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Eric Larsen Polar Explorer Interview

in Community/Earth by
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Eric Larsen, Polar Explorer is just back from his latest adventure in Antarctica where he attempted to ride a fat bike from the coast of the continent to the South Pole. In 2009 he became the only person to reach the North Pole, South Pole and Mount Everest (often referred to as the third pole) in one year’s time. SBM caught up with him at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. He told us about ‘beautiful weather’ on his Mount Rainier climb last summer, what it’s like to camp in Antarctica (it might not be what you think), how his decision-making process has changed in the last few months, what’s his Holy Grail, and which of his adventures made climbing Mount Everest seem like a piece of cake.

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SBM: Let’s start locally. Did you go up Mount Rainier when you were in Seattle last summer and did you summit?

LARSEN: Yeah. I’ve gone up a couple times now.

SBM: So you had decent weather?

LARSEN: No, it was brutal. It was in July. I was doing this Big City Mountaineers thing with my buddy. He has his own guiding company; he’s been up Everest twice. We were supposed to go to Pakistan and we were going to do G1 and G2 [Gasherbrum I and II are near K2 in the Karakoram] but I talked him into Rainier, so he came over as a favor to me, and here we are sitting on Rainier, and I’m like ‘sorry’. It was late, but I was trying to get these seven climbs in, they didn’t have to be hard. We decided to go up Rainier and I hadn’t been up to DC [Dissapointment Cleaver] before. We were going to go over to Little Tahoma but that was not good so we were going to leave that night and it just poured and lightening like crazy. So we just sat up there [at Camp Muir] for a whole day in the weather and said ‘oh my God, come on’. So the next day when we went up it was just blowing these ice balls.  It was really fun.

But it’s a beautiful mountain and I think that climbing out there or hiking is such great training because it’s 10,000 feet of elevation. But it’s beautiful too, because it’s so dramatic. In Colorado you get out of your car and you’re at 10,000 or 11,000 feet.

SBM: That was always my argument. People are quick to point out “Oh Colorado’s peaks are higher.” But there isn’t really any place where you can go from sea level to fourteen and a half thousand feet in a day outside of Washington State.

LARSEN: Exactly. And it kind of feels more like the Himalayas because when you’re on Rainier you’re so far above all the surrounding peaks that it’s this very different feeling. It’s cool. And I love the weather. I love the rain and I love the bad weather.

SBM: Wow. That’s unusual.

LARSEN: I actually took one of my favorite shots ever in my life at the top of Rainier. It was a picture of my buddy.

SBM: It’s a pretty photogenic place on a good day.

LARSEN: Oh, it was a total white out.

Paul Nanawa in the white on Rainier summit
Paul Nanawa in the white out on Rainier summit

SBM: How can you love that much cold and snow and miserable conditions? How do you deal? How do you handle it?

LARSEN: I don’t love it… well I do. I remember one time when I was twelve I had this paper route and I had to deliver a hundred and fifty newspapers, it took me five hours. I had a wagon that I pulled behind me. I remember this one time there was a blizzard and I was holding a newspaper in front of my face, because it was just coming down and I tripped over this fire hydrant. I remember thinking ‘what kind of weather is this that I have to hold this paper and trip over this fire hydrant?’ But the thing I like about winter is that it requires a little more thought and effort to be out and be safe. And I also like trying to figure out ways to be comfortable in those situations. I want to figure out ways to be warm in the cold. I also like to do my own thing. I’m not a huge fan of crowds and there are less people around when it’s cold. I’m comfortable by myself and polar travel is this long boring, journey.

SBM: On your bike trip how did you plan it? Did you have people following you with sleds full of supplies and food? Give us an idea of the set up. Who supported you, and where?

LARSEN: I’ve always kind of been a one-man band and not because I don’t want more people helping me out but just because I haven’t had the resources to be able to employ people or have other people around. So I do a lot of the project just on my own and I’ve actually coordinated much of my trips just from the ice, which is not quite as traditional. But I’ve been working with a few different people over the years to help out with some of the other things that go on, which is the storytelling aspect and how that gets distributed. So my friend Tim Harincar, from Whiteout Expeditions, designed all my remote blogging, mapping, and all these other things and he integrated all that. So it’s just like, boom. And that’s important because that’s part of what my objective is, to tell stories in real time and now with social media its getting to people that can interact with it. His wife helped out while I was on the ice, coordinating with some of my non-profit partners, as well as just having some conversations back and forth about whatever might arise, inevitably there is always some other issue. I have a PR agent, Lora from Scream that I’ve worked with, she’s awesome, doing press releases contacting media. So that’s kind of what my support staff is.

Then I have sponsors and they’re all listed on my website. I spend a lot of time looking for gear that fits my purpose and meets my demands and rigorous use. I’m out for weeks and months and there is a big difference between using something for a weekend and using it for three or four weeks especially in really cold intense UV exposure, everything breaks, that’s the bottom line and I don’t want to spend a lot of my time fixing things although I do end up doing a lot of sewing. I have a repair kit and what not. That’s really important to me, that gear. And I enjoy the people I am involved with, there are a lot of great people behind those brands and they’re my friends.

SBM: How do you do food planning?

LARSEN: First of all, the one thing about the overall gear is, planning for a forty day trip is roughly the same as planning for a three day trip because there isn’t much difference. If I’m going to go out on an overnight winter trip I’m going to bring roughly the same amount of gear and equipment. The thing that changes really is the amount of food and fuel that I have. I also need to understand what my calorie consumption is going to be based on what the endeavor is and how long I’m out because it changes over time. So my menu planning is relatively basic. I start at five thousand calories a day and it bumps up a couple times over the trip to roughly seventy two or seventy five hundred calories depending roughly upon who you are, what your metabolism is like and how efficient you are at what you do.

It’s important for me to have a well balanced diet. Because after four or five weeks you just don’t have a lot of physical or mental resources. So I’m looking at a complete diet that’s got a good proportion of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Then you have to factor in that you’re carrying everything so it has to be light as possible and also volume a lot of times especially on the bike is very limited so it has to be very compact. So those are some big factors and I’m constantly looking at food and seeing what the calorie per weight ratio is. Fats have the highest calorie per weight ratio. My expedition diet is roughly 2.2- 2.5 lbs of food per day. And that’s around five thousand calories per day.

SBM: Is that mostly rehydrating?

LARSEN: Dinner and breakfast are. I used to make a special oatmeal that was whole milk, and olive oil and pumpkin seeds but I don’t really like breakfast. This time I just took freeze-dried dinners with olive oil instead. And then have a two-portion meal, which is four servings for dinner. Then I also had extra fat. During the day I had seven Clif Bar products and I eat them at different times. At lunch I have a hundred grams of chocolate, fifty grams of salami, fifty grams of cheese, and a little bit of soup which is part of my dinner leftovers. I’m not any kind of big nutritionist but the more time you spend doing these things the more you understand how certain foods make you feel.

SBM: What’s it like to camp down there?

LARSEN: Antarctica is the easiest place to camp in the world because it’s twenty-four hour daylight and as long as the sun is out, it’s really warm in the tent. So I’m just sitting in my base layer. There are times that I’m half out of my sleeping bag. I’m never cold. Maybe a couple of times when its overcast it’ll get to be about zero in the tent but it’s often ten, twenty, even forty degrees in the tent and it’s dry. It’s easy to dry out gear. That’s easy. Now, conversely, the Arctic Ocean, [near the North Pole] is very different. It’s minus 40 out there and overcast and it’s humid. It’s the same temp in the tent. You sleep in a vapor barrier bag, so that your sweat and moisture doesn’t get into the bag and ice up, then a second bag, so it’s a three layer system.

SBM: So when you get out of that bag in the morning how do you keep from freezing with all that moisture?

LARSEN: Oh, you don’t because we also have to get out and put everything outside right away. In that situation we can’t have our sleeping bags in the tent either because as soon as the stove comes on there’s a lot of moisture that would collect in our sleeping bags.

So the Arctic Ocean, the North Pole trip is in my mind probably the hardest expedition that exists. Way harder than Everest, ten times harder.

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SBM: Just simply because of weather and extremes?

LARSEN: Well, there’s not the altitude of Everest, and not the chance of falling off the South Summit or avalanches but there is thin ice you can fall through, there are polar bears, there’s pressure ice. There are a lot of physical, objective hazards and everyday you’re moving, whereas Everest, I was on the mountain nine days, and then came back to a base camp where you’re sitting in a chair eating at table. It’s a piece of cake versus my last North Pole trip fifty-one days, the one before that sixty-two days and seventy-two days on the ice. Of moving everyday and setting up camp where it is so extremely cold and sleeping in this coffin of a sleeping bag system where it’s not even that comfortable. That’s a difficult trip.

SBM: So what it is about this that makes you keep doing it?

LARSEN: I’ve been trying to figure that out my whole life. I don’t know. I don’t really know the answer. I think part of it is how I was built. I think another thing for me is that it is a form of self-expression… it’s who I am. Doing a unique trip or a unique style or maybe it’s a trip that everyone else has done but telling the story of that trip the way I see it is part of my self-expression, like painting a painting. I think that is the underlying part of it. I think that is why I want to do it.

From a more pragmatic perspective I like the physical and mental challenges of expedition travel. It’s hard when you’re in the situation but I feel like when I started out doing little trips when I was a kid I like those challenges and also like the rewards that come with that direct contact with nature and the with the elements and the consequences are one to one.  In our normal lives we have all these layers and these filters. There are safety nets there. But to me that direct relationship you have with, not only the elements and the style of travel but also with the people you’re working with, that’s important. Maybe that’s another artistic thing but it’s part of finding meaning in things that I do.

I think the last thing is, I was a teacher previously and an educator, and I want to share these places with people and have them better understand them and appreciate them and I think trying to make the world a better place is very important to me. These are all integral parts of the mission. So one of my challenges is, how do you get people involved in these things in away that’s not threatening, in a way that they will be engaged. And that’s the Holy Grail for me. I was an environmental ed teacher for five, six or seven years and substitute taught in schools I have always been interested in how to get people engaged in things and have them learn about a place or an idea without them ever realizing it. And I think that is the beauty of an expedition. It is an interesting story and that human element is fascinating to all of us and there are a lot of analogies. Everybody deals with hardships and with problems.  I never set out to be a big motivator but what I’ve learned is that a lot of the skills I’ve learned in expeditions apply to my own life and I find myself giving my self the pep talk, ‘here’s what I learned.’

SBM: I know you are hard on yourself about not completing your last goal. Even without the success what did you learn?

LARSEN: I learned some pragmatic things about bicycling in Antarctica that I hadn’t previously known. I’d done a lot of testing and training.

I think I learned a little bit more about how that trip should change to be successful and my initial plan of starting at the edge of the continent and going to the pole, I don’t think that is a realistic plan. I think I need to reverse the route and start at the pole and go to the edge of the continent and then have twice as many resupply points.

Then also, I have a lot of desire inside of me to do things and it’s a really intense drive and I wanted to make this trip happen this year. And I don’t know if it was necessarily the best time in my life. [His first child was born in October.] I’ve also learned that risk has changed for me: The amount of risk I’m willing to take. And not that I’m worried about injuring myself that much, but last year, had I been in that same situation, even knowing what I knew – that I wouldn’t make the pole or I’ll have to be picked up costing an extra 40 grand and making it a more risky venture for everyone involved – I probably would have kept going. I would have gotten a hundred more miles and my food would have run out but I wouldn’t have quit just then. I felt like I made the right decision. And I think that perspective is good.

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SBM: That’s a wonderful answer for someone like me. I climb mountains in my area and as a mom, I have to boys at home and a husband, and it doesn’t not go through your head, you know.

LARSEN: And that’s different for me. I’ve never felt this way before. I thought ‘what is this feeling here, I’m not familiar with that one’. That said, my life is based on doing these things that are inherently risky so I need to come up with some kind of middle ground in what I can do. I think that is an important part of my life. So those are the big things.

SBM: When you’re out there working across the miles, my guess is your not spending time worrying about “oh, I hope I didn’t forget to pack the bottle opener”?

LARSEN: No, I never do that. I also don’t ever make lists. I’m pretty visual, so I just lay out all my gear. But I’ve never make a gear list, like ‘okay I need two pairs of socks and one fuel bottle,’ and I probably should make lists but for whatever reason that system has served me all right.

SBM: That’s good.

LARSEN: It’s good and bad. I mean it doesn’t work well with other people [like clients he’s guiding] sometimes because not everybody necessarily works well that way.

SBM: I’m curious to see if you can continue to operate that way once you have a toddler.

LARSEN: I know. Well Maria and I are aware that we’re well into our adult hood… we have been for a while. I’m forty-one now, and have been making decisions however I wanted, and that’s not an option with a newborn. Things will certainly be different.

SBM: You’re a good storyteller. And I want to know if you have plans to turn any of your expeditions into books or if you have already?

LARSEN: I have not turned any of them in to books. I really want to. The story of the three poles trip, I think, is a really good one. And I really love writing too. It’s one of the things I enjoy on the expeditions. I’ll write a blog and I’m generally very tired by the time I get to it. I’ve even fallen asleep while writing stuff during a trip. But I do like writing and I would like to get a book out soon. I just need to get it done. Quit making excuses.

SBM: What one thing do you want people to take from your endeavors?

LARSEN: Well it’s not one thing, it’s two things. I don’t think of anything I do as overly incredible. I grew up in Wisconsin. I was an average athlete by every stretch of the imagination.  I think I try really hard and I have a lot of motivation but I think that a lot of success is a pretty simple formula. There are some pretty basic steps to achieve big goals and that is a pretty valuable lesson that I’ve learned from these trips. Achieving things is not some secret recipe, we all have the ability to do these amazing things and it’s important to be reminded of that. I need to be reminded of that. We can do this, and we can do a little more along the way by understanding more about our world because it’s an amazing place.

And also, I want to teach people that we need to protect our planet and that we all have the ability to make change. Sometimes we think these issues are so big that one little hand clapping won’t make much difference but I would disagree. Those two things hand in hand.

Mountain Bikes on the PCT

in Community/Earth/Trails by
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The blogs have been buzzing about the prospect of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) being opened to mountain bikes. It’s an emotionally charged issue for both sides – those who are alarmed by a perceived threat to the serenity and uniqueness of the PCT, and those who feel unjustly denied the right to ride those special trails. The objective of this article is to provide a factual basis for readers to evaluate the issue so that they can be informed and effective participants in the anticipated decision process.

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The Situation

In 2010 a coalition of concerned mountain biking advocates joined forces in a grassroots effort that they called the “PCT Reassessment Initiative” (www.sharingthepct.com) to petition the United State Forest Service for review of a 1988 Closure Order which banned bikes on the PCT.  In their words, the PCT is “a public trail that belongs to the entire community of quiet, non-motorized travelers, including cyclists, and it is our shared responsibility to see that it is managed effectively, fairly, sustainably and in the spirit it was intended.”

In their letter, the mountain biking advocates argue that, “no statute or Code of Federal Regulations provision prohibits bicycle access to the entire trail. Congress intended for bicycle use to be allowed in principle on the PCT— subject, of course, to reasonable regulation.” They continue in the letter, “twenty-two years later the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service know how to manage multiuse trails. It is time to reassess the usefulness of the closure order. In this case, the magnitude of the order is so significant that we think a purely internal review will not suffice. We wish to be part of a public process to reevaluate the closure order comprehensively.”

As the word got out about the requested review process, a flurry of passionate, even heated, exchanges began to appear on hiker, equestrian and mountain biking forums, from advocates on both sides. Clearly this issue has struck a nerve. In a cursory read of the comments, many mountain bikers feel discriminated against on trails built and maintained with their taxpayer dollars and volunteer time and that they’re increasingly being stereotyped and unreasonably denied access to the best miles of high country trails, out of selfishness, intolerance, outdated thinking or an extreme preservationist mentality. Many hikers and equestrians, having experienced trail damage and scary encounters with mountain bikes on narrow trails, feel that land managers, driven by the powerful mountain bike lobby, are opening too many trails already in an unrealistic quest for a ‘shared use’ ideal which will ultimately destroy their experience of solitude and quiet nature in the backcountry. Obviously, most readers are somewhere in the middle. However it was also obvious that very few people were operating against the actual facts of the situation.In 2012, the leaders of the PCT Reassessment Initiative apparently received word that the USFS could initiate a formal review process “as early as March of 2013”. According to Jack ‘Found’ Haskel, Trail Information Specialist for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, “The issue is not at the stage of having proposed changes for consideration or public comment.” However, recently some comment periods for proposed federal rule changes have been as little as 30 days with minimal advance notice. Comments and active user involvement really do have weight in matters like this. It’s essential that trail users with concerns about management of the PCT get up to speed on the facts of the situation and ready themselves to participate effectively in the decision.

How might this play out in Washington State?

In a 2009 update to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST) Comprehensive Plan, the Forest Service reinforced that local unit supervisors “could” (not must) allow bicycles on selected sections of the trail meeting “appropriate” trail design standards, “if the use …will not substantially interfere with the nature and purposes of the CDNST”, i.e., “high quality scenic, primitive hiking and horseback riding” and the “conservation of natural, historic and cultural resources.”

As pure conjecture with no intent to express an opinion, let’s say the Closure Order was rescinded and the CDNST approach was applied to the PCT. After a review against the Federal Wilderness map (www.wilderness.net/map.cfm), it’s obvious that there are few sections of the PCT in Washington not already protected by Wilderness designation. [The Wilderness Act of 1964 and subsequent statutes clearly exclude motorized and mechanized forms of transportation in Federal Wilderness.“Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights… there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”  It seems very unlikely (though the mountain biking advocates are pushing this hard also) that Federal Wilderness statutes will be modified to allow access to bicycles.] In fact nearly all of the remote alpine sections are protected already. [It is obvious from Wilderness maps that Wilderness boundaries along the extent of the PCT have been drawn specifically to include the trail along much of its length.] The only non-Wilderness sections extend from Pyramid Peak to Snoqualmie Pass; from just south of the North Cascades highway north to Robinson Creek; and through some extended, heavily-roaded sections between Mount Adams and the Columbia River. Interest by mountain bikers could be fairly high on these sections because much of this country is readily accessed from forest service roads, though they’re unlikely to satisfy the yearning for the best high-country trails. While I don’t know these sections intimately, where trail attributes include good wide tread, a steady grade and long sight distances – all good design features for ‘shared use’ trails – with a lifting of the Closure Order and an approach like that on the CDNST, USFS unit managers could easily decide to grant mountain bike access on these sections in the face of heavy advocacy. However, while not wanting to offend passionate advocates of these particular trail sections, the impact on the broader population of current PCT users in Washington would seem to be far less than might be perceived at first blush. Still, section hikers and equestrians passing through this patchwork of trails could experience days at a time where their quiet experience would be interrupted by the passage of bicycle traffic (as, in fact, they already do when the trail passes through a developed area or a narrow private easement).

Oregon’s PCT miles seem likewise to be mostly protected by Wilderness designation, other than some sections in the northern part. Likewise, the PCT through the central High Sierra in California is protected as Wilderness. In contrast, much of the PCT in northern and southern California is not in Wilderness. From the PCTA website, some of the same sections are facing even more alarming threats from incompatible use by private landowners on adjoining parcels (logging, mining, dumping, development), and easements through much of this land are narrow, sometimes not much wider than the trail. The USFS has been struggling to get enough dollars allocated through congress to purchase additional rights of way, though bills are in process and the PCTA and legislative partners are pushing hard for the additional support.

So this story is certainly different from the stark high-stakes “win-lose” conflict that might initially be perceived based on a reading of the comment strings on user websites. Still, even recognizing the limited extent of non-wilderness miles available on the PCT, mountain biking advocates are eagerly pursuing access to these remaining miles based on legitimate arguments founded on statutes and precedents, and there are equally valid arguments to support hiking, equestrian and resource stewardship interests who want to maintain the ban.

The Historical Foundation

The Pacific Crest and Appalachian National Scenic Trails were established in the National Trails Systems Act of 1968 as “extended trails … to provide for maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural or cultural qualities of the areas through which [they] may pass.” The Continental Divide trail and others were also recommended in the Act for consideration, later formally designated. The Act also states that, “potential trail uses allowed on designated components of the National Trails System may include, but are not limited to, the following: bicycling, cross-country skiing, day hiking, equestrian activities, jogging or similar fitness activities, trail biking, overnight and long-distance backpacking, snowmobiling, and surface water and underwater activities.” The Forest Service carries the lead responsibility for managing the PCT.

In 1978 the Forest Service adopted new internal regulations stating, “the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail … shall be administered primarily as a footpath and horseback riding trail by the Forest Service in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior.” When the PCT Comprehensive Plan was written in 1982, the document’s legislative foundation for the trail included the statement, “the Pacific Crest Trail traditionally has served horseback and foot travelers. This use pattern, accepted by most visitors to the trail, should be continued.”

However, the Comprehensive Plan also recommended a management strategy for the PCT on Federal lands outside of Parks and Federal Wilderness which promotes “experiences associated with the middle of the opportunity spectrum: i.e., semi-primitive, non-motorized and motorized, roaded —natural, and rural”, deliberately not choosing an emphasis on ‘primitive’ uses only. Further, “the management of the various resources will give due consideration to the existence of the trail and trail users within the multiple-use concept.” At that time, the managers of the trail were preoccupied with an entirely different set of ‘multiple use’ concerns including land management activities such as logging, forestry and mining as well as off-road motorized vehicles; bicycles had not yet taken off as a major recreational trail use.

So, from a statutory and regulatory perspective, the guidance for its managers was ambiguous – the original Act put hiking, backpacking, trail biking and snowmobiling on an equal footing, all to be considered as potential uses against the intent to “provide for maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of …nationally significant scenic, historic, natural or cultural qualities.” Language establishing foot travel and horseback riding as primary over the other uses came later as an internal regulation, and even then, seems watered down by vague language in the Comprehensive Plan.

As mountain bike use increased dramatically through the 1980s and 90s, “share the trails” initiatives by national, state and local mountain biking associations, coupled with pressure on public land managers to broaden ‘multiple use’ policies, resulted in the explicit opening of more and more public trails to mountain bike use. Popular trails, especially those near urban areas, soon began to experience high usage and the beginnings of resource and user issues. By the late 1980s, based on real or anticipated user conflicts and environmental degradation attributed to increasing mountain bike use on hiking trails, managers of trail systems around the country began selectively closing trails to mountain bikes.

Having little experience with bicycle use on trails and likely alarmed by rapidly escalating usage and real or potential issues, the Forest Service imposed a Closure Order in 1988 banning the use of bicycles on any part of the PCT. The ban has been maintained and enforced since its inception, and has remained unchallenged until the 2010 request for review by the PCT Reassessment Initiative.

Allow mountain bikes on the PCT?

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In their arguments in favor of opening the CDNST to bikes in a 2007 review, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) argued that, “bicycling is compatible with the intent and purpose of the PCT…With 40 million participants, mountain biking is the second most popular trail activity in the country. [Hiking is by far the largest use, amounting to 2-3 times the participants of mountain biking. Also, the number of hikers is increasing modestly over time while mountain bike participation has remained fairly stable since 2006.]  This large constituency helps lobby for public lands funding and donates nearly one million volunteer hours each year to trail construction and maintenance… the IMBA is not asking for access to all 3,100 miles, but there are many non-Wilderness sections where non-motorized users can get along and mountain biking should continue…Every year, cyclists contribute hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer labor for trail design, construction and maintenance throughout the U.S. IMBA-affiliated clubs alone have accounted for approximately 700,000 hours annually. In addition, IMBA and affiliates provide professional services and capital resources to improve trail experiences for all non-motorized trail users.”

The National Trails System Act does not differentiate among hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers as ‘potential users’ for the National Scenic Trails, except as they might differ in impact on the overall objectives for the trails. The power to decide these access issues is clearly given to local USFS unit managers for their local trails in consultation with the other agencies involved. Even the subsequent USFS regulations putting hiking and horse users first still emphasize multiple use and do not mandate excluding bicycles from trails.

In addition, there is precedent for national park and national forest supervisors working with their local user groups to successfully identify portions of a National Scenic Trail for shared use where it is expected to cause minimal conflict or compromise to scenic and environmental resources or other users. As mentioned above, the 2009 Comprehensive Plan for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail was approved including the statement that “bicycle use may be allowed on the CDNST, using the appropriate trail design standards, if the use …will not substantially interfere with the nature and purposes of the CDNST.”, i.e., “high quality scenic, primitive hiking and horseback riding” and the “conservation of natural, historic and cultural resources.” It’s critical to point out that this new language was NOT an unrestricted opening of the Continental Divide trail to mountain bikes. It only reinforced the responsibility of USFS unit supervisors to consider mountain bike access where it could be found consistent with the defined “nature and purposes” of the trail.

The National Park Service also takes a shared use approach, though more focused on trails in already developed areas. Their policy states “bicycle use is a very appropriate, low impact method for visitors to enjoy park areas, but that certain limitations on their use are necessary and appropriate in the interest of public safety, resource protection, and the avoidance of visitor conflicts.”  Importantly, “the designation of a bicycle route outside of such developed areas, in areas whose primary purpose and land uses are related more to the preservation of natural resources and values, would have a much greater potential to result in adverse resource impacts or visitor use conflicts.”

So, based on this assessment of the statutes, regulations and precedents, there is justification for a challenge of the Forest Service’s blanket ban on access by mountain bikes to any portion of the PCT.

Still, based on an admittedly limited scan of websites from national forests, national parks and the BLM across the western states where the PCT passes, land managers have primarily focused mountain bike trails on dirt/gravel roads and a few clearly designated singletrack trails with easy access from urban areas. [Singletrack is a narrow mountain biking trail that is approximately the width of the bike. It contrasts with double track, which is wide enough for four-wheeled off-road vehicles.] This falls short of the expressed goal of the mountain bike community to open as much backcountry as possible to bicycles, particularly singletrack trails. As one example, the IMBA is pressing the Forest Service for bicycle access to 32 miles of new trail on the CDNST, recently rerouted from some current dirt road sections, arguing that, “the current route is not a high-quality backcountry bicycling experience because it is limited to dirt roads. Backcountry bicycling is a highly valued experience and is perfectly suited for this segment of the CDNST.”

So, are mountain biking advocates correct that the PCT is a “public trail that belongs to the entire community of quiet non-motorized travelers,” implying that the entire non-motorized public should have full freedom of access to the entire length of the PCT, or even the non-Wilderness sections? The answer to this question seems to be a fairly clear, “no.” It’s been well established by statute and upheld in court that local USFS and NPS managers have the statutory authority to determine what trail segments, if any, can be opened to mountain bikes, based on their best good-faith assessment of the compatibility of mountain bike use with other users and resource protection. At least one Federal court case [Bicycle Council of Marin vs. Babbitt, 9th Circuit, 1996] and a significant body of survey evidence from USFS and National Park Service unit managers found ‘ample evidence’ that off-road mountain bike use can lead to significant public safety, resource protection and user conflict issues. Some well-considered closures of certain trail segments to mountain bikes (and in some cases even to horses) seem well justified by law, land management policy and experience.

Maintain the Blanket Ban?

A letter to members on their website states that, “the Pacific Crest Trail Association opposes bicycle use on the [PCT]. We will be reaching out to all of you when we know more about the process and what influence we, as hikers and equestrians, can have. We will keep you informed of our progress and your potential role in this important matter for the PCT.”

At the end of the day, the regulations are clear and the courts have upheld that USFS and NPS land managers do have the authority to issue a closure order without public comment in cases where they perceive urgent public safety or resource damage concerns. So there does not seem to be valid procedural grounds to reverse the ban. Or even to force it into a public review.

Overwhelmingly the arguments for maintaining the ban focus on upholding existing USFS regulations to protect the experience of hiker and equestrian users and the original National Trails System Act’s mandate to protect the “nationally significant scenic, historic, natural or cultural qualities” of the environments through which the trail passes. Even if local land managers have the authority to designate some sections open to bikes if such use is determined to be ‘compatible’ with the primary purposes of the trail, can such use truly be compatible on any portion of the PCT?

While individual studies raise furious debate, and some ‘controlled studies’ have shown little incremental impact of mountain bikes on trails, as mentioned above it has been established in multiple surveys and more than one court case that shared use by mountain bikes with hikers and/or horses can result in an appreciable incidence of trail damage, injuries and conflicts on some trails. Certainly many hikers and equestrians can relate to reports of people having been run down or spooked by inconsiderate, speeding mountain bikers, and many land use managers and users have reported trail damage attributable to heavy and inappropriate mountain bike use. Inappropriate use may not be a reasonable basis to judge a whole user group, but inherent in the mountain biking experience is a higher travel speed under normal use than hikers and horses, introducing safety concerns that cannot be ignored, particularly on narrow trails like the vast majority of the PCT where there is little room to pass. [It’s commonly joked that the PCT is “2,663 miles long and 18 inches wide”.] Even infrequent incompatibility is still incompatibility, and one cannot expect to eliminate every inappropriate use regardless of the effort spent on training, signage and enforcement. It is often the case that trails with significant mountain bike use are soon abandoned by hikers and horses, making them de-facto single-use trails.

In addition, even the 2009 CDNST Comprehensive Plan emphasizes that “appropriate trail design standards” are a requirement for opening trails to bicycles. There is a major discrepancy between the published literature and the IMBA’s own rules for safe singletrack trail design, and the actual on-the-ground design of the patchwork of trails making up the PCT, particularly in the backcountry. As mentioned above, many mountain biking advocates are particularly interested in opening many of the most remote high-alpine stretches of the trail, for the same reasons that hikers seek them out: they’re un-crowded and incredibly scenic. However, many of these trail sections are narrow, steep and winding, with blind corners, short sight distances and little room for passing. The safety consequences of a surprise interaction between a biker and a hiker or horse could be serious, with rocks and drop-offs destined to severely injure either party if they fall while trying to avoid the other, even if the bike is traveling at a relatively modest speed. Even on straighter sections, the speed differential between a bike and a hiker is sufficient, on some narrow trail segments, to create significant potential for conflict and/or injury. The question cannot be whether it’s compatible in an idealized situation, with only trained and careful riders and ideal shared-trail design and conditions; the question is whether it can be proved compatible in the real world of the PCT under typical trail conditions and user behavior.

So, while one may argue that it is possible for a careful rider and a vigilant hiker to avoid injury, and many do on current shared-use trails, it seems an unavoidable reality that the probability of safety incidents and injury would be significantly increased if the ban on mountain bikes was lifted on many sections of the PCT.

Finally, many also argue that the PCT stands as one of only a very few officially designated National Scenic Trails, defined based on their attributes of quiet, serenity, undisturbed nature and escape from the mechanized world over their entirety of the trail. It certainly seems that it was the intent of congress to protect its users and one-of-a-kind resources under consistent standards throughout; otherwise, why set up a National Trails System at all? This argument was not articulated by the USFS as a basis for their ban, but the PCT’s existence as a National trail argues that there must be national oversight over individual land managers’ access decisions to ensure consistent protection of user enjoyment, safety and resources along the entire trail.  Once this end-to-end quiet, non-mechanized experience is compromised with piecemeal trail opening to mountain bikes, it could be argued that the trail as a national entity no longer delivers on those values.

What’s next?

There has not yet been a formal announcement or call for comment related to a USFS review of the 1988 Closure Order. It is unlikely, however, that the IMBA or their constituents will let the matter drop. It is strongly in their interest to continue to push back on trail closures wherever they occur. The PCTA, the IMBA and the PCT Reassessment Initiative websites are likely to communicate any action by the USFS when it occurs. Interested users should keep a close eye on www.pcta.org and www.sharingthepct.com for updates.

When this happens, interested current and potential users of the PCT have a great deal at stake and would be strongly encouraged to provide comments, early and often as the bulk and balance of comments matters in these agency decisions. Hopefully the background and synopsis above will help to inform readers to present knowledgeable and thoughtful comments.

In closing, I’d like to reiterate that this debate about mountain bikes goes on in the context of other, perhaps even greater threats to user experiences along the PCT. As the PCTA describes effectively in their website, “while technically located on federal land or right-of-way easements across private land, the PCT is far from being protected from urban encroachment or the ravages of resource extraction. There are 307 miles of private land right-of-way easements between Mexico and Canada, many as narrow as eight feet, and some even less…currently, passage is usually permitted; however, trail conditions and user experiences vary widely on these easements. There are dangerous road-walks, hazardous logging operations, ski and other incompatible commercial areas, residential areas, trash problems, and a host of other activities and situations never envisioned when the National Trails System was created in 1968.”  In addition, users of the PCT and many other exceptional trails have found road access to those trails steadily deteriorating due to lack of maintenance, sometimes due to Wilderness designation and sometimes due to lack of funds. As one thoughtful commenter on the PCTA website points out, “more users = more advocates = more voices = more trailheads being open = more roads open.” Other commenters have pointed out that sharing the PCT with mountain bikers would bring more volunteers and advocates to the table to fight for the funding to expand and easements and maintain the trail and key access roads.

So, while I admit to being personally, viscerally opposed to mountain bikes on the PCT, I am likewise opposed to the steady decline and closure of key trail-access roads and the presence of trail easements so narrow that mines, houses and logging operations press right to the trail. All users must think big-picture and put their voices and actions to those steps which provide the most benefit against the critical goals of protecting quiet, primitive outdoor experiences and protection of one-of-a-kind scenic and natural resources. Be informed. Listen. Think. Participate. Encourage cooperative rather than polarized behavior. We all agree on the precious and unique value of the PCT and owe it to our grandchildren to act today so that it is maintained and enhanced for them to treasure as we have.

Photographing Glacial Change – Visual Reality

in Community/Earth/Trails by

Orion Ahrensfeld_Coleman Glacier twilight

I recently journeyed up the Heliotrope Ridge Trail to catch a glimpse and perhaps venture out onto an active glacial field. For years I had held the concept of glaciers in abstract fascination. They were distant, large, slightly frightening places where climbers cautiously skirt around crevasses and occasionally disappear. When I was 12, I visited Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska with my parents and grandparents who had grown up in Juneau and been there for years. I took photos with my 35 mm point and shoot camera, not realizing then that I was capturing something that would slowly recede into the mists of time.

CHR_mendenhall 1964_Kurt Ahrensfeld

Much later, in 2007, I ventured out to Heliotrope Ridge at Mount Baker for the first time. It was June, a time of the year when the trail is still very much covered in the melting remnants of winter snows. I’d crossed snow bridges and climbed onto the ridge crest get a good look at the heart of the active Coleman Glacier. I wasn’t much of a photographer then, having just purchased my first DSLR and still shooting on automatic. But I was a mountain lover, and was captivated by this thing, this icy tongue of jagged cracks and crevasses extending from a behemoth peak. I spent some years chasing glacial views in the pacific Northwest  but after seeing boulders larger than my head falling down while at one overlook, I opted to keep my distance. The experience only whet my appetite to get closer.

Orion Ahrensfeld_Coleman Glacier_2007

Later on, hiking the Paradise Glacier trail at Rainier, I remembered seeing a photo of the famed ice caves at the Paradise Glacier. I later learned that those caves were long gone, melted away as the glacier itself receded up the rock face and away from access. All along, there was talk of this thing called climate change. It was best represented in my own experience by computer models, forecasting dire consequences of doom and gloom. “So and so many degrees in temperature rise will create inland flooding and a blankety blank rise in sea levels.” Abstract figures floated in scientific reports, distancing me from the reality. I simply said “Computer models? Created by human beings?” I was a skeptic at best.

But back to Heliotrope Ridge. I decided this last September to get closer to a living, breathing glacier. I mean this quite literally. A glacier is alive. It breathes, it moves, it grows, it changes. The way I see it, they are absolutely not static, dead things. I wanted to see this thing, to stand on it, to be connected to it somehow, and standing on an overlook, looking down on it from afar was just not going to do. And so I plotted my return to Heliotrope. I hiked the trail with a friend of mine and soon we found ourselves standing above the glacier until we were face to face with it. Cracked, broken, deep blue crevasses stared back at me and a raging torrent of water flowed through it. I could practically feel the glaciers pulse as I reached out and put my hand on frozen ice. Afterward, I rushed back down the rock face to beat sunset, in the process sending my tripod down the slope in front of me. Returning home I realized that I had merely fed my desire to experience a glacier in its raw form.

Orion Ahrensfeld_Glacial crevasses Orion Ahrensfeld_Mt Baker glacial crevasses Orion Ahrensfeld_Coleman Glacier_2009

As timing would have it, I became aware of the film “Chasing Ice” with photographer James Balog. I watched the trailer again and again then realized that there was somebody else who’d been captivated by the glaciers, only he had captured something I had not with his time-lapse photography.  He was documenting the death of a glacier.  I was somewhat aware of glacial shifts in general, of course because of the aforementioned computer models and science news, but that’s as far as it went.  Seeing the final film, Balog’s photography showed in raw, heartrending clarity exactly what happens when a glacier is dying. His imagery was stunningly beautiful and absolutely horrifying to watch. “My god” was the first thing I said when I saw the first sequence.  It shocked me to the core, to realize that now this abstract climate change thing had a face.  It was at this moment that a light went on.  When he showed time-lapse footage of Mendenhall Glacier, circa 2009 I realized just how much it had already changed from the photos I’d taken when I was 12. I didn’t even recognize it at first. The glacier had literally crept back up the bay, abandoning the large waterfall that used to be its near neighbor, and then crept back over the large rock slope adjacent to the calving face of the glacier. That hit it home for me, showing me visually that there may be a time when there won’t be glaciers you can hike to. There may be a time that they are gone, completely and utterly. And as Balog said during the making of his film, “I have to go back.”

CHR_mendenhall 2009_Kurt Ahrensfeld CHR_mendenhall 1990_Orion Ahrensfeld

Protect the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Wilderness

in Community/Earth/Fireside by

Editor’s Note: Seattle Backpackers Magazine is pleased to publish this call to advocacy from the Sierra Club to protect the Okanogoan-Wenatchee National Forest Wildlands that currently stand on the precipice of change.

The ski and snowshoe season is upon us and if you are anything like me you will be traversing I-90 as you head up to Snoqualmie, or maybe you prefer U.S. Route 2, taking you up to Stevens Pass. While the heavy snowfall forecast for the North Cascades will surely meet your winter recreation needs you may also consider this unique forest for the backpacking opportunities it brings as the snow finally melts, giving way to spring and summer.

Just over the North Cascades ridgeline rests one of Washington State’s most cherished natural treasures, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. However, this majestic jewel of the Northern Cascades is facing a steady, unrelenting invasion from motorized vehicles. Destructive dirt bikes and four-wheel ATVs are carving up this spectacular landscape — endangering precious wildlife habitat, ruining peaceful world-class recreation and jeopardizing our water quality. The longer we wait to protect pristine roadless areas the more encroachment there is. Increased road building that fractures the landscape and crowds out wildlife diminishes the natural beauty of the forest.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest_1

In the coming months, the Forest Service will have the opportunity to protect the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest by recommending sensitive areas for Wilderness designation. Wilderness offers the highest level of protection possible. But it is up to you and me to make sure they carry out their mission to protect our beloved wild places.

Central Washington National Forests encompass roughly four million acres of public land, featuring miles of trails, a cadre of wild rivers, crystal clear alpine lakes and iconic mountain vistas. Currently, the Okanogan-Wenatchee boasts eight pristine wilderness areas coveted by backpackers for their natural character and prehistoric solitude. The eight awe-inspiring Wilderness areas range from the Pasayten Wilderness on the northern edge of the forest, to the Goat Rocks Wilderness area that resides just below U.S. Route 12 and White Pass. Each has unique characteristics that make these the most pristine areas of the forest and if protected in perpetuity forever available to our kids and grandkids to hike, ride, and play in.

While many outdoor adventurists regularly trek across this forest it seems that few know about the Forest Services’ ongoing efforts to modify the way it manages the forest. These changes can immediately impact hikers, fishermen, campers and boaters alike. For instance, the Forest Service may open up a trail to dirt bikes that has traditionally been for horses and hikers only. Imagine being out with your family, searching for solitude and instead finding the dust and noise these destructive vehicles leave in their wake. You may be peacefully snow-shoeing only to find out that even the non-motorized areas of the forests are now open to snowmobile traffic throughout the entire winter! These types of scenarios are governed by two ongoing processes, formally referred to as the Forest Plan Revision and Travel Management Plan Revision. I think of both as opportunities to protect trails and expand our coveted Wilderness areas. These are chances to change the rules and take back parts of the forest that have been sliced up and invaded by snowmobiles, ATV’s and dirt bikes.

It is easy to get involved and little actions go a long way. Forest-loving volunteers from all over the state are stepping up; some are leading outings to special places and educating trip participants, others are writing short and sweet handwritten letters addressed to Forest Supervisor Rebecca Heath, who is in charge of making some of the biggest decisions.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest_2

Some will testify at public hearings, while others make phone calls to community members to encourage the public to show up. And while we wait for new opportunities, volunteers schedule planning discussions so that we are on track to preserve what is left of the natural world. These processes represent considerably rare chances for public input that only come around every twenty years or so and we should be taking full advantage of them. The next opportunity for public input is scheduled to occur sometime in 2013 but now is the time to sign up. Now is the time to raise your hand and learn more about how you can get involved. To get involved or learn more please contact me, Graham Taylor, at graham.taylor@sierraclub.org or (206) 378.0114 x328.

We have Wilderness is because of citizen activists and regular everyday backpacking nature lovers like you. Those who came before us recognized the value of the wild. Folks witnessed a developing world and knew they should put some aside, save it and invest in it so that it can be enjoyed in the future. American’s had an extraordinary opportunity to preserve a time machine that could take people back thousands of year before concrete and motors took over. The advocacy of our forefathers provided overwhelming benefits; natural universities for scientists and poets to learn from and gain inspiration, habitat for endangered wildlife and endemic plants, and thousands of acres open to generations of outdoor adventurers. Now is our chance to do the same for our children and grandchildren. Now is our chance to realize, as the indigenous peoples of these lands did, that “we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Now is the time to preserve what we have, restore what is lost and create more Wilderness.

Unfortunately, when given the opportunity, the Forest Service demonstrated an aversion to adding Wilderness. In 2011 they released a preliminary Wilderness recommendation suggesting that only 12 percent of eligible roadless lands should receive protection. If the Forest Service’s suggestion rules the day we will have to wait another two decades before we can permanently protect some of our most beloved wild places here in Washington. In that time, those places may be unrecognizable, gone or changed forever.

The Forest Service’s decision left out places long-prized by legendary mountaineers like Ira Spring, and Harvey Manning; places like the Golden Horn, Long Swamp, Tiffany and Granite Mountain. Further south, the Service declined to nominate any new Wilderness in the Entiat and Chelan ranger districts, ignoring North Navarre Peak, Nason Ridge and the ancient old-growth forests in the surrounding Bumping Lake in the Naches district. In perhaps the most coveted region, the Teanaway, the Forest Service decided to recommend only 15,000 of 75,000 available acres for road-free “primitive” recreation. Many viewed this as a give-away to motorized user groups including dirt bikers, snowmobilers and quad riders. Many hikers shook their heads and have come together to advocate for human-powered recreationists who demand the protection of these ever-receding wildlands. Working in unison with the Sierra Club recreation groups like The Cascadians out of Yakima and Wenatchee’s El Sendero chapter of the Winter Wildlands Alliance have signed letters endorsing upwards of 70 percent of eligible roadless lands for Wilderness. The Conservation Community submitted over 34,000 comments to the Forest Service in 2011 echoing the call for more Wilderness. However, our work is not done and we will need to surpass these great results in order to get the Service on the right track.

Still, our current coalition is not strong enough to sway the Forest Service. And while our coalition of support is growing, we need recreationists to put on their advocacy caps, get out their pen and paper and write letters to agencies that illustrate the value of these places. We must take our friends and family to these places, educate them and let them fall in love as we have. Once people comprehend the value of these places and the experiences they offer then they will be eager to schedule meetings with decision makers and do whatever it takes to spotlight the enormous benefits protection brings to the forest and our beloved Washington State.

The time for action is ripe and as we cozy up for another long, dark winter we can prepare for a new year that will bring more opportunities for engagement. Long delayed, the Forest Service has promised to release the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Travel Management Plan early in 2013, to be quickly followed by the DEIS for the Forest Plan Revision. Both of these processes will offer our community a chance to engage, to talk with the Forest Service about how we use and value our public lands. And if we work hard enough, the snow may just melt in time for us to enjoy new Wilderness, for the first time.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest_3

To get involved or learn more, please contact me, Graham Taylor at graham.taylor@sierraclub.org or (206) 378.0114 x328.

Wind River Range Part II-Washakie Pass-Cirque of the Towers to Big Sandy

in Earth/Fireside/Trails by

Editor’s note: If you haven’t yet read Part I you should!

A mountain is the best medicine for a troubled mind. Seldom does man ponder his own insignificance. He thinks he is master of all things. He thinks the world is his without bonds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only when he tramps the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures about him, to come and go as he will, does he awaken to his own short-lived presence on earth.

— Finis Mitchell, “Wind River Trails”

We awakened on day nine of our Wind Rivers traverse to a red sky and high clouds skipping at high speed above our East Fork River meadow campsite. This was our biggest day, the day we would cut away from the Highline/Fremont trail system we’d been following for more than a week to cross over the Continental Divide and see the other side. Our plan from there was to traverse south over the very high Lizard Head bench and descend to the Popo Agie River, turning back west to reach and explore the stunning Cirque of the Towers. But those plans depended on good weather, and certainly no lightning storms. There was considerable uncertainty on that point as we had our breakfast at East Fork River.

Still, there was blue sky around and behind those ominous clouds blowing in from the west, and we packed up and headed east with the breeze at our backs. The junction with the Pyramid Lakes-Washakie Pass trail was so poorly marked that a fellow hiker had left a note on a trailside boulder pointing the way north. After much consultation with maps and compass, we agreed with the unknown hiker and set off downhill toward a crossing of Washakie Creek below and the gathering peaks beyond. Finding the trail just before the creek, we made the rock-hop crossing easily and headed uphill.

Soon reaching the junction of the Pyramid Lakes and Washakie Pass trails, we struggled with our eagerness to explore the Pyramid Lakes basin against the sensible option to get ourselves across the high pass before any bad weather broke. Sensibility prevailed, and as consolation, beautiful Skull Lake and the peaks of the Pyramid Basin were soon revealed in splendor from our trail: a massive cirque of granite towers including Mt Geikie, Ambush Peak, Raid Peak, Mt Bonneville, Glissade and Tower Peaks and Mt Hooker. We marked in our mental notes, “return here for a week of scrambling!” Turning our eyes forward, we aimed our eyes to the saddle of Washakie Pass high up the ridge ahead and followed the well-trodden, generally smooth trail up through the stark boulderfield, traversing the north slope of the basin before crossing over and back to reach the pass about five miles from our morning’s starting point. Before us stretched brand new country – unbelievably, an even higher concentration of lakes under sheer cliffs with the thick forested valley of the Little Wind River winding north-south just beyond. Our destination for the night was up on a bench just beyond the river. Finding shelter in the lee of some big boulders, we had our lunch in the warm sun.

It wasn’t long before premonition prickled (along with increasing winds and greying skies) and we hustled as quickly as good sense would allow to pack up and pick our way down the very steep boulder and talus field to the shelter of lower ground below. As the trail wound first around Macon Lake and then Big and Little Washakie lakes under the sheer cliffs, the skies opened and pelted us with huge raindrops, then ice pellets, dropping with great force. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed and bounced back and forth, amplified by the peaks surrounding us.

Macon Lake

Heads down, we descended around the lakes and then down, down to the banks of the North Fork of the Little Wind River at about two and a half miles from the pass. One tent on a hump overlooking the river flapped forlornly in the deluge. We crossed the river, again able to rock-hop without difficulty, and climbed back up the forested ridge a mile and a half to an unmarked side trail to good sheltered camps on the west side of Valentine Lake, our destination for the night.

Valentine Lake camp

As we reached the lake, the skies cleared and the sun re-emerged, so we soon had tents up and gear drying on every branch and flat surface. Looking across the lake, to the south and west we could see the distinctive shape of Buffalo Head, Payson Peak and the ridge extending south beyond. To the east loomed the five miles of high, very exposed bench we hoped to climb and then traverse the next day, with Cathedral Peak just showing its top beyond. The progress of clouds across the sky indicated very high winds at the level of the bench and a continuing potential for lightning. As we ate our dinners and prepared to settle for the night we soberly discussed our options, including reversing course and heading back toward Washakie Pass where the distance of high exposure was less. The opportunity would still exist, we reasoned, to circle around via the Big Sandy trail and over Jackass Pass for at least a day visit to Cirque of the Towers.

As day ten dawned, a call on our satellite phone to the Shoshone Ranger District office provided a promising report of sunny, clear weather and winds below 30 mph on the bench, so we set off from Valentine Lake and climbed around Buffalo Head peak on a blasted-out trail clinging to the rocky north slope above Little Valentine Lake and Valentine creek drainage to reach an unnamed divide (we christened it Lizard Head pass). Here the Bears Ears trail turned to the north and our trail to the bench turned south. A pack train passed us heading out to Dickenson Park via Bears Ears trail.

Just ahead at the divide was an incredible chasm dropping 2000 feet or more to the source stream for several lakes to the east. The wind blasted us here, a reminder of the fallibility of weather forecasting. Still, undaunted, we turned our faces into the blast and ascended under Cathedral Peak onto the bench. We found ourselves in an incredible, almost unearthly landscape shaped by glaciers, rivers and inexorable wind – a quarter-mile-wide bench with little vegetation, piles of boulders, a high ridge some thousand feet above us to our east, and a steep thousand-foot drop to our west with the myriad peaks along a hundred miles of the divide stretched out beyond. The wind, mostly in our faces but sometimes blissfully off the starboard bow, was like a living thing, blasting, swirling, sometimes even lifting us up so that we would stagger to keep our footing. Midway along, we were able to find a blocky tower of rock trailside that provided shelter in its lee so that we could hunker down, eat lunch and recover from the onslaught. Somewhat recovered, we pushed on to the point where we finally, five miles from the divide, found ourselves looking down steeply to the Popo Agie River a thousand feet below. Like Dorothy and her companions rushing across the meadow toward the Emerald City, we left the ridge and made short work of the rocky traverse under Lizard Head peak to the bottom where it was blissfully warm and windless under the trees. Along the way down were our first glimpses of some of the fabled peaks of the Cirque:  Mitchell Peak, Warbonnet, the Warriors. We turned back east along the Popo Agie, and soon found ourselves crossing Lizard Head Meadows with the full spectacle of the Cirque dead ahead, one of the most photogenic spots of our trip to that point. In another mile we reached the meadows before Lonesome Lake (no camping within a quarter mile!) and set up our tents along the lazy river with the Cirque above us in all its splendor. The sunset provided the best alpenglow of our trip, with gold turning to salmon turning to bright orange on Pingora Peak, Wolfs Head and the Warriors and reflecting on the calm waters of the Popo Agie.

That night and the following, down in our meadow, were the coldest of our trip yet, with solid ice in water bottles inadvertently left outside the tents. However, in our open valley, the sun reached us quickly and warmed us so that we were able to start out in shorts for our exploration of the Cirque on day ten. Picking our way on the maze of trails and then up the boulders, we first traversed under Warbonnet and the Warriors, stopping in amazement to gaze at the thinness of the knife-edge ridge on the crest of Warbonnet. Climbing around behind Pingora, we could see the tiny blue shimmer of Hidden Lake nestled under Warrior II. Soon the way became a mix of trail and boulder-hop, but we easily found our way to Cirque Lake which reflected the dramatic spires rising above it – the Watchtowers, Symmetry and Block Tower, distinctive Sharks Nose, and Wolfs Head. Two rock climbers from Pocatello nearly sprinted past us and, within a half hour, found their way free climbing to the top of Wolfs Head as we watched their progress from a snack spot by the lake. Editor’s note: To learn more about the incredible geology the Wind River Range visit the author’s “A Short-And-Sweet Geology of the Wind Rivers.”

 

Leaving the climbers to their views, we backtracked and then circled around the front of Pingora, looking straight up to see ropes and orange gear bags from a climbing party well on their way to the top of this classic route. Though there was no obvious trail, we were able to see our next objective which was Texas Pass, an alternative and shorter way into the Cirque from East Fork River via Shadow Lake. Soon the way was marked with cairns (which we augmented along our way) and we pushed on up the rockfield and across a small residual snowfield to the sign marking the obvious saddle of Texas Pass. The path up from the other side was very steep, but a viable trail made its way through the boulders from the lake basin below. Dropping back down from Texas Pass, we made a short detour to the top of Skunk Knob for more views before descending steeply back to the trees and meadows of Lonesome Lake and the Popo Agie.

Skunk Mountain

So finally we awakened to the last day of our journey, another icy morning (this time we postponed breakfast until 7 am, waiting for the sun to reach camp). The trails wound in unmarked profusion past Lonesome Lake and up toward Jackass Pass, finally converging halfway up to wind fairly gently along the grassy slope to the pass about a mile from our camp.

We took considerable time here taking pictures of Warbonnet, now just above us, and the peaks of the Cirque to the north, before heading down.

Day hiking up into the Cirque – Warbonnet Peak and Warrier I in the background
Warbonnet Peak

Soon it was clear why stock is discouraged from climbing Jackass Pass. The way down was a very steep boulder hopping exercise down to rock-bound Arrowhead Lake (no camping spots obvious here) before climbing again on a trail blasted in the wall and winding up and down over boulders and loose rock before finally reaching level trail along North Creek, about three miles from the pass and about a mile above Big Sandy Lake. The lake was blissful, a chance to soak feet and refresh ourselves with views across to even more future scramble routes to the south along Deep Lake and among the Temple Spires. Then, with the typical mix of relief and regret, we followed the gently descending forested trail along the final five miles to our oasis for the last night, the Big Sandy Lodge, with real beds, showers and home-cooked dinner and breakfast. Our shuttle from the Great Outdoor Shop picked us up on time the next morning for the two hours back through barren ranch country to Pinedale, where we picked up our cars and gear from the Rivera Lodge and set off on the long drive home.


 

Two Fall Color Hikes

in Earth/Trails by

These are desperate times. Hikers know the fall color show will all-too-soon transition to the gritty black and whites of November noir. True, the noir of the Pacific Northwest has a different kind of beauty but it’s still not too late for hikers starved for a last-minute color-fest on both sides of the Cascades. Here are two hikes guaranteed to sate your appetite for color (well, almost).

Pete Lake (Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest)

Finding smoke-free trails the past few weeks has been at times a guessing game, but after sizing up the haze at Snoqualmie Pass we headed east to Pete Lake near Salmon la Sac. As we drove by Cle Elum Lake on our way to the trailhead we were aghast at the low-water levels in the lake – they were much lower than we’d imagined.

There was a hint of smoke in the air as we left the Pete Lake trailhead though the sky was blue and there were no columns of smoke. We also noticed the Cooper River was low; in places more akin to a swamp than a river. Unlike the knee-deep conditions at Tired Creek we’d experienced earlier this year Tired Creek was virtually dry; there was no need to wade or cross on logs.

As we continued we were delighted by vivid displays of vine maple at its peak, glowing like fire beside the trail. Mountain ash popped up like spot-fires here and there, bracken had turned yellow like lamps lighting the forest.

We stopped to ponder a large display of Polyporus Sulphureus (Chicken of the Woods) growing on a stump. These mushrooms commonly grow on conifer or hardwood trees (fallen or standing). The mushrooms grow on top of one another and are often found in large numbers. Unless you are an expert on mushrooms, never sample them unless you’re 100 per cent sure they are safe to eat (there are poisonous look-a-likes to edibles and can be confused by novices).

At about 4 miles we crossed a rock-slide about ½ miles from the lake; at first we thought it was a stream gone dry. At 4.5 miles we reached Pete Lake and unoccupied, spacious campsites at the lake. Fear of fire may have kept some hikers away; usually these campsites are packed as the lake makes a good destination for a family or beginners backpack. Of course strong hikers can continue further – the trail continues to a connection with the Pacific Crest Trail with enticing options, including seldom-visited Spectacle Lake.

On the lakeshore we met a couple of hikers with a friendly dog (the trail is dog-friendly) and chatted about the trail and the on-going fires in nearby regions. Pete Lake is a beautiful setting with views of Lemah Mountain and Chikamin Peak at the far end of the lake. From our vantage vine-maple glowed through the thin haze that clung to the steep, forested slopes on the other side of the lake.

After spending a decadent amount of time at the lake as we hiked out we met three fire-fighters hiking in to check on the status of a fire they’d put out recently. We thanked them for their work and vigilance before we went our separate ways.

Mount Sawyer, Tonga Ridge (Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest)

A couple days later we set out for a hike on the west side of the Cascades to Tonga Ridge/Mount Sawyer just outside Skykomish. From US 2 it’s a long drive on forest service roads to the trailhead but the roads are fine for passenger cars and road junctions were all well-signed. There were already cars at the trailhead when we arrived; we’re not the only hikers chasing fall color.

The trail starts off in the forest with gentle ups and downs. In about two miles we broke out of the forest and slowed our pace as the evergreens thinned, the forest transitioning to colorful mountain ash, fireweed and pearly everlasting. There are also views of distant peaks and ridges though Mount Daniel and its neighbor Mount Hinman steal the show. The upper flanks of Mount Daniel gleamed with ice; we could only imagine how bullet-proof that snow would be.

At about 2-1/2 miles an unsigned trail takes off uphill (left); this is the way to Mount Sawyer. Here the trail switchbacks through meadows and our pace slowed accordingly – not due to the gradient but to the colorful blueberry shrubs interspersed with golden bursts of mountain ash. The trail makes a final switchback, wrapping around Mount Sawyer with a view of Glacier Peak before reaching the summit with sitting room aplenty. The summit is the site of an old lookout, though all that remains are views. Those views are substantial – Mount Daniel and Mount Hinman (to the southeast) and to the south, a very hazy Mount Rainier.

Be prepared to share this summit; this was a weekday and we can well imagine how many hikers hike to the summit on a sunny weekend. We met hikers of all ages and persuasions, even a father carrying a baby. Others had hiked with dogs; the dogs seemed to enjoy the views as much as we did. Bring a map to identify the peaks – there are several including Sloan, Pugh, White Chuck, Baring, Index and more.

Our only complaint is that there are many side-trails and trail junctions that are not signed. If you continue on the main trail (rather than hiking to Mount Sawyer) you can reach Fisher Lake (about 5 miles from the trailhead) and eventually Forest Service Road No. 6830.

Getting there (Pete Lake): From Seattle drive east on I-90 and get off at Exit 80 (Roslyn/Salmon la Sac). Turn left after exiting I-90 then turn left again (toward Roslyn). Drive through Roslyn/Ronald on Salmon la Sac Road (SR 903), pass Cle Elum Lake and turn left (west) onto Forest Road No. 46 and continue 5 miles to Cooper Lake, then turn right onto Forest Service Road No. 4616 (the road crosses the Cooper River), continue past the campground loops to the trailhead near the upper end of the lake. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.

Additional information (Pete Lake):  Map: Green Trails No. 208 Kachess Lake. The hike is 9 miles round-trip with 700 feet of elevation gain. For updates call the Cle Elum Ranger District (Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest) at 509-852-1100 or visit the Okanogan-Wenatchee.

Getting there (Tonga Ridge, Mount Sawyer): From Skykomish via US 2 just past the Skykomish Ranger Station turn right on Forest Service Road No. 68 (Foss River Road), drive another 3 miles then turn left onto Forest Service Road No. 6830, proceed about 7 miles to an unsigned junction and turn right onto FS Road No. 310. From there it is another 1.4 miles to the end of the road and trailhead. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.

Additional information (Tonga Ridge, Mount Sawyer):  The hike is 6 miles round trip with about 1,340 feet gain. The maps are Green Trails No. 175 (Skykomish) and Green Trails No. 176 (Stevens Pass). Contact the Skykomish Ranger Station for updates on trail/road conditions at 360-677-2414 or visit the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest website.

 

 

 

Horseshoe Basin Photos by Andy Porter

in Community/Earth by

Andy Porter wrote in early October about his experiences hiking through Horseshoe Basin. He encountered creeks, wildflowers, abandoned mines, and even a new black bear friend. There was even time to stop in at the famous Stehekin Pastry Company for some delicious snacks. Several of his images featured in the article, but we’ve saved a bunch of the best here.

A new friend, who passed only 15 feet from Porter. After snapping a couple choice shots both parties went safely on their way.

 

A deer at Cascade Pass; more examples of the gorgeous wildlife.

 

Some of the many wildflowers on the trail.

 

The sign at the entrance to the Black Warrior Mine; operated in the mid-1950s, the sign giving a brief history of the mine, the names of the prospectors and mis-led investors who poured their mostly futile efforts into this hole.

 

The more dilapidated inside….

 

…is nothing compared to the view of the outside.

 

The amazing Horseshoe Basin Panorama.

 

 

 

Fires of September

in Community/Earth by

We got lucky this time. With the combination of low rainfall, dry forests, grasslands and many dead trees due to insect infestation, it is a wonder that the fires in the Pacific Northwest have been relatively small and confined. The Taylor Bridge Fire, the Wenatchee Complex and the Table Mountain wildfires have burned well over 100,000 acres. More than 60 homes were lost (many more threatened); wildlife, livestock and human lives were also threatened.

The Taylor Bridge Fire set the scene for large wildfires in the mixed forest and steppes of eastern Washington.

Fire damage near Taylor Bridge

The fire spread rapidly above the Yakima River east of Cle Elum and burned northeast. The fire claimed more homes and farm/ranch buildings of any fire to date.

Burned posts near the Kittitas Valley Wind Farm

Aggressive action by firefighters on the ground and from the air saved many properties. We took a drive through the region and saw a number of places where the fire was literally at the doorstep and was beaten back.

Many homes were spared by the construction of firelines. Seeing a home surrounded by burnt vegetation paints a vivid picture about the bravery and determination of the men and women who fight these monsters.

The Table Mountain and Wenatchee Complex wildfires are in more forested regions with dry trees and the early, warm spring contributed to significant undergrowth (brush). The lack of precipitation and the combination of these fuels increased the region’s susceptibility to lightening strikes, which have been pinpointed as a significant cause. This lethal combination also enabled the fires to spread rapidly. The fires lead to large scale evacuations and also contributed to breathing disorders and generally unhealthy air, especially downwind of the fires. That the fires are unpredictable and very smoky only intensifies the hazard to anyone living, hiking or hunting in the vicinity and especially to those fighting the fires.

Containing the fires is the first order of business whether by directly fighting the flames and/or constructing firelines around the fires. Firelines are built by using existing roads and trails and by digging new ones using any means available from bulldozers to Pulaski’s. Water drops by helicopters are also used to target spot fires as well as to slow their spread.

Containing a fire is not the same as putting it out. Some fires will continue to burn or smolder underground. Fire Managers must decide whether to pursue blazes inside the containment area or allow them to burn out under supervision. Unless homes or critical habitat are threatened, fires are often left to smolder until rain or snow extinguishes them completely.

Nature plays a large role in restoration, often beginning with weeds. Already, Oregon grape and thistles are growing back where fires have burned.

Oregon grape grows in the aftermath

In the past, burned areas were often left to nature to restore but sometimes nature needs a hand. Today, given the importance of salmon-bearing streams, more attention is given to preventing runoff by establishing waterbars and planting native species. Burned Area Emergency Restoration teams are already beginning to assess and plan for this restoration.

You can track the progress of nature and man in the process of restoration by exploring old burned areas by car or by foot though caution is always is in order. On a recent hike, signs had been placed warning of a small burn north of the trail and to keep out because of the possibility of trees and branches falling. Attention must be paid to the dangers inherent in burned over areas which may also include smoldering underground fires fed by the buried root systems as well as hot spots that may lurk until snow falls.

Prevention is key to preventing wildfires. Smokey the Bear was right. No one can prevent lightning sparked fires but we can all prevent human caused ones. Watch for fire danger warning signs and be aware of the conditions where hiking, hunting or camping. If you find a fire put it out and report it. Do not smoke in the forest during a burn ban and do not enter closed areas. Roads and trails are closed not to inconvenience you but to speed efforts to put out fires. In Cle Elum we saw a handwritten sign that read Godspeed Firefighters!. Thank them when an opportunity arises, they work hard and are dedicated to saving our lives, property, wilderness and the lives of mammals, birds and insects that depend on the wilderness to survive.

Our driving tour of the Taylor Bridge Fire Zone:

From Cle Elum drive east on Highway 970 to Lambert Road (the turn is just past the turnoff to SR 10). Turn right and follow Lambert to Taylor Road and turn right again. This will bring you out to just below the Taylor Bridge on State Route 10.  Drive east on SR 10 to Hayward Road and turn left (north). Follow Hayward (where you can see the Kittitas Valley Wind Farm) to Bettas Road which will bring you to US Highway 97. At US 97 turn left to meet the junction to either cross Blewett Pass or to return to Highway 970 and Cle Elum.

 

 

Wind River Range Part I: Green River Lakes to East Fork River

in Earth/Trails by

A mountain is the best medicine for a troubled mind. Seldom does man ponder his own insignificance. He thinks he is master of all things. He thinks the world is his without bonds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only when he tramps the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures about him, to come and go as he will, does he awaken to his own short-lived presence on earth.

— Finis Mitchell, “Wind River Trails”

Maybe it was smoke from the dry-lightning fires burning far to the east and north, mixing with the multi-textured clouds and backlit by the setting sun.   Or maybe it was just our eyes adjusting to the visual hyperbole of tortured rock peaks, white granite boulders, golden grass, deep green conifer and green-blue water.  Whatever it was,  the landscape had an almost surreal glow from our camp on a bench above Island Lake as we ate our evening meals and stared north into the spires of Titcomb Basin.

Island Lake
Camp at Island Lake

Rainclouds had split overhead and passed us by north and south earlier that day as we wandered along the Titcomb lakes under mighty Fremont and Jackson peaks to the stark rocky jumble of the upper Basin.

Mount Fremont from Island Lake

The sentinel peaks of the Sphinx, Miriam and Dinwoody Peaks, Forked Tongue and Spearhead pinnacle, and dramatic Mount Helen, 13-ers all, loomed over us in a semicircle sketching the Continental Divide as we hopped boulders to the headwall and craned our necks to look up, up, up. The tortured rock above was mirrored in the boulders and slabs underfoot which featured a full palette of pastel colors and textures – pink and green, bright shiny white, black, caramel and amber, even red-purple;  sinuous, banded and speckled, coarse and smooth. Clearly these mountains had been baked hot, stirred and poured, left to dry and coated on top with sediment frosting, then upended, eroded and glacier-carved in a sequence that had repeated itself over and over for eons.

Our group of eight had started from the little town of Pinedale Wyoming three days earlier, a van from the Great Outdoor Shop picking us up early from our overnight haven at the Rivera Bed and Breakfast and depositing us with our packs at the Green River Lakes trailhead about two hours northeast of town by about 9 a.m.. From the picturesque log cabin at the trailhead we could just see the outline of Squaretop to the south, one of the most photographed peaks in the range.

Squaretop in the distance

Our first day was an easy nine miles with little elevation gain, up and down around the lovely blue meadow-wrapped lakes under Squaretop and Granite Peak, and through tree-sized rhododendron, lodgepole pine and spruce along the milky Green River, to the broad green meadows of Beaver Park.

Our trail led us steadily closer to the continental divide here, though the ridge to our east blocked our view of the major peaks within 3 miles of where we stood. The meadows afforded a great selection of soft-grass tent spots within easy reach of the river. Frost on the grass the next morning made the coffee taste only that much better.

The Wind River Range is unique in that it stands on a high plateau, 10-11,000 feet elevation for a hundred miles or more, the product of a regional uplift 35-50 million years ago that pushed a huge section of the central Rocky Mountain region up 3500-5000 feet out of the vast inland sea. The high peaks of the Rockies formed in an extended cataclysm of peak-lifting and folding called the Laramide Orogeny, between 35 and 80 million years ago. For that reason, backpacking the length of the Winds features far less elevation gain and loss than similar traverses to the north or south in the Rockies or west in the High Sierra.

From Beaver Park we quickly began ascending the plateau, first above and then away from the Green River with Clark and Trail creeks tumbling down below us. Breaking out above treeline and crossing Green River Pass, the terrain around us took on a countenance that would become very familiar over the next nine days: our trail winding, climbing and dropping around granite slabs and boulder piles, through sparse grass and scattered stubby Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), and past innumerable tarns and lakes, with vast spreading vistas and high peaks forming a backdrop. Passing Summit Lake and winding east above Pass Lake the trail climbed a steep wall and three more boulderpiles before dropping into the vast Elbow Lake basin, almost like a crater of the moon.

Elbow Lake Basin

Smooth slabs formed ledges all along the tributary creek down to the lake, and hopping from one to another was like walking on the surface of a gallery of abstract paintings laid out in the horizontal. After pitching our tents in the sparse grassy patches around the head of the lake, we gathered exhausted along a sheltering rock wall to cook our dinners and watch the salmon-to-orange light show on Elbow Peak reflected in the waters of the lake as the sun went down.

wind river range_3
Camp at Elbow Lake Basin

By day three we were in our stride with a routine of breakfast at first light and on the trail by 8 a.m., when the early sharp-angled light was piercingly clear and the air brisk. The days warmed up quickly as the sun cleared the tops of the peaks to our east, and our troupe would quickly moult our layers of down, fleece, and Smartwool in favor of short sleeves and shorts. The topology of the previous day continued through the striking basins of Upper and Lower Jean Lake and across a high bridge at Fremont Crossing, through endless small climbs and drops, and the contrast of the bright boulders and slabs against the dark green of the conifers and the blue of the many tarns. About 6 miles from Elbow Lake we reached the junction of the Titcomb Basin trail and turned northwest for the short but steep climb to a divide from which Island Lake stretched out sparking and blue across our field of view. Fabulous sheltered but view-ful camps were to be found all along the south shore amid tarns and patches of meadow above the lake, and on a small peninsula jutting into the lake a bit farther on. Fremont and Jackson Peaks and the peaks at the head of Titcomb Basin punctuated the skyline but a ridgeline hid the Titcomb lakes. Our afternoon was spent happily climbing the knobs just west of our camp for further views north and west.

Day four, our exploration of Titcomb Basin under boiling clouds and the threat of rain, provided a very satisfying respite from the burden of our full packs and a chance to wander without the pressure of a camp to reach. This area is one of the principal destinations for visitors to the Wind Rivers, with easy access for weekend to multi-week explorations of the Basin, the adjoining Island Basin and the peaks beyond from the Elkhart Trailhead via the Pole Creek and Seneca Lake trails. Surprisingly though, the Island Lake basin and the Titcomb Lakes area beyond were plenty large to deliver a generous amount of solitude even with their popularity.

Days five through seven took us along a lake-strewn section of the main north-to-south trail that is only infrequently traveled owing to its location in the stretch of the Winds between the two popular areas of Titcomb Basin and the Cirque of the Towers, each reachable independently from the other. But our goal was a north to south traverse of the range, so traverse we did, with substantial rewards. Much of this segment, over 10,000 feet nearly all the way, was through high golden grassland interspersed with the prerequisite tarns and granite boulders, more stout Whitebark pine and Englemann spruce trees, and, increasingly, shrubby alpine willow (Salix brachycarpa) in shades of bright yellow to orange. Lester Pass, Baldy Pass, Hat Pass were high gaps reached by long gradual traverses across high meadow country (and of course more lakes), with immense views of the high plateau, west to the peaks of the divide, and east well into the plains. Bald Mountain Basin, Lake Victor, Europe Canyon, Middle Fork Canyon – words on signs nailed to isolated posts pointing the way to side trips up to the flanks of the Divide that would be well worth a week on their own;  surely next time!

wind river range_2
Bald Mountain Basin

At a significant crossing of Pole Creek, a pack train with horse and two mules brought us food for our final six days, the wrangler a nice young man from Minnesota finding his place in the world by running hunting camps in the chilly fall in the high mountains of Wyoming.

South of Pole Creek the lakes dotting our map in bright blue came closer together and larger as we went on: North Fork, Pipestone, Howard, Sandpoint. A rest stop, a refreshing drink and snack, a foot soak or full-body dunk in the warm sun. Here our way wandered up and down the humps and valleys through stands of trees, mostly Lodgepole pine (P. contorta), many dead from the bark beetle but seedlings springing profusely up in the new-found sun beneath the reduced leaf canopy. Later, an entire day was spent walking a mile-wide open meadow around several large lakes: Bobs Lake, Raid Lake, Dream Lake, Cross Lake. A highlight reel of lakes, and more often than not the hikers we encountered had fly rods and that faraway look suggesting they were headed somewhere to use them. Not sure that all the anglers knew that Finis Mitchell, a Wyoming-bred mountain man and forester, had stocked most of the previously-fish-less Wind River lakes with as many as 2.5 million trout hatchlings during the depression, carried in barrels up the trails on his horse.

Two of the best camps of the trip were found in this section, on the flats by two slowly meandering rivers, the marsh grass forming a tall green border to the water, and the setting sun glowing orange on the slow-moving, glassy surface. Places for peace and reflection amidst the ordinary chores of gathering water and rinsing socks.

At East Fork River came a turning point, day nine, the place and time for our group of companions to turn east and upward to cross over the Continental Divide on a circuitous path eventually passing into the legendary Cirque of the Towers. That, gentle reader, is a story for another time. The Fremont trail we left to continue on its own solitary course, southward to its terminus at Big Sandy campground.

wind river range_1
Sunset from East Fork River

Editor’s Note: The author will be sharing more from her amazing Winds trek with Seattle Backpackers Magazine next week. Look for Wind River Range Part II

And as a bonus to this article, here is a short, sweet geology of Wind Rivers.

The Wind River mountains are a consequence of an extended period of mountain building called the Laramide Orogeny, 35-80 million years ago, when much of the earth’s crust across current-day Colorado, Wyoming and Montana rippled like the skin of a Bassett Hound to push up very high mountains. This was, in fact, such a powerful geologic phenomenon that the resulting peaks would have been 60,000 feet tall today were it not for the equally powerful forces of erosion that steadily wore down the new mountains as they were pushed up. Some of the earth’s most ancient rock, formed as pillows of magma extruded and cooled through weaknesses in the thinner crust in the first 3 billion years of the planet’s existence, was pushed up, lifting atop it a crust of 5000-foot-deep sediments from the inland sea and ash deposits from hundreds of thousands of years of regional volcanism. As these incredibly powerful forces deformed the land, the layers of ancient and less ancient rock and sediment rolled and folded upon themselves, diving back deep to face immense heat and pressure and morph into yet another unique swirled layer cake of rock. In some places, where cracks had formed in the hard rock, hot magma forced itself up and cooled, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, forming amazingly sharp-edged bands and pockets within very different parent rock. The quicker it cooled, the smaller the crystals and the smoother and glassier the surface of the resulting rock. Hence, in the chaos of all this lifting, extruding and folding, a mix of textures from smooth and glassy to blocky crumbles formed.

The Wind Rivers are notable, with just a few other areas of the world, as a location where massive pillows of granite have been formed and exposed as the dominant features of the landscape – huge foundational batholiths of 100 square miles or more, as well as “smaller” (but still incredibly massive) plutons – granitic extrusions – ultimately revealed at the surface as domes, slabs and spires. Like the Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows of California, granite in all its forms is a defining feature of the Wind Rivers, including amazing monoliths, sheer faces and spires rivaling Half Dome and El Capitan (though here, many more multi-colored, multi-textured layers and far more deformation). In fact, the Cirque of the Towers is so reminiscent of the Yosemite Valley that it seems certain it would have the same population problems if it was closer to civilization and developed as a National Park.

Then centuries of inexorable carving from extensive mountain glaciers in the relatively recent past (10-15,000 years ago) formed the distinctive U-shaped valleys, cirques and sharp-edged peaks of other glaciated regions. But here, because of all that tortured granite, when the glaciers receded they left small to huge, scoured and lovely boulders scattered about the high plateau and perched improbably along every high ridgeline.

 

Los Gigantes Argentina

in Community/Earth/Fireside by

Photos and paintings by Antrese Wood.

If I wake up early enough, I can watch dawn’s first light paint the rocky peaks of Los Gigantes from my kitchen table. A wall of windows faces west, giving me an unobstructed view of the Sierras Grandes in western Córdoba here in Argentina. Los Gigantes are the highest peaks of the range and the first to catch the early morning rays. In the winter months, the sun sets directly behind them lighting up the sky with brilliant oranges and deep purples.

From Villa Carlos Paz, it’s about a two hour drive to the mountain range. I follow boulevard Sarmiento to Ruta 38 towards Cosquin then make a left towards Tanti on Ruta 20. The two lane highway cuts through cement houses surrounded by low brush. Occasionally, I’ll spot a gaucho riding his horse on the dirt trail parallel to the highway. The traditional black beret and poncho contrasting sharply with the cell phone pressed to his ear. I catch a shot of a young boy riding along behind. When the road straightens, and I can see far enough ahead, I pass the ‘65 Citroën that has been chugging along in front of me. In the distance three dogs are basking in the sun a few feet from the pavement. A golden lab- shepherd mix gets up, stretches lazily and waits for me to pass before crossing the highway.

The pavement ends abruptly and a dirt road leads me into a canopy of eucalyptus trees. High walls covered in vines hide estates, some lived in, some long abandoned. As I pass a gate, I catch a glimpse of the house at the end of the lane. Through a large front room window, I see sunlight pouring in through the caved in roof. I focus back on the windy road, avoiding sharp rocks and deep ruts created from last weeks rain. The houses dwindle out and after a few twists and turns, the view opens up.

 

Once I reach the top of Cerro Blanco, the landscape morphs into pampas. The road stretches across the grassland, groups of trees mark the occasional ranch house:

I stop to take a picture of a herd of cattle hanging out by a gate. Behind me, in the distance, I can see Lago San Roque, the Sierras, and Carlos Paz. In all the times I’ve been out here, I never read the hand painted sign: Nudist Camp, 4 kilometers.


The colors on this stretch of road shift depending on the season. In September, the earth is bone dry, most of the color bleached out of the grass by the combination of winter drought and frigid temperatures. December brings summer rains and emerald green grass, it looks like Ireland. With the dry autumn weather of May, the colors shift into pale green ochres.


After another forty-five minutes, I reach a fork in the road with cement cube with an open face to the road, a bus shelter. On the side facing me, a hand painted sign with thick red letters reads Casa Nueva, empanadas, miel. I follow the arrow pointing left and reach Casa Nueva, a small ranch surrounded by fruit trees. My door is barely cracked open when I’m greeted by a golden mutt. As I reach to pet his head, he rolls over for a belly scratch, still wagging his tail, sweeping the dust and leaves from under him. It’s not officially spring yet but the last few days have been pretty warm. The apricot trees are showing buds. I hear the loud hum of bees in addition to the wind mill which provides electricity to the ranch.

There are two entry points to Los Gigantes. Felipa’s is on the north side and farther from the base of the mountain but she is so warm and welcoming, I don’t mind walking a few extra kilometers to the trailhead. Besides, I can stock up on local honey and homemade jam for the price of parking at the other place.

I say hello to Felipa and then cross the grass to the back gate. Across the river cairns mark the way through the high grass of the pampas.

My husband and his friends spent their adolescence in the craggy peaks of Los Gigantes. They’d ride their bikes up the same roads on a weekly basis and then spend the weekend camping out in the peaks. He knows this area like the back of his hand and guides groups to the summit. He’s told me stories of how quickly the weather changes and how often hikers get lost in dense fog. Even on a clear day, its easy to confuse cattle trails for the real route.

On this trip I’m here to do some landscape painting so I don’t have a guide. I follow the cairns and the Hansel and Gretel trail of stones across the pampa. I keep the ranch in sight just to be sure. I spend a few hours painting before I head back. I’ve made the summit several times and I’m feeling the urge to go again, just not today. I know better.

Approaching the Summit

 

 

 

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