Saturday, June 28, 2014

Massanutten South Loop - April 2014

After regretfully cutting short my Sufferfest attempt in march, I vowed to return and achieve redemption.  Time was going to be limited however, so co-conspirators Alison and Dan joined me in whipping up a trip to explore the southern loop of the Massanutten chain.  The trip was a great success!  You can see the write up over at DCUL Backpacking.

Capitol Reef Expedition

Photo by Peter Silverman

This trip was all the way back in May of 2010, and was the first of many 'Western' Adventures to come. I’m actually written up and published this trip twice - sadly, for some reason Blogger has taken exception and deleted. Oh well, I’ll have to re-create it as best I can from my feeble memory. This time I’ll make a backup...

This trip started the Memorial Day tradition of making a pilgrimage west to explore the great parks of the U.S. It was life changing, and set the tone for future adventures. It’s still one of my fondest memories - Utah is beautiful country. I’d love to live there someday.

There would be six of us on this trip, flying in separately over the mountains into Salt Lake City, Utah. While I had been through Salt Lake City several times, this would be my first time exploring the state. It took us a while to fully assemble, with flight delays and the like. So we killed some time enjoying the local cuisine, after renting the biggest car we could find (A Suburban with 4 wheel drive). Eventually we were all on the ground, and we took time to raid the local Walmart for supplies. Finally in the early evening, with the Suburban loaded down - we blazed a trail southward to Torrey, a five hour drive away.

Four hours later, with reckless disregard with the speed limit, we made it to the Capitol Reef Inn for the night. The proprietors had kindly left the key under the mat for us, since it was around 1 am and they were all soundly asleep. We got inside and promptly passed out. Having arrived in total darkness the night before, we were greeted with a feast for the eyes as the sun rose. We got in some pics before a hearty breakfast.

We stocked up on some last minute supplies including firewood. We also took a few minutes to more carefully load the Suburban - it's surprising how quickly one fills up when you have 6 guys, their gear, and supplies for 3 days.

Our planned destination was the Fruita campground (also the location of the Capitol Reef Visitor Center). It's the only spot in the park with water, and still has the fruit trees planted by the first settlers. The greenery here was in stark contrast to the surrounding high desert. We had picked this park because it was supposedly less visited by touristy types. But rolling into the campground, we were surrounded by RVs, campers and families with their condo-sized tents. This wasn't what we were after at all, so we quickly reversed course back to the Visitor Center to gather intelligence from the park rangers on alternatives.

The rangers did not disappoint, and we were soon heading towards an extremely remote, primitive campsite about an 45 minutes away. The majority of this drive was on gravel and dirt roads, along huge empty spreads, ranches, and not much else. We had to dodge the occasional cattle herd as Snow piloted us further into the middle of nowhere. We were driving in what is called the "Water Pocket Fold", a water cut low area between high desert mountains. One thing it did NOT have one drop of - water. The rangers directions were spot on, and we soon had our campsite in the backcountry.

Shortly after establishing camp, we decided to hit some of the trails starting near the visitor center. So we packed day bags and crammed back into the Burban. This would be a relatively quick up and back hike, to the top of the peaks overlooking the visitor center. We topped off water here, as it was literally the only water source we knew of for miles.

This climb showed just how badly out of shape I was. I felt like a slacker next to the group of runners I was with, but did my best to keep up. I guzzled water readily as the sun beat down. Somewhere along this climb, I began to regret bringing my Maxpedition Kodiak Gearslinger. It's a great bag, and I loved how easy it made water to access while climbing, but the weight of all the water we had to carry soon had the single strap digging into my shoulder. There was nothing for it now, so I soldiered on.

The rock formations we encountered while climbing were fantastic, we had plenty of photo ops as we explored. After checking out a short and crowded side trail where Jake and I took a break to climb the surrounding cliffs, we continued the main climb. We took advantage of shade whenever we found it, there was no hiding from the sun out here for long!

Pathfinder shows us the way.

The views were even more breathtaking as the climbing became even harder. Everyone felt it now. We stopped for many photo breaks along the way. Dehydration was definitely kicking in at this point. We had left the casual day hikers behind, This was certainly not the 'sandal path' as the first part had been. But the rewards were worth it. The lens of my Canon Powershot strained to absorb a fraction of the view.

Finally we reached the grand vista for the day. We hung out for a bit here getting more pictures, climbing, and trying not to get ripped from the rock by the 60mph winds.

At this point, being out of water, we had no choice but to halt our climb and descend. We made a fast pace back the way we had come. When we reached the stream at the bottom leading back to Visitor Center, we soaked our battered feet. After another water fill up, it was back to our campsite for a fire-ring dinner. Apparently there had been a bit of a dust storm while we were gone - all our tents were covered and filled with a fine red layer of the stuff. There was no escaping it out here.

Our day finished off with a spectacular sunset.

The next day, we were up and off, pushing further into the backcountry. We planned to tackle the Upper Muley Twist, a 9 mile circuit hike. Several backcountry roads, steep switchbacks, and a dried river bed later - we arrived at the trailhead. Some other hikers recommended we hike the loop counter clockwise, which would mean getting the steep climbing done first, and every increasing wide views of the surrounding canyons.

The views did not disappoint at all! To our right, and east, we had the Water Pocket Fold. To the west, a deep canyon that we would eventually descend into. We climbed steadily along the ridgeline, which was sometimes no more than a knifes edge. There were a few places where you absolutely did NOT want to put a foot wrong.

After more photo ops, and lunch, we eventually made the turn and started down the canyon. There was some shade, and it was a welcome relief. We had a few tricky sections to negotiate, but most of this leg was a pleasant cooldown.

We made it back to the ‘burban in one piece, and managed to reverse down the creek bed unscathed - despite often scraping over boulders along the way. We descended back down into the Water Pocket fold with the transmission firmly locked in first gear and a foot on the brake.

The next day, we squeeze in one more day hike before heading back north to Salt Lake. I think it was roughly a four mile loop - the name escapes me now. Sadly, I didn’t run a GPS back then! But we were treated to another high view overlooking Fruta Valley and the Visitor Center.

Sun-baked and tired, we regretfully left the gorgeous canyonland behind us, and returned to civilization. I couldn’t wait to return!

Photo by Peter Silverman

Thursday, June 26, 2014

WFA Certification!

At last I managed to get registered for a WFA course before it filled up!  This one was hosted by REI at Bailey's Crossing but NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) WMI (Wilderness Medicine Institute).  For those that don't know, WFA is simply Wilderness First Aid - very similar to your standard front country First Aid course, but with additional instruction for backcountry support.  There is also the Wilderness First Responder (WFR or Woofer) course, a much longer and in depth version.

The certification requires 16 hours of classroom time, and covers all the basics of scene evaluation, patient evaluation, treatment and evacuation decisions.  I found a lot of overlap with previous first aid and CPR courses I've had, and having my knowledge refreshed was very helpful.  There was also a lot of new info on treatment.  In front country (urban) first aid, you basically do only the most cursory of evaluations and treatment and then wait for the paramedics.  In a wilderness setting, you might be all your patient has for hours, or days.  The training and treatment we learned reflected that.

I found the course on a whole informative and fun.  The instructors Ted and Becca were a great resource.  Ted had obviously been around the block a few times, and Becca was an experienced Ski Patrol medic - both had plenty of stories to share about injuries and mis-adventure!  Examples of wilderness injuries were passed around.  I was particularly amused by the frost bite pictures.  Turns out the mild frost nip I had this past winter was actually partial thickness frostbite.  Whoops!

Head wound from an errant bear line toss!

Other simply skills were learned like properly taking a sprained or strained ankle to allow supported movement I most certainly could have used a few times.  I'm positive I'll need this particular skill again!  We also practiced with improvised splints.  We discovered my Therarest Z-seat pad made an excellent arm splint at only 2 ounces, and I learned a cool splint 'stitching' technique using climbing webbing.

The class was a mix of instruction and play-acting as we took turns being patients and medics.  Moulage blood and makeup was used liberally.  I found I was especially good at playing the totally unresponsive victim. The class was definitely very hands on!

I liked the instruction on using supplies that the 'pros' use.  Suture strips, transparent badges, 2nd skin burn pads and the like.  They all make wound care and dressing so much easier.  I'm looking forward to the next time someone really slices themselves up!  Sadly, this will probably be myself.  Considering the increasing rate at which I've been injuring myself, it's only a matter of time.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A good year of backpacking

Just over a year ago in April, my friend Peter (co-conspirator on many adventures) invited me along on a trip with a meetup group called DCUL Backpacking.  It was a single overnight from Saturday to Sunday, walking a 20 mile loop starting in Caledonia State park.  He had told me stories about how quickly this group moved, so I was a bit dubious about my ability to keep up.  We would do even split of 10 miles, which didn't seem bad at all.  I had certainly done more mileage and longer trips.  But I knew the pace was going to be fast and I hadn't been backpacking in quite some time.  I was in relatively good shape otherwise I figured, having recently done well in my first sprint triathlon.  So why not?

It had been a few years since I had gotten back into backpacking, and coincidentally had starting working on going 'Ultra-light' - the theme behind this backpack group (besides high mileage!).  So this seemed like a great opportunity to see how the pros did it - since I'd been basically figuring it out as I went along.  The group (and this trip's) leader Michael Martin had an enviable amount of backpacking mileage under his belt, and was very gracious in welcoming newcomers.

The trip was a great success!  Though I spent a slightly chilled night having underestimated my insulation (not the first time, or worst!).  My fears about not keeping up were unfounded - I guess backpacking with a bunch of cross-country runners for the past couple of years had it's benefits!  I was totally wiped after the trip however.  I can't remember what my total pack weight was, but I'm sure it was still grossly not ultra-light at this point for a one-nighter.  I got home, laid down on the floor and took a good nap while my dogs went nuts.

The year that followed was inspiring and humbling.  I learned a tremendous amount from Michael and others in DCUL - all those little tips and tricks no one even thinks about.  I was introduced to a myriad of cottage shops that catered to the ultra-light backpacking world.  Since the Caledonia trip, I have changed ALL my gear.  I stuck with hammocking, and slowly refined and perfected my system.  No more chilly nights!  I'm now happily sitting at a sub-8 pound base weight for 3 season gear.

Quite surprisingly to myself, I quickly worked up to doing a 20 mile day - something that had seemed utterly ludicrous to me a year ago.  I've even hit 30 a couple of times (if just barely).  My definition of a 'short' trip has been drastically altered forever, much to Joan's chagrin.  I hiked just under 600 miles and spent around two dozen nights outside.  I'm no Michael Martin - but I'm pretty happy with that mileage.  My personal record for longest trip was beaten several times - though sadly I fell short of completing the Massanutten Sufferfest.  Next year....

I went on two long point to point trips that raised my personal bar.  The first was the Loyalsock Trail, an amazing 60 mile trek through PA on which I earned my trail name, Savage.  I'm not sure who gets credit, but I think it was a collaboration between Alison, Dan, and John (who led the trip) after witnessing my occasional disdain for modern convention and technology such as footwear.  

The second long point to point was just last month along the Foothills Trail in SC.  The trail is 77ish miles, though we walked just over 85 visiting various waterfalls.  It was an amazing five day trip, and one I never would have attempted a year ago (or taken three times as long to do).  It was great to finally feel like I had my system dialed in.  Though of course there are always tweaks and improvements to be made, and more to learn.

There were other notable changes, like ditching boots for light weight trail runners.  My feet are so tired of blisters!  There is no going back.  I learned to cross-country ski (not well, despite excellent tutelage).  I also topped my coldest night outside on the Hammersley Wild trip, also to PA.  Our best estimate puts the low end at -5F.  All that work on my hammocking system for winter had really paid off!

Sometime in the first few months MM had the crazy idea to make me a trip leader.  Though I was dubious about leading new people into the woods, I eventually warmed to the idea.  Up until now I had only put together trips for myself or close friends - people who I knew would roll with my crazy plans without complaint.  So naturally for my first official DCUL trip, I plan a major undertaking out west to Zion National Park!  What could possibly go wrong?

Fortunately, nothing did.  And I haven't managed to kill anyone on subsequent trips yet.  Hopefully a trend that continues.  I've continued to be humbled by my fellow adventures, both by their knowledge and toughness. I'm grateful for Peter introducing me to DCUL, for the new friends I've made there, and especially for everyone at DCUL putting up with my crazy self.  The adventure continues!