Saturday, August 15, 2009

Stop 8, Teton National Park, Wyoming, Teewinot

I can outrun a pronghorn antelope. Though found in the Teton National Park and considered to be the fastest land animal in North America, the pronghorn must take second now that I have arrived in the area. So I think, as I begin the hike up Teewinot in the Teton National Park.

Sixth highest peak in the Tetons, Teewinot is the only major peak with an Indian appellation (though bestowed by Europeans). Considered non-technical, there is still a small snow field to cross requiring an ice axe, and fourth class moves through a cruxy section up higher. There is also a bit of route finding involved, especially just below the summit.

All that is yet to come though, as first there are the dreaded switchbacks up the Apex, 18 in all. They are no match for me, however as my lungs are bellows and my legs steam pumps, churning in unison to push me higher. I am invincible, surely faster than anything around. Until I am passed—no, Blown By—on the trail. By a girl.

That it is a girl is no big matter—I've shared a few runs in Bellingham with my friend Brie, and she could dust me at will. But my legs did feel strong this day; I had done a 21 mile acclimatization hike two days before, just after arriving in the area, and felt recovered and reenergized from that.

Perhaps I am not a pronghorn, reaching speeds of 50+ mph. Maybe I am more like a bison, also found here in the park. Once numbering in the millions, the bison (aka American buffalo) in the Teton National Park and are part of the only naturally surviving herd in North America which once ran 60 million strong and was hunted down to 300 by the late 1800s. Think Buffalo Bill Cody, who gained his nickname by killing almost 5,000 of these creatures in a year and a half under contract to supply food to railroad workers. And that was just one man.

The bison is big and shaggy (which I decidedly am not), but can run up to 35 mph. That's it...I'm a bison, big and strong and lord of all I see. Until I am passed again. And again by a girl. Okay, maybe I'm just a pika, small and harmless with a shrill whistle sounded in alarm as I scurry off the trail to let the faster hikers pass me by.

The day is beautiful, sunny but not too hot with a few high white clouds here and there and thunderstorms forecast for later in the day. Lower down, wildflowers splash the hillside with color, while at higher elevations the mica laden granite sparkles with every

step. Stopping to get out my ice axe before the snow field, I pause to enjoy the view across Jackson Hole and again give thanks that I am able to once again do exactly what I want to do today. I want to be nowhere else, I want to be doing nothing else. I am, at least for a time, living in the present, no thoughts of the past, no plans for the future.

At 12,325 feet, Teewinot is the sixth highest peak in the Tetons and the route from the parking lot includes 5,500 feet of elevation gain. I am definitely feeling the elevation—any slower on the last 500 feet and I think I would be going backwards. With a start, I realize that this is my personal high point. It's not much, but it's mine. The summit fin of rock is tiny, allowing for one person at a time on top, but there is a nice perch just below where I sit and chat with a father and daughter from Maine. The views from the top are inspiring, and thoughts reach towards future plans, imagining what the climbs on the nearby peaks will be like.

On top of Teewinot, with the Grand Teton in the background

On the hike down, a young marmot gives me a quizzical stare, and the trill of birds and calls of chipmunks and pikas accompany me. I temporarily lose the well-trodden trail but regain it slightly lower, and reaching for my camera to snap a pic of the dark afternoon clouds rolling in over the range, I say “Oh my!”—or perhaps some other four letter exclamation, I don't remember which—realizing my camera is no longer attached to me. Somewhere on my detour I lost it. Turning towards the darkening sky and hiking back up the trail to try and retrace my steps with little hope of finding the small black bag, I notice a ray of sunshine in the form of my friend Susan coming down the trail. She had finished her day early and hiked up the trail a ways to wait for me, choosing to wait at a spot along the trail that I had bypassed when I lost the path. Explaining my plight, we set off together on the search. She asked what the camera looked like, and I said it was in a small black case and would be impossible to find among the dark needles and ground cover shadows. “You mean it looks like this?” she asked, showing me my black camera case she had just bent down to pick up. Expressing my gratitude, I shook her hand gravely—or perhaps it was some other gesture, I don't remember which.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Stop 7, The City of Rocks, ID Part 2

I ran over a rabbit. Twice. On purpose.

This was my intro to the City of Rocks. Arriving after dark, I had headed up the dirt road from Almo to the entrance of the park, and a rabbit appeared in my headlights. I drove past giving a wide berth, expecting the hare to hop to the side of the road, but this rabbit did not run. I backed up to give a closer inspection, and realized that the poor thing had already been recently hit in the hind legs and could no longer move. Its head was cocked towards me in the soft sidelights of my Subaru, but the eyes were blank, lifeless, merely awaiting whatever was to come next.

I chose to play God and end its life as quickly and painlessly as possible. Backing up further, I aimed my right tires towards the crippled critter, said a little prayer, and stepped on the gas. At the last second, my instincts kicked in and I swerved slightly, just enough to miss. Okay, one more try as it was a task I must do. This time I drove straight and true, and did the deed once more to make sure. What was the poor rabbit feeling as I bore down upon him? Fear? Relief? Acceptance? Can rabbits have those emotions?

Call it karma, call it a chance. The next day while climbing in a group of four, we noticed—heard first—a baby bird in the shallow stream next to our climb. It had fallen from a nest in the rocks just above, and was calling for attention. A survival gamble, as the attention could be good or bad, that paid off in this case. D picked up the bird and climbed the rocks to the nest, gently pushing the bird back into the rock hollow. Yes it was messing with mother nature, but I pushed those thoughts away and took some consolation in a life taken, a life restored.

After our rest day, we felt strong and ready. D geared up to lead Crack of Doom as the first climb of the day. Unfortunately it was also the last climb of the day, as a sprained ankle brought a premature end to his trip. He had placed a piece of gear on the bouldery start just a few feet off the ground. While trying to figure out the move, he decided to rest on the piece. It popped and down he went, hitting his ankle just the wrong way.

Without a partner, I decide to get out the aid gear and solo lead a quick pitch. It was a good idea that took a lot longer in reality! I knew I was slow and needed the practice, but had forgotten HOW slow! I had also forgotten how much energy aiding takes. By the end of the pitch, I was DONE. It was a good ending to the day though, and once again I knew I was going to have a great sleep.

Self portrait

Portrait of a black tri-cam

The next day I was able to pick up with a group of three climbers and ended my stay in the City of Rocks with some great climbs, and great company! Two days of climbing with some new friends, and by the end of those climbs I am simply worn out and ready for a rest. I'm not sure where I am next headed...I will be in the Tetons (Wyoming) from the 19th, so have an eleven day window with no concrete plan. I'm not worried though—I know I'll come up with something fun to do!

Worried? Me? Old school spicy runout climbing.

Looking down at the parking lot from Parking Lot Rock

The last few days saw thunderstorms move in during the afternoon, which greatly cooled things off. The pic below (left to right, Dale, Andrea, me, Herb) is just after we finished our last climbs of the day. We had all run back to our car to add layers/change clothes, as it was 54 degrees!

Just another beautiful sunset!

Leaving the City

Monday, August 3, 2009

Stop 7, The City of Rocks, ID Part 1

Once a stop on the California Trail 160 years ago, the City of Rocks National Reserve is now a stop on many a climber's itinerary. Located in south central Idaho in a line between Boise, 4 hours to the northwest, and Salt Lake City, 3 hours to the southeast, the City is an outcropping of granite rocks in the middle of rolling farmland. It is an unlikely place to find climbing, but that was also true of Joshua Tree. There is a long history of climbing here dating back to the mid-sixties as Utah climbers honed their skills here, and even (or more accurately, of course) Fred Beckey visited the area in his eternal search for new areas.

A view of the City of Rocks from the west

I am to meet up with a new (well, new to me!) partner I found through D climbs a bit harder than I do, but with all the routes being single pitch, we figure personality is more important than climbing level. He plans on being here for ten days, till the 8th, which seems like a long time to commit to an unknown partner and area, but as I write this on the 3rd I feel there is so much left to climb with only a short time remaining!

Granite galore!

Arriving very late on Tuesday the 28th, we begin climbing on the Wednesday morning. We turn out to be quite compatible partners, and we take our turns leading and cleaning routes on the various formations of the park. The weather is comfortable—lower to mid 80s and usually with a small breeze—and the days fly by as we get into our rhythms. Two days on, one day off. Two days on, and now another day off which finds me in the Tracy general store in Almo, pecking away at my computer and downing cold drinks and snacks while sitting at a wooden plank table with red-checkered cloth inside a business established well over one hundred years ago.

Someone needs a haircut

There is a trickle of customers inside the Tracy store; most are locals known by first name, but one family comes in, taking pictures and looking at the century of memorabilia on the walls and inside an old oak display case made by the Saint Paul Show Case Mfg. Co. of Saint Paul, Minnesota. They turn out to be the descendants of the man who donated the City of Rocks land to the Park. Everyone I've met in Almo, from the rangers both at the Park Station and within the City to the people in the the Tracy general store and post office, and the store of Rock City, have been extremely nice. It is a genuine smile that greets you upon entering one of the stores here—not rushed, not forced. It is perhaps a trite description of a small town (150 people live in Almo), but the description here doesn't seem trite—it seems just right.

Items in the Show Case

An old NCR cash register, still working though not in everyday use

Summer is the slow season here—too hot for most, whether they be climbers or non—and the park feels empty. This is partly an illusion—there are people here, but the designated camping spots are not of the general side-by-side variety. Rather, the spots are purposefully secluded from each other; sometimes even a few shrubs or some rocks between sites can create privacy, and this policy is one reason the City is so popular among all types of people.

The both of us however, being on a more limited budget than the average camper, choose to stay for free on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ground about ten minutes outside the park. The fee for the park campsites is $12.63 per night including tax (Idaho taxes everything, including basic amenities). Though that may not sound like much, multiply that by 30 nights and you end up at almost $380 per month. I have a friend in Bellingham who pays less than that for his rent. My budget is a selective one, and I select to pay as little for camping as possible. I'd rather save the money for a night of pizza with friends, or webbing to replace old anchors. It's a strange sensation to have a limited amount of money with no more income. One of these days I will either have to stop this trip or, more likely, resupply my funds for a while. But that is something I don't need to worry about just yet!

Camping with a view of the rolling farmland

Stop 6, Vegas Baby!

Las Vegas. Lost Wages. Sin City. Capital of Second Chances. The City of Lights. Glitter Gulch. The Strip with its neon glow (and a neon museum nearby), shows and showgirls, Pyramids and Venetian canals, and of course, the lure of gambling. One more spin, another chip, a last roll of the dice and you too can live the new American dream and get rich quick by ignoring the odds and working only as hard as pulling a lever. Or pushing a button, with the new age of machines and rules.

All of this is the attraction of Vegas, and I come and go to this desert oasis without participating in any of them. I really didn't even see the hotels, and even the Luxor, with its 39 individual lights and 2 billion candlepower, failed to pierce my view. But then again, I left Flagstaff without seeing the Grand Canyon and Yosemite without seeing the Valley.

I am just outside of Vegas in the sprawling suburb of Summerlin. Sam and Brie, two of my best friends from Bellingham who have been featured in the first two weeks of my trip, have recently moved here for Brie's grad school, and it is on their couch I find my own oasis in the desert.

I had taken a small fall on my last day in Paradise Forks a little over a week ago, bruising my coccyx and making climbing, and even walking and sitting, less than enjoyable. I continued to climb (and walk, and sit), but realized that I really just needed some time off. The one and only climb in Tuolumne made that decision concrete—as beautiful as Tuolumne is, and as enjoyable as the climbing was, I just wasn't having fun.

While most of my time in Vegas was spent in sweet air-conditioned relief, Sam and I took a day to drive up to Mt. Charleston to check out some limestone climbing areas from afar, and to let Sam rocket down one of the mountain bike trails from the top of the mountain to the bottom. Mt. Charleston, at over 7,700 feet, has temperatures about 30 degrees cooler than Las Vegas proper. Combined with other areas such as Mt. Potosi, a limestone cave not too far from the entry to the Black Velvet Canyon, climbing is possible year round.

Unlimited potential on one of dozens of limestone "islands" at Mt. Charleston

Bouldering is also quite pleasant in the evenings, and several days after work and school we drive over to the Calico Hills area to wind down the day in the cooling canyon of boulders. Though work and school are on the other side of Vegas from Sumerlin, Sam and Brie's condo is about a ten minute drive to Calico Hills, as well as to the main entrance of Red Rocks National Park. For those climbing friends of Sam and Brie looking to come to Las Vegas and crash in their spare bedroom, be forewarned—age has its privileges, and I call the cot!

Spotting the rare Walking Crash Pad

One day I head into Red Rocks proper to stretch my legs and hike around. Properly known as the Red Rock National Conservation Area, the 195,000 acre reserve attracts over a million visitors per year, mostly in its 13 mile loop drive. In a thirty minute hike starting from the first pullout, I see a family of foxes, a covey of quail, and the biggest most bad ass bee I have ever seen, as big as my thumb with a sinister black and red color scheme. I would have taken lots of pictures, as per my earlier vow, had I brought along my camera. But after all, I was only going for a quick hike in the busiest part of the park...what wildlife would I possibly see?

The day before I leave, I hook up with a local climber and head out for a couple of routes before the hottest part of the day. We knock off three quick pitches, two gear and one sport, as the temperatures reach over 100°. Our choice of routes is of course dictated by the search for shade, and the climbing is not at all unpleasant.

Meanwhile I have filled out some holes in my climbing schedule; next up is the City of Rocks in Idaho. I am sad to leave Sam and Brie, and even Fin and TomCat (despite the fact that they really don't like me all that much). But I am healed and raring to climb again, and new arenas beckon. So off I go, through the desert of Nevada and Utah, through Salt Lake City with its streets numbered into the tens of thousands, and into southeastern Idaho, the small town of Almo, and the City of Rocks.