Lost Creek Wilderness {November 2011}

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Serendipitous Existence

No Italian holiday {life would be dreadfully boring perfection if set plans always worked out}. No remarkable MCAT score {I suppose time and effort cannot necessarily ensure desired results}. Twenty-four applications {what would I do with myself in Saint Louis?} Six rejections {Stanford was a long shot anyway}.

Despite intense punctuated feelings of chaos woven tightly within the fabric of my life, a few constants and familiar comforts have remained strong throughout it all: the way music can erase negativity and illuminate a darkening world; how happy I am in this exquisite state with endless opportunities for mountain exploration; a glass of wine after a day overflowing with frustration and doubt; and, of course, the love and support (often given unknowingly) from my family, Justin and a 'small-world-like' network of friends ... near and far, old and new. These things, collectively, make me feel good about medical school this year as well as the new path my life has taken; for once, I truly am optimistic that the events of the past few years were just serendipitous twists and turns to ensure I end up somewhere wonderful ...

... which brings to mind one of my favorite well-wishes from Edward Abbey  ...

'May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds'

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Handies Peak {14,048'}

The Basics ...

Handies Peak; San Juan Range

Date climbed: Saturday, August 13th
Elevation: 14,048'
Route: East slopes from Grizzly Gulch; elevation gain of 3,650'
RT distance & time: 8 miles; nearly 7 hours (including at least an hour spent on the summit and 30 minutes or so photographing meadow wildflowers ... we were blessed with a picture-perfect day and beautiful weather, so why rush?)

Handies from Grizzly Gulch (around 11,800')
Justin, Kona and I left the city on Friday morning en route to the lovely San Juans (a place neither of us had visited) with the intention of climbing Handies, Redcloud & Sunshine over two days. From Lake City, we drove 16 miles on County Road 30 towards Cinnamon Pass along a well-maintained dirt road that eventually hugs the south side of Sunshine Peak (with a bit of exposure) as it nears the Grizzly Gulch/Silver Creek trailhead. Comparatively, this road is quite smooth - 2WD vehicles shouldn't have much of an issue making it all the way to the TH given favorable weather. Since the area containing the parking lot is pretty open, we continued past the trailhead a half mile and chose a more secluded campsite with a stunning view of Redcloud and Sunshine. Since it was only 4:45 pm, we had plenty of time to play a game of bocce, prepare and eat chicken fajitas, enjoy a Moose Drool or two, and watch the full moon rise over Sunshine. The rain was supposed to stay away until the next evening, so we opted to forgo the rainfly.


We weren't on the Grizzly Gulch trail until 9 am the following morning ... luckily the forecast was promising and the hike relatively easy. Once we neared 11,500', we had a perfect view of our peak for the remainder of the ascent; we were also surrounded by the most incredible concentration and variety of wildflowers I have ever seen in one place! The final miles of our hike were unremarkable, but I should mention that the upper North Ridge is comprised of scree and loose rock which, because it is the steepest section of trail, makes it somewhat difficult to climb (although the descent is a bit more challenging). --- And by 'challenging', I mostly mean annoying --- The views from the summit of Handies are remarkable; despite being entirely unfamiliar with the San Juans, I could easily recognize Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre to the north as well as Mount Sneffels to the northwest.

Wetterhorn (left) and Uncompahgre
Kona on the summit of his third 14er

This was the most gorgeous hike I have ever been on .... Handies Peak was #18 for me, #15 for Justin and #3 for Kona. Grizzly Gulch is not a difficult route by any means, so we were able to enjoy ourselves while accomplishing a noteworthy feat! Unfortunately, due to stormy morning weather that persisted throughout the day, we were unable to attempt Redcloud and Sunshine on Sunday. Yet, if we had to return anywhere to check off a few peaks, it'd definitely be here! Someday :)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada {Days 5 & 6}

Day Five, Tuesday June 21st: The Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy Valley
An environmental controversy throughout the early 1900s (as well as the potential indirect cause of John Muir's death), the Hetch Hetchy glacial valley in the less-traveled northwestern region of Yosemite was flooded by the O'Shaughnessy Dam through an act of Congress in 1913, thus forming the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that now supplies water to some 2.4 million Californians west of the park. The dam marks the trailhead for the 14 mile round-trip trek to Rancheria Falls, the second of our backcountry destinations.

This area is held under strict security; the gated entrance only permits vehicle passage between 8 am and 9 pm during summer months {for this reason, we were forced to locate a campsite in the national forest subsequent to our late descent of Half Dome the evening prior}. Despite an early start, we were soon hiking in 95 degree weather ... thankfully this route passes underneath Tueeulala and powerful Wapama Falls, meaning we would be rewarded with a chilled glacial water soaking in less than 3 miles. After this, the remainder of the hike was rather uneventful (but certainly not for lack of scenery): wildflowers, tired legs, heat, and more wildflowers.

Tueeulala Falls

The 'trail' below Wapama Falls ~ a welcome respite from the heat
It is always discouraging to lose elevation when you know that you'll eventually need to gain it back; unfortunately, that's how the latter half of this hike felt to me. When we reached the designated backcountry campground, we continued on in search of a secluded site away from other campers as well as mosquitoes that tend to accumulate in the dense forest. Twenty minutes of exploration and significant bushwhacking was well worth the effort ~ we had a stunning view of Rancheria Falls! Unlike the dramatic plunge of Yosemite or Bridalveil Falls, the water that comprises Rancheria flows in a series of cascades more than 1,000 vertical feet to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir below. This area is extremely serene and picturesque (below is our chosen campsite and the view) ...

Soon after our arrival, we assembled the tent, rearranged the fire ring, put the solar shower to good use, opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, strolled down by the water, accidentally stumbled upon a naked sunbather, and watched the sun set as rays of color dispersed through tree branches and reflected a golden light on the water's surface. While this area has an apparent reputation for aggressive bears (and, believe me, park rangers instill a very strong sense of paranoia), the bear canister containing our food was left undisturbed throughout the night and I have no bear sightings to report. The only bad news? Mosquitoes are ridiculously attracted to me; better here than malaria-riddled Africa I suppose.

Day Six, Wednesday June 22nd: Rancheria Falls to Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park

Honestly, the return hike can easily be summarized through a couple of photos ...

Justin preparing for another intense soaking

When we reached the car in the overnight parking lot, we drove straight to the Evergreen Lodge (several miles down the road in Stanislaus National Forest just outside the Hetch Hetchy park entrance), sat down at the bar, and promptly ordered two bison burgers and two California draft beers. Though I have no idea about the accommodations, I would recommend this place based on food and beer selection alone. Feeling rejuvenated, we set out on the four hour drive that would take us through the Central Valley ~ where most of our fruit & veggies come from ~ and Fresno to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park (stopping briefly at both Washburn and Glacier Point, where the overviews of Yosemite Valley are unbeatable).

Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls from Glacier Point

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada {Day 4}

Day Four, Monday June 20th: Half Dome

Standing on the summit of Half Dome subsequent to an unconventional climb felt remarkably absurd. In true Kat & Justin style, nothing about our experience was ordinary ~ enveloped by tranquility and a sense of accomplishment unlike anything I have ever felt, being here was the best moment of my life.

We had originally planned to climb Half Dome on June 21st as a day hike if we couldn’t secure a last-minute wilderness permit for Little Yosemite Valley. What happened next turned our frustration at rude and incompetent park rangers into awe at a chain reaction of favorable incidents. Upon extensive research, I discovered that we had the option to camp anywhere we wanted as long as we were beyond the designated campground and below a certain elevation. Although I explained this via telephone to Mark, an extremely unhelpful and bad-mannered park ranger, he denied any such camping existed and continued to berate me on my apparent lack of permit etiquette. Then, a few weeks before the trip, I finally managed to speak to a ranger who not only knew about the dispersed camping situation, but understood our dilemma and fixed it by issuing a wilderness permit then and there. He even rearranged the dates and changed our previously-confirmed Rancheria Falls permit to reflect the new schedule. Consequently, we were guaranteed camping solitude as well as the opportunity of summiting Half Dome on June 20th. One potential issue remained … the cables weren’t scheduled to be put in place for the season until Wednesday June 22nd, two days later.

--- The braided steel cables are always on the mountain, it’s just a matter of whether they’re “up” or not. During the offseason, they simply lie on the rock and there are no wooden boards in place to use as footholds. When the snow situation has worked itself out, the cables are raised onto a series of metal poles at regular intervals so people can hold onto them at waist-level on both sides. Some claim that, when the cables are down, the Half Dome ascent becomes the province of climbers rather than hikers; this is entirely true.  ---

Just like the snowplows on Going-to-the-Sun Road and Tioga Pass, we continuously checked the status of the cables. Once we found out that they would not be in place for the day of our hike, we packed climbing gear and hoped for the best. This then explains my ominous thoughts the evening prior; photos of Half Dome without cables look downright petrifying. Moreover, the views from Olmstead Point and the Valley had made the climb appear nearly impossible. Even as we hiked the last few steps of the steep sub-dome and stood in plain sight of the dome itself, I said “There’s just no way” out loud, over and over.

I maintained this mindset even as we watched a few (literally, a few - it may as well have been deserted up there) people go up and come back down again. Though I love to climb mountains, I truly am wary of routes that combine height with significant exposure. After 30 minutes of analyzing, mentally preparing, and continuing to utter unsure statements (“You can go, and I’ll just wait right here on this rock for you”) something in me snapped. I fastened my harness, put my gloves on, and told Justin that we’d better go before I changed my mind.

A mere 400 vertical feet separated us from the summit of Half Dome ... it should take the average person about 15 minutes when the cables are in place and the crowd factor is a non-issue. For us, this section of the climb was quite labor-intensive requiring a strong grip and, primarily, upper body strength to pick the steel cables up and haul ourselves along while pausing every so often to clip in and out or switch cables altogether. Of course, I was shaking throughout the ascent … but I actually enjoyed myself! Climbing involves strategy and precision, both of which require attention and focus (making it more difficult to think about or look at how far down we could potentially fall). I did have a minor freak-out moment halfway up when I couldn’t find anywhere to put my feet while un-clipping and was saved, as always, by Justin’s calm attitude. Words fail me as I attempt to relay my feelings on the summit or describe the stunning views of Yosemite and its granite landscape from the best possible perspective in the park.

Each person we chatted with either on the summit or en route told us that going down was easier than going up. Not at all! I hated every second of the descent, and my lower back was painfully sore from tenseness for the next few days. The problem with going down is that you have to look where you’re going … down. It also took a while to figure out the best method (cable between your legs vs. cable off to the side). Justin had no trouble, as usual. Upon returning to the safety of the sub-dome, I almost started crying out of joy. We each opened a beer and toasted to a most unforgettable experience while gazing at the route we’d just taken up and back again; it still looked insane to me, maybe even more so.

The hike back to our campsite and the car was uneventful. We decided to take the John Muir Trail to avoid an inevitable soaking on the Mist Trail and to spare our knees unnecessary strain on those killer steps. On the way, we were rewarded with perfect views of our recent conquest as well as Nevada and Vernal Falls pouring into the Merced River below. We even met a man who could have been a modern John Muir himself: older, passionate about the wildness of Yosemite, and slightly crazed. I could imagine him speaking Muir’s words as if they were his own: ‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves’.

Half Dome (left) & Nevada Falls from the John Muir Trail
And so concludes one of the most memorable days . . . 

PS: This is what the route looks like on a typical summer day when the cables are in place (the NPS does issue up to 400 permits per day). Thank God we were able to climb it under MUCH better circumstances!

Distance: approximately 16 miles round-trip from the Valley (and quite steep)
Elevation Gain: 4,800 feet
Summit Elevation: 8,842 feet
Time: 10-12 hours on average . . . I really can't be sure how 'long' it took us
Insanity Factor: 10 out of 10, easily (the way we did it)
Hazardous/Fatal? Mmmhmm!
Worth it? Totally

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada {Day 3}

Day Three, Sunday June 19th: Across Tioga Pass, into Yosemite & up the Mist Trail

Last June, due to substantial snowpack that I imagine was even worse this year, Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road failed to open in accordance with our plans. Not only does it present a huge challenge for plows in the spring, but it is the only road that bisects the park and allows for convenient east-west travel. As our trip neared, we obsessive-compulsively checked the plowing status every hour and were eventually forced to rearrange our initial schedule. On day seven, after having spent the past two nights on the boundary between Canada and the United States, we left Waterton and prayed the road would open so we could access the remote western side of Glacier. Minutes (literally) subsequent to its official opening, we were already on Going-to-the Sun driving west. While preparation certainly pays off, so does flexibility and the willingness to change your plans (which usually results in better circumstances anyway --- in this case, an improved schedule, hardly any traffic and the satisfaction of being among the first people atop Logan Pass for the season).

This year, the opening of Tioga Pass became an unexpected issue. The day before we left Denver, the NPS announced that the road would be passable beginning Saturday June 18th ... the day before we would be entering the park. Though it cannot compare to Glacier's 50-mile 'highway', Tioga Road does offer pretty spectacular views of Yosemite's granite peaks (including an introductory glimpse of Half Dome, the next day's challenge).

Half Dome from Olmstead Point
Yosemite in the summertime is an absolute zoo. I thought we would be off-season enough to avoid significant crowds in the Valley (and we were, it does get worse) … but still! If you have any sense at all, find your way into that backcountry as soon as possible! Unfortunately, we had to drive into Yosemite Valley to pick up our Half Dome wilderness permit; the entire ordeal cost us nearly two and a half hours, not counting the time necessary to locate the trailhead, pack our backpacks, and bear-proof our car. I was hoping we could reach our campsite with enough daylight to enjoy the Mist Trail and avoid unnecessary leg soreness. It felt strange to be hiking without proper park orientation … usually we spend the first night car-camping at an actual campground to get a better sense of our surroundings.

Yosemite Falls from the Valley
The Mist Trail is STEEP … prepare yourself for an intense workout, particularly if you intend to backpack. From the Happy Isles trailhead to our chosen campsite beyond Little Yosemite Valley, we hiked approximately 6.5 miles with close to 2,500 feet of elevation gain. The Mist Trail is also WET … prepare to get a good soaking from Vernal Falls, especially during spring and early summer (the snowpack as of April 1st this year was 178% of expected!!) But the rainbows, the views and the workout itself are absolutely worth every steep step. 

Vernal Falls (& Nevada Falls below)

Justin and I were both surprised at how quickly we reached Little Yosemite Valley, the designated backcountry campground for this area. However, our permit allowed us to create our own campsite at least a mile beyond as long as there was an existing fire ring and signs of previous impact. We found one about 100 feet off-trail and quickly changed into dry clothes before the mosquitoes descended upon our sweaty skin. I can’t even remember what we cooked for dinner; I was preoccupied with ominous thoughts that made me feel terrified and exhilarated, equally … we were going to climb Half Dome without the cables in the morning … 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada {Days 1 & 2}

The Sierra Nevada, less commonly referred to in its translated form (the Snowy Range) or as the Range of Light (John Muir)

My favorite photo of Yosemite Valley: Half Dome, Vernal & Nevada Falls from Glacier Point

June 17th-26th: Ten days across Utah, Nevada and California. This trip arose as the answer to a semi-serious question Justin and I asked ourselves upon returning home from the Grand Canyon in January: "Where should we go next?" By mid-February, we had most of the details worked out and by early March, we had secured permits for all of our backcountry outings as well as a day-hike permit allowing us to ascend Half Dome (Half Dome Cables). Additionally, we had reservations to stay overnight at Oak Flat fire lookout tower in the Sequoia National Forest on Friday June 24th. Early preparation truly does reward in an organized and stress-free trip, especially as the demand for permits in Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks is rather high, comparatively. Of course, we still left ample room for flexibility as we know that plans are often subject to the uncontrollable forces of chance and change (choosing a last-minute backcountry site in Yellowstone, Humboldt Peak route-finding, Going-to-the-Sun's delayed opening in Glacier, etc).

Day One, Friday June 17th: Denver to Great Basin, Nevada

Summer is undoubtedly the best season for road trips, namely because the sun does not set until well after 8 pm. Therefore, achieving a crack-of-dawn departure was not at all a high priority for us. Following a Starbucks and Einstein's stop, we left Denver around 7:30 am and arrived in Great Basin (near Baker, Nevada) a bit before 5 pm with plenty of light to spare. We chose a perfect primitive campsite along the Snake Creek, which was flowing high, and cracked a beer.

Before darkness set in, we played several games of horseshoes, photographed beautiful wildflowers, cooked salmon and asparagus for dinner, and chatted with a guy (the only one around) for a few minutes about his bird research -- actually, it probably ended up being nearly 45 minutes as he and Justin seemed to have many things in common. By nightfall, the calming sound of the creek made us tired and we fell asleep within minutes.

Day Two, Saturday June 18th: Great Basin to the Eastern Sierra

The Great Basin includes most of Nevada, half of Utah, and sections of Idaho, Wyoming, California and Oregon and is named as such because water drains internally - all precipitation either evaporates, sinks underground, or flows into saline lakes; there is no outlet to the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. Great Basin National Park preserves only a small piece of this entire 200,000 square mile region. On our drive towards the Eastern Sierra, where we'd spend the night, we passed through multiple basin-range alternating combinations ... this part of Nevada is quite pretty.

Black Rock Lava Flow

By late afternoon, we crossed into California and soon arrived, via scribbled-down directions, at a remote natural hot spring off Benton Crossing Road. Naked late-night hippies and Yosemite locals made this experience all the more interesting ... on the whole, a wonderful and unique way to celebrate two years of traveling, exploring and happiness together :)