Monday, October 29, 2012

Hiking the Salton Sea: Strangest Place I've Been

In the Southeastern corner of California, 200ft below sea level lies an unlikely inland sea with a unique history. The Salton Sea is one of the largest lakes in the United States and has, perhaps, one of the  most confusing natural and unnatural history of any lake in the country
The Salton Sea
The Colorado Desert of California is a strange and wonderful place. Its a place that has mountains and snow, deserts and dunes, farms and small towns, while also having one of the largest lakes in the country.  If you stop for gas and need change, you will likely receive it in pesos. Its populated by a strange mix of desert farmers, Latino immigrants, drifters and "desert people".

Two years ago while on a mini-vacation with my girlfriend in Palm Springs, I had the wild idea to head out to the infamous Salton Sea. I do not know what exactly possessed me to leave the spas, golf courses, air conditioning and cultivation of Palm Springs for a large, smelly hot sea below sea level. (I am sure she was annoyed by this decision and I really can't blame her) Not only that, but if one was to have an outdoor adventure in Palm Springs, there were much better options on the more temperate San Jacinto Mountain or in the comparatively cooler Joshua Tree National Park. No, for some odd reason I had to finally see the Salton Sea. 

So, we loaded up the car at 8 o'clock in the morning when the temperature was already 101 degrees and headed 60 miles south into this seemingly bottomless valley. Past the outlet stores, past that one place where they have the concerts, past the golf courses and into the Salton Sink.

The shores of the Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, or more accurately, the Salton Sink, is the second lowest place in North America. At 226ft below Sea Level, the surface of the sea is only 60ft higher than the Badwater Basin. Mind you, the deepest point of the lake is 52ft below the surface, so essentially this place is Death Valley 2. There are only a handful of places in the World which are lower than this lake.

Whether or not you've heard of the Salton Sea, this place has actually shown up in many small documentaries and some literature. Most of it I find appalling- trying to frame the Salton Sea as if it some post-apocalyptic scene where the wealthy have left their scar on its lonely beaches or the Salton Sea as an environmental catastrophe on par with Chernobyl and the Aral Sea (seriously?). I suppose parts of that are true, but really, most of it is meant to entertain. A much more accurate and fact-based picture of the Salton Sea can be found on the Salton Sea Authority's website. While it is certainly a place in need of conservation and attention, it is not this abandoned toxic dump that it is commonly portrayed as by modernist photographers and amateur documentaries. Here is another excellent resource you should see before you go out trying to make the Salton Sea look like a wasteland.

As I came to find out when I visited, the Salton Sea is neither the "California Riviera" it was once envisioned to be but also not a horrible disaster either. It's actually somewhat of a clever dimorphism and not entirely unnatural. Long story short, the Salton Sea, as it is seen today, was "created" by heavy flooding on the Colorado River which broke the levees and slowly filled this below-sea-level valley. So for two years, almost all the water from the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Grand Canyon and everything came to the Salton Sink and created this massive lake. Of course, there was always seasonal fluctuations of water in the sink from the San Bernardino, San Rosa, and other smaller ranges surrounding the basin. For that reason, its been a major truck-stop for migrating birds long before it was ever considered a sea. It still is today and it is one of the best birding areas in the Southwestern United States.

At the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, we stepped out to the classic, brine-y smell of the sea not unlike the smell of a fishing dock. There were dozens of people fishing and despite the common sight of dead fish on the shores, fishing is perfectly safe. There were a few broken down buildings and signs of development. I am sure some hipster photographer was absolutely ecstatic for the opportunity to make social commentary from a picture of an abandoned building. 
Walking further away from the highway, we could appreciate the size of the Salton Sea
So be both found it to be laughable and weirdly enjoyable to be walking along a gigantic inland sea in triple-digit temperatures when we could be enjoying a nice spa treatment in Palm Springs or golfing at a famous resort. I admit, its probably not some place you would want to go every weekend. 

At one point during the trip, we parked off the side of the road and hiked a little into the desert hills to get a better view of the lake. The scenery became more recognizable for the Colorado Desert. Stout cresolate bushes, occasional Ocatillos and a dozen other shrubby plants I don't know the name of. Each plant has its unique little lot surrounded by sand and dirt- like a desert suburban. We even caught a glimpse of a few bats and lizards. 

Here is the list of places to hike around the Salton Sea.
The Colorado Desert's Mascot
Looking towards the Salton Sea from the summit of Mt San Jacinto
If you stand on the shores of the Salton Sea during the spring and fall, you will see several wonderful things you would not expect in the desert. Directly in front of you, of course, is the second largest saline lake in the country. On a good day, you could spot hundreds of species of migratory birds stopping by on their way North or South. Past the lake, there are the Santa Rosa and San Bernardino Mountains which are covered in snow for much of the year. Even the comparatively lower mountains of Joshua Tree which barely exceed 5,000 ft can be completely covered in snow. All of this can be seen from a comfortable 80 degrees at the right time of the year. Yes, the lake is smelly and there are dead fish along the shores. Yes, its an environmental quagmire. But that's a scene you can't really find anywhere else. Well, it was worth the trip for me, at least.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Top Rope Rock Climbing in North Conway, New Hampshire

North Conway is known for world-class rock climbing and ice climbing. If you're not ready for some of the epic sport and trad climbs, here's a couple of places where you can easily set up a top rope.
Square Ledge, Pinkam Notch. NH
I've always loved to rock climb but this summer has been the first time I've actually made a serious push to become a real climber. Before this, I would go out climbing maybe once every couple of months and climb at a gym with the same infrequency. The push to get into climbing was, of course, partially fueled by having some friends who have full racks of gear and finally getting a membership to the Maine Rock Gym. Now I have no excuse for not becoming a better climber...

Indoor climbing is great training but outdoor climbing is the ultimate goal for me. North Conway and the White Mountains have some of the finest multipitch climbs in the world but they also support some great climbs for lowly folks like me. This is a list of the areas we have explored over the summer which are not just for top-roping but certainly have many options for climbers of every skill level.

#1 North End of Cathedral Ledge

Cathedral Ledge is the crown jewel of North Conway and about as well known as El Cap is in Yosemite. However you don't have to be El-Cap status to climb Cathedral Ledge. You can park your car right at the summit and dip right below the parking lot to find some great routes.  Pine Tree Eliminate (5.8+), just above Thin Air (5.6), is an ultra-classic and beautiful climb which can be lead or top-roped. It can be a traffic jam up there, especially if climbers finishing Thin Air elect to finish with it instead of walking off.  Pine Tree Eliminate is aggressive and sustained 5.8+ climbing which might give you a run for the money. However there's plenty of options for protection and a few nice trees at the top to set an anchor. Just to the right of Pine Tree Eliminate are some other easier climbs including a 5.7 chimney and some short 5.8-5.9 flakes. 
V-Grove, 5.8, Saco Crag
#2 Saco Crag, Humphrey's Ledge Area

Saco Crag is another place that's easy to get to and there's a full range of routes to top rope. Saco Crag is also the perfect place to go if you're up in North Conway on a hot, humid day as it is very shady and right next to the Saco River. Its located just past Humphrey's Ledge on the Westside Road. The parking lot is literally right next to the river and its a short, steep trail to access the ledge. This is one of the easiest places to set a top-rope- scurry around the right side of the crag and you will come out right on top where there are plenty of trees to anchor to. You'll have many 5.8-5.9 options. The V-Grove (5.8) is almost all the way on the right side of the crag and is a somewhat tricky crack climb. Most of the routes are unnamed but there's a good selection of intermediate climbs. 
The Chimney (5.5), Square Ledge
The Brain (5.8), on the right side of the pinnacle
#3 Square Ledge, Pinkham Notch

Square Ledge is a magnificently scenic climbing area with incredible views of Mt Washington, Huntington Ravine and Tuckerman's. There's some top rope options as well as some easier trad climbing options. The Chimney is a 5.5 which can be easily top roped and there's lots of options for protection in the crack which follows the route. We did a couple of mock leads on this route. Just to the right of the Chimney in the pictures is The Brain, a 5.8 which can only be top roped. Again, plenty of options for anchoring at the top. Standard Route is a 5.4, 2 pitch climb up the face of Square Ledge which can be tricky to protect in some areas. This area can get busy on the weekends and holidays.

Top of Family Crag, Shell Pond, Maine
5.9+, single pitch on Family Crag
#4 Shell Pond, Maine

I've only visited Shell Pond once and it is perhaps my favorite climbing destination in the North Conway Area because it supports a number of longer intermediate and difficult climbs. Shell Pond is also somewhat difficult to get to- its located off of Route 113 on the NH-ME line and down a dirt road. Here are the directions. The parking lot isn't much of one- large enough for 4 cars, maybe. After that, follow the goat path into the woods and... well... look for the cairns which bring you to the left and around to Family Crag, the easier of the two crags. The larger crags supports some extremely difficult climbs and is slightly west of Family Crag. It will also take some searching to find the class 3 "trail" up and around the top of the crag to set up a top rope. Watch out for bees nests in the ground and trees?

Finding the crag might be arduous, but the climbing is absolutely superb. There are many 100ft, single pitch routes generally ranging from 5.8-5.10d's. Most of the climbing is lengthy, slab climbing and nearly everything is bolted if you'd prefer to sport climb. If you can find the wall, this is one of the best kept secrets of North Conway!

South Side of Jockey Cap, Maine
Top of Jockey Cap
#5 Jockey Cap, Maine

Jockey Cap is a wonderful little nubble just outside of Fryeburg Maine which is probably the easiest place to set up a top rope. It's an especially great place if you're up in the North Conway  area on a crowded weekend. I've previously written about Jockey Cap here. Overall, the west side of the wall has a couple of 5.6-5.8 routes. The south side of the rock supports some very tough sport climbs. 

This is, of course, only a partial guide. The best thing you can do is purchase Ed Webster's "Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire", which is the original Bible of climbing in North Conway. Another wonderful resource is Jerry Handren's "North Conway Rock Climbs" which has plenty of color photographs to help with route finding. The latter book is only available through stores in the North Conway area and a few other locations in New England. Both books are absolutely indispensable for climbing in North Conway as internet guides will only get you so far!

However, if you're an up and coming climber just looking for some good places to set up a top rope and get on the rock, than I hope this helps!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!