A week off and a short flight recently brought Julia and I southbound, to one of the most amazing places on Earth, the Grand Canyon. After a bit of pre-trip planning, we concluded that car camping on the South Rim and venturing out for a couple of runs would be an effective way to see a lot of the canyon in our short 3-night January stay. This was my second trip in over a decade and Julia’s first glimpse of the area. The inexpensive flights came with the small price of landing us in Phoenix, where we rented a car and then drove north, through Flagstaff and onto the canyon. We didn’t mind at all, as we drove through the desert and iconic Saguaro on the way to higher, colder elevations.
We arrived in the dark on our first night, and embraced the cold evening with a nice campsite fire after enjoying a margarita and our second Mexican meal of the day. We awoke well before dawn the next morning to run the South Kaibab to Bright Angel. Our proposed round-trip to the canyon bottom and back was to be a bit over 16 miles with the 5000′ descent being mostly along the steeper and more direct South Kaibab ridge. Coming up the Bright Angel is a different experience altogether, with it being less steeply graded and a lot more wet. There are a few springs and even waterfalls at this time of year along the BA. It is quite the vibrant side canyon, providing a great counterpoint to the dry South Kaibab.
We ended up adding a few miles to our trip by rallying out to Plateau Point. Once refueled and rehydrated at the verdant oasis of Indian Garden, we agreed that this little side-trip was pretty much obligatory given that we had already come this far. It’s not that often to get these trails mainly to ourselves and in great running condition. So three more miles of sublime desert single track and a direct overlook of the muddy Colorado was our fine reward.
After our brief detour, it was onward and upward for the last five miles and 3000′. Fairly reasonable given the many mule switchbacks that lazily wind their way to the South Rim. By this time we could feel the legs starting to weigh but the scenery and solitude in such ridiculously outlandish country was enough to sustain. The last stretch went by easily and with much appreciation for the day. I’d like to give a big word of congrats to Julia for cruising on her longest run to date. Twenty miles in total and an experience not to be forgotten. Well done, J!
We experienced temps ranging from highs in the 50°s F to lows in the 20°s. From bluebird to overcast and even a a couple inches of snow fell one evening. Perfect running and hiking weather for the Canyon. Both Julia and myself used running vests from Ultimate Direction, much to our satisfaction. In these we carried wind pants and wind shirts, nanospikes, gloves and buffs, fuel for the day (mostly chews, gels, and bars), P&S camera, a liter of water apiece in soft-sided bottles (refilled along the way), a map, and a small emergency/FAK.
The only bit we didn’t need were the nanospikes, as nearly all of the trails that we encountered were free from snow and ice. Truly a pleasure. We did some hiking, sightseeing, and good eating for the remaining two days along the South Rim. Took in as much as we feasibly could during our short stay in such a large and intricate place. It was a wonderful trip and one that I imagine will trickle back to us for years to come.
Over this past holiday season, Julia and I went out on a couple of backcountry camping trips in the Northern Gallatin range and also along Slough Creek in the Yellowstone Park. One trip to the alpine and the second to high grassland/coniferous forest. Both different and bolstering in their respective offerings. There are multiple ways to go about it, but the name of the game is to stay warm and dry while out overnight in the winter. That’s my sage advice 😉
The art of staying out in lower 48 winters isn’t beyond reason and as per the norm, practice always helps. Emerald Lake just before Christmas was accompanied with marvelous powder and moderate temperatures in the high teens/low twenties (°F). What we didn’t bargain for were the all-night and into morning gale winds. We woke concerned that our previously secured packs/skis/poles outside had been ripped from their perches. But all was well. Lesson learned here was to be prepared with the correct shelter and campsite for the situation. We chose a 9000′ alpine cirque to perch and paid only the small price of a loud night’s sleep. Julia and I have weathered similar winds in the BD Firstlight on previous occasions and can attest to its classically stout design. Prior to the night’s wind, it was dead quiet and lightly snowing as we warmed ourselves around a glorious winter fire.
Yellowstone was, as always, expansive. The north and northeastern parts of the park are held closely in my heart for many a reason. And winter, dear winter… The forecast for Mammoth and Cooke City were to be in the single digits. New Year’s eve in the park yielded temps down to well below zero. It was -5°F around 9pm as a reference. Chilly, and just manageable. Insulated pants, booties, and jackets were worn in conjunction with our amazingly crafted Valandre Mirage sleeping bags to keep us from freezing in the late night/early morning hours. While not necessarily warm, we weren’t shivering either.
Ringing in the New Year amongst Yellowstone’s wildlife and under the blanket of the Milky Way is well worth dealing with a bit of cold. It also helped to have a bit of leeway in our systems to allow for deviation from the expected temperatures. All of our gear worked as planned, with the exception of a blown seal on my rehydrated dinner. The glue melted away from the zipper and I soon found this out with the bag tucked in my layers, while leaning over to tend to melting snow. With Julia’s patient help, dinner was largely salvaged and I got most of the beef stew out of my clothing. What an ordeal at the time but a lesson learned all the same. I can safely say that after smelling the spilled remnants on my clothes for the remainder of the trip, I no longer have any desire for said stew! And it was nothing that a New Year’s bubbly couldn’t fix!
Besides this, I’ve been skiing these rolling and relatively flat trips with a fairly lightweight AT rig and my TLT6s while Julia has been using her Fischer XCD setup. Both work just fine, with reliability, stability, and warmth points being awarded to my setup. Julia’s XCD ski ensemble wins for overall weight and kick/glide. If money were no object, Julia would most likely have a Voile Vector BC or similar with simple tech bindings and TLT boots. But the XCD skis fill that void in the meantime. As for the rest of our gear, I’ll give shoutouts to the NeoAir X-Therm and the MSR Reactor. Both are arguably gold standards of winter recreation and proven in our usage.
These recent winter camping trips in the Greater Yellowstone were learning experiences that continue to shape and mold our day-to-day existence. Drops in the well. I look forward to more of these in the future. We’re pushing our boundaries and gaining ground, one day at a time.
2014 was a year of large life events for me.
Julia and I got married July 5th. It was the absolute best of times. Really though, words can’t describe.
We purchased our first house together also in July. Seized the day, per se. Trails out the front door and mountains minutes away.
I began early in the year with a desire to be in the best shape of my life. This I accomplished mainly through trail running and AT skiing. While numbers don’t even begin to tell the story, a bit helps: over 1000 trail miles ran and just about 300,000 vertical feet gained (and lost). Skiing not included and not forgotten. Many thousands of vert and ephemeral times to match.
For many years I wasn’t taking the best care of myself and decided to do something about it. It hasn’t always been straightforward, but the rewards are too great for my meager words to explain. It’s a continuing and iterative process that has me intrigued, excited, and looking forward to the future. I owe my father a huge thanks here, as it was he who introduced me to running over 20 years ago. He then pursued among other things, road running, hiking, backpacking, and overall the outdoors. I soon followed suit. I began road racing around ten years old and continued to do so for over 5 years. Other recreation took the place of running soon after I ran my first half-marathon accompanied by none other than my Dad. It’s been a while since then but now I’m back at it and loving the pursuit. So, thanks Dad for the early intro!
“The times…”, as Dylan so poetically coined. In all, this was a fairly eventful year in my life – one that I wouldn’t trade for a thing. I couldn’t have done it without the help, love, and support of many fine folks along the way. Friends, family, and strangers alike – I’m thankful for you all and immensely grateful for yet another trip around the sun. Thanks 2014, and welcome 2015. Here we come.
Oh, alpine climbing. As with most things that are worth achieving in life, they often require a bit of hard work and perseverance. In this case, between a climbing partner and myself we collectively totaled over 60 miles of walking our ice tools around this fall in unsuccessful attempts to snag the Lowe Direct on the north face of Sphinx Mountain (10876’/3315m) here in the Northern Madison. And this doesn’t count last year’s attempts. Some could think that this was born of gross oversight or ill-preparedness but the main component of our story is timing. They say it is of the essence.
Fickle early season melt-freeze conditions that are precluded by a storm are the main part of this equation. Too much snow, and the approach becomes impassable due to loading. Too little, and the climbs don’t form. Climbers have been avalanched off of this face, so conditions are nothing to be taken lightly. The country is also prime elk hunting country and thick with grizzlies, which adds another twist to the five mile approach. On our last attempt, we finally saw a grizzly (running away from us below the north face) as opposed to just huge tracks on the trail. Better there than in the first mile or so of ‘bone-alley’, a narrow canyon corridor often adorned with fresh bones where a bear encounter would likely be less fun.
This last weekend yielded a successful romp on the Lowe Route, with the Direct not being in. Although we gave it another look, the bottom pitches weren’t formed and we didn’t feel up to that sort of adventure climbing so we once again retreated from the base of the Sphinx’s north face. This time, though, the upper pitches looked to be mostly in and we rallied back to the Helmet/Sphinx saddle and up to the traverse into the upper routes. The Earl-Trimble had plentiful ice, with a party on it and everything but the dagger WI5 pitch of the Lowe was formed.
Despite not getting the classic pillar, by this time I was ok with it and happy to be finally swinging tools on some ice. We were two of over a dozen folks seen on the face that day and were lucky to have climbed, as at least one party was turned away. I can relate from waiting last year on that face while multiple parties queued up for perfect October conditions. A bit later and a bit thinner this year, but climbable all the same.
As I sit here with a lingering sense of accomplishment and an eye/ear towards the next, temperatures have dropped over 50 degrees F from a high of 62°, to one of single digits over the last few days. I just snuck in my first powder turns of the season and look forward to the coming of winter. Our amazing Montana autumn has finally come to an unofficial close and its now time to sharpen tools, wax skis, and pray for snow. Last season was one for the books; let us sneak in another…
Ahhh… a full-length Montana fall. We’ve had quite the autumn this year so Julia and I have been trying to squeeze in as much outside fun as possible during this impeccable weather window. While we have accomplished a lot of “done-in-a-day” recreation, backpacking has fallen off a bit this year due to a few large life events. Thankfully, this long fall season has allowed for us to play a little catch-up with the outdoors. Two free coinciding days recently yielded a most amazing, 20+ mile loop that is not too far from our back door. And with what has amounted to a quintessential Montana Indian summer, it has been hard not to get out to soak it in.
Ridgelines are high on the list of fun, as well as loop/lollipop hikes that allow one to traverse different ground nearly the entire trip. Time is sometimes of the essence, and bang for buck has become an increasing theme in our (and maybe your?) ever-evolving backcountry strategy. This particular loop held just what we were looking for – distance not too far or short, miles of ridgeline travel above and at timberline, high and wide alpine vistas, peaks to incorporate just off trail, a logical campsite midway at an alpine lake, and enough up/down to keep us working for it. Everything you need and nothing you don’t.
The loop begins and ends at S Fork Spanish Creek TH (N end of Madison range) and can be easily figured out from there with a topo, as it is the only true non-redundant loop. It is a great overnight trip, or would also be a great longer run for those so inclined. Overall length is in the low 20’s for mileage and ~5000′ for vert. Clockwise or counter is the only major remaining question. My vote is for a counter clockwise run, based on water availability and terrain selection. It could feasibly be done with just a handheld w/ inline filter if ran in this direction. It could almost be done without a filter, except for one important, and semi-suspect water source. As for backpacking it, we put in the longer mileage day and Indian Ridge first, and thought that this may be the preferred method to camp. But either direction would still be most pleasing.
A cold, calm night on a bench sitting above the lake yielded, (go figure, yet again) significant condensation inside of our single walled/hybrid Big Sky International Mirage 2P shelter. You’d think we have had enough time over the three-plus years of use to just get rid of it, but no, we press on because of weight/space balance and the hopes for optimal conditions. We do have a double-walled Hilleberg for more serious weather but it is overkill for a lot of summer use here in the Montana Rockies. So along comes the Mirage 2P and then we end up cursing it about half of the time. And loving it the other half.
So, it may be time to rethink the 2P summer shelter situation come next year. We’ll have to leave that one for when the time comes though, so until next time folks. Winter is currently knocking on the door.