When I did a Longs Peak Triathlon last summer, I remember thinking it was only logical to apply the same tactics in the calendar winter season. Maybe unsurprisingly, there simply didn’t seem to be many attempts at such a thing, let alone actual completions of the task. To be sure, even in the age of the Internet, we don’t always know what exciting things people have been up to, but the only completions I could find were by Justin Simoni (a constant inspiration when it comes to bikes and mountains) and Tina Lewis, both in the 18-19hr range. Maybe I’m weak for wanting to wait for at least decent conditions—call me crazy, but this seems to be an important part of the tradition of mountaineering—but I couldn’t figure out how it should take quite that long. And riding dark roads at night doesn’t hold a huge amount of appeal for me. So I waited for good conditions.
Last month I was out at dinner with some friends when my friend Roch started talking about his hope to one day ski the length of the John Muir Trail. The JMT—the classic 200+ mile route through the High Sierra from Mt Whitney to Yosemite Valley—is an extremely popular summer hike, but Roch figured it had only been skied a couple of times. This conversation was quite inspirational for me—Roch is an undeniably compelling and confidence-inducing orator— and I started thinking about the kinds of things I could reasonably do on skis.
I doubt I’ll ever have the skills or confidence to be scratching and jump-turning my way down the really steep stuff in the mountains, but the thought of covering a lot of miles over the mountains on more mellow terrain holds a distinct appeal. More “ski touring” I suppose, than “ski mountaineering”. This appeal is facilitated in no small part by the fact that such activity relies on a physical capacity—all day endurance—that I’ve been honing my entire life, as opposed to the more skilled and technical requirements of steeper descents. Skills I certainly don’t currently possess. Maybe I’ll get there one day.
“What a great trip! We didn’t get injured or lost!”
While Peter Bakwin enthusiastically agreed with this assessment, I noticed I was defining success not by how fast or far we went, the two usual objectives for runners, but by the fact we didn’t get hurt doing it.
So either I’m getting old, slow, and conservative – which I actually am – or the 5th class scrambling, elaborate route finding, and river crossings on this wilderness route contained enough risk that to have cruised it and enjoy every minute (except for the quicksand) was a worthy enough accomplishment.
Three full days in Canyonlands National Park, traversing all of its four Districts in one 85 mile loop – what’s there not to like?
You may have seen this guy around… maybe at his 10 Hardrock finishes including a win in 2010, finishing all 5 laps at Barkley, finishing Nolans 14, setting canyoneering speed records in Zion … or maybe you haven’t seen him because Jared doesn’t use Facebook, doesn’t talk about himself, doesn’t seek any limelight … and doesn’t run on roads.
10 o’clock at night, standing alone on the bank of the Colorado River in full flood stage. Can I swim across? Theoretically, yes. Emotionally, no. I conducted an inventory of my emotional reserves and made a rational decision: I’m not going. I measured, and my cajones weren’t big enough.
This trip I had brought a Space Blanket, so wrapped myself up in that and slept soundly, while learning that sleeping in a Space Blanket keeps you both remarkably warm and remarkably wet, becoming quickly soaked in your own perspiration.
Next morning I hiked upstream to allow for the fast current, eased myself into the brown water, and swam across with no incident, and without regretting the previous nights decision. I busted butt up Red Lake Canyon (what lake?), across the various fins and valleys the Needles are renowned for, including the infamous Elephant Hill jeep road, reaching Squaw Flat Campground by mid-morning where I had a friend waiting for me with food supplies for the rest of the route.
Except instead of my friend, there was a note pinned to the campground sign which read: “You didn’t show up so I left. Hope everything is OK.”
No food and 45 more miles to go wasn’t that OK. Kaput again. Busted. Without further ado I put out my thumb and began the long hitchhike back to my car, pleased that I had extended the route, but also noticing that by failing at Spanish Bottom last year I got a direct boat ride back to the start, while failing at Squaw Flat meant it would take hours to hitch all the way around. My second ride was pretty good though, peaceful because there was no radio in the car. I asked why, and he explained he stole the car two days ago and had already sold the radio.
I pushed through the Tamarisk thicket on my hands and knees, being careful to avoid puncturing my air mattress, then waded out up to my waist in the cold, brown, swirling water, my shoes sticking in the mucky bottom, and while wearing a backpack, tried to get on my yellow inflatable mattress. It was an awkward moment. Peter and I had discussed practicing the technique in advance, but since Boulder had been cool and rainy, and we don’t like being cold, we skipped that part. So this was our first try – it was not going to be elegant no matter what – so nothing to do now but trust our plan, lunge up onto the mattress, and start paddling across the Green River.
We started as far upstream on Queen Anne Bottom as we could get, having first rappelled down a short cliff band, and were aiming for Millard Camp on the other side, after which the River pushed up against more cliffs, making an exit from the River impossible, and a much, much longer River trip probable. I kept wondering how Peter was doing behind me, but never turned around – we really had to make that one exact spot – if he didn’t make it there was nothing I could do about it, and vice versa, so I looked toward my spot paddled for it. The Green was running 14,740 cfs, so I was “ferrying” – pointing myself slightly upstream in order to get as far across as possible while the strong current pushed us downriver. It was going to be close. The River turned left here and we were aiming for the right bank, so the water was moving much faster on this side – I paddled harder – hmm, really need to make this I thought, but the current was really strong now. A wedge of rock stuck out in the River, I figured there would be an eddy line behind it – yup, still 15’ from shore but the eddy line grabbed me just as I was being swept past the exit point – made it!
I scrambled onto the rocks, took off my pack, and looked for Peter. He was on the same line as me – he narrowly made the eddy line but recirculated twice before managing to get out, as his arm strength was too far gone.
Not too bad. Our plan worked. It was 10am on the first day of our planned 3 day, 100 mile trek in Canyonlands National Park.
On a crisp early fall day Stephanie said, “Let’s go someplace warm this winter and do a long hike.” This seemed like a good idea, but didn’t take root until a while later when I got the flu for 2 weeks, giving me nothing to do but dig into the details of a trip plan. I could think of only one thing that interested me: traversing New Zealand’s South Island via the Te Araroa (Maori for “The Long Pathway”). This route, which was finally linked only in 2011, runs the length of both islands, but we didn’t have time for the full 3000 km. The 1300 km (800 miles) of the TA on the SI would be most suited to our tastes: rugged, remote, and wild.
“TA SI SOBO” was born: “Te Araroa, South Island, SouthBound” (Thru-hikers are as efficient with their jargon as they are with their hiking!)
R2R2R is a world-class route, staring on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, running 5,000′ down to the Colorado River, across a bridge, then 6,000” up to the North Rim. Then back again – “Rim to Rim to Rim”. I first ran it sometime in the 80’s, and it was quite the thing back then, but in the last few years this route has become extremely popular, particularly the R2R version, which has created conflict, controversy, and even caused the Park Service to institute Day-Use Permits for Groups of over 7 people.
We wanted nothing of that churn-fest, but did want to explore the millions of great things to do in the 1,900 square miles of the Grand Canyon besides getting in line, so we decided to run Rim to Rim to Rim – by a different route. It was a great plan. Super fun. No one had ever done it. That’s because there is no bridge – you have to swim across the River.
It’s not called the “PB Adventure Vest” for nothing!
UD Ambassador Ethan Veneklasen Shares:
Ummm, duh! Everybody knows that. It’s one of the most oft-repeated maxims in running.
As athletes, we like to think that our experience will protect us, that we won’t continue to make the same mistakes time and time again. I, for example, have an ongoing discussion with myself about starting races too fast. Yet I continue to do so…and I continue pay the price.This year at the Cascade Crest 100, my “new thing” was giant stuffed green olives.
The JMT, PCT, TRT, and lastly the AT … what happened on the big trails in 2014?
JOHN MUIR TRAIL (JMT)
The JMT is one of the premier backpacking trails in the world, running 223 miles through California’s Sierra Nevada from Mt Whitney to Yosemite Valley. It is a fabulous route: remote, rugged, committing, but yet with generally good weather, excellent (though rocky) trails and easy navigation. The JMT has become one of the key targets for FKT activity in the western US, and 2014 was definitely a banner year, with several new FKTs being set, both supported and unsupported, along with some spectacular “failures”. Here’s the full recap, in chronological order – – –