make it back before nightfall now.

And as I took my first steps back up the slope, my right thigh seized up.  A cry escaped my lips, and I hopped on my left leg until the ripples of pain went away.  That was unexpected… and unwelcome.  I tried again, but my body was insistent on being done with the uphill hiking.  It cramped every few steps, so I finally sat down and spent a few minutes massaging the rebellious muscle.  It begrudgingly bore my weight after that. 

Drawing on my last reserves of energy, I gained the ridgeline once more and followed it to the north, shunning the temptations of other gullies until I could be sure I had bypassed the cliff bands.  Sunlight streamed through notches in the peaks to my west, illuminating the haze of smoke from distant fires until the sun nudged its way below the horizon. 

I finally decided it was time to descend myself, choosing a wide gully that seemed unlikely to hold any hidden cliffs.  It held plenty of broken rock, however.  I had to select each boulder carefully before committing my full weight.  Areas with larger rocks were less likely to shift beneath me, but if the boulders began rolling, as they had earlier, there was a far greater chance of having a leg pinned or pulverized.

Three hundred feet above the valley floor, the slope steepened and cliffs once again barred my passage.  Fatigue and dismay threatened to overwhelm me, but I tried to push the feelings aside until I had a chance to explore the adjacent gullies.  I scrambled sideways across the mountainside and discovered other options.  Here, there were diminutive trees that I could cling to in order to help me down the steeper sections.  With their assistance, I finally reached the foot of the mountain.  And came to the swamps.

From above, I’d observed these regions of open land where the soil was too saturated to support the roots of trees.  At least I had enough remaining light to help me pick a path through the marsh.  I balanced atop tufts of grass, avoiding the patches where silvery reflections gave away the presence of water.  Beyond the swamp lay a darker forest, which I entered in the hopes of finding a trail on the far side of the valley.  All my landmarks disappeared, obscured by the forest canopy.  I followed the dying traces of the sunset instead, heading west until I reached the second swamp.  

This meadow was mostly drained by a single, sinuous stream, and columns of mist rose from the surface of the meandering channel.  I traced the course of water until I found a segment narrow enough to jump across, and in the forest beyond, I discovered the trail I’d seen on my maps.  Four miles to the trailhead. 

Only then did I turn on my headlamp.  I’d wanted to conserve the battery, just in case, because I couldn’t remember if I’d have any moonlight tonight.  What I did have, however, was plenty of stars.  They shone clear and crystalline in the sky as the air quickly dipped towards freezing.

I’d expected temperatures to get cold, but I knew a warm shower awaited me at home – my first full rinse in five days.  I’d just restored the plumbing, and the grout and mortar supporting the new tiles should finally be dry.  It would feel glorious.

Until then, I needed to focus on the trail.  The path was not well-used, and it tended to disintegrate in open areas.  Hikers usually spread out in those places, leaving no permanent markers of their passage with their footsteps, so I had to rely on intuition to find where the trail reentered the forest on the further side.

With a bit of instinct and a comparable amount of aimless wandering, I reached my jeep on the shores of Storm Lake just before ten o’clock.  The snow had certainly lengthened the day’s journey.  Maybe I should have waited an extra day to venture into the mountains, allowing more time for the sun to clear a path to the peaks.  But then I would have missed the vision of white-capped summits stretching out into the Montana plains, and lacked the photos to prove I’d been there.  I’d say that’s worth postponing a shower, at the very least.

Off The Map Side-Stories #9: High Seas


Off The Map Side-Stories #9: High Seas

“Just take a look at this,” the ferry worker said.

I grabbed our tickets and hustled around the ticket counter to join Kitty, who was hunched over a map on an employee’s computer screen.  The man pointed to a spot overlaid with bright red circles, which indicated that the windspeeds hitting Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island tonight were expected to hit 50 miles per hour.  That’s exactly where Kitty and I were headed.  I hoped our tent could withstand the impact, for neither one of us wanted to cancel our vacation.  Uneasy in our hearts, we crossed our fingers, took some Dramamine pills for the inevitable seasickness and loaded our packs onto the ferry for the Channel Islands.

The trip across the Santa Barbara Channel was rough.  Because of wind and wave conditions, the Island Packers ferry company had chosen to cancel all day-hiker tickets, only agreeing to transport a handful of campers out to the islands.  I survived the ocean turbulence by falling asleep before we reached Scorpion Bay.  The Dramamine accentuated my drowsiness, keeping me unconscious while a few campers climbed onto the pier and afterwards as the ferry continued down the coast to Prisoner’s Harbor.

Kitty woke me when it was time to disembark.  Our point of arrival on Santa Cruz Island had acquired its name in the early nineteenth century, just after several millennia of Chumash occupation had come to an end.  In those days, the Mexican government had a policy of exiling many of its convicts to Alta California, but in February of 1830, the local governors refused to take in eighty prisoners brought by the Maria Ester.  The captain of this ship decided to drop off thirty of the meanest convicts, along with a few supplies, at what later became known as “Prisoner’s Harbor”.  The fate of the prisoners is uncertain.  Some say they built rafts, sailed to the mainland and integrated back into society.  Others believe they never survived the journey across the channel.

We hoped to fare better during our visit.  However, the two doses of medication we had taken to prevent motion-sickness had burdened us with an unfortunate side-effect, and it took us a while to acknowledge the truth of our situation: we were stoned.  Both of us felt foggy and lethargic, and instead of hiking the 3.5 miles uphill to the Del Norte Campground, what we wanted more than anything was a warm place out of the wind where we could curl up and take another nap.

It didn’t help that we had to carry extra water, as there were no sources to be found at the campground or along the twelve miles between Del Norte and Scorpion Bay - our final destination.  My own pack held over two gallons of water in addition to the tent, camping stove and other equipment.  Needless to say, my legs and lower back weren’t too happy about it.  The dullened state of our brains made the journey across the hills feel like a forced march at times, but the chemicals slowly metabolized in our bodies as we pushed onward and reached the tiny Del Norte Campground.

Tucked into the hillside, we found four cozy sites with four picnic tables overlooking 2,434-foot Devil’s Peak and the western side of the island.  We pitched the tent, enjoyed a nap, a sunset and a warm meal, then slept for an additional ten hours.  The prophecied windspeeds never materialized, although the gusts were strong enough that we awoke with a light layer of dust on our sleeping bags the next morning.

This was the big day.  My pack was now ten pounds lighter, my brain felt clearer and my spirit was fully prepared to take in whatever the island had to offer.  With the ocean over our left shoulder, we journeyed east across sagebrush slopes and grasslands that were still green and vibrant from the winter rains.  We saw a land restoring itself to health after decades of ravaging by sheep and cattle, feral pigs and wild horses.  The new managers of the island, the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, had painstakingly removed every creature that walked on four hooves.  Now blossoms peeked out from between the vines of the Morning Glory and the fronds of the otherworldly coreopsis.

Our trail followed the spine of the island, ran up a desolate slope that old maps labeled “No Man’s Land” and leaped over a natural barrier to road-building called Montañon Ridge.  I can’t say that Kitty and I did any running or leaping ourselves, as the mileage was sufficient to tire even the most clear-headed backpacker, but we still made it to the east side of the island with most of our spirits intact.

We lost solitude when we reached the Scorpion Bay campground, but we gained a fresh water supply along with a bathroom with both toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  During the night that followed, strong winds tore through the branches of the eucalyptus trees above our campsite, and we woke to another coating of dust on our sleeping bags and faces.  I began to crave the comfort of a roof and a soft mattress once again.

Soon enough, however, the ferry would return to retrieve us.  Our time on Santa Cruz had been short.  But to bid us farewell, a diminutive Island Fox named Phil hopped onto our picnic table and offered, in case we were interested, to let us share our breakfast with him in exchange for some commemorative photographs.  We took the snapshots but failed to hold up our end of the bargain.  Phil slunk away into the underbrush, still hungry and on the lookout for some more gracious tourists with food to spare.

This time, when the ferry arrived, I took a single Dramamine, and Kitty abstained entirely.  I could have left the pill in the bottle, however.  The wind blew fiercely, but the waves were mild as we coursed through the Santa Barbara Channel back to the mainland.  I did sneak in one last nap, though.  Perhaps I might strive for less medication the next time I visit the islands, but naps… I think naps could make a return appearance.

Interview #9: Cascade Hiker Podcast


Interview #9: Cascade Hiker Podcast

This interview was conducted 10 MONTHS AGO and somehow became lost on a hard drive somewhere. It recently resurfaced, thanks to podcaster Rudy Giecek, and can now be listened to on iTunes and Android. Check it out for more stories of adventuring and renegade camping on a budget. I tried to stick to the topic of the Pacific Northwestern volcanoes, but we got off-subject more than once. Check it out via the link below!

Off The Map Side-Stories #8: It All Comes Crashing Down


Off The Map Side-Stories #8: It All Comes Crashing Down

I dropped the shovel, even though I knew there was no way I could reach the jeep in time. A spontaneous rockslide had sent boulders tumbling down the steep hillside, directly above where I’d parked my vehicle, Charlie. The Thomas Fire one month earlier had devoured almost every scrap of vegetation from the mountains above Montecito, so nothing prevented these rocks from picking up speed during their descent. They leapt five feet in the air, bounced, leapt ten feet in the air, bounced… and I expected a smashed window or dented side panel any second. One final bounce, and then the boulders struck Charlie with a series of solid thunks – right against the back tire. Zero damage. It was a stroke of luck that required a ridiculous amount of coordination in the rocks’ trajectory, but I didn’t dare tempt fate again. I rolled the jeep away from the hillside and doubled my efforts to finish my work and get away from this disaster area before the weather turned.

The biggest fire in recorded California history had transformed the steep slopes above the affluent community of Montecito into one gargantuan, unstable booby trap. When the first rains began to fall, I was still feverishly toiling away with sledgehammer and shovel, staking hay wattles across roadways and digging ditches to divert rainwater. The undeveloped property that I was fortifying belonged to some friends of mine who had feared that the coming storm would erode the roadbeds and make them unusable. I did what I could to strengthen the land’s defenses, though I became increasingly nervous that the scattered showers would loosen more rocks from the barren hillsides.

Finally, I admitted that I needed to leave before escape became impossible. With arms aching after hammering over sixty pieces of rebar into the ground, I drove off the mountain, passed the police checkpoint, and went home. No one else would be allowed to enter the northern region of Montecito until the danger of flooding had passed. For the next twenty-four hours, we could only hope that nature would be kind.

Night fell. The storm came in the darkness. And hope was washed away.

No one predicted how horrific it would be. Among the bursts of rainfall came a deluge that unleashed half an inch of rain in five minutes – a freak phenomenon that should only occur once every two hundred years. The denuded hillsides didn’t stand a chance.

Mud spilled down the mountains, taking boulders and brush along for the ride. The narrow canyons above the city became clogged with debris, forming temporary dams that held back the water until the pressure became too great to withstand. Tidal waves of mud and boulders then crashed through the neighborhoods of Montecito, utterly destroying over a hundred homes, damaging countless others, and carrying twenty-three people away to their deaths.

Not enough residents evacuated, and there were plenty of reasons why.  After being driven from their homes because of the Thomas Fire, many people just wanted to get on with their lives.  And after seven years of drought in Southern California, we’ve all had difficulty perceiving rain as a malevolent force.  We craved rainfall so fiercely for so long that it became psychologically hard to do otherwise.  That desire only grew stronger when the fires of December raged unchallenged above the cities of Ventura, Carpenteria and Montecito.  We desperately needed the very thing that could destroy us.  And destroy us it did.

Weeks later, I was charged to visit my friends’ property and document the damage. To do so, however, I had to get creative, circumventing the road closures and downstream destruction by hiking several miles into the mountainous backcountry. I entered the region charred by the Thomas Fire and was awestruck to find creek beds ten feet deeper than they should have been, scraped raw by the torrential debris flows. I scaled the ravaged hills, where multiple layers of dirt had been ripped away during the storm. And lastly, I made the precarious scramble down steep slopes to examine my handiwork from the previous visit.

Amazingly, the dirt roads had survived. Surface flows had been intense enough to twist rebar and drag several of the hay wattles I’d installed down the mountainside. But the defenses might have slowed the water just enough to blunt its corrosive force until the storm subsided.

Downhill in the main canyon, the situation was far bleaker. Along the creek bed, the trees and truck-sized boulders that once defined the riparian corridor had simply vanished. Bridges, which once gave celebrities access to their estates and enclaves, were now missing entirely. I didn’t dare to venture down into the neighborhoods where all the mud and debris had settled – six feet deep in places. Emergency crews were still at work, and the excavations would take months, if not years to complete.

I took my photos of the damaged creekside roads, then climbed back up into the mountains so I could find a cell signal and send out my report. From a vantage point one thousand feet above the city, I could easily see the rivers of mud that clogged the creek channels and adjacent streets. The flows had settled, but anyone visiting the backcountry as I had would have come to the same scary realization: there was still plenty of loose soil in the steep terrain that hung above the town. The next rainstorm might help germinate the seeds of plants that would protect and stabilize the hillsides. Or it might bring another devastating wave of debris down upon the citizens below. In this age of extreme weather, the reminders are coming more and more often that nature truly has us in the palm of her hand.

Interview #7: N2Backpacking Podcast #2


Interview #7: N2Backpacking Podcast #2

My recent stint on the N2Backpacking Podcast was a two-parter! As the host Birdshooter puts it:

"In Episode 46, we continue the conversation with author Bryan Snyder who talks about Renegade Car Camping in North America. In the podcast, we discuss how to find free campsites while you are on the road. Bryan also tells us how to leverage some public and Internet resources to maximize the experience and save some money in the process."

Click the link to hear more:

Off The Map Side-Stories #7: Lost to the Flames

Off The Map Side-Stories #7: Lost to the Flames

As my plane circled around to land at the Santa Barbara airport, the monstrous face of a pyrocumulus cloud appeared in the narrow window, and I feared that the texted warnings I’d received hours earlier were true.  The valley in which I’d made my home for over a decade was burning.  The fire-fueled cloud absolutely dwarfed the Santa Ynez mountain range, rising twice as tall as the highest peaks and billowing upwards with apocalyptic intensity.  

When the plane pierced the layer of settled smoke, the sun diminished to an orange globe within a sky choked with soot.  I disembarked and typed feverishly into my phone as I walked to the bus stop, trying to glean any information about the fire while flakes of ash drifted through the air around me.  The conflagration was being referred to as the Whittier Fire, named after the camp where the fire had possibly started… the camp where I’d been working sporadically for the last three years.

Co-workers called my number and gave distressing news.  Camp Whittier was possibly lost.  Camp Rancho Alegre, where I’d taught for eleven years, had been overrun by flames, losing nearly every building but the dining hall.  And between these two camps lay Circle V Ranch, where eighty kids had become trapped by the rapidly-spreading fire, unable to flee down the narrow entrance road to safety.

Thankfully, a veteran firefighter managed to bulldoze a path through the fallen trees and boulders wide enough for a patrol vehicle to get through.  The new arrivals cleared the space around the buildings as best they could, then hunkered down with the staff and children in the dining hall for several hours while waiting for a caravan of rescue vehicles to reach them.  Towering flare-ups, smoke and burning branches forced the rescuers to turn back three times before they managed to reach the campers, and airplanes dropped water and retardant continually until the evacuation was complete.  Miraculously, no lives were lost as howling winds and 110° temperatures conspired to help the fire sweep across 5,000 acres of the Santa Ynez valley in the course of the first day.

Every night for the following week, I watched from my rooftop as flames from the fire advanced across the foothills, growing steadily closer to my home until firefighting efforts and calmer weather caused it to stall and die out.  The loss of income from Camp Whittier proved challenging to my finances, but some of my friends had fared far worse, losing homes and belongings in those first terrible hours. 

When the highway reopened, I slipped into the camps to witness the devastation with my own eyes, and to say goodbye to Rancho Alegre… at least in its present form.  Mangled metal roofs overlaid the resting places of cabins and lodges.  A spiral staircase that I had climbed countless times to reach a bedroom loft now lay prone among the ashes, twisted even more upon itself than when it was first forged.

The forests surrounding these ruins looked stark and lifeless, with bare branches and a floor cloaked in white ash, as if a winter snowstorm had slipped into Southern California and taken the land unawares.  I hoped the oak trees would find the strength to produce new leaves again.  There was one promising sign: fresh blades of grass were already beginning to emerge where water from the fire trucks had saturated the soil.

The land was accustomed to fire.  It would survive.  In fact, the renewal had already begun.  I still found the obliteration of so many structures and so much vegetation hard to accept.  My memories from a decade spent at the ranch had no real-world reference anymore.  The flames had removed the works of both Man and Mother Nature, revealing the topography of the land as if everything that once overlaid it – the buildings, trees and bushes – had been a temporary illusion. 

Perhaps it was.  Compared to the timespan of the bedrock underlying the camp, everything that took place above its strata was fleeting and transitory.  The first era of the Outdoor School at Rancho Alegre would soon pass into legend.  Another era would begin.  And a new generation would help nurture a fresh configuration of trees, shrubs and architecture in the space where the old camp once stood.  Good luck to them, and may their creation continue the school’s legacy of wonder and adventure… something the flames can never destroy.

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

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


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 along with other models.  You can also pick up the original light or the EMRG at

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...


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


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


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


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.