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!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!