Red Baldy

People following the “outdoors” thread on this blog will have noticed that Bill and I failed to summit on Mount Baker and also on White Baldy this year already. I’m not all about summiting, but this got on my nerves a little. Yesterday I decided to climb Red Baldy, an 11,000′ neighbor to White Baldy. Around six years ago I had failed to climb Red Baldy by its NE ridge, due to some frightening scrambling problems and also I was by myself. Just to make things confusing, Red Baldy is usually accessed from the White Pine drainage, whereas White Baldy is usually climbed from Red Pine.

This time I was a bit worried about timing: I couldn’t start before 9:30 due to dropping off kids, and had to finish before Sarah and I went out to celebrate our anniversary (nine years!). The White Pine road is notoriously long and switchbacky, and at least one trip report on the web indicated an eight-hour round trip for this peak. Luckily, whoever said this was either slow or took a different route: I made it up and down in 5.5 hours, including about an hour on top. The fast way to Red Baldy is to walk the White Pine road until it makes a final switchback towards White Pine Lake a little below 10,000′. From this switchback, ascend tundra and talus to Red Baldy’s north ridge, then follow this ridge to the summit. After leaving the trail this route is class 2 walking, making Red Baldy perhaps the 4th easiest 11,000′ peak in the Wasatch (after Hidden Peak, Sugarloaf, and Baldy).

On this hike temperatures were pleasant at the trailhead in the morning and also up high around mid-day, but it was around 85 at the trailhead when I got back there at 3pm, and then 102 by the time I got home, yikes. A few snowfields were left in upper White Pine; in my soft boots these were useless on the way up, but provided a quick way to descend a few hundred feet.

Grandview Peak

Grandview Peak, at 9410′, is the highest point in Salt Lake City. Even so, it’s a long way from anywhere and no trail goes to its summit. Over the course of four trips to Grandview I’ve yet to see another person within two miles of the top (not counting whoever I’m hiking with, of course).

One of the reasons I enjoy Grandview is that the route has great variety. You get peaceful hiking near an alpine stream, typical low-Wasatch walking through scrub oak, a nice climb in open pine forest, a long ridge-run with plenty of minor obstacles, and finally a serious two-mile brush thrash on exit.

According to Google Earth, my route was right at 10 miles and involved 4400′ of gain/loss. It took about 6.5 hours and 1.5 MPH felt plenty fast given the difficult terrain.  I’d been hoping for pleasant temperatures; valley highs were around 90 and the average adiabatic lapse rate predicts that 5000 feet higher it should be 17 degrees cooler.  Somehow this prediction was total crap and it was both hot and humid; I guess surface heating probably dwarfs adiabatic effects unless the air is moving around a lot, and transpiration defeats Utah’s natural low humidity. Anyway, three liters of water was not enough. My previous times on Grandview were a lot more pleasant, and had been in spring or fall.  Here’s a description of a similar route I took a few years ago.

White Baldy

White Baldy, on the ridge between the Red Pine and White Pine drainages of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah’s Wasatch Range, is an infrequently visited 11,000′ mountain with no really easy routes: its east, west, and north ridges are all messes of bus-sized boulders. Bill and I decided that if we were ever going to climb this mountain, it would be via a snow climb of its broad north face. This face could be a fun scramble in summer, but getting to it would necessitate an hours-long session of boulder hopping in upper Red Pine. Better to just walk on top of it all.

On June 21 we hiked not-speedily to Red Pine Lake, one of the prettiest locations in the Wasatch. The snow was very firm and the small patch of open water on the lake had accumulated a skin of ice overnight. We had good walking to Red Pine’s highest bowl at around 10,200′ and from there the climbing began. The problem with this north face is that it doesn’t have any really pleasant couloirs; as the slope became steeper, there were always sharp rocks sticking out of the snow below us–not so fun to imagine falling into them. As the angle crept past 30 degrees we started running into patches of icy crust where my light mountaineering boots were failing to kick very good steps. With about 600′ to go we chickened out and turned around; putting on crampons (which we hadn’t brought) or waiting an hour for the snow to soften would have also been solutions, but neither of us was super invested in summiting.

We traversed over to the west ridge, stopping to do a bit of self-arrest practice along the way, including a few of the always-frightening backwards / headfirst falls. I hadn’t practiced stopping fast slides for a few years so this was good review. We had lunch looking into American Fork Canyon. It was a great day: sunny and warm in the lee of a boulder, but surprisingly cold in the wind–my hands started to get numb while I was taking pictures. On the way down the snow was getting sloppy but the partially broken-down snow bridge over the Red Pine stream held up fine. Overall, it was an excellent spring snow climb.

Here’s a 360° panorama with White Baldy in the middle.

The Ten Hiking Essentials

It is often said that hikers should not leave home without the “ten essentials.” The ten specific items vary a bit from list to list but this one is typical:

  1. Map
  2. Compass/GPS
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra food and water
  5. Extra clothes
  6. Headlamp
  7. First aid kit
  8. Fire starter
  9. Matches
  10. Knife

I have developed an alternate list:

  1. Left sock
  2. Right sock
  3. Left shoe
  4. Right shoe
  5. Underwear
  6. Pants
  7. Shirt
  8. Hat
  9. Car key
  10. House key

Of course, this list is also subject to change. A hat isn’t always necessary, but sometimes a jacket is. A car key isn’t always necessary, but perhaps I’ll put a food bar in my pocket. A person could always wear sandals or go commando.

My point is just that one-size-fits-all lists are silly. In many situations, several of the ten canonical essentials are dead weight; on other hikes a pack containing these items would be suicidally incomplete. I don’t know, just use some common sense people. And for God’s sake take a cell phone so you can call in a helicopter rescue when you get lost or stuck on a ledge somewhere.

Good Fun and Bad Weather on Mount Baker

The problem posed by this trip was to find a route that was interesting for Bill but feasible for me. Bill is a seasoned mountaineer and has done some difficult climbs. I’m a strong hiker and feel comfortable on moderate snow slopes, but I haven’t done any technical mountaineering. Technical, in this case, means roped up in order to gain safety on glaciers and on steep snow or ice where a self-arrest is unlikely to succeed.

Our solution was to spend six days on Mount Baker with a guide. During the early part of the trip I’d get brought up to speed on roped travel, crevasse rescue, etc. and then we’d attempt the Park Glacier Headwall: an interesting, moderately technical route to the summit. The 2009/2010 winter ended up not bringing a lot of snow, so we felt comfortable scheduling a trip in May, on the early side of the season.  However, the spring turned ugly and a lot of snow was dumped on the northwest. Going into this trip we knew the forecast was poor for the whole week and we’d be lucky to get anything done.

On Saturday May 15, Bill and I traveled up Bellingham, WA. Sunday we woke up early and headed over to the AAI offices where we met Jason Martin, our guide. After a bit of gear sorting and renting me some plastic boots, we headed up to Baker’s Heliotrope Ridge trailhead. It was great driving through the dense forest: living in Utah one gets used to the desert and it’s nice to see so much green.

The hike up to “Mirkwood,” a sheltered campsite at around 5200′ on a moraine overlooking the lower Coleman Glacier, was a bit grim since my pack was overloaded. It’s hard to be light when carrying six days of food, a full set of climbing gear including two ice axes, and plenty cold-weather clothes. Also Bill and I weren’t that interested in sharing a tent so we each had one of those to carry. I was delighted to discover that hiking in plastic mountain boots is not at all uncomfortable. Over the course of this trip I learned to love these boots, although keeping the insides dry in the rain and wet snow was a challenge.

Setting up tents on snow is quick and easy. After settling in we did a bit of snow review: self arrest, anchor-building, etc. I built a snow bollard and then, simulating a fall, pulled the rope right through it, yikes. After a while it started raining hard enough that these activities stopped being fun. After dinner the weather cleared up a bit and I started feeling enclosed by the big trees, but just a 15-minute hike up the moraine the trees petered out and a quick scramble got me onto a nice rock pinnacle where I had a great view of the mountains in BC and a gorgeous sunset.

All photos © Jason Martin, William B. Thompson, or John Regehr 2010.

Monday the weather was beautiful, though Baker’s summit had a moderately ominous cloud cap. We decided to spend the morning doing glacier skills and then head up to a high camp, make a snow cave, and attempt the Park Glacier headwall on Tuesday if the weather held.  I was a little nervous about this since we skipped over the crevasse rescue stuff and, in fact, on the way up to the high camp both Bill and Jason put legs into hidden crevasses. It is a little scary walking past a hole in the snow that has been produced in this manner because it is 100% clear that a serious crevasse is lurking right there, and there’s no easy way to tell exactly where it is or if the rest of the snow bridge will hold.

Our high camp was at 7700′ on the next ridge east of Baker’s North Ridge.  The hike was long and fairly warm and really quite tiring due to poor snow conditions, like walking in mashed potatoes. Bill and I volunteered to break trail but perhaps not very convincingly since Jason took the lead the whole way. As soon as we stopped walking the wind picked up and it got cold. We immediately started work on the snow cave a bit down from the ridge crest, but above the glacier. This cave (I’d never dug one before) turned out to be a very large amount of work: just below the surface snow was some great structural snow with about the consistency of sheetrock. We traded off often and made progress slowly, eventually deciding that we didn’t need to fit our entire bodies into the cave; if it rained we’d sit out the rest of the night leaning against the back wall. The flaw in this plan was that a serious drip developed along the interface between the sloppy surface snow and the hard snow beneath. We didn’t manage to eliminate it, nor did it stop as the night became colder. So we slept with our bivy bags getting dripped on, not the end of the world but not that great.  We set alarms for 2am.

All photos © Jason Martin, William B. Thompson, or John Regehr 2010.

At 2:00 the sky was not clear and the snow had not come close to freezing. We decided to bail on this summit attempt. This turned out to be the right decision; we’d not have summited in any case, and descending might have been pretty adventurous depending on where we were when the weather turned. We woke again at 7 and headed back down to Mirkwood in a whiteout. The cloud cover felt shallow and while we couldn’t see much of anything, the solar radiation was burning hot. We got back to camp around lunchtime and napped for a while, during which time a nice cold rain began. At this point the floor of my tent was very wet due to condensation. I’m not sure how to avoid this when camping on snow in humid weather, perhaps a footprint made out of very thin foam?

All photos © Jason Martin, William B. Thompson, or John Regehr 2010.

Wednesday it was gorgeous in the morning, but again with a cloud cap over the summit. We did a full-on crevasse rescue practice, my first one. First we found a nice crevasse and probed an area near it so that we could move around without ropes. Next, Bill and I roped up for glacier travel and he jumped into the crevasse! This took a bit of convincing, it was not very fun for him. However, Jason had him belayed on a second rope so that we wouldn’t both end up at the bottom of the crevasse if I failed to stop his fall or if my anchor blew. Here’s a short video Jason took of this. After I self-arrested, we went through the entire drill which is pretty involved, Jason has a great blog post giving the details. Extracting Bill took perhaps 45 minutes of hard work, here’s me working a C on Z pulley system. When it was my turn in the crevasse, Jason lowered me; I was perfectly happy not to jump in. Being inside the glacier was pretty cool: it was drippy and there were lots of moving-ice noises that couldn’t be heard on the surface. Bill’s rotator cuff problems made him less than excited about operating a pulley system so I got to prusik out, which is actually quick and easy except for getting over the crevasse lip.

In the afternoon we found a serac with perhaps 40′ of vertical ice to climb on, another thing I hadn’t done before. It was fun: in this glacier ice you can plant a tool just about anywhere and it sticks. My first time up, I had trouble and it turned out I was doing only two things wrong: placing my feet and placing my ice tools. But both were easy to fix. First, when Jason said to use four crampon points I thought he meant two on each foot, not four on each foot. By drooping my heels some, I was able to use all four front points, making things greatly easier. The problem with my ice tools is they are quite mismatched: a sweet little 50cm Petzl Aztar hammer in one hand and my beat-up, off-brand 70cm mountaineering axe in the other. The longer, heavier tool was tough to swing properly and I did a lot better once I borrowed Bill’s matched tools. Bill zipped right up the slope and I did OK after a few practice runs. Perhaps the most fun part was climbing a slightly less steep ice slope (probably 80 degrees) with just one axe.

By mid-afternoon it was raining and we retired to camp. We had dinner in the cold rain and later it started storming properly. Luckily the Mirkwood camp is sheltered, but even so we had at least 30 mph gusts, not friendly for my slightly crappy 3-season tent which is sort of a wind tunnel due to having too much mesh and a very open fly design. Tent stakes setup at deadmen and frozen into snow are impossible to dislodge, my main worry was the fabric ripping. Eventually the rained turned to sleet and then snow. I was pretty cold but felt fine after getting into my bivy bag inside my tent.

All photos © Jason Martin, William B. Thompson, or John Regehr 2010.

Thursday morning the weather was good but basically all of our gear including boots and sleeping bags was soaked from days of humidity and rain. Our harnesses and packs had frozen stiff overnight. The forecast remained crappy.  We decided to bail from Baker and do some rock climbing near Bellingham. The hike out was beautiful and sunny at first, but by the time we got to the car it was blowing snow again, and we were glad to get out.

We headed to Mt Erie near Anacortes, a beautiful spot. The forecast was still for rain but we had a great afternoon. Baker, we noticed, was shrouded in ugly dark clouds. I’m not a rock climber at all but struggled my way up some pitches in the 5.4 to 5.6 range. 5.8 appears out of reach for now. We spent Thursday night at the Deception Pass campground, located in a gorgeous temperate rain forest.

All photos © Jason Martin, William B. Thompson, or John Regehr 2010.

Friday we did more cragging and a gear sort at AAI in late afternoon. Bill and I checked into our motel and I used basically every available surface for drying gear. Beers and dinner went down well.

All photos © Jason Martin, William B. Thompson, or John Regehr 2010.

Overall, we had a great trip. At least part of each day had decent weather and neither Bill nor I was hugely invested in reaching the summit. We got to do lots of mountaineering stuff that can’t be done in Utah (no glaciers here). Jason turned out to be a really interesting guy and was fun to spend a week with; he’s the guide manager at AAI and also writes plays and screenplays, and previously was a high school drama teacher.

Flower Power

The Wasatch Range peaks are 7000′ higher than the nearby Salt Lake Valley. This has many nice side effects but one of my favorites is that a wide variety of micro-climates is available within a small geographical region. In late Fall or early Spring it can be calmly drizzling in the city, but in the mountains it’s storming like the Himalayas. Before having kids I’d often get up around 5am in July and August to go for a hike. Even on days that are going to be over 100 degrees in the valley, it’s generally pretty chilly at 8000′ at that time of day.

This week the foothills near my house have the most flowers in the 6000′ to 7000′ range. Below this things are starting to dry out; higher up, the snow has only recently melted and buds are still trying to open. As the summer progresses, the band where flowers are found will slowly increase in elevation. The nice thing about this arrangement is that for about four months of the year, there’s somewhere within about a 45 minute drive that has wildflowers at their peak. The density of flowers in the foothills doesn’t approach the wall-to-wall color seen in some of the real alpine meadows, but some of these photos came out pretty well.

Into the Brooks Range, Part 3

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.]

August 6 — We See Bears

Finally we were back to walking a wide river valley not unlike our first day hiking. To stay in the river bed, we had to pass through some dense thickets of willow brush. Since it’s very bad to surprise a brown bear, we made lots of noise. Later, while walking along the riverbank, Eric heard something and motioned for us to stop. Down below on the gravel, a big female bear was standing up on hind legs, making warning noises: we had violated her personal space, which in the arctic encompasses a much larger area than for example in southeast Alaska where the bear density is higher. She calmed down after we stopped coming nearer, and we saw that she had three cubs nearby. Eventually, they wandered off into the willow scrub and we moved on. Later, we camped in a really pretty site up on the river bank.

I hadn’t spent time with brown bears before this trip, and it was interesting to do so. Most of the time, of course, we were managing bear risk as opposed to dealing with actual bears. For example, we carried a separate cook tent and never stored food in our tents overnight. We each had a can of pepper spray at hand basically at all times. Statistically speaking, this stuff is supposedly more effective than carrying a firearm, and certainly it poses less risk to the carrier (though there always seemed to be the possibility of being forced to discharge it into the wind). Even Eric, who has extensive bear experience, was hard-pressed to explain how one might distinguish a mock charge from a real charge before it was too late. A few times we joked that if the bears had their act together, they’d deploy one in front while another snuck up behind us. However, fundamentally, this kind of tactic is unnecessary since a single large bear could easily kill all of a five-person group like ours. However, the Brooks Range bears are not at all habituated to humans; their suspicion about the new shapes and smells causes them to back off more often than not, and attacks are rare (though not unheard of).

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 7 — A Warm Day and a Swim

This was a sunny, warm day with generally easy walking. The Ivishak was finally deep enough to contain plausible fishing holes — Ben had carried his fly rod the whole trip waiting for this. But no luck, it was too early for the arctic char sea run. One excellent location had deep, clear water and Ben, Eric, and I couldn’t resist a quick dip to wash off a week’s worth of grime and sweat. I’d guess the water was around 50-55 degrees: cold enough to trigger the gasp and hyperventilation reflexes, but not producing a strong feeling of impending cardiac arrest.

In the evening we found a gorgeous campsite on the river bank and Ben fished again. Around 11:30 Eric started yelling for Ben to come up to camp: a bear was prowling around on the opposite bank. We watched it foraging for a while: it was acting natural and hadn’t heard us over the river noise. Before turning in we banged some pots and pans to make sure it knew we were there: this got its attention right away and it stood on hind legs to try to figure us out. It lost interest quickly and wandered off, but even so most of us too a pot or pan to bed that night as a noise-maker in case he came back to investigate further. As far as we know, he didn’t come back.

Throughout the trip, everyone else did a better job than I did in spotting animals; my vision is about 20/50 and I decided not to wear corrective glasses most of the time. Also, as Sarah enjoys pointing out, I’m not the most observant person in the world. Eric on the other hand has 20/15 vision and his job depends on spotting wildlife in difficult conditions. Throughout the trip we were seeing plenty of caribou and raptors plus a single moose; these sightings quickly became routine and I’m only mentioning the more interesting ones.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 8 — Last Day Walking and a Wedding

Our last walking day was cloudy and cool. The steep valley walls made it best to stick to the gravel bars and we spent most of the day in sandals. The frequent river crossings were uncomfortably cold. Also, as more side drainages added water to the Ivishak, and as it rained around us, the crossings got deeper. They weren’t scary but certainly we had to focus on maintaining our footing in the current. By the end of the day, crossing the main channel would have been dicey.

Finally we arrived at the big alluvial fan containing the takeout air strip. Although we were certain the location was correct (Shannon had been there before, as the starting point of a rafting trip) we had no luck finding any wheel tracks. Shannon went out and put a makeshift windsock on the part of the fan where she thought Kirk would land.

In the evening we had a fun surprise: Shannon and Ben had decided to get married. They asked Eric if he would marry them, and he was happy to (an adult Alaska resident can officiate at a wedding in the state). It was a nice ceremony in the most beautiful possible setting. Afterwards, we had drinks — sort of. Ben had stashed a mini bottle of gin that we mixed up with fizzy electrolyte drink tablets.

Shannon and Ben are a neat couple. They live in a cabin near Denali NP. They do various kinds of work such as guiding in the summer and working in Antarctica in winter. It sounds like an interesting life and I like to secretly think that in some alternate universe I’d have done this kind of thing instead of, or at least prior to, becoming a professional academic.

Overnight, a front rolled through and we had hours of high winds mixed with rain and sleet. We were fortunate to have set up camp in the lee of a small rock outcrop, but even so the biggest gusts brought my tent ceiling more than halfway down to my head. For a while I was pretty sure the tent would collapse or else go airborne. However, it did not, perhaps because I had added three extra guy lines. Nobody slept much and in fact around midnight we found ourselves all outdoors in the miserable driving rain putting extra-large rocks on our tent stakes. Ben and Shannon’s tent had partially blown down and they had to realign it; Bill and Eric had pretty solid tents and I — having probably the least weather-worthy tent — was very lucky to have set it up the right way.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 9 — In a Snowstorm and Not Getting Out

In the morning the winds had died and we found the snow line barely above camp. The cloud level was only a few hundred feet higher. Still, the weather was improving and we hoped the plane could make it in. Eric and I took a short hike, but we didn’t want to wander far in case Kirk arrived.

As the day progressed the weather deteriorated and we realized we were almost certainly in for an extra night. We moved the tents into a slightly more sheltered configuration in case the winds picked up. In the afternoon it began to snow pretty hard and we spent the rest of the day chatting in the cook tent and napping. We had little reserve food and had an extremely light dinner before going to bed hungry.

During the night it kept snowing. My light tent let in every little gust of wind and I started to get cold. As part of a weight-saving plan I brought only a 30 degree sleeping bag, knowing that it would make hiking easier but that I would suffer if things went badly. So I shivered, wearing basically every single piece of clothing I had brought along, including the fleece top that had been serving as a pillow.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 10 — Snow and Sun and Out

We woke to perhaps six inches of snow, which represented a new obstacle to getting out: the bush pilot can’t land if he can’t see the terrain. Someone told a story of a bush pilot who overflew his clients after a snowstorm and dropped them a shovel, circling while they cleared the strip. With the threat of a second extra night out, we rationed food pretty severely and stayed hungry.

As the day progressed it partially cleared and the snow began to burn off. It was incredibly pretty, definitely worth the discomfort and inconvenience. Sometime in the morning we heard a plane and rushed to take down tents — but the plane passed overhead. The rest of the day we read and napped, not wanting to stray far from the air strip. By late afternoon we were resigned to another night, but then around 6:30 Kirk showed up. We packed up and ran for the plane, not wanting to keep him there any longer than we had to. The flight out to Arctic Village was spectacular, with clear air this time.

It turned out Kirk had tried hard to get us out the previous day, but had been turned back by severe turbulence. His brother had also tried, from a different direction, also unsuccessfully. This was something interesting to learn about bush pilots: their clients’ lives are in their hands and they take this responsibility very seriously. This, in combination with the levels of skill and experience of the best pilots, helped put the cost of bush plane travel into perspective (it constituted one of the major parts of the total trip expense).

At Arctic Village it was clear that we weren’t going any further. An old guy with an ATV gave Eric and me a ride into town, where by some stroke a luck the store was still open. We stocked up on high-calorie foods and walked back to the air strip to wait for Ben and Shannon. When they arrived, we ate a huge amount of spaghetti and candy bars. Unfortunately, the little visitor center was locked up, so we slept on its covered porch. I burned a bit of sat phone time to tell Sarah all was well, luckily she had been adequately briefed on the possibility we’d be stranded out.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 11 — Heading Home

Wright Air Service was aware of our situation and sent an extra plane up to Arctic Village, putting us in Fairbanks by noon. Now we were two days late and Bill had missed his flights home. My parents were in Fairbanks with a car and Eric and I planned to ride down to Anchorage with them. However, Eric was stressed about work and stuff and flew home instead. I hadn’t yet missed my scheduled flight, a redeye late on the 11th, so we had a leisurely drive south. Luckily I had taken a shower in Bill’s hotel room or else we’d probably have driven with the windows open the whole way.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

Notes

All pictures are by me or Bill Thompson. If you care, Bill’s pictures all have filenames starting with “dsc” whereas mine all start with “picture.” I shot a number of panoramas too.  We used identical equipment: Nikon D90 with the kit lens, an 18-105 zoom. Bill’s landscape pictures often look better than mine (at least partly) because he shot in raw format and then used a good converter, whereas I let the camera do everything.

Most of my gear performed admirably; the fact is that today’s mid-range equipment is overkill for almost any normal use. My favorite items were the Smartwool midweight wool long underwear top and bottom that became more or less a second skin for the cold parts of this trip. Completely comfortable, and not stinky like synthetic. My puffy synthetic Patagonia jacket was really nice as well, and way too warm for anything except sitting around or sleeping. The Arcteryx Bora 95 pack was awesome: big and bombproof. I have no idea when mine was made, I picked it up used from a guy who was moving away from SLC. Like all Arcteryx products, these are more or less prohibitively expensive to buy new. The La Sportiva Trango Trek GTX boots I took were about perfect: decent support, good waterproofness, and not unbearably heavy. After over a week in very tough country they look and work about like new. To carry water I took a single 1-liter platypus bottle, these are super light and can be collapsed to pocket-size when empty. Probably the main drawbacks are the easily-dropped cap and the narrow opening which makes it slow to fill. My old Cascade Designs Z-Rest performed about as well as it ever does, which is to say that it’s light and respectably comfortable, but really wants to be placed on soft ground.

A few items I was less happy with included the 30 degree Marmot synthetic sleeping bag that I got for cheap, which had very little loft. It weighed about the same as Shannon’s 5 degree bag from Western Mountaineering, which had so much loft it looked inflated. Seriously, you can bounce a quarter off that kind of bag. My Sierra Designs Sirius 2 tent was decent overall, but the open vestibules were a major drawback. First, they provided very little shelter for keeping items dry outside the tent. Second, they acted like wings to catch the wind: not good. Also, this tent is pretty short; I’m six feet and had to lie diagonally to keep from pressing head and feet against the tent ends.

Although I spend a lot of time outdoors and car camp as frequently as possible, my previous backpacking experience was minimal — probably no more than two weeks total, prior to this trip. So it was fun to refine my techniques and learn new tricks. One of the most useful was rigging a clothesline inside the tent so that socks and such could be dried overnight. Another good one was putting clothing and other items at the head and foot of my sleeping bag to keep it from getting wet from condensation due to touching the outside of the tent. A great pair of camp shoes can be improvised out of a pair of tevas and a pair of neoprene socks.

Into the Brooks Range, Part 2

[Continued from Part 1, also see Part 3.]

August 3 — Over the Arctic Divide

Our third hiking day took us over a 5700′ mountain pass where the Wind, Ivishak, and Ribdon river drainages converge. Since the creek-bed of our side drainage was totally impassable, we climbed steep talus slopes, leaving the last tundra behind. Eventually the rocks leveled out and we came to a high bowl containing the Seefar glacier, which appears to be dead. We stopped and climbed its moraines a while: the basin was really spectacular and Bill and I were bummed that the thick smoke eliminated the possibility of good photographs.

To exit the Seefar bowl and get to the pass, we had to bypass a small waterfall on angle-of-repose scree. It was doable, but dicey with the big packs; we went one-by-one to avoid kicking rocks down on each other. After a bit more walking we reached the pass itself, which might as well have been on Mars, it’s as desolate a location as I’ve ever seen. It would have been nice to stick around for a while and climb the unnamed 7500′ peak nearby, but we wanted to get down to a suitable campsite. The mountains in this area have no doubt been climbed before, but definitely not very many times.

The talus slog down from the pass on the Ivishak side was steep, loose, and not much fun. It contained, however, a memorable site: the remains of a Grumman Goose that crashed in 1958, killing Clarence Rhode, the regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and two others, triggering Alaska’s then-biggest-ever search and rescue operation. The search was unsuccessful and the fate of the plane and its three occupants was a mystery until 1979 when the wreck was found by hikers (Debbie Miller’s book Midnight Wilderness describes this). The bent propellers showed that the plane was powered when it hit the mountain. The arctic climate preserves things well: a can of coffee near the wreck still contained recognizable coffee grounds, and a typed “permit to take wolves and/or coyotes from an airplane” was perfectly legible after 50 years outdoors. The site was disconcerting, probably especially so for Eric — a current employee of the US Fish and Wildlife service and a heavy user of small aircraft in the arctic.

We dropped down to a confluence of small sub-drainages that would have been a very small, rocky campsite, then continued until being stopped by a waterfall. We bypassed this and went to the next confluence, which contained a beautiful meadow where we stopped, exhausted after a very long day.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 4 — Layover

Our schedule had some slack built into it for weather and other difficulties. However, now that we were over the pass most of the risk had disappeared so we decided to take a rest day. Unfortunately, we had descended so far from the pass that nobody had energy to hike back up to it to climb some peaks. We poked around, read books, and generally enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day outdoors. This confluence was some sort of caribou highway and small herds walked past our campsite all day. I poked back upstream to the waterfall that had blocked us the evening before; it was gorgeous. Bill and I hiked around the next bend in the river and saw a group of Dall sheep.

On this trip Eric read much of The Brothers Karamazov, which seemed like a fine choice. I brought along Little, Big, which I’d read before and loved. However, Shannon brought perhaps the best book: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic. It is targeted at the interested layperson, and is packed with information about the kinds of things one wonders about while walking around this part of the world. What is the difference between hibernation and torpor? What is a tussock, exactly? What is the relationship between the moon’s phases and the “moon stays up” periods that correspond to the midnight sun? Among three PhDs, it is possible to speculate endlessly without any actual information, so this book was a godsend.

Although we missed the midnight sun, we didn’t have any real darkness on this trip. I’m used to fall camping trips in Utah where the nights are quite long; it felt really strange to not pack any light source at all for an extended backpacking trip, but that’s what we did. I’ve never had trouble sleeping in the light, luckily. I almost didn’t take a wristwatch on this trip, but I was really glad I did: lacking daylight-based cues about the time, I often had no idea at all what time it was.  Each day shortly after midnight, the sun rose in the southeast, made a near-complete circuit of the sky, and then set in the southwest around midnight. I took a very small tube of sunblock on this trip, guessing that the low sun angle plus likely clouds and rain would make sunburns unlikely; this wasn’t a very good decision.

Hiking in Utah, a person gets used to always filtering, purifying, or boiling water. Each of these is a pain, and one of the things I loved about the Brooks Range is that water is clean enough to drink straight from any moving source.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 5 — Out of the Mountains

After the rest day, the going was easier. Our bodies were getting used to the packs, the packs were getting lighter as we ate food and burned fuel, and we were hiking downhill. However, in the morning we were still in a seriously mountainous area and the stream would often constrict to a narrow gorge. Luckily the tundra benches were wide and fairly level, so we stayed on them most of the day. By the time we made camp, we were back into a fairly wide river valley.

It was claimed, by people on this trip, that a certain kind of tundra moss makes a passable substitute for toilet paper. Not the dry, rough top side of the moss, but rather the soft, damp underside. I just wanted to mention this and won’t bother the reader with details.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

[Continued in Part 3.]

Into the Brooks Range, Part 1

[Also see Part 2 and Part 3.]

In Summer 2009 I went on a 1.5-week backpacking trip in the Alaskan arctic with my brother Eric, my colleague and hiking buddy Bill, and our guides Shannon and Ben from Arctic Treks. It was an amazing trip through a very rugged part of the world. Not only did we not see any other people, but most days we saw no signs that people had ever been there. If the civilized world had ended, we wouldn’t have found out until nobody came to pick us up.

July 31 — Getting There

It took most of two days to get from Salt Lake City to our starting point: the highest airstrip on the Wind River, on the South Slope of the Brooks Range’s Philip Smith Mountains. Bill and I first flew up to Fairbanks, through Anchorage. Descending into Fairbanks, we couldn’t see anything at all due to smoke from wildfires, and it was lucky that we even got there — earlier in the day they were turning planes back. After dinner we did some last minute gear-sorting and met up with Ben and Shannon, who gave us our share of the group gear. We’d been aiming for 50 pounds but with a full load of fuel and food, mine was around 60; Ben took more than his share of gear and had 70 pounds. Most everything we took ended up being useful or necessary, our main luxury was a tent apiece for Eric, Bill, and me. As Eric puts it, “If weight is so much of a concern that I have to share a tent with a dude, I’m not going.” I hadn’t managed to shake a bad cold, and decided to leave behind a half-bottle of bourbon. I went to bed early; Eric, who lives in Anchorage, had to work late and didn’t show up until early morning.

Next morning we went to the air taxi company to take a single-engine Cessna turboprop to Arctic Village, a town of less than 200 people next to the Chandalar River at the foot of the Brooks Range. The flight could have been spectacular but we hardly saw anything, again due to smoke. The big gravel air strip is maybe a half mile out of town; we dropped packs and slapped bugs waiting for the bush plane. Bill, who has done a number of trips in the arctic, said it could be 15 minutes, could be all day. It wasn’t too long until Kirk Sweetsir and his little Cessna arrived, but we still had to wait — he first had to drop off a couple who had flown out of Fairbanks with us, who were hiking over the continental divide and then packrafting all the way the Arctic Ocean, ending at Kaktovik, a pretty serious trip. When our turn came, Kirk flew us over (or rather through) a rugged and forbidding patch of mountains instead of heading up the Junjik river valley; it was spectacular, thought still very hazy. Before landing, Kirk had spotted a moose and a brown bear. As the plane flew off it began to drizzle and we pitched tents on boggy ground near the airstrip. A little later, Kirk came back with Eric and Ben and then we were left alone in the wide river valley, probably 45 miles from the nearest people. Before Kirk left for the second time, Shannon double checked with him regarding the pickup day and location. This seemed like a fine idea.

The Alaska definition of “airstrip” is something like “someone landed there once.” Guys like Kirk have an amazing job but the level of flying skill, rapid risk assessment, and luck required to grow old in that line of work must be fantastic.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 1 — Up the Wind River Valley

Our first walking day was in the miles-wide Wind River valley. Lacking trails, the main tension in this part of the world is between walking in the river channel, which is easy when on gravel bars but involves lots of river crossings and may be very brushy, and walking the bank, which is generally brushy, hilly, tussocky, and boggy. Tussocks are pillar- or mushroom-shaped tufts of grass that are raised about a foot above the surrounding terrain. If you try to step on them, they tend to flip over or otherwise give way, creating risk of injury. If you try to step between them, you also get unsure footing — the tussocks are so close together you can’t clearly see the gaps. Additionally, the gaps are usually filled with water or mud. You might think (at least, I certainly thought) that a sloped river bank would be well-drained, but somehow in this part of Alaska that is not the case. Although a tussock field looks inviting from afar, since the surface grass is nearly flat, it can be an amazingly effective obstacle to progress. Even a strong hiker wouldn’t expect to make more than about a half mile per hour in a nice, flat tussock field. Happily, on this trip we were mostly in the high country and didn’t get killed by tussock travel.

We ended up spending the first day mainly on the gravel bars, and except for Ben we stayed in sandals since otherwise the braided river would have forced multiple changes of footwear per hour. Ben had gaiters that appeared to keep his boots dry if he crossed quickly. This was the first of August and the river was low, so the crossings were inconvenient instead of scary.

We camped close to where the valley forked three ways and watched a snowstorm hitting the high mountains. Eric and I walked up a big alluvial fan and found a nice place to sit where we could be above the mosquitoes and scan the valley for bears. We didn’t see any, but had a good talk. This was one of the things I had been hoping would happen on this trip; Eric and I aren’t particularly close and in fact I’m not sure I have much of a handle on what kind of adult he’s become. Of course I still think of him as my little brother, though he is 35.

Eric is a field researcher for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, studying polar bears. As far as I can tell, it is the perfect job for him because he enjoys organization (capture work has hellish logistical requirements), is talented at statistics and modeling, and also has a strong commitment to field work. The field work is most often flying over arctic sea ice in a helicopter, darting a bear, and then landing to weigh it, take blood samples, and whatever else. His videos from bear-darting operations are amazing: a white bear is zig-zagging around on white ice under a white sky. Anyway, Eric has a ton of polar bear stories including some that are scary. It’s a neat job.

Throughout this trip, the mosquitoes were a constant low-grade annoyance. After too many years in Utah’s deserts my pain threshold for these pests is pretty low, and I ended up wearing my mosquito net for a while this second evening. Luckily I never felt the need to put it on after that, and in fact only seldom applied any DEET. In early August the mosquito season is just about over and by Alaska standards they were not at all bad. The Brooks Range mosquito adopts a slightly different strategy than those I’m used to: it wants to spend a bit of time hovering about a foot above your head before diving in to strike. I eventually learned that if I found a location where they couldn’t hover above me — such as sitting in my tent with the doors wide open — they wouldn’t bother me at all. Something nice about the arctic is that mosquitoes are the only pest: there are no chiggers, ticks, biting flies, or any of the other little critters that can make life difficult.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

August 2 — Into the Mountains

On our second moving day the air was clear of smoke: the only really clear day on this whole trip. We walked up the middle fork of the three-way split, which rapidly narrowed as we made progress. Walking was easy on the benches, and the river crossings were at most calf-deep. We saw a wolverine pretty close, which was fun: it was chasing something on opposite side of the creek and didn’t pay much attention to us. By the end of the day the valley had become a canyon and we were walking on talus, having gained enough elevation to leave most vegetation behind. We camped next to a beautiful but imposing waterfall that emerged from the side-drainage we had to hike into the next day.

You might wonder why three strong hikers who can read a map and have plenty of wilderness experience, arctic experience, and even hands-on bear experience would take a guided trip instead of rolling it ourselves. One reason is logistics: we’re busy people who live far from Alaska (well, Eric lives up there but he wasn’t actively involved with planning this trip) and having people on-location getting the gear together and setting up the bush plane was super handy. As our trip progressed I learned that it is pretty damn nice having someone else cook and clean up. In the mornings we generally slept quite late (arctic summer trips seem to tend in this direction due to the near-constant daylight) and Shannon or Ben always had coffee going when we got up. It is not a bad life to get out of the tent long after the morning chill has burned away and then sit around for an hour looking at maps, drinking two pots of coffee, and chatting. Shannon and Ben turned out to be great company, and certainly Bill and I, and Eric and I, would have gotten on each others nerves if it had been just the three of us. Finally, adding people lightens loads (early on, we hadn’t been sure Eric could come) and greatly increases bear safety.

All photos © William B. Thompson or John Regehr 2009.

[Continued in Part 2.]

50 Vertical Miles

A little over a year ago my family moved to a house near the north edge of Salt Lake City.  Although access to real mountains is not great — it’s about a three-hour walk to the nearest 8000′ peak and a major slog to a 9000′ peak — the foothill access is excellent.  At the same time, after way too much sedentary work, sedentary travel, and time at home with small kids, I found myself with high blood pressure and needing to lose weight, so I started doing a 45-minute hike each day, with a bit over 750′ elevation gain/loss.

After a year of this I ended up in decent shape and around 20 pounds lighter.  The cool part, though, is that 365 days of 750 feet comes out to 50 vertical miles hiked.  I was a little disappointed to compute that I’ll never be able to hike to the equivalent of geosynchronous orbit, but low Earth orbit should be attainable this year.  Of course due to travel and being sick, I missed some days, but also there were plenty of days where I hiked 2000-3000 vertical feet, so probably the average was maintained.  The hardest part is not missing days when weather is crappy or work and kids make life busy.  The solution, however, turned out to be easy: a good facemask and a powerful headlamp.

Although hiking the same set of trails day after day threatens to become boring, there has been a nice unintended benefit.  Since little brain power is required, I get a lot of unstructured time to think.  As far as I can tell, this has improved the quality of my work quite a bit; I usually return from a hike with three or four new ideas for me or my students to try out.  Even if only a few percent of these ideas are useful, the time is still well spent.  Hiking is even better than the shower for generating new ideas — who knew?