Sunday, September 21, 2014

San Francisco to Las Vegas

Mom and I headed east from San Francisco. We made a slight detour north of Yosemite on a tip from a friend (thanks Art!). He said that one of the country's best preserved ghost towns is in Bodie, California. I think he's right; I expected a dumpy little place and was amazed at the number, diversity, and quality of the structures still standing. It was like something straight out of a zombie apocalypse. The late afternoon light created great hues on the buildings and the surrounding desert.

Bodie, California 1877-1942 

The church was my favorite building
We made it into Yosemite late but we didn't have to set up camp in the dark - we decided to stay in a tent cabin. They were pretty nice, equipped with real beds, wool blankets, a small table, and a very effective wood stove. The only downside is that they were paranoid about bears and mice so you weren't allowed to cook anywhere in the tent cabin village. Had to drive to a picnic area 2 miles away; inconvenient but manageable.

The following day in Yosemite I climbed Cathedral Peak. At 10,911ft, it was first climbed by John Muir in 1869. It was great to follow in his footsteps, but not literally, because I misread my trail directions and had to do a little bushwhacking to get back on track. It was far easier to travel off trail here than in the Cascades, there was a minimum of underbrush and lots of open granite slabs. Whilst off trail I kept hearing weird sounds, like a jet engine. Then I saw smoke and quickly realized that I had stumbled upon the fringe of the last bit of forest fire that had ripped thru a large part of the central part of the National Park a few days earlier. I've never seen a forest fire before. It was very unnerving and I backed away and figured out what to do. NPS was aware of the small zones still burning, said they posed little immediate hazard, hadn't closed Cathedral Peak like they closed other areas, I wasn't near where I was supposed to be, and the winds were blowing the fire away from where I needed to go. Right or wrong, I decided to continue.

Cathedral Peak on the evening before the climb
Only YOU can prevent forest fires!
Cathedral Peak was a delightful climb on prime Yosemite granite. Because it had been first climbed and rated so long ago (modern climbing ratings originated in Yosemite), I found the route slightly above its Class 4 rating.  But it was in that perfect zone that offers a solid challenge yet was within the upper limits of my scrambling ability and comfort level. The summit was very exposed, and with a stout wind I decided it would be best to stay on top only long enough to get my photos. The views of the High Sierra were amazing and I wish I would have felt like lingering.

Route went thru the pines up and underneath the base, then essentially traversed up the right skyline

I returned from the climb, never again seeing any indications of fire danger, in plenty of time to spend the afternoon with Ma. We took a nice hike thru the Tuolumne Meadows.

Our final day in Yosemite was spent in the infamous Valley. We knew it was a popular spot but figured that with it being so late in the season and a weekday we would have the place to ourselves. WRONG. The Valley was a total zoo. We saw all the requisite sights, then headed out and away on the drive up to Glacier Point for epic views of Half Dome.

After Yosemite we drove to Kings Canyon National Park. Talk about a great contrast, Kings Canyon was practically empty. Call me selfish but I don't like big crowds when I go outside. Camping and hiking along the upper reaches of the Kings River was the highlight of the whole trip with Mom. Zumwalt Meadows were beautiful in the morning light, with a golden tinge on the grasses, forests, Kings River, and the granite walls hemming it all in.

Zumwalt Meadows, Kings Canyon National Park
Due south of Kings Canyon is Sequoia National Park, protecting the largest trees on the planet. Truly awe inspiring, you cannot get a feel for the enormity of a sequoia tree unless there is a known reference object, like a person standing near them. Pictures hardly do them justice and it is humbling to be in the presence of a 2,000 year old giant. They've seen and endured so much in order to attain their age and size. Luckily enough folks had the foresight to protect the trees before they could all be logged; Sequoia was the nation's second national park.

An "average" sequoia tree. Note people in white 
The General Sherman, the largest living thing on Planet Earth (besides my beard)
From Sequoia it was on to Death Valley. Mom and I had traversed so many ecosystems during our trip, from the lush Northwest to foggy Pacific coastline, from the granite of the High Sierra to the salt flats of the desert. I had never been in the "real" desert before and it was quite an experience for me. The heat was scorching and the scenery stark and bleak, but still with a beauty of it's own, especially under the clear night sky. I enjoyed learning about the desert ecosystem in the NPS Visitor Centers. We didn't do any hiking (it reached 100* before noon) but got to see many of the famous Death Valley sights by air conditioned car.

Lowest spot in North America. A counterpoint to all my mountaineering this summer! 
Dantes View of Death Valley
We swung by the Hoover Dam via the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge on our way to Vegas. The "bathtub ring" on Lake Mead was a disturbing reminder of the water use issues facing the American Southwest. Hopefully they get it all figured out soon, but eliminating all the green lawns, pools, and decorative fountains I kept seeing might be a good place to start.

After so much time in the parks and wilderness, the drive into Las Vegas was a culture shock. I've never seen so many lights and so much blatant consumerism and excess. Not a place I'd choose to frequent but I'm happy to have seen the sights. Like New York City, Vegas seems a mandatory trip for all true 'Muricans at some point in their life. To show that this mountain man can hang with the high rollers, I employed the "$20 trick" at the front desk. What's the $20 trick you ask? Well, just slip the clerk a $20 with your credit card and ID when you check in and ask for any complimentary upgrades. We went from a regular economy room to a room with a Strip View. Like a boss!

$20 view
Paris was a nice resort located right in the middle of the Strip. Chel made the trip out to Vegas for the weekend, bringing the quorum of Kearns up to 3/4. Got to see Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group shows. Toured all the themed casinos; favorite was likely New York and the nicest was the Bellagio. Ate at some great restaurants and won $44 throwing craps! But I'm ready to get back on the road. I've got some more desert camping to do and some canyons large and small to explore.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Portland to San Francisco

Picked Ma up in Portland. Our first stop was Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

We had a good time in town. I think that in a strictly "urban" sense, I enjoy Portland a little more than Seattle. It has a great weekend market downtown, Powell's Books (3 stories and an entire city block), Stumptown coffee, and of course, Voodoo Donut!

Voodoo Donut, maple bacon bar, and Captain Crunch
We left Portland and made our way to Crater Lake National Park via Mt. Hood and Bend. Mt. Hood's glaciers and snowfields were quite reduced at this point in the year, but the Timberline Lodge was a fantastic example of an historic ski lodge. I can only imagine what the centerpiece hexagonal fireplace would look like in winter. In Bend, I got to stop at the HQ of my favorite Northwestern brewery - Deschutes. Their brewpub smelled of delicious hops and yeast.

South side of a late season Mt Hood
Sadly Crater Lake suffered from a number of forest fires in the park and surrounding area. You could still get a sense of the immensity of the caldera, but the views and photos were abysmal and the air was uncomfortable to breathe. Mom did enjoy her first night ever of camping in the forest lower on the mountain and below the effects of the smoke. I enjoyed chopping the night's firewood with a beautifully refinished vintage double bit axe, a gift courtesy of Phil. Thanks bud!

Beards are scientifically proven to increase wood chopping abilities by 250%
From Crater Lake we continued south to the Redwoods of California. The worlds tallest trees were so impressive! It really hurt your neck to walk around looking up for so long. The winding footpaths and roadways passed thru a primeval mix of lush green ferns on the forest floor and towering red trunks. The best redwood groves were found in Humbolt Redwoods State Park and along the Avenue of Giants.

Avenue of the Giants
We tried to see as much of the Pacific Coast as we could during the drive to San Francisco. That meant a long-but-totally-worth-it detour to the "Lost Coast." The Lost Coast is undeveloped and consequently had the best beachfront driving of the trip. Golden hills in pretty contrast with the blue ocean. Back on the Pacific Coast Highway, thick fog rolled in and obscured most of the views and made for difficult driving conditions on a road that was plenty harrowing enough with hairpin curves without guardrails to protect the 200ft drop to the rocks and waves below.

Enroute Lost Coast

I've been to San Francisco a number of times with the Coast Guard and had the lay of the land down pat. I shanghai-ed Mom onto the Matt Kearns' San Francisco Whirlwind Tour. This could easily be modified into a weekend itinerary, to include travel, and you'll see just about everything cool in town.

Day 1 (half day)

1200 Drive south across the Golden Gate Bridge ($7 toll). Pray for no fog.
1230 Tour Fort Point, in the Presido and right beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Good history on the fort and building the bridge. Putz around the Presido until check-in.

1600 Check into the Columbus Motor Inn. Reasonable rates, free parking, clean, GREAT location.
1800 Meet any local friends for dinner and drinks at 21st Amendment Brewery (thanks Olsons!). Pray for no Giants game because this place will be packed if so.
2000 Walk back along the Embarcadero to your hotel. Enjoy the sights, including the Ferry Building. Pick a spot along Fisherman's Wharf for dinner tomorrow. Hope the "Bushman" doesn't scare the shit out of you. Pick up a loaf of sourdough bread & some jam from Boudin for your breakfast tomorrow.

Day 2 (full day)

0830 Wake up. Put a good dip in. Crack a cold one. Get dressed. Eat sourdough bread.
0930 Leave Columbus Motor Inn. Head toward the bottom of famous Lombard Street. You can't see all the curves from the top. Try not to get run over by cars while you take your photos.
0945 Walk down to the Hyde Street cable car turntable. Get a $15 all-day pass.
1000 Walk back up to Ghirardelli Square. Use your cable car ticket to get 10% off their tasty chocolates.
1030 Walk down to the free Maritime Historic Park. Good info on San Francisco's history as a trading port, the old car ferries, and wooden shipbuilding.
1115 Walk back to the cable car turntable. (It sounds like a lot of back and forth, but it's all really close). Take the cable car uphill to the Cable Car Museum on Washington Street. Bonus points if you hang onto the side of the cable car and high five people in other cable cars when you pass by.
1200 Hop on another cable car going the same way you were before and ride it to Union Square. Do some shopping if that's your thing. Mom reports that the William Sonoma flagship store is in Union Square. Sure, whatever, at least they had free samples of food to keep me busy while she shopped.
1300 (or earlier if you don't like shopping as much as Mom) Walk from Union Square to Chinatown. Make sure you go thru the gate on Grant Ave. Enjoy the crowded hustle and bustle. Find a place for lunch. We liked Oriental Pearl.
1400 Catch a California Line cable car west to the Powell and Mason line. Make sure you catch a Mason cable car. It will take you Columbus Ave, within a couple blocks of your hotel. Rest up back at the hotel.
1700 Go to an early dinner on Fisherman's Wharf. Make sure you are out by 1800 or so and then walk down to Pier 33.
1830 Catch the ferry to Alcatraz Island. You'll need reservations well in advance, probably a month or more. The night tour on Alcatraz is pretty popular. But it's way better than the daytime tour. The crowds have thinned out and nighttime does something to the prison to make things a little eerie. Alcatraz has a ton of rich history and should not be missed. Savor the awesome views of a lit-up San Francisco on your ride back.

Home of Machine Gun Kelly, Al Capone, The Birdman, and Clint Eastwood
2100 Finish your time in San Francisco at a bar of your choice. North Beach has a good nightlife. But I like making the trip back toward the Financial District and sidling up to the bar in the Old Ship Saloon. Try an Anchor Steam (available throughout the city). You won't be disappointed, it's a favorite of mine.

Congrats! You've seen San Francisco in less than 36 hours! Time to get out of the city and back into the wilderness!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Olympic National Park and Astoria, OR

Soaked vs Sun: From the Olympics to Astoria

Since I used to live in Port Angeles, I've long considered ONP to be my "backyard" park and it's still my favorite park for its wonderful diversity of coastline, rainforest, and mountains. All told I've spent over a month within the last five years camping in and exploring the park. The southern end, a long drive from Port Angeles, was the one area I never got around to checking out. So leaving Seattle, I concocted a 47 mile loop thru the Quinault Rainforest and then up and around the "Skyline Ridge," a rugged trail with solid views.

The trip started out well enough. Lush temperate rainforest covered in moss.

Subalpine meadows teeming with blueberries (and hungry black bear!).

And a pretty lakeside campsite.

But halfway into the trip the big faucet in the sky opened up in a drenching 24-hour downpour extremely uncommon to the northwest. I became one thoroughly soaked backpacker. All the clouds and rain obscured the views from the Skyline Ridge but surprisingly my spirits remained high. For one I wasn't bushwhacking to Luna Peak (see previous post), which will likely remain my gold standard of awful trips for some time to come. And second, in all my time in ONP I've come to appreciate the precipitation that makes the forests, rivers, and glaciers of this incredible ecosystem all possible. Rain cuts back on the dramatic views but makes the outdoor experience more ethereal, more intimate, forcing you to focus on only your immediate surroundings. Or maybe that's all just a bunch of malarkey I tell myself so I don't try to drown myself in trailside puddles in a bout of soggy depression.

The only semi-clear shot from Skyline Ridge. These clouds quickly ascended the valley and then started dumping rain.
Low-vis hiking
Luckily the sun came out when I got back to my truck and started heading south to Oregon. I met up with Coastie buddy Duane and his wife Tammy in Astoria. They graciously allowed me to turn their front yard into a hobo camp as I dried out all manner of tents, packs, boots, and sleeping bags. Only 2 neighbors commented on the mess.

With the continued good weather the three of us took to the shores of northern Oregon, exploring the shipwreck of Peter Iredale and learning about the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens, the only military installation in the continental United States to come under enemy fire during World War Two. Interesting stuff.

Thanks to Duane and Tammy for their hospitality. It's on to Portland to meet Mom for our long anticipated road trip thru Oregon, California, and Nevada.

North Cascades National Park

Failure and Success in the North Cascades

The North Cascades are commonly referred to as the "American Alps." It's an apt description: high rugged terrain, with thick forests, tons of glaciers, and quality rock for climbing. I've had my eye on a number of objectives in the range and wanted to give them a shot before leaving Washington for good.

The Failure

My first objective was Luna Peak. Luna is the highest of the famed "Picket Range" in the heart of the national park. The Pickets are just that - a fence line of impossibly steep spires smothered in snow and ice. The Pickets are remote; no trails lead into the range itself and access requires extensive bushwhacking. With all the difficulty, why bother? According to those that make the trip, Luna Peak has the best alpine view in all of Washington, possibly even in all the Lower 48. I love good views so that put Luna at the top of my list.

I borded a water taxi on Ross Lake to bypass 7 miles (one-way) of lakeshore trail. I was dropped off at the Big Beaver trailhead and hiked in 11 miles along Big Beaver Creek. I should have camped there and started off fresh the next day. But I didn't.

Ross Lake water taxi
I decided to press on and begin the legendary bushwhacking. I immediately found myself tangled in devil's club, an aptly named satanic demon plant that is a cross between stinging nettle and a briar bush. I started bleeding on my pants.

Then I had to cross the Big Beaver. The guidebook says that you can usually find a log but I didn't see one and I wasn't about to frolic about along the creek bank through more devil's club just to keep from getting a little wet. So I plunged in and waded across.

The devil's club eventually gave way to slide alder. Imagine a bunch of trees that are just waiting for an avalanche or a blowdown to open up a spot in the forest canopy. Then they all grow simultaneously, fighting each other for supremacy in a sadistic hierarchy of trees. They grow so fast that they intertwine themselves like something Hitler concocted to keep the Allies off Normandy Beach. At one point it took me an hour to go 250 yards. And then I realized it was kind of in the wrong direction and so had to exit the labyrinth of greenery for a net gain of about zero for 2 hours of intense effort.

All told it took 5 hours to go 2.5 miles. On top of the 11 miles I hiked earlier in the day. I was exhausted and I smelled like I got in a fight with a salad. I spent 15 minutes picking pine needles out of my beard. I decided to camp in the first suitable spot I came to. I left some of my sweaty smelly gear outside my tent to dry overnight.

I woke up to a ravaged camp. Apparently some little mountain rodent creatures liked the salts in all my sweaty gear and ate everything. I hope they choked to death. They destroyed my t-shirt. They ate the wrist straps and cork handles off of my trekking poles. They gnawed on my water bladder. I never did find my trusty ball cap. Worst of all, they took my spoon (though that was entirely my fault - in my exhaustion I forgot to secure it properly after dinner).

I had to whittle a stick into a primitive spoon to eat my breakfast. I patched my water bladder with duct tape. Then I grabbed the nubbins of my former trekking poles and continued to climb toward Luna Peak.

Improvise, adapt, and overcome
Camp was at 4000ft. Luna Peak is at 8600ft. As I started to ascend the boulder field above camp, my motivation tank was quickly running toward empty. It was hot. I had a leaky water bladder. My trekking poles were trashed. My knee ached from a slip in the slide alder the day before. My pants had holes from devil's club. I had 4600ft to climb. I still had to return through the brush. I stopped every minute, questioning my resolve to continue. "But everyone said the view is fantastic!" I reminded myself. Then I looked up at Luna. At that very instant a cloud moved in and obscured the summit. The voice in my back of my head said "You mean I could climb all that way for the great view and get clouded out?!?!" That was the last straw. My "stoke-meter" plummeted to zero. So I bailed.

Didn't get a whole lot closer than this...
But I still had to bushwhack out. I discovered that when going downhill you can just sort of jump through the really brushy parts and gravity will help you get through. Much faster that way.

I made camp along the Big Beaver trail, happy to be on a marked, alder & devil's club free path. The following day I headed back to the lake. I had made my return water taxi reservation expecting a 4 night trip and the Pickets whupped me in only 2. Luckily I met another group heading out and hitched a ride with them. They took pity on my story, particularly when I showed them my handcrafted spoon, and didn't charge me for my part of the taxi (which also helped reduce the sting of replacing expensive trekking poles). Thanks guys!

The icing on the cake was discovered when I returned to my truck. Not only had rodent creatures wrecked my camp in the mountains, but they somehow got inside the back of my truck and went to town on the food I had stored. Crackers, trail mix, dried soups, all stored in ziplock bags, were chewed through. They made a nest out of my paper towels. And pooped everywhere. If I die of hantavirus in the next month or so, all I ask is that my friends avenge my death and kill all the rodents in North Cascades. And find my spoon.

The Success

I took some time off to recuperate in town and catch up with good friends. I'll take a moment to thank everyone in the greater Seattle area that I stayed with in August: Phil & Andi, Raf, The Musselwhites, The Robertsons, James & Heather, and The Porters. With clean laundry and renewed motivation, I set off for redemption in the North Cascades.

My second objective was Sahale Peak, 8600ft. Sahale means the "high place" in native tongue and is purported to also have great views but is a much more manageable route. I enjoyed the hike in on good trail though lovely alpine meadows smelling of piney heather and ripe blueberries. Best of all - no bushwhacking!

The legendary trail along the Sahale Arm
I made camp on a rocky ledge beside a small glacier and a snowmelt stream. A fantastic sunset and clear starry skies were the night's entertainment.

Sunset from 7600ft
I woke early in the morning to make the climb. I ascended the small glacier and then had an enjoyable scramble up the rocky summit pyramid, just the type of climbing that I like best. With my early start I had the peak all to myself for half an hour before other parties started showing up. I soaked in the views, knowing that this might be my last North Cascade peak for a while. And I think the mountain gods were with me that morning - the top of Sahale clouded in and the winds picked up by the time I was back in camp. If I was any later in climbing I wouldn't have seen anything from the summit.

Good view of my old friend Forbidden Peak from the summit of Sahale

North Cascades redemption!
Sahale was a great climb and I was happy to end my North Cascades climbing on a more positive note. I've turned around on a number of climbing trips, most often owing to time constraints or hazardous conditions. Luna Peak was the first trip that I was just totally unmotivated to finish. I wasn't having any fun whatsoever. I think that's needed from time to time, to keep us humble and to keep us hungry for more. If every climb was a guaranteed success then they'd change the name of the sport from "mountaineering" to "summiting." A failure helps us to hit reset and is all the more a source of good motivation for renewed effort on the next trip. Speaking of ... Any takers for the devil's club?

Friends at high camp