Saturday, September 22, 2012

Operation Mountain Fury (aka - The Laurel Fork Adventure)

In November of 2010 I was invited to join the FDEF on their annual winter hike.  I never miss a chance to go on an outdoor adventure so I quickly accepted, despite the certainty of bone-chilling cold.

FDEF (as it came to be known) are all friends of my college roomate Jakes, most of them cross country and marathon runners.  So hiking with them is always a killer workout.  For this trip the group would be 8 including me.  The last time I went with them was to Capital Reef National Park in Utah.  THAT was a truly epic trip I will never forget.

This trip, while different, would be no less epic.

This trip would take us into the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia for 3 days of hiking and 2 nights camping in the backcountry.  We set out from the Fox Den oustide of D.C., and after a couple of GPS misdirects, a road closure, and a requisite stop at Cracker Barrel, we arrived at the Laurel Fork Trail Head about 5 hours later.  We took about 30 minutes doing a last minute gear check, leaving behind some extra stuff.  The weather was gorgeous, and a little warm.  This led me to (regrettably) leave behind my heavy Carhatt winter coat to lighten my pack. Sometime while pulling all the packs out of my Forester, one of the packs snagged on the roof cargo light switch, flipping it to 'ON' - which we would find out later.

Already burning day light, we set a brisk pace to get to the first planned camping zone for the night.  We crush piles of leaves as we went, having to watch our footing for ankle twisting rocks and also to keep from sliding.  The day was terribly sunny, and we weren't afforded any great views - but nonetheless it was invigorating just being hiking in the wood again. After reaching some camping signs at the bottom of the valley - and with light fading - we had a quick debate on which way to go, but quickly deciding to press on the mail trail a bit further where we shortly found a great campsite with fire pit ready to go.

There was plenty of flat, if rock, ground to setup our tents.  And we had a stream just feet away for easy water filling.  The site was about as ideal as you could get, except for being the lowest point in the valley.  I didn't think about it at the time but no realize this is a really bad idea in winter camping as all the cold air drops at night and sits at the lowest altitude.  But even as the sun dropped we still felt great, and with a roaring bonfire soon going we had no worries.  Several hours after pitch black settled in, we could see another group of hikers descending from the way we came.

This is when we got the bad news that a silver Subaru had it's dome light on back at the trailhead.  Groaning, I prepared to make a fast run back up the mountain.  Jake offered to go with, but in the end I decided not to bother.  The battery was still new, and I had a power pack in my car.  As a backup Jake also had jumper cables in this trunk.  I was confident we could get the Batmobile going again with little fuss. The second group of hikers made do with what little ground was still open just up the hill from us and made camp in total darkness.  We finished dinner and had camp-fire talk for a few hours more, then all turned in.

The night was bitterly cold, and that is an understatement.  I quickly realized how ill-equipped I was for winter camping in the mountains.  I had the hood draw strings of my +40 summer down bag pulled so tight barely a straw hole was left to breath through.  Without even any winter base layers, I slept in just my boxer briefs.  I cursed myself for leaving the extra winter clothes and heavy coat back at the car.  There was nothing for it, so I simply endured and slept little.  With the first rays of light I popped out of my tent and quickly rebuilt the fire to warm my frozen bones.

It wasn't long before the other guys stirred and we took care of the breakfast.  Most had been pretty chilled to the bones as well and the fire was a welcome relief.  Soon enough the temperature rose. We shed layers as we broke camp.  Our neighbors were ready to head out at the same time.  We doused the fire, then headed towards the stream crossing.  The hiking was easy and flat as we loosely followed the stream.  Still taking our time, we lost sight of the other hikers on the winding trail.

At one point we heard a large animal startle in the foliage to our left.  It plowed deeper into the brush and we never did get a glimpse of it so it could have been anything.  From the noise it made we suspected it was a bear.  Not far from that point, we had our wettest water crossing.  Great care was needed as the crystal clear mountain water was strong even though not more then a few feet deep.

Next started a gradual climb back up.  We had some steep scrambles to deal with, and the trail was hard to follow.  We fought for purchase in the loose soil, and moved from tree to tree.  Eventually the trail smoothed out and we walked in the clear sun for a while.  We found another campsite with a fire ring, and decided to stop for lunch and some photo ops.  With plenty more daylight, we pressed on.  We encountered the group that camped by us last night coming back down the trail towards us.  They said they had missed there turn around point, never intending to do the entire loop like we were.

  Now they had a very long grueling climb to make it all the way back to the parking lot.  They gave us a heads up on spotting the difficult to see trail turn.  We nearly missed it anyway, as it was unmarked and looked like a nothing side trail.  The climbing got steeper, following the stream back to it's source for a while.  We passed many beaver dams along the way which we stopped to check out.  The size of the logs they could cut through was impressive.  My legs weren't toast at this point, so I grabbed up a beaver cut hiking stick that was just the right size.

The trail become almost impossible to follow, overgrown with pine trees and brush, but we made it up to the gravel road that would quickly get us to our next camping target.  My light hiking shoes were worn out at this point, and a constant dull ache had me lagging behind the rest of the troop.  We passed by a few car campers setup next to the road, but never saw anyone.  We had to make another quick decent down from the road which was a great reprieve for all of us.  But I hated it knowing it meant a long burning climb out of the valley in the morning.

We descended until we came to a perfect open area just above a stream.  This wasn't a ready made site, so we went through some prep work.  Dragging stones together for a fire ring and clearing some spaces for our tents.  I piled a massive stack of leaves under my tent spot to give me some protection from the frozen ground.  The weather was great now, but from last nights experience I knew it would be freezing.  I slept little better though.  The final climb out was as brutal as I feared.  Falling behind my cross country and triathlon companions I had to quickly lose my warm layers as I was immediately drenched with sweat.

The trail was a little better today, but still tough to follow in spots.  Once it leveled out we cruised out of the woods.  Exhausted and sore from my heavy back, I couldn't be happier to drop it on the ground next to my Forester.  A quick jump start later courtesy of Jake's Acura and we were on the road.  Before hitting the highway we stopped at Fox Den's Pizza, were we made the mistake of ordering four extra large pizzas.  Not knowing they were each the size of a table.  But we were all starving, and we ate like wanton gluttons.  An eating contest soon broke out, but I abstained as I was ready to curl up on the floor and sleep.  The drive back to civilization was anticlimatic but I couldn't wait for a comfortable and warm good nights sleep!  This trip would be the inspiration for my ultra-light epiphany, and the last time I would drag around a 60 pound pack.

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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Tetons Adventure Part 1

2012's Memorial day adventure would take us to Wyoming, with the loose plan to tackle the Death Canyon loop over a leisurely 5 days, roughly 26 miles.  In May, snow is ever present at higher altitudes in the Teton Range.  The threat of hard-core snow camping and possible threat of a bear, wolf or mountain lion mauling quickly thinned the ranks of the expedition.  With 'real life' stuff in the way, it would be just three of us heading into the mountains for this Memorial Weekend Adventure.  Peter and I hopped a plane to Jackson Hole Airport where we would re-unite with Dylan for the first time since the Capital Reef Adventure.  His mountaineering experience gained over the years since moving to California would prove to be a great help.

Warning! Long post ahead!

We wasted no time to grabbing our bags and making our way to the rental car shuttle.  We were anxious to begin the hike, but first stopped to find bear spray - and on the recommendation of the clerk at the outdoor store headed over to the Garden Harvest where we quickly stuffed our faces with sandwiches and homemade bread.  On the way to the trailhead we had to make another stop at the visitor center to pick up a backcountry permit and additional bear canister.  We did a final check with the rangers on trail conditions.  The forecast had changed and it looked like we would be in for some weather.  They also reiterated we would need snowshoes, crampons and ice picks as the upper trails would almost certainly be buried under hard packed snow.

Continuing past the visitor center in our van for a few more miles of winding dirt and rock roads, we finally came to the Death Canyon Trailhead.  There were numerous cars there - day hikers heading to Phelps Lake which was just a couple of miles west.  We quickly dumped out our duffels and suitcases and loaded up our backpacks.  We strapped on our ice axes and snowshoes, and made sure our bear spray was handy.  My .45 went into my Maxpedition Versipak along with my trusty Canon PowerShot.  For this trip I would break in my new <a href="">Osprey Exos 46-Litre Backpack</a><img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />, and it was filled to the point I though for sure something would explode.

The trail started out as a gradual climb before descending briefly towards the Phelps Lake overlook, which offered a spectacular view (even better when the fog lifted).  We paused just briefly for some photos, but had many miles to cover to reach our intended campzone in Death Canyon and the sun was already dipping.  We had just a few hours to cover around 5k of rough terrain.

We met a group coming up from the lake loaded down with fishing gear.  They remarked at our snow gear and were surprised when we told them about our trek.  These would be the last people we would see on the trail until we came back out!

After that brief break, it was a steady climb up into the canyon.  It wasn't long before we encountered hard packed snow.  The sky become dark and cloudy and the wind picked up.  The canyon walls rising up around us into the clouds looked truly unreal.

We found some Elk tracks and saw what we believe to be muskrats.  Heeding the many warnings about bear activity we occasionally called out versions of 'Hey Bear!" when the trees became thick or the trail made a blind turn.

Before long we came to our first ice traverse.  We put away our poles and switched to ice axes and crampons.  Peter and I had our poor man's crampons (Kahtoola Microspikes) but they worked quite well on the hard snow.  Dylan gave us a 30 second education on proper traverse and belaying technique as this would be the first time Peter and my ice axes tasted the white stuff.  We had just two crossing which we made without incident.

The climbing continued over rock trails.  We could still see far down below us but the tops of the canyon walls remained covered in clouds and Phelps lake soon disappeared completely.

As the trail leveled out, we entered Death Canyon proper.  A light but consistent snow began.  We were surrounded by narrow canyon walls, and ever larger trees.  All of a sudden we came upon a four foot snow wall - the start of the permanent snow cover.

The snow was hard-packed enough that we forego switching to snowshoes and plowed ahead as the weather came down.  With the wind whipping by us and the snow becoming heavy and wet, we picked up our pace.  We were slowed by the occasional post-holing

We crossed over several streams running beneath the snow, and took care to avoid falling into the icy water.  We were soon soaked anyway from the climb and the heavy precip.  We had our eyes out for signs that we had entered the 'Death Canyon Camping Zone', but quickly realized we could have passed many signs already - that they were likely buried.  To make it worse, we had no trail to follow at this point, and followed our intuition and general direction of the canyon to keep our bearings.  The sun had already disappeared into the haze, and we felt pressed to find a campsite.

Finally we found a bona-fide landmark, the ranger patrol cabin.  With little time left before pitch darkness settled in, we were tempted to shelter inside.  But the cabin cabin was locked up tight, so after snapping a couple quick pics we moved out.  We knew the camping zone was less then a kilometer away, but judging distances proved difficult as we were trail blazing the entire time and slogging through ever deepening snow.

With the light nearly gone, we followed some animal tracks for a while as discerning a path became pretty hopeless.  We decided to pitch camp in the first descent ground we could find.  For all we knew, we were already standing right on top of the designated camp sites,

Dylan broke out his 3 person tent, and he and Peter went about digging out a flat patch to set in up in.  I strung up my Eno Pro-Fly to give us some cover for dinner about 100 feet away.

We whipped up some quick dinner before bunking down for the night.  The snow continued until just before dawn when I crawled out of my sleeping to stretch my aching back.  I got a small fire going to warm up and melt some snow for tea and breakfast.


When the sun was up we were treated to some blue skies at last.  We finished thawing out our bones and cleaned up breakfast, then broke camp.  After topping off our water bottles from the nearby stream, we were ready to head out.

We opted to go for snowshoes this morning, as we had been post-holing constantly in the last minutes of the previous nights march.  Plus it got four pounds of extra weight off our packs.

The snow covered terrain was rolling, and we had to immediately start climbing from our campsite.  It took a little while to get our 'snow legs' in the tough terrain, and we were again weaving our way over  hills and through trees looking for any kind of trail to follow.  The brief glimpses through the canopy of the canyon walls were spectacular.

Soon enough, we finally found the sign posts for the actually camping grounds.  Turns out we had been just 50 feet short, as we found a couple of markers just peaking up from the snow.

And through that first campsite we found tracks that let us know we weren't alone!  As we backtracked the large paw prints of a lone bear, we weaved our way through the Death Canyon campsites.  The bear it seems, at least knew where the trail was.  We would spend the next couple of hours back tracking his tracks, which went right by our camp.


The fact that the bear was headed down and out of the canyon probably should have been a clue about   what we would face.  But the scenery was magnificent, and the weather was holding for the moment.  As we hiked deeper into the canyon, gaining altitude, the peaks around us rose ever higher.  While I was glad we had gotten right to hiking on our first day in country, I regretted not having the typical extra day to acclimate to the higher altitude.  The climb on the first day had been much harder then I expected, and I was glad when the climb leveled off again finally.


We still had our friendly bear tracks to follow for the moment, and we began crossing back and forth over the river using several log bridges.  The temperature was perfect for hiking, and we glimpsed the occasional mule dear and muskrats in the distance.  They always quickly disappeared before we could get good snapshot. 

We stopped for a leisurely hot lunch and a much needed break for our legs and feet.  While better than plowing through the snow, the snow-shoeing was still proving exhausting.We had barely finished lunch and filling up our water bottles when the weather starting turning ugly again.  We were at the big turn in the canyon, and the wind gusts brought snow and hail.  The peaks we had been admiring quickly vanished again as the sky fell.  We hastily repacked and got on the move before all our equipment got soaked.

The foul weather cleared up a few hours later, when we reach the 'bowl' at the end of canyon.  Somewhere to our right - buried under several feet of snow - there was undoubtedly a lovely group of switchbacks to make the climb less hateful.  With little options, we attacked the slope at an angle and began the slow march to the top.  We chase a section of the mountain with the smallest avalanche danger.  Just to our left at the steepest part of the bowl, we could see the remains of a recent one.

We were already tired at this point, and this climb would take all we had.  We spread out for safety, still climbing with snowshoes.  The incline grew steeper as we went.  Eventually I was reduced to counting out 30 steps at a time, then resting for 30 seconds.  I don't know how many times I repeated this cycle, but it felt like climbing the South Rim of the Grand Canyon again, but compressed into half a vertical mile.  I still felt ill-adjusted to the altitude.  This climb put a lot of stress on our gastrocs and achilles, with Dylan's fairing the worst.  His shoes lacked the 'heal step' that Peter and I had.

 Soon we came to climbs of trees and brush, and we were forced to take off our snowshoes as the incline approached and passed 60 degrees.  We careful changed gear while holding onto the slope to keep from sliding back down. Crawling with ice ax in hand, we climbed another hundred feet or so, reaching a slight level spot in a group of trees.  Utterly destroyed, we decided to camp here rather than be trapped at the very top with no shelter from the brutal wind.  The climb had taken about 2 hours so far, and we doubted we could make the 700 feet or so to the crest before nightfall anyway.

Peter was adamant we dig deep in our little hillock, and this proved to be the best decision ever.  Dylan's ice shovel proved invaluable, and we took turns digging and chopping ice with our axes.  We stacked up the blocks of ice around us, forming a nice four foot wall.  We got Dylan's tent setup, then stretched my tarp as extra shelter over the tent opening.   Hunkering down in the little bit of space left, we made our chow.  Afterwards we crawled into our sleeping bags, completely spent.  We worried little about bear attacks this night, figuring no animal would be fool enough to be here!

In the night, Peter awoke shiver uncontrollably.  He insisted he wasn't cold though.  Dylan and I were concerned about altitude sickness.  Though we are just shy of 10,000 feet - it was not unheard of.  He was fully lucid however and the symptoms didn't match.  Dylan produced a gel shot shot, after eating it and drinking some water the symptoms cleared up in minutes.  We reasoned that lack of electrolytes and sugar were to blame, as Peter had had almost nothing but oats so far.  Which did little to replenish the body fuel we had burned getting this far.

 A little before dawn, the call of nature and my aching back forced me out of the tent.  It took several minutes to get my boots on as they were solid bricks. I made a small fire (no small feat with frozen twigs and frozen hands) to warm up a bit while I stretched out.  The wind started gusting over 50 mph and was whirling snow around in our foxhole.  I was afraid my tarp would be ripped to shreds, so I lowered it down to and keep the wind off the exposed side of the tent.  Then took shelter back inside to keep from freezing.

We hunkered down as the wind continued to rock our tent.  Extremely glad to be dug down into the hill.  Digging snow out of the side of our wall, we had breakfast inside and waiting out the worst of the storm.  At this point we made a collective decision to abandon our original plan.  With out knowing what the weather would do, and just as important, not knowing the conditions were on the other side of the peak - we worried that we would run out of time making it back out if we kept going.  Marching along the exposed ridge didn't appeal to any of us with the wind still howling and even more fresh snow.

When the weather finally slowed down enough, we quickly broke camp - after digging through piles of fresh snow to find all our gear.  With the plan in place to book it back down the canyon, we decided on the most expedition method to get back down the canyon wall - glissading.  Strapping everything down tight, we left the relative safety of our hill shelter and approached the edge of the decline.  Dylan gave us quick tips on safely glissading, then led the charge down the slope.

What took us hours of painful climbing we retraced in 15 seconds, and it was one hell of a ride.  Reinvigorated, and out of the merciless wind, we began retracing our steps out of the canyon.  We made good time descending, despite the foot of fresh snow on the ground, and kept just ahead of the storm at our backs.  Our previous tracks were obliterated, so we had to plow a new path with our snowshoes.  Eventually we reached lower altitudes and were able to shed our shoes, and some extra layers.  We ate a fast lunch of snacks, then pushed on before our legs had a change to tighten up.

As we neared the entrance to Death Canyon, and began descending towards Phelps Lake, we encountered fresh bear tracks heading down the trail as well.  This time, it looked like it had a cub in tow. We began making more frequent bear calls as we wound through the switch backs, especially around the blind turns.  Luckily we avoided any bear run-ins, breezed through the ice traverses. We made it back to the turn by the lake and then began the last climb to the parking area.

The last ascent just about did me in.  Two nights of little sleep caught up to me as I practically crawled up the last hill.  The trails turned back to rock and mud as we made the finally push.  We encounter a huge moose just sitting a field chewing on the grass.  We gave him a wide birth to be on the safe side.

We reached the trail head with relief, eager to get warm and dry.  We took a quick pic then jumped back in the rental van.  After scoring a hotel room we rewarded ourselves with massive amounts of pizza.  Then the planning began for the second half of the trip.... be continued.

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