Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Climbing on Wheeler Peak, Nevada

Guide to climbing Wheeler Peak in Nevada during the winter. An isolated summit in the Great Basin wilderness with a technically easy climb.
Wheeler Peak Summit, Nevada
Its not often that one can claim they are writing anything new on a mountaineering route but it seems that both literary and online information regarding winter climbing on Wheeler Peak are lacking. Other than a few scattered trip reports and a little blurb on the NPS website, this blog might also help those rare souls who would like to climb this isolated peak in the winter.

At 13,063ft, Wheeler Peak is Nevada's highest mountain entirely within the state. While Boundary Peak is higher, it is nothing more than an arm of another higher peak in California. Simply put, it doesn't count in my book. I may not be the first person to have ascended Wheeler Peak in the Winter, but I would like to put some more detailed information on the web about what it takes and some general considerations.

Wheeler Peak is within Great Basin National Park which I consider to be the most rugged National Park in the contiguous United States. In the winter, there are hardly any visitors save for a few park rangers. You could very well have this park to yourself on a winter weekday. On top of this we have Wheeler Peak which is also incredibly isolated. In the summer, it can be hiked in a long day but in the winter, roads are closed making it a daunting affair. Nevertheless, Wheeler Peak has become somewhat of a classic hike/climb for Nevada and America due to its prominence and topographical isolation.

The Massive Headwall of Wheeler Peak
The Approach

Once you get to Great Basin National Park, you can head up to the Upper Lehman Creek Campground and park the car. This is a paved road that is plowed in the winter and is at the elevation of 7,700ft. It is a very long approach to Wheeler Peak from here and this can be done in one to two days. You can also pay for camping at this campground.

The Lehman Creek Trail leaves immediately from the parking lot and generally parallels the creek for about 4 miles before dropping you off at the Wheeler Peak Campground. This trail is generally well marked and is snowshoed on a somewhat regular basis in the winter. Its a steep, winding trail which climbs 2,000ft. Of course, a topographic map is essential for this trip.

From the Wheeler Peak Campground, the trail continues to the cirque of alpine lakes. The forest begins to clear at this point making route-finding easier. This is an incredibly beautiful area which makes the 5 mile trek in worthwhile. In the summer, its a nice place to relax and enjoy the mountain air.
Treeline at the Cirque, looking west towards Bald Mountain
One of the "couliors" of Wheeler Peak- Significant rockfall and avalanche danger exists along the ridgeline
The Route

There's no real name to the route up Wheeler Peak in the winter. In the summer, a trail exists from the Wheeler Campground parking lot to the summit. There are two couliors on the North side of Wheeler Peak. I took the nearly direct North-South coulior which parallels the ridge-line. Its more direct than the Standard Route and easier to find in the winter. However significant rock-fall and avalanche danger exist on this route. The Wheeler Peak ridge-line is notoriously windy and this can create massive cornices which could dump right into the coulior.

From Stella Lake, one could make the steep ascent to the col and follow the ridgeline all the way to the peak. Again, almost any time of the winter there will be violent winds and the ascent from Stella Lake also has hazards. Avalanche danger appeared to be low on the day that I went and I preferred the protection of the coulior to the horrendous winds. You will have to make a judgement call when you make it to the Cirque.
Looking back towards the Stella Lake area and the Wheeler Peak Campground
The summit ridgeline
Despite the hazards, the ascent is gentle and easily trans-versed with a mountaineering ice axe and crampons. Either way will bring you to a flattened area and the summit will be in view. The final push for the summit is not steep but it is cold, windy and will leave you oxygen starved. The summit itself is exposed and cliffy; be mindful of potential cornices and incoming storms.

The view from the top is one in a million. Its gives an excellent perspective of the Great Basin and its endless ranges and valleys. Nevada is a unique state whose outdoor adventures are often overshadowed by Las Vegas.
The Snake Range- looking South from the Summit of Wheeler Peak
Looking North from the summit of Wheeler Peak
Its almost a 14 mile trek when its all said and done with about 5,300ft of elevation gain. For the record, it is the 2nd highest point in Nevada, the 12th most prominent mountain in contiguous America, and the 11th most topographically isolated summit in contiguous America. Although its simply a long day hike in the summer, the winter offers a new challenge for this mountain. The technicality of the climb is easy however it is in one of the ultimate wildernesses of the continent. The Great Basin is a land of weather and temperature extremes so make sure that you are well prepared for its challenges.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Most Underrated Adventure Travel Destinations in America

I suppose it would only be appropriate to follow up my last post with a more uplifting one about destinations that are unknown and continue to offer boundless adventures without the crowds. Its been one of the central focuses of the blog for a while now so I'll be right back on track! I know that several of these places are locations that I've written about before but I've recently had an influx of new viewers so I hope this doesn't appear too stale. However, rest assured that this Holiday Season will bring many new adventures and places to write about. For now, put these eight places on your list for a day trip or vacation for the wilderness-minded
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison; grander than the Grand Canyon
#1 The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
It seems like every time I pick up an outdoors magazine or national park publication there will be yet another article detailing the beauty of the Grand Canyon. But after visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Kings Canyon and a hundred other canyons across America, I think the real Grand Canyon should be the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I've never seen a more awesome and majestic display of what water can do to rock over a long period of time. It was one of the few destinations that actually "took my breath away". 2,000 feet deep and only a quarter of a mile wide... enough to give this rock climber vertigo. As you can imagine, this is also a center for adventure sports. Whitewater kayaking, big wall climbing and epic canyoneering beckon the outdoor extremest. And of course, as the picture alludes to, it is indeed possible to scramble 2,000 feet down from the rim to the river. You don't have to be crazy to do that... but it helps.
Minnesota Boundary Waters
#2 The Upper Midwest- Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin

The Upper Midwest... unbeknownst to anyone save for residents, fishers and of course, Boy Scouts. I didn't think there would be anything to see in the way of adventure until I drove across the country. South Dakota has the Black Hills and North Dakota has an abundant amount of wildlife. Minnesota in particular has endless forests, lakes and some of the best paddling in the country. Between the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, you could probably kayak or canoe a thousand miles worth of lakes, rivers and rapids. Also, the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River are at Itasca State Park.
Kelso Dunes and Mountains of Mojave
#3 Mojave National Preserve, California

Mojave National Preserve is California's forgotten National Park. It has all the wonders of Joshua Tree and Death Valley and yet remains off the grid for most travelers. The preserve is rich in Western history with the Kelso Depot which served as a resupply stations for the Union Pacific Railroad and was essentially the oasis of the Mojave. Just south are the Kelso dunes which are the 3rd largest sand dunes in North America. To the North are the volcanic Cima Dome and Clark Mountain. Clark Mountain, which is visible on I-15 on the way to Vegas, is actually a substantial mountain which supports many rare species of flora and fauna that take advantage of its elevation and cooler environment. In the dead center of the park there is Hole-in-the-Wall Canyon which is a unique site. Wind and water erosion have created a canyon with a beehive-like appearance that draws curious hikers. Lastly there's the Michell Caverns which is a large limestone cave located near the canyon. Truly a gem of the Mojave Desert.
Lake Memphremagog near Newport, Vermont
#4 Northeast Kingdom, Vermont

I've been gushing praises about Northeastern Vermont ever since I visited this place for some fall foliage hiking. I'm thoroughly convinced that this is the best-kept secret of New England for everything outdoors. Other than being a stellar hiking destination, its also a ski/snowboard and paddling destination. This is also where I first heard about the Northern Forest Canoeing Trail which is a 700+ mile long water trail from New York to Maine. Both flat-water and swift-water paddling are in abundance throughout the "N.E.K." While neighboring  New Hampshire is crawling with folks trying to bag the 48 4,000-footers and people car-touring the White Mountains, Northeastern Vermont will always be free of crowds.
The Painted Hills, a Photographer's Dream
#5 Eastern Oregon

After a couple weeks spent in Bend, Oregon, I've determined that Eastern Oregon is one of the few places that I'd be content to settle down in someday. Its an enchanting place that's been shaped by volcanic forces. The Newberry Volcanic National Monument, outside of Bend, is a perfect example of the nature and geology of the Cascades with lava buttes, lava tubes (caves), and miles of petrified lava flows. The numerous lava caves have generated a thriving spelunker society throughout the region. The rugged Deschutes River carves its way through this once-violent landscape and holds some epic white-water rafting and day hiking opportunities. Its also has a credible claim to be the Mountain Biking Mecca of the Pacific Northwest- there are hundreds of trails. As you travel further east from the Cascades, you will encounter bizarre and stunning sights such as the above-pictured John Day Fossil Beds. Also, "Hell's Canyon" on the Oregon-Idaho border is the deepest canyon in the US- 7,000ft deep. I could spend a year drifting around Eastern Oregon and not see the same thing twice.

The Least-Populous Region of America

#6 The Great Basin, Nevada

Nevada has the most mountain ranges, the second-largest National Forest, a large number of wilderness-designated areas and the absolute best stargazing in America. I know I'll probably be exploring (and blogging!) the Silver State until I die- there's just too much to see. While most people envision a trip to Vegas when they think about traveling to Nevada, it would be a shame if you only saw the Strip. First off, there's Tonapah, Nevada which is the undisputed king of American stargazing. There's also Valley of Fire State Park outside of Las Vegas which has incredible natural anomalies such as natural arches and rock sculptures. Hobgoblin Playground in the extreme southeastern part of the state is simply alien. Cathedral Gorge is a similar location with alien-like rock formations. Speaking of alien, why not try and get a glipse of the infamous Area 51 by *legally* hiking Tikaboo Peak. Again, its the only *legal* view of the military base! Great Basin National Park, the Ruby Mountains, Highway 50, Pyramid Lake... I could go on forever!!
The cliffy coastline of Lake Superior
#7 The Upper Peninsula, Michigan

If you ever travel to Michigan and don't see the Upper Peninsula, then SHAME ON YOU! The Northern Shores of Lake Superior are rugged and full of waterfalls. It is the pride and joy of the Great Lakes State! The very friendly and proud people of the Upper Peninsula (da "U.P.) are extremely welcoming to visitors. Along its 1,700 miles of coastline, there are hundreds of beaches and cliffs. The best location for hiking the coastline is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore which is best hiked in the spring when seasonal waterfalls are flowing. Also, the short but steep Porcupine Mountains are challenging to hike. Truthfully I've only begun to discover the wonders of the Upper Peninsula but it is towards the top of my list on places I want to return to.
Diablo Lake- naturally green
#8 The Northern Cascades, Washington

The North Cascades National Park is another place which I've only skimmed the surface of its wealth of adventures. Its one of those rare locations where every photo of it looks Photoshopped. With hundreds of glaciers and their emerald-green lakes, this park is the "Glacier National Park" of the Pacific coast. It also feels a lot like Alaska- there are towns that are only accessible by float plane, hikes that take you far from any civilization, and ancient mountains that would take decades to conquer. They also differ significantly from other parts of the Cascade Range because they are not volcanic. To me, the range felt more akin to the Sierra Nevada than the Cascades. At any rate, at just an hour and a half outside of Seattle, you would think it would be a more popular park but its overshadowed by Mt Rainer and Olympic National Park. Whatever your disposition, whether you're a glacier-climbing peak-bagger or just a quiet day-hiker, the North Cascades will suit your desires.

Well that's a wrap for what I've explored! There are many locations that I haven't been to that could also make it on this list such as Arkansas' Ozarks, the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, the Sky Islands of extreme Southeastern Arizona, the New Mexican Rockies.... so much to see, so little time... I'll be exploring this country until the day I die!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Most Overrated Adventure Travel Destinations in America

If you haven't figured this out by now, I happen to have an opinion on everything. Whether it be National Parks, newspaper articles or art, I probably have some kind of extreme opinion on it. Therefore when it comes to a disappointing travel destination, I feel obligated to put up billboards and caution tape all over it as to warn the wayfaring adventurer. So here we go with another one of my lists- the most overrated adventure travel destination in America.

I'd like to preface this list with saying that I'm sure lots of people have wonderful experiences when they have visited these places. I'm not anti-business and I'm certainly not saying that you can't have a good time at these destination. However, as an adventure traveler and lover of wilderness, I would certainly not recommend them to anyone who is of a similar ilk. So, take it with a grain of salt.

Niagara Falls, New York/Ontario

I've never been more disappointed by a supposedly beautiful display of "the power of nature". As a stand alone destination, the falls are a pretty sight but they are violently marred by high rise hotels and 25-dollar-an-hour-parking not to mention a whole host of tour buses and a complete lack of hiking trails. I had come to Niagara Falls from the Canadian side while on a cross country road trip and the traffic was worse than any rush hour. By the time I found a parking space four miles from the falls, I was so utterly disgusted by the impossibility of driving that the falls just weren't worth the effort. Of course, if you want a good view of the falls, you have to jockey through the other hundred thousand people trying to do the same. 
Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor is one of those small cities in denial that desperately tries to cling to their previous status as a homey, small town. Pictures of Bar Harbor make it appear as if its still one of those quintessential Maine lobster-towns but in the summer its a metropolis. I visited Bar Harbor for the first time via kayak as I was on another 100 mile trip up the Maine coast. After having kayaked through beautiful Stonington and the rugged, lesser traveled side of Mount Desert Island I finally made it to Bar Harbor and was thoroughly disappointed. It was like enjoying an incredible five star dinner only to have stale cake for desert. In my discussions with native Bar Harbor-ians, they confirm my suspicions that visiting in the summer is a nightmare. The real truth is, you can do so much better if you really want to see the coast of Maine. 

There are still several small Maine coastal towns that remain relatively undiscovered. Here are my recommendations.
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Garden of the Gods is unfortunately a great climbing destination that's too crowded and too close to an ultra-active city full of climbers. Again, in itself its a great place to climb and hike but expect traffic jams on the routes and trails. Its actually a very well-managed park with a history that out dates most of our National Parks. But herein lies the problem- EVERYONE in Colorado climbs! So when you have a great destination that's 10 minutes away from a city, the routes get crowded and the trails are a traffic jam of trail runners. In addition there's the normal influx of visitors who just want to walk around and take pictures. The park is also rather small. For me, this just didn't jive with my tenancies. I'd much have preferred Joshua Tree which receives a similar amount of climbers but is literally over 200 times larger.
Beautiful summit views on Mt Washington
Mt Washington, New Hampshire

Well, I wouldn't be the first pretentious outdoorsman to complain about Mt Washington, but no list of uninspiring destinations would be complete without mentioning the highest parking lot in the Northeast. Truthfully though, everything but the summit is nice on Mt Washington. If you take any route other than the infamous Tuckerman's Ravine, you're likely to actually enjoy some peace and quiet. 

You could always see the better part of the White Mountains by doing the Presidential Traverse!

Oahu, Hawaii

To travel all the way across the Pacific Ocean and only visit Honolulu and Oahu is like flying all the way to Las Vegas just to play the slots in the airport. The city feels cramped and sprawling and its hard to find a place big enough for a towel on the crowded Waikiki Beach. Of course, there are other destinations on the island but really nothing that you couldn't see on another island. Oahu, by Hawaiian standards, is bland; it doesn't have the incredibly variable topography and environment that Maui and the Big Island have nor does it have the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific", lush rainforest and massive cliffs that Kauai has. Of course both the ancient and military history of the island are worth experiencing, but you're cheating yourself if this is the only island you visit in Hawaii.
Crowded Avalon
Avalon, Catalina Island, California

Catalina Island will always be near and dear to my heart except for the city of Avalon. Located 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, the island provides a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Avalon is the destination of most passenger boats and cruise ships so its grown quite a bit. To me, the city is a great place for starting an adventure or functioning as a base camp. Catalina has a plethora of hiking, diving, snorkeling, mountain biking and kayaking adventures but you have to step out of Avalon. I'd highly recommend Two Harbors, on the other side of the island, instead. Its much smaller and more laid back- like a little Margarittaville. Its also much easier to get to the wilder parts of Catalina Island from Two Harbors.

Instead of Avalon, try backpacking or hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail!

Tired of overrated places? Check out some lesser known destinations-

Most Underrated Destinations in America

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hiking the Bigelow Range and Sugarloaf, Maine: New England's 50 Finest

A weekend spent in the Carrabassett Valley, Maine climbing Sugarloaf Mountain as well as West Peak and Avery Peak in the Bigelow Range
The rugged and frigid Bigelow Range, Maine
Winter is fast approaching in the Northern Appalachian Mountains but its still possible to bag a couple summits without getting too technical! With Veteran's weekend approaching, I quickly drew up a trip plan which would further my progress into climbing all of New England's 50 Finest Mountains. This weekend's destination was the rugged ranges in the Carrabasset Valley region in Western Maine

This is a wonderful and wild part of Maine. Its similar to the White Mountains of New Hampshire with rocky, treeless peaks. Sugarloaf Peak is the second highest mountain in Maine and supports a large ski resort. The adjacent Bigelow Range is a tough, knife-edge ridge of summits that can be downright frigid throughout the year. Even in early November, there were layers upon layers of rime ice which allude to the sheer ferocity of the range's weather.
The frigid summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, Maine
Rime Ice on the Summit Marker
I drove up to Carrabassett Valley on Friday and spent the night sleeping in my car. I decided I would try and use Sugarloaf's steep ski routes as a good place to do a shakedown for the mountaineering season. This isn't the normal approach up the mountain- the Appalachian Trail skirts around the summit and it can be hiked easily (Link).

The ski resort isn't open yet so I thought that I would take advantage of this by climbing the routes. Unfortunately there was barely any snow at the lower elevations and just a light dusting up high! So instead of getting any mountaineering practice, I was simply climbing a steep hill. Oh well! It wasn't exactly a real wilderness experience but the views made the trip worth the trouble. Sugarloaf doesn't mind hikers, even during the ski season so if you'd like the repeat this, its completely okay.

Once I finally summitted, I was able to appreciate a view of nearly every 4,000 footer in Maine! Directly North was the Bigelow Range in all of its glory. Just a few miles West was the Crocker Range and Reddington. Saddleback and the Horn were to the Southwest and Abraham was to the South. The Appalachian Trail summits most of these mountains too! It made me wonder how difficult it must be to have traveled some 1,800 miles only to realize that the most difficult parts were still to come!
Winter on the Appalachian Trail
Just for fun I decided to follow the Appalachian Trail off of the summit. Despite the rime ice and freezing wind, the AT had a somewhat gentle look to it with the first winter snows. Some 10,000+ pairs of boots probably traveled this area this summer yet in the winter it hadn't even a footprint to mark the way. This trail, which has a life and culture of its own, seemed to have retreated into hibernation. There will likely be a few more rugged souls who climb the 4,000 footers in the winter, but it will remain rarely traveled until the snow melts. Of course, this further fuels my desire to climb more of the Appalachians in the winter!
The Bigelow Range from the town of Eustis
After coming down from Sugarloaf, I decided to poke around the towns of Stratton and Eustis. These are mountain towns which are primarily inhabited by hunters during this time of year. I stuck out like a sore thumb! Here's this guy wearing Patagonia gear, without a single inch of orange, driving a sedan with California plates deep in the heart of the hunting capital of New England. I was positive I was the only person in a fifty mile radius without a pickup truck and the carcass of some animal on the roof. I swear I got the strangest looks- like "what God-awful wrong turn did you take to get out here, bub?"

Of course I haven't the slightest resentment of hunters! I'm actually developing a particular fondness for this part of Maine. I love Portland for the more unique, cultural, artistic and cosmopolitan side of Maine- I've already been wine tasting at a few of the downtown restaurants, frequented a few of my new favorite microbreweries and clubs in the Old Port and I'm a regular at the Portland Art Museum. Yet in the mountains and forests of Western Maine I've discovered the independent, self-reliant and very wild side of my adoptive state. Out here people hunt more as a way of living than for sport. One can bag enough meat to support a sizable family for the winter and a good-sized pair of antlers can sell for quite a bit of money. People hunt for the same reason they farm; its a source of income and a way to support a family.
West Peak (Right) and Avery Peak (left), Bigelow Range
The next day was filled with an exciting and long hike in the Bigelow Range. It reminded me of the Presidential Traverse with large and steep gains and losses of elevation. I did the Fire Warden's Trail which is a shorter but steeper way of climbing the peaks (Link). I'll post some very specific directions and instructions on how to climb this mountain too.

At the lower elevations I was walking through the now leafless forests. There was hardly any snow on the trail except near the summits. As I was hiking I heard the almost constant thunder of distant hunters. It was actually a pleasant sound- five miles away perhaps there was a tired, weather-worn hunter who finally got a kill. It's just a natural way of life out here. I really do hope to learn how to hunt someday.
Ain't no switchbacks out here!
In classic, East-Coast fashion, the trail was extremely steep with no switchbacks which kills the knees and ankles! It took about half the day to reach the saddle. At the saddle the summit of Avery is 0.4 miles away and the summit of West Peak is a 0.3 mile hike. Both hikes were very enjoyable with stunning views of the whole Bigelow range and Flagstaff Lake. I was essentially alone and spent time on the summits just admiring the view. I'd highly recommend this hike to anyone who enjoys a challenge with rewarding views.
Almost getting blown off the summit of Avery!
I almost considered trying to cross the summit ridges and all the way back to the Appalachian Trail but I was running out of daylight and decided to return on the Fire Warden's Trail. I did meet a few other ambitious hikers who were doing the full traverse which I hope to do someday in the future.

I hiked down and finally got back to my car an hour after nightfall. It had been a successful trip! I bagged two peaks of New England's 50 Finest and one more on Maine's 4,000 Footers. Of the two hikes, I preferred the Bigelow hike due to its views of Flagstaff lake and surrounding areas. However both hikes reminded me of how blessed I am to live in this rugged state. I'm looking forward to the winter and can't wait to start busting out my ice axe and crampons!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Pursuit of Life: Winter Blog News

If my statistics are correct, it seems I've generated a small amount of readership of this blog! I wanted to take a moment and provide some updates and news on the blog and let you know what's coming up.
Who's ready for the winter!?!
First of all, this blog has gotten its 10,000th google hit! Not exactly a huge number in the Internet world, but something to celebrate none the less. I have a pretty specific audience so I'm happy that I've made a splash in the outdoor adventure world. What's most encouraging is that I commonly see my articles alongside big names like Backpacker, Leisure and Travel, and National Geographic Adventure. 

I've been using webmaster tools to track readership and improve my SEO abilities. I'm receiving a huge amount of traffic and impression through image viewing which is not surprising. It is affirming as an aspiring photographer to see my "work" featured alongside other stunning images that were taken by better cameras than my lil' point and shoot.
Desert Adventures!
Winter is fast approaching so my focus will shift away from summer activities. This will include a large number of articles on desert hiking and Southwestern favorites; the desert is actually quite temperate in the winter months! I'm also continuing full speed ahead in my quest to climb New England's 50 Finest Mountains which will include some well known favorites and others that barely have anything written about them. In addition to my time in New England, I'll be returning to California for a stint in the winter which will mean new trip reports and new places to visit. Mountaineering, ice climbing, cross country skiing, snowboarding... I have some great trips coming up!
Your man on the outside!
One of the things I've always wanted to focus on in my writing is highlighting some of the better outdoor literature that's out there. I'm commonly taking outdoor lit classics on my adventures which always augments the experience. So expect some commentary and recommendations to this wonderful genre.

Lastly, I'm going to be posting reviews on a bunch of my gear. My last post on my outdoor research aurora bivy has made quite a splash in the way of bivy reviews. I put most of my gear through a real beating so I'm sure it would be helpful to post some things. I'd love to hear feedback if you're feeling inclined!
These beautiful New England Mountains are covered in 2 feet of snow now!
Can't wait to hit the trail!
Stay posted, friends! After all, there's no off-season for an outdoorsman!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hiking Telescope Peak from Shorty's Well, Death Valley, California

A Comprehensive guide to the most unique mountaineering route in the world- Shorty's Well to Telescope Peak. From 250ft below sea level to 11,049ft. From desert sands to icy slopes, this route is certainly one of the greatest challenges in American mountaineering.
The Most Unique Climb in America
Heat exhaustion is hardly anyone's concern on a mountaineering expedition. Usually we pack enough cold weather gear to outfit a polar bear. But if you're climbing Telescope Peak from the floor of Death Valley, you have to have all your bases covered! In my experience as a climber, I could never write about a more unique and daring adventure. So here we go with a guide to climbing Telescope Peak.

Introduction to Telescope Peak

Death Valley is one of the most mysterious places one could travel to in the United States. Its full of unique phenomenon and unexplained natural mysteries. The origins and nature of  sailing rocks of the Racetrack Playa continue to baffle scientists. The Ubehebe Crater reminds the visitor of the intermittent periods of volcanic activity that have also shaped this massive rift. And of course, Telescope Peak, at 11,043ft is often covered in a deep layer of snow while the valley below simmers at 100 degrees.

Telescope Peak itself was named from its incredible vertical relief. It rises over 2 vertical miles from the valley and at its summit, "you could see no further with a telescope". It is interesting to note that the roads which cross this range will have snow closures which is incredible considering one of the World's hottest temperatures was recorded just miles from this range. 

National Park Website for Death Valley
Badwater, Death Valley to Telescope Peak
Getting to the Trailhead

Getting there is somewhat difficult. First you have to get to the aptly named town of Furnace Creek, California. This is the only settlement in the area. A warning- gas in Death Valley is literally twice as expensive as the price of gas anywhere else in California. It was literally 6 bucks a gallon when I was there- gas up before entering Death Valley. Also, there is absolutely not a trace of cell phone reception ANYWHERE in the valley. You would be wise to pack survival gear in your car because you never know what could happen here and services are few and far between. I busted a flat and got a dead battery on the same trip on one occasion! (a story for another time). HERE are the Directions!

View Untitled in a larger map

Here is another topographic map of the route.


...Where to begin?? This trip is a logistical nightmare. My pack weighed upwards of 35lbs which is astronomical for a weekend trip. You really have to pack as if you're going on two separate trips. Not only that, but with only one water source on the whole trip, you need to carry well over 3 liters of water. The variability of the terrain and the need for extra supplies makes this trip a 2 to 3 day excursion for the experienced backpacker.

I'll make the assumption that if you're reading this, you know to bring the basic essentials and I'll just go over additional things. For the desert portion, you need lots and lots of water. It can be anywhere from 60-95 degrees in the winter which is when this trip should be done. So of course, don't forget sunscreen and a hat. As far as the climbing portion goes, you will definitely want to bring trekking poles, an ice axe and even snow shoes or crampons. When I did it, I brought crampons and was post-holing at 8,000ft. Bring some warm weather gear too because even at the lower elevations it can get below freezing at night.
The Panamint Range, Death Valley, California
Of course, don't forget to bring a water purification system. Iodine should be fine.
While heat related dangers are your concern at the lower elevations, the mountain range holds an entirely different set of dangers which need to be accounted for in planning. At the foot of the range, you will be traveling through a very deep canyon. Flash floods are possible any time of year and it does rain occasionally in the winter. Towards the alpine zone, there are some areas of avalanche danger. The extreme temperature differences make this danger even more real- know the signs. When you're in the mountains, try and forget that you just traveled through the hottest, driest place in North America and act according to your knowledge at hand! You really should have extensive experience with backcountry desert travel and mountaineering experience- both with serve you well in this wilderness.
If you were to get injured or incapacitated... there's absolutely no cell phone reception or any chance of seeing anyone on this route- you might as well be in Alaska. Plan accordingly...

Here is a summitpost article about the route which will also aid in your planning of this expedition.
Through the desert and on to the mountain!
Across Death Valley and into Hanaupah Canyon

The Shorty's Well parking lot will serve as a trailhead and a 4x4 drive trail leads directly towards the mountains. This road is known as Hanaupah Canyon and is a very technical 4-wheel drive trail. It ascends about 4.5 miles to the foot of the Panamint Range and the destination of Telescope Peak. This is a light ascent and it brings you to the end of the road at about 1,800ft. From here you follow the canyon as it meanders through the mountains for a couple miles.

There should be a very faint trail just beyond the end of the 4x4 road and this can be rather ambiguous. It will lead you through the canyon and eventually to a fork. Take the left/South fork which is the larger of the two canyons. It is VERY IMPORTANT that you follow this canyon because there is ONE WATER SOURCE! Hanaupah Springs is an above-ground spring which is available all year long. Any old water filter will be fine. Do not miss this one opportunity for water. There may be snow at higher elevations which you can also melt, but this spring is very reliable.
Hanaupah Canyon Trail, looking towards Telescope Peak
The end of the 4x4 Trail in Hanaupah Canyon
Hanaupah Springs which can be easily missed if you're not looking for it...
Keep in mind that there are many long abandoned mines and mining roads in the area that can confuse you. The mines are very interesting to check out, but the roads DO NOT climb to Telescope Peak.

After filling up as much as you can on water, you're going to be trying to ascend the ridgeline directly North of you (on the right!). If you're tired, there are some spotty campsites around Hanaupah springs. There might even be some opportunities to see some wildlife. The ridge is a class 2-3 scree slope that would be made easier with trekking poles. This climb is not technical but it is frustrating and challenging. Don't be surprised if you get into patches of "one step forward, two steps back". Once on top of this Ridgeline, there are other spots for camping.
Death Valley
The ridgeline itself heads towards a saddle between Telescope Peak and the rest of the mountains. Its not a straight shot although it would appear as such on the map. The terrain is variable and there are sections of descents and ascents. Its also a very exposed ridgeline and you'd want to be careful of the few weather systems that affect the area. Again, it snows enough up here to close some roads!

Eventually you will reach the saddle between two mountains- Rodger's Peak is to the North and Telescope Peak is to the South. Take this ascending ridge until you are at the true summit. Its somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 miles from Shorty's Well to the summit.
Death Valley from the Panamint Range
Once you've finally summited, you can enjoy a very unique view! Sometimes you can see all the way to the Sierras! This is also the best place to appreciate the tremendous depth of Death Valley. Considering this was a major hub for mining, there must have been something really valuable to cause people to live and work in such a ruthless environment. The mines are all dried up, but there still something of value that us climber types look for in this ultimate wilderness!

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

50 Greatest Adventures in America : Part VI

Celebrating 1 Year of Blogging with the 50 Greatest Adventures in America!
West Quoddy Head, Maine
#26 See America's First Sunrise, Maine

Its a bit ironic that the easternmost point in America is named "West Quoddy Head". This is the easternmost part of Maine and therefore it is America's first sunrise. This novelty is what really draws people to this rather isolated part of Maine but the sunrise is beautiful in itself. Its hardly ever that crowded and it sports views of one of Maine's most beloved lighthouse and a classic rugged coastline. I've seen a lot of sunrises in this World and none could ever compare to the one I saw in West Quoddy Head.

Information on West Quoddy Head
Sunset at Cape Alava, Washington
#27 See America's Last Sunset, Washington

While "America's First Sunrise" has become a somewhat well-known location, "America's Last Sunset" is a much more isolated and the true spot is unknown. The Pacific Northwest from Northern California to Washington is almost all at the same longitude and there are several very tall mountains within 100 miles of the coast. Nobody knows or has cared enough to find out when the sun's rays last leave land, but the westernmost point in America could be a good candidate. Located in Olympic National Park on the ocean, Cape Alava is a 6 mile hike. The hike itself plunges deep into the temperate rainforest that is the Pacific Northwest before dumping you out on the shore. A short walk North from here will bring you to... perhaps... the last sunset in America.

Cape Alava: Directions and Information
Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park
#28 Rock Climb Joshua Tree National Park, California

Living near Joshua Tree as a climber is as awesome as a surfer living in Hawaii. There are literally over 10,000 named routes in Joshua Tree and probably a couple hundred new routes being pioneered every year. Although a little sharp, the rock is perfectly stable. Southern Californians spend years trying to climb all the routes in Joshua Tree and it never runs out of possibilities. There also happen to be many options for novice climbers and this is often the first destination for people learning how to climb. I somehow return to J-Tree every year and love just picking out a random route and just climbing away. There are hundreds of guidebooks available and the towns around the park all have an extensive network of climbers and outfitters. Whether you live in So-Cal or a thousand miles away, every rock climber must make a pilgrimage to this destination.
America's most recognizable mountain landscape
#29 Climb the Tetons, Wyoming

Well I'm probably not the first to tell you the climbing in the Tetons is amazing, but leaving it out of the 50 greatest adventures would be a travesty. Climbing in the Tetons is perhaps the closest you could get to climbing in Alaska without leaving the lower 48. The Tetons are characterized as having very long, brutal winters and a short climbing season. America's first mountaineering school was founded here and they play one of the most prominent roles in the sport. Grand Teton is an obvious destination for most and it is a technical climb from any approach. Middle Teton is a good option if you're looking for something that only requires class III mountaineering skills but it is still more challenging than the most of the southern Rockies. The Tetons have also become a backcountry skiing destination and expert skiers are known to cross the Tetons in the winter months.

Climbing Middle Teton, Wyoming
The Inside Passage, Alaska
#30 Kayak the Inside Passage, Alaska

It would be a bit of a stretch to say I've kayaked the inside passage in the same way I've kayaked other places across America but I have fond memories of two day trips. The Inside Passage is the shipping route through the Alaskan Panhandle that has become a major destination for tourism. Cruise ships commonly use this route today but kayakers are also frequently seen. The existence of cruise ships should not take anything away from the fact that this is the ultimate wilderness. Parts of the passage are scarcely a half a mile wide while being a thousand feet deep. Other parts are fed by massive glaciers which commonly drop house-sized icebergs into frigid water. The fjords create a serene yet erie landscape that is as dangerous as it is thrilling to kayak through. Wildlife abounds as killer whales use this route more often than anyone. This is one adventure I haven't really done as much as I would like. Someday I hope to kayak the inside passage from Seattle to Skagway.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Northeast Kingdom: A Vermont Vacation

Lake Memphremagog in Newport, Vermont
I've always been enamored with geographical enclaves within the United States. These are parts of the country that have a particular culture which has been shaped either by geography or by indiscriminate state and county boundaries. For whatever reason, such boundaries have generated unique cohorts with strong regional pride. A few examples of these would include Downeast Maine, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Northern California, the Olympic Peninsula of Washington and Eastern Oregon. So when I heard about the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, otherwise known as the N.E.K., I was intrigued and wanted to visit. Although somewhat of a tourist-y move, I decided to visit over the Columbus Day Weekend for the fall foliage.

The Northeast Kingdom has been heralded by poets, artists and outdoorsmen alike as one of the most peaceful and most desirable places to visit in America. In the opinion of this traveler, there is no grander place for fall foliage hiking and relaxation!
Vermont Fall Foliage Hike
Hiking Jay Peak, Vermont

After a very long three day weekend filled with work, I was so ready for this mini-vacation. I'm originally from California so I simply had to see if "leaf-peeping" was as amazing as everyone says it is. As I have been commuting to Portland (Maine) from my tiny town of Gorham, I'd actually been deliberately taking longer commutes just to enjoy the foliage. However nothing compares to the brilliant display of color that happens in Vermont. I could scarcely keep my eyes on the road as I was meandering down country lanes and county highways. To my delight, it seemed like I left all the RV's and car tours behind as soon as I crossed the New Hampshire-Vermont state line.

Jay Peak was my first destination. Its one of New England's 50 Finest and high up on my list of mountains I'd like to climb during my tenure in this part of the country. Although its mainly known as a ski resort, the famous Long Trail crosses its summit and this served as the trailhead. I hit the trail very early to enjoy the morning appenglow. There was just something so surreal about watching the sunrise through the fall forest. It really brought out the color contrast while on the trail. Taking a bad picture would have been impossible!
Great views from the Jay Peak Trail
One of the more delightful parts about hiking the Jay Peak trail is that there are several openings in the forest that provide panoramic views of the Green Mountains. Its also high enough and far enough North to have a real alpine zone. This created a unique tree line. There was a very clear line upon the mountains which separated the deciduous forests from the alpine. It was as if an artist had painted a lines of red an yellow next to a line of dark green. This was also noticeable on the trail I hiked- I very quickly passed that certain elevation which divides the two forests.

Once I summited, there was a full, 360-degree panorama. From Jay Peak I could see Mt Mansfield in central Vermont, the Adirondacks of New York, Lake Champlain Valley, and even the mountains and plains of Quebec. One of the best views was the view to the northeast where I could see Newport Vermont and Lake Memphremagog which are both bound by some isolated mountains.
View of Newport, Vermont from Jay Peak
The prominent mountain on the left is Owl's Head located in Quebec, Canada
I spent a good two hours atop this mountain just relaxing and enjoying the view. As a climber, I rarely get opportunities to simply enjoy a summit- usually the weather or schedule will only permit a few minutes taking a victory shot. It was nice to enjoy some simple moments of peace.

Hiking down was not disappointing though! With the sun hitting the leaves at a different time of the day, it felt as if I'd taken a different route down. I suppose me waxing poetic about the leaves further marks me as someone who is clearly not from New England. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that of the few hikers that I saw on the trail, all of them were native Vermonters who were just up enjoying the same scenery I was. I later made the determination that the Northeastern Vermont is where real Vermonters go when they want to "leaf-peep".
Newport, Vermont
My next destination was the town of Newport, Vermont. Located on the Quebec Border in Orleans County, it is the one of the only major towns in the entire region. At just over 5,000 people, its the second largest town in the Northeast Kingdom which happens to be the least populous region of the 2nd least populous state in America.

I've been to many small towns in America and this was one of my favorites. With the migration of people away from cities and the rise of rural appeal, many desperately cling to their small towns status amidst the economic growth. Some New England towns have since become small cities with an identity crisis (i.e. Bar Harbor, Maine and North Conway, New Hampshire). But even with the Northeast Kingdom becoming a somewhat well-known destination for 4-season tourism, Newport has retained its status as a down-home and genuinely-quaint community of friendly people. I was as captivated with Newport as I was with the foliage on Jay Peak
Orleans County Courthouse
Hiking Gore Mountain, Vermont

The next day's adventure was in Essex County which is the most rural county in New England. Here lies a mountain of no importance to anyone but those who are climbing New England's Fifty Finest- Gore Mountain. It was very difficult for me to find any information on any trails in the area and it seemed as if there were none.

Fortunately the kind folks of the Green Mountain Club have a cut a trail though the dense forests and bogs. While its not a very wide or visible trail, it is enough to get you to the top and hence bag another one of the 50 finest. Other than that very reason, there is little motivation for the average hiker to climb this mountain as there are only fleeting views and no remarkable sights. Nevertheless, it was a nice hike which I had all to myself.
Gore Mountain Trail, Vermont
Despite its modest elevation and lack of sweeping views, Gore Mountain was still a wonderful mountain to hike. The trail weaves its way through the North Woods of Vermont and nearby some bogs. I saw a massive beaver dam and some evidence of bears. On occasion I was welcomed to a view through the trees of nearby mountains. I realized that this was just a nice place to be alone for a while!

One must pay close attention to the "trail" as it becomes somewhat ambiguous at times. There are a couple of signs which mark the way and a few of those white markers but it would be easy to lose your way. Bring a compass or GPS! After a little over 4 miles I was standing on the summit.
Just a walk in the woods!
The summit log simply made my day- I flipped though this notebook and discovered that I was only the 18th person of 2011 to have climbed Gore Mountain. Not only that, but since the log-book's inception in 2008, there had been fewer than 50 souls who had summitted and cared enough to sign it. July appeared to be the peak's busiest month- 3 people trudged up here on the 4th. Most other months had one or at most 2 hikers. It was safe to say I was alone for about 5 miles in all directions, which gave me a sense of joy!

Those who know me well would probably not guess that I'm much into meditation, but I find that its hard not to do this while in such a serene place. I don't mean meditation in the "new-age-y" way that its often associated with. For me, it was simply just being on top of a lonely mountain and listening to the wind and few birds which provided me company. With all the business of graduate school and work, it was wonderful to take some moments and thank the Lord for all the blessings that come with living in Northern New England.

An old fire lookout, long abandoned on the summit of Gore Mountain
Well it was time for me to return once again to my busy life out in Portland, Maine. The best thing about returning was that just outside my door I have a perfect view of a dairy farm and some woods which are just changing color. It made me laugh to think that my last apartment's "great view" was that of the 405 freeway.

It was quite the move for me to go from the left-coast to Maine. I miss my 14,000ft peaks, high deserts, redwood forests and of course, the beaches. Then again, California doesn't have beautiful seasons, empty trails and 300 hundred year old small towns. To me, there's a lot to miss about California and a lot to love about New England.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!