Cold feet

When I was in high school I got a ton of shit for being a little eccentric. Like anyone else I’ve had the things that I nerd out over. When I was in elementry school I carried around a copy of the U.S. constitution. In middle school I was obsessed with musical theater, don’t tell anyone that was for a girl. In high school I fell madly in love with the outdoors. My love affair with the wild spaces of our planet started because of an almost disastrous trip to Indian Peaks and later was reaffirmed by my attendance on a 30 day long 126mi trek through Wyoming. This is the story of my first backpacking trip and the very cold morning that made me fall in love with wild places.

In 2006 and I was just barely 15 years old. I was an idiot in almost every imaginable way. I had no real grasp on the world and was altogether to opinionated for the amount of knowledge I possessed. I’d been a camper with a local summer camp called the Colorado Youth Program for the previous six years and loved my adventures with them, but by no means would I have considered myself an outdoor enthusiast at this point. I just enjoyed being outside like any other kid. Well through my connections at CYP I ended up hearing about this private school in Boulder, CO called Watershed. Watershed was an alternative high school and middle school with a focus on experiential learning. At the start of every new school year high school students ventured out into Boulder’s backyard, Indian Peaks Wilderness, for a 10 day backpacking and team building trip.

This was my very first backpacking trip and to say the least I really had no idea what I was doing, However, just like any 15 year old what I lack in know how and experience I made up for in over all enthusiasm and energy. Starting at Camp Dick off the Peak to Peak highway just outside of Colorado’s world famous Rocky Mountain National Park, our group of 10 high schoolers and two instructors/teachers  took to the trail. The first few days we took a mellow route because believe it or not or instructors had quite the task of moving 10 high schoolers even 3.5 miles. Our first day was rather uneventful minus the occasional blister. We all got to bust out the whisper-light stoves for the first time in a backcountry context and I’m pretty sure at least one person lost some part of their eyebrows. (Wade?)

By the third day our ragtag crew had made it to the summit of Buchanan Pass, which I must point out is only 7.5mi away from Camp Dick. So to say the least things were moving slowly. The weather was spectacular the day we summited the pass. The skies were the kind of blue that Colorado is famous for. The wind was light and fast with a touch of winter. In early September we could not have picked better conditions to be moving over a nearly 10,000 foot pass. The mountains of Colorado are infamous for fast changing weather, dramatic drops in temperature, and unseasonable snowstorms. But none of this was on our minds as we crushed passed old mining shacks, piles of debris and mine tailings towards the top of the pass. Once there, we were still all in such a way we decided to detour off to the south and summit Saw-tooth Peak.

Saw-tooth Stands at about 12,300 feet and is one of the most unique shaped peaks in the IPW. It’s distinctive southern face cut the sky and stand in sharp contrast to the mellow slope that leads to the saddle and Buchanan pass. Pushing on down the west side of the pass our route started to turn us south towards the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Moving around the cirque of peaks that comprises the Brainard basin our little troop headed even further south towards our end goal of the Fourth of July Trailhead.

With each passing day my level of competency rose and the skill set required be successful in the back country developed a little more. Towards day eight I was feeling pretty damn amazing. I’d meet and begun developing a lasting friendship with Axel Anderson, Devaki Douillard, and many more. Jason Kushner was our primary trip leader and his influence and enthusiasm about the outdoors remains one of the most impactful I’ve ever encountered.

So three days days before we are supposed to be picked up at the Fourth of July Trailhead our little band of school children heads up a steep west facing slope to what is known as Wheeler Basin. Wheeler Basin is a deep set glacially carved basin to the north west of Arapahoe Pass. This little slice of hell is always damp, always cold, and is where I really began to fall in love with wild places. Because it’s in Wheeler Basin that I did my first ever overnight solo. The very first time I spent a night alone in the woods. Now since that night I have spent probably over 100 nights alone in the woods, sometimes in a car other times just on the flat of my back. I’ve been out with motorcycles, with bikes, on foot but this is what started it all. The feeling you get when sleeping in solitude or rather the isolation of the woods is unlike any other. At times the feeling is oppressive as if the dark around you is pushing in on every single one of your senses. At other points it is beyond blissful in how calm it is. The experience is surreal.

But back to Wheeler Basin. Like I said, a little slice of hell. I woke up soaking wet. I’d picked a space underneath a boulder at the edge of a meadow but the soil there had been washed away by the swamp like conditions of the basin. During the night the moisture that accumulated on the outside of my bag was enough to be rung-out and collect .5L. Low lying area I’d selected was a cold sink and only increased the deep seated chill I was experiencing as I woke that morning. But from my perspective I was alive and well and I’d never felt that good waking up.

But waking up on the blue yet crisp morning was the starting point to a series of mistakes that per-usual lead to a place no one really wants to be. Upon waking up I packed my damp bag away per standard practice. I slipped on my boots, crammed my gear into my pack and headed towards the central camp location where we were all to meet up by 9am. We started cranking out breakfast and coffee which soon lead to packs back over our shoulders and the trail underfoot. We descended the nearly 1,000 foot just before 10:15 and on our way down the those blue skies turned gray.

By 11am the ground was being peppered with the white flakes of falling snow quickly turning the trail muddy and slick. The 4mi route we had planned to Caribou Lake that day took much longer than our anticipated time due to constant stopping to warm up fingers and toes or to patch blisters from wet feet. Our feet were very wet. In fact at one point near the end of our slog I slipt off a small foot bridge and was quickly ankle deep in freezing creek water. Anticipating camp within the next hour I was not terribly worried.

Within 15 minutes my opinion had changed. Even moving at a steady pace the cold began to profoundly change my attitude. I was experiencing the wonders of a non-freezing cold injury. Which help to facilitate my introduction with mild hypothermia. And by 5pm mild hypothermia was far from a stranger in our midst. I was one of three students dealing with at least one form of cold related issue. One student, Dan Silverman a dear friend and now high experienced outdoorsman, experienced the far more serious moderate hypothermia in which his core body temperature plummeted to around 95 degrees fahrenheit. This is not joke. These conditions are no laughing matter nor are the consequences if cold is not dealt with effectively. Since we were in no position to evacuate Dan, or myself for that matter, our instructors decided to warm Dan up in the field and keep an eye on me.

We pitched our tarps, set up our sleeping bags and built wind barriers out of our packs to block the gusts that were careening off of Arapahoe pass. The snow was flying and the dark that pressed in around the side of the tarp were complete. The only audible sound over that of the wind, was the sound of my breathing inside of my sleeping bag and the rustle of the trash bag that my sleeping bag was tucked into. Its was right around 8:30 or 9 when Jason and our other leader brought by cups of warm soup made on their stove. Everyone of the kids was tucked into sleeping bags, save for maybe Axel our rather hearty and experienced friend.

As pathetic as it sounds I remember spending a good part of that night wishing that we would be evacuated by helicopter, that someone would come and help us. But no one did come. Nor should they. We were fine realistically. What you don’t realize when you’re 15 is just how bad things actually can get. Because for most 15 year old kids, bad these days has been for the most part removed from traditional experience. It’s hard to be pushed to any form of an end. The way the world is constructed we are protected from anything. The cold, the hard, the wilderness. It is kept at bay by warm houses, bright screens, and fossil fuels. To pick up someone who has spent their entire life in the middle of the cozy world and plop them into the middle of a real blizzard with no real clue about what their doing, well that’s a recipe to push a 15 year old further than they have been before.

Dan was pushed pretty hard that night. Moderate hypothermia usually means prompt evacuation from the field and exhaustive measures to reheat the victim. To slip from moderate to severe hypothermia is a huge deal and usually requires the skill and the equipment that can only be found in hospitals. As the crew was less than a four mile hike out of the backcountry; he received new hot water bottle every couple of hours, he was monitored closely and given totally new and dry clothes. He wasn’t left alone that night.

I heated up pretty quickly once I made it into my bag and had a single bowl of soup. Falling asleep though was tough though. I kept rolling around on my bad under the tarp, wind howling through the blackness. Snow would occasionally blow through our tarp covering or bags in a light dry powder that was mostly harmless. My real lesson though was yet to come. You see, in my haste to get into a warm sleeping bag I stripped my wet clothes off and tossed them right next to my bag with no consideration of the circumstances. I didn’t think about where I left my boots or my coat. Nor did I even consider what to do with my only remaining pair of socks. So the reality I woke up to the next morning was not a pretty one.

From our location at Caribou Lake we had just over a 4.5mi hike out to the fourth of July Trailhead. And much like in the photo below, our route was totally covered in snow. The storm from the night before only left two or three inches. However,with the aid of previous storms and the wind wrecked landscape made for snow drifts that were just about 4ft deep on the trail up and over the pass. That morning I woke up to find my jacket frozen to the ground, my boots hardly malleable enough to move the laces, my socks so frozen that I could have snapped them. I had dry camp shoes, a pair of cotton socks, board shorts, a tee-shirt and a very frozen coat. First thing in the morning Axel put my coat on and started the process of thawing the arms. Better a wet coat than nothing in my current condition.

 http://thecohiker.com/item/arapaho-pass-caribou-lake-2/
3Arapahoe-Pass-Caribou-Lake1
My boots and socks were so frozen I opted to hike out in my camp shoes, a pair of Vans, and cotton socks. I stuffed everything haphazardly into my pack knowing full well this was the last iteration of its packing for this trip. We headed for the pass watching the snow blown trail disappear in a myriad of switchbacks. Knee deep in loose and flaky powder we slogged up the pass. Once on the summit of Arapahoe Pass and knowing that there was only a 3 mile down hill to our vans there was an immediate feeling of relief. And that down hill flew by. By the time we made it to the parking lot it might have well been our first day on the trail. The level of enthusiasm about being picked up was tangible.
And that is it. We made it out. No one lost any toes. No one died. No one really needed to be evacuated. We made a ton of mistakes, but that’s the basis for greatness mistakes that you can learn from. Whether they are yours or the errors of friends, family, or stories from others pay attention. Because cold feet are hard to hike with.

North Tahoe’s Flume Trail

So this morning I woke up in Incline Village on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. Right around 8:45am my alarm rang like it does everyday at that time to prompt me out of bed before 9am. That is the latest I’ll let myself sleep in these days. With plans to hit a yoga class around 9:30am I stretched and and did a bit of a morning workout routine that I’ve been employing for the last several days. Followed by a quick bite of breakfast a cup of coffee I was heading out the door. As I was I learned that my class had been canceled and that I now had a more solitude filled morning. So natural I retreated to my phone. Scrolling through social media, which I have carefully sculpted to be a barrage of outdoor inspiration, medical advice columns, climbing photos and a select group of friends I was looking for the motivation to get up and get my day started. That when I got a call from my current host Carol Fowler. Carol called to tell me about a hike that was only about a mile away from the house that had spectacular view of the lake. And she also quickly pointed out that, “I’ve never seen the lake look more like the caribbean than it does today. It’s beautiful.” To say the least, that is all the motivation I need to get into my car and head to the trail head.

IMG_8858

Grabbing my small day bag with my epic kit, 1.5 liters of water, two power bars, an extra layer and a headlamp but without reading any information on the trail, without checking the weather report, and perhaps worst of all without telling anyone where I was: I started up the Flume trail. While Carol had suggested I go check it out we had not confirmed in any real way what that my plan for the day would be. Stopping in at the coffee shop near the trailhead I briefly chatted with a young woman on trail conditions and I set up off a paved track that would lead me to the trail.

We rationalize things based on past experiences. We find patterns in history and we adhere to them because of the cumulative knowledge through experience. That is exactly what I was doing today. Based on a variety of factors such as altitude and assumed trail difficulty I did not behave in a manner that would suggest I was heading into the backcountry. To me I was on a simple routine day excursion into the woods.

The hike started off simple enough with the paved path leading up to the edge of the park and the beginning of my trail. The altitude was right around 6,200 ft above sea level and the lake was perfect. The sun shone brightly and there was only the occasional gust of wind to chill me. Overall I could not have asked for better hiking conditions so I quickly pressed forward.  Crushing the first mile of the trail in under 20 minutes only spurned me on faster since I felt that I had my altitude lungs back. I made quick work of the trail as it rose from 6,200ft to 6,550ft above sea level. The feeling of bliss, the warm sun, the smell of spring sap leaking from the pines: the entire world faded away from my reality as I enjoyed purely the moment I was in. With the slight rise in elevation however came snow, and with snow more physically demanding hiking. I was not wear my crampons nor did I really need them but I did need to pay attention to how I stepped on the crust as to not twist my ankle or soak my socks.

The snow did not slow me down in the slightest. I’d was born in Salt Lake City, raised in Colorado, I was a passionate and competent mountain kid. So I carried on a slight breeze filling my hair and cool the sweat under the straps of my pack. Since starting out around 11am I’d really only seen folks descending the trail and only a small handful at that. The day was perfect for hiking why were more folks not out there enjoying the natural beauty of our world? I puzzled over this as I worked my way up a much chillier 7,300ft. The trail here was all snow. Trudge through the hardpack ice was not to difficult, and honestly was pretty entertaining. And right at about 12:32pm nearing 7,400ft was when my day changed.

IMG_8864

Been outta sorts

It’s quite titillating how my writing is directly linked to where I am, who I am with, and what I am doing. I find that more often than not if I’m alone and in the wild I write the most. If I’m around friends but still in the woods, I still write but not nearly as much. However, If I’m with friends, new or old, and in society, I don’t seem to write at all unless I’m drunk. And currently I’m drunk. I’m sitting on a couch in my uncle’s place in North Lake Tahoe, one of the more beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. It seems to me that when I’m with people, could be anyone, I’d rather spend my time engaging socially. However, when left to my own devices, I create a sense of social interaction by writing. This allows me to satiate my constant lust for human engagement. Because as much as I love writing it’s really just a coping mechanism for me to use when I’m not with people.

IMG_8836
Flatirons of the Superstitions: Epic day out with Zach O’Donnal

That being said most of my traveling the last month has been with people. And not just any people, my people. Friends and family who I have not seen in years. This reunion of sorts started way back on March 20th when I left Flagstaff and headed for Phoenix and met up with Zach O’Donnal. Zach and I met on our WFR training course in early March and he offered me a place to crash and shower in Phoenix on my way through. (He also left his water bottle at a bar and I had to return that to him.) Zach was much more than just a gracious host however seeing as he treated me to several hot meals, excellent hiking, numerous beers, and a few guitar lessons! The Tenacious D was flowing freely.

IMG_8834
The view from the top was pretty damn epic!

After a short yet wonderful stint in Phoenix it was time for me to move on. I headed pretty much directly west to the love city of San Diego. As many of you know the exact translation of the San Diego was lost by scholars years ago but some claim that it actually means, “A whale’s vagina.” What I found in that sunny city was far and away from the reproductive organs of a Cetacea. With the ocean in plain sight, Joshua Tree National Park only three hours away, and an unbelieveable amount of recreational opportunities in between San Diego is a place I could easily be happy for the rest of my life. That being said I’d have to take up surfing. And there is only one thing that I’m worse at than surfing and that is understanding organized religion. Which means I’d at least have something to work on or do if I moved there.

IMG_8780
Sunset over the Pacific ocean, Del Mar, CA

While in San Diego I had the privilege to reconnect with several folks from my life including old friends and family. An college roommate of mine Jamie Sullivan and his fiance Courtney are now calling Carlsbad home, and a beautiful home it is. Situated 3/4 of a mile from California’s I-5 and only a short mile to Carlsbad village their home was mine for about a week and a half. Reminiscent of our college days Jamie and I were able to enjoy eachother’s company and catch up a little bit as it had been about three years since we’d really had a chance to talk.  Our days mostly consisted of starting out with eggs and bacon, some coffee and the physical activity of the day. Jamie who is currently unemployed to prep his home for his wedding, and I spent our days hiking, paddle boarding, and lounging about the greater San Diego area. But it wasn’t just Jamie I was able to reconnect with.

IMG_8721
Jamie, Courtney, and their puppy who is more of a child to them then I was to my parents. 

As it turns out I have a substantial amount of family in San Diego area. My Aunt Cami lives in Del Mar which is right on the coast just north of La Jolla. The area is gorgeous and the ocean can be seen from Cami’s front porch. With Cami I found myself sea kayaking and hiking. And even more unexpected was connecting with her roommate the oh so excellent Mattie. Mattie is 24 and just starting her second year in San Diego after finishing school in Utah. Mattie and I jetted out to J Tree for a quick 24 hour climbing mission which really just consisted of us road tripping jammin and messing around on the epic boulders that can be found in J Tree. No serious climbing took place. But we did laugh a ton.

IMG_8701
Cami and I out for a stroll near Torry Pines

After leaving San Diego I headed up to Fallbrook which is between SD and OC. Since 1989 Fallbrook has been home to Gloria and Walt Mattson, my mother’s aunt and uncle. both of them are in their late 80’s and getting on fairly well. Walt took a serious fall in 2014 and has deteriorating health since then but still manages fairly well. While his memory is not what it once was, he is still surprisingly with the program. He took me to his woodshop in the garage of his home and together we turned a bowl on his lave and cleaned the shop up a bit. Seemingly mundane task but for a fellow who was slotted to move on a few years previous I was pretty impressed. His wife Gloria was an entirely different matter however. She was spry, sassy and filled with youthful enthusiasm. Making quick, but appropriate jokes to underscore Walt’s current mental status she runs the house. She manages a part hours volunteering with local libraries and taking care of two dogs and Walt. To say the least she is an amazing woman. To have had the opportunity to reconnect with these two in their more advanced age is something I will be forever grateful for.

Soon after leaving Fallbrook I was on track to rendezvous with Sava, another dear friend, and her husband Palmer. While I was obviously there to see them I spent most of my time in Mission Viejo with their dog Jordan. Jordan is a 95lb husky and he sheds like a waterfall. Between an amazing dinner of thai food, slacklining in a park, and getting a new phone I’d say my time here was a massive success. I also got to hug Sava a few times which after not seeing her since her wedding was a truly welcome experience.

Moving on from Mission I stopped over near Long Beach in Cypress, CA to see my mother’s cousin Garth and his wife Peggy. Once there Garth and I paddled out near Rainbow harbor on an ocean kayak and did a small two mile lap. All be the first to admit that this was the first time that that I felt a strain on my upper body from paddle but apparently Garth was letting me do most of the work, he’s so thoughtful.

IMG_8808
Myself, a young man named Parker, and my Uncle Joe. Quite the photo bomb by Parker. 

So shortly after arriving with Garth and Peggy it was time for me to leave yet again. Traveling up highway 395 towards Lake Tahoe I was on my way to see Joe Dunkley, my mom’s brother. Upon arriving at Incline Village I was greeted by a bottle of tequila and a case of beer. Not much more you can ask for in my opinion. Since being I have been snowboarding and slacklining to pass the time. Walk down by the lake and taking in a whole new world has occupied my time thus far. Currently I’m posted up at the island in my uncle’s kitchen post ramen and post gin martini, and I’ve got to say life is pretty damn good!

IMG_8807
Lake Tahoe. The best. 

 

Back in the canyon

So where was I? Standing on a ledge shivering sound right? Well there I was perched 80ft up on the side of a whispering waterfall. The mossy walls of silver schist making them far more slick than they already looked under the pearl sheen of the water way. The ledge that I was on was under constant bombardment from what Chris Atwood aptly called a rooster tail, the same effect is easily observed by a water skier who’s carving into the wake super hard. Unfortunately for me this rooster tail was aimed directly at my back. Fortunately for me I had a 70L pack with a cover that was taking the most direct hit. But it was constant. Always trying to drown me or dislodge me from my already terrible footing. Anchored into the wall as I was I wouldn’t have fallen more than a few inches before my sling caught me and I smashed my shins on the ledge, but that was not something I wanted to experience so I attempted to keep my feet.

The rooster tail in full effect; water spraying every which way and splashing on two the only necessary lens of my glasses. (For those of you haven’t read anything else by me or don’t know me, I have one eye.) And I suddenly had an immense burst of energy and yelled, mostly to myself, “LET’S GET WET!!!!”

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 8.10.23 AM

The level of endorphins soaring in my body,  warmth returned to the tips of my fingers and I began to slide as smoothly as the water below me down the face of the cliff. About 60ft down this awesome face I came back into the line of site with my partners Chris and Kathy. Chris was posted up knee deep in an eddy off to the side of the creek and his camera raised to the right eye while the left eye was shut tight. Snapping a few slow exposure shots, which I’m excited to see, he had me pause in the more diffuse water tumbling down over my feet. I was still perched about 30ft from the base of this particular rappel and at Chris’ request to pause so he could take a photo I also remembered to slow down. To enjoy myself.

I looked up then for what felt like the first time since I entered the slot. My comfort with my surroundings growing with every passing second, while my appreciation for where we were swelled as well. Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 8.13.22 AM