Thursday, May 14, 2015

Great Basin Traverse: Toquima and Monitor Ranges


I am an anachronism. I was born in the wrong time. Say the 1860s, somewhere during that time along with the mountain men and the scouts leading pioneers across forbidden and unexplored land. I think I would even fit the Pony Express' 'young, skinny, wiry fellows' yet definitely not under 18 years of age. Jed Smith, Ogden, Sublette, Walker, and Carson, these names and fabled pathfinder who tramped through Nevada looking for hunting grounds and ended up blazing routes through the Great Basin for the pioneers heading further West. Yet, I have found my purpose in life in this time and age, for the same urge to explore pulls at me, especially within a hard and forbidding landscape.

I left the comfort of the Miles End Lodge in Kingston embarking on a route that led me to the unknown. Conditions, both trail and weather, route finding, water sources, all eluded any information I could gather. No one has hiked this route, so any information was non-existent, and any local knowledge I gathered, which came from John Miles, was smeared by the recent heavy weather. Cold had set in too. Like a scout of the 1850s going into the Great Basin, I had no idea what I was in for. This section of the Great Basin Traverse was one I brooded over the most in planning and preparation over the past Winter. I knew it would be long, scenic, challenging, and probably the highlight of this whole route. I estimated 140m which would fling me southeast across the Big Smoky Valley, then across the Alta Toquima and Mt. Jefferson, a beeline across the Monitor Valley, up and a traverse of Table Mountain Wilderness, then an amble overland the Little Fish Lake Valley, then proceed up Seven Mile Wash that would lead me into the Antelope Range and Nine Mile Peak area, and eventually long-haul trek over Antelope Valley and into the town of Eureka. A huge 'N' shape smack dab in the middle of Nevada. I ended up seeing most of these places but I had to prioritize my exploration of the geographic center of Nevada due to fresh snow levels and by underestimating mileage by 25m or so due to my strategy. I'll elaborate.

Paraphrasing Shawn 'Pepper' Forry, who this past Winter achieved the first ever Winter thru-hike of the PCT with his buddy Justin 'Trauma' Lichter, said true adventure is when you are uncertain of the outcome, or the outcome is unknown. On the fringe of bordering reckless and pure adventure I prepared to give it all I got as I left Kingston. I had 'planned' this journey to be a blank canvas and let so much of it left to my instincts and the wind. And that seemed to be the scenario as I trekked across the Big Smoky Valley. As I neared the Alta Toquima I kept scrutinizing the snow conditions. I observed the north face slopes and they appeared socked in with fresh snow. Before the storm atop the Toiyabe Crest the Toquimas were essentially bare of snow. Roving storm clouds punished me with hail yet I persevered. I could've hiked further to the south to approach the lesser filled slopes but that would involve an additional 30m. So, how do I get all that I want to see and explore with the food and the distance I would have left to get me to Eureka? 

I bypassed the Toquimas yet went over a lower pass in the range. This meant I suddenly was in the midst of a 40m waterless stretch. A little disappointed, I kept my spirits up as the Table Mountain Wilderness in the Monitor Range looked more attainable. My peregrination, or plan: to loop the two ranges surrounding the Monitor Valley in a clockwise fashion. Please, look on a bigger map to see what I attempted. I don't think there's too many hikers in America who would attempt what I was about to do 'on the fly' literally in the middle of nowhere, especially when I could have cut off mileage by taking the safer alternative.

I began painting my canvas as I legged my first of three crossings of the Monitor Valley. The morning air chilled my exterior and I hiked across dry lake bed pockmarked with muddy, frozen water puddles. Usually I see these dry lake beds with sun-baked tiles of mud that appear 'frozen.' Now, it was the real deal, which made it easier to cross and I didn't have to worry about losing my shoes in the wet, soggy mud. The looming mesa showed significant snow above 9,500ft yet I could see a way to 'skirt' the higher levels and still attain the southern high table and traverse the range. Soon, I ambled up the lush Mosquito Creek that lined with bright green cottonwoods.

The maps I have been using all have different perspectives. Large overview, smaller overview, and a size right in the middle. The problem lies in the fact that each map shows different highlights and legend markings. Sometimes the larger perspective showed more routes than the smaller. So, that left me to freestyle a bit. Most certainly I could have obtained even a smaller, clearer perspective using MyTopo and such. But, that negates the concept of what I am doing out here.

With that in mind, I began my climb up into the alpine country. Large aspen groves lined the higher elevations and the shrubs and brush bloomed into a springtime green. Eventually, the trail petered out on the maps and I navigated using the land and the maps to intersect a trail that went to the top. From the lofty elevation I could make out mountain range after range, in particular the Alta Toquima bulking due west of me, the snow looking less scant as the day warmed up. I continued in the crest walking along save and about a foot of snow. Slowly the snow dissipated and I made my way down the less trodden Cottonwood Creek. 

The canyon careened from the mesa through smaller aspen groves that had been etched with the names and dates of Basque sheep herders, some dating back to the 1920s. Other artifacts of history showed what this land was utilized for. I even sustained a fall as I tripped on a tangle of barbed wire, which slashed my left calf fairly well. I hit the dirt and rock, slowly got up, and methodically hiked on. With the loop I was in I had to make big miles; I had to stay focused and calm. Satisfied after my traverse and a big mile day, I laid down to slumber again in the Monitor Valley but rather in a different location.

I walked into a brisk wind the next morning heading straight toward the Alta Toquimas. I knew what that meant for the top but I needed to try. Everything out here in the Great Basin is exposed. The wind blows from one vacuum to the next, zooming up and over one massive mountain range, then zipping across a valley only to slam into the next range, with nothing quite big enough to block the wind. The sun darkens and burns your skin while the wind and cold chap it. You cannot hide in the Great Basin. The southern flank of Mt. Jefferson looked peaceful enough with hardly any snow showing yet the invisible menace that is the wind I could not see. I just kept plodding along strategizing about bail out points.

In no time at all I attained a low ridgecrest and my hopes got a little high. The path to the summit looked like smooth sailing. I pushed my way up steeply, the alpine terrain rising abruptly over the grass and sage below, the wind manageable so far. At a saddle I put on all my layers as the wind found any and every crevice to penetrate, my sweat turning to liquid ice. 40mph gusts turned to 50mph, then 60mph. I also became submerged in a world of rocky talus that held snow in every pocket and pore. The noise of the wind became deafened. Everything either flapped or ringed in a high-pitched whir in my head. I could see the summit so near. The 'trail' wound around a precarious slope inundated with snow from the recent storm. I staggered around from the blowing wind and slushy snow. Did I tell you Nevada is super-exposed? I used a stick as a trekking pole and prod, as my actual pole had snapped a few days back, so my staggering became enhanced by the shorter stick. I scurried and slid down the slope to get to a pass. I missed the high point of the summit by about 150ft. Sadly disappointed, however, I knew how dangerous of a situation I was in. My extremities were freezing numb. The wind chill hovered at below freezing. I scanned across the Mt. Jefferson plateau that stretched for roughly 8m and saw nothing but snow. With the wind howling in my ears, I dejectedly shot down Andrews Creek trail to get to lower elevations and coverage from the wind. Although I didn't get to traverse the trail across the summit, as my original intention, I felt proud that I gave a strong attempt and stayed flexible enough to try and make things happen to attain a quality driven route. I didn't have to do what I did but character counts.

I used cattle trails to take me down Trail Canyon, which on all my maps signified a trail. Smooth walking turned into an utter bushwhack with nary a sign of trail. I became frustrated, even more so with my ears still ringing from the alpine wind and the wind chafe on my face. For the first time in a long time, I let out a yell in frustration. In an instant though I composed myself and climbed up and over an exposed rocky outcrop, about 400ft up and down, to avoid the throttled canyon. In the canyon bottom I stood confused as to where I was at. Under an tiny alcove I found a benchmark and to confirm my whereabouts I used the range and township on the circular metal disk. Ironically, I was in Trail Canyon with no trail. 

The history of Nevada is a state of bonanzas and borrascas--the fat and the lean, boom times and starving times. So is adventure, to add to what Pepper stated about the meaning of adventure. Pioneers flooded to the Silver State in hopes of striking it rich with the Comstock Lode twinkling their aspirations with gold and silver. I find similarities in this route, the Great Basin Traverse. I am not 'lean,' per se, though I have passed by areas that show vestiges of great times, of a wild and recreated area used by people. The barbed wire, the old Basque carvings in aspens, the abandoned trail, the crumbling homesteads, the abandoned mines, all show times of fatness. I look at what I am attempting and see Nevada as a forgotten frontier. The route through the center of the state must go the way I intended. It is a necessity if anyone is to walk it again. I go back to my intentions. I am creating a painting on a canvas. I DO NOT recommend this type of trail blazing for the average hiker, let alone even the experienced ones. I would like to think my perseverance, my will, and skill level has gotten me through this, however, I also credit my fitness level and my commitment to maintain a high level of fitness even in the off-season. Whether boom or bust, keeping stock and reserves is imperative. Back to my point, this land and life out here in the great empty is hard fought whether boom or bust. I must keep fighting.

Again I trekked across Monitor Valley, and for the third night in a row I camped in its 7,000ft cradle. With circuit around the valley I had to recalculate my mileage and assess my situation. I had maybe about 2 days of food left and 75m with a potential 60m waterless stretch. That meant my scramble over the Antelope Range was out of the question. I slept soundly but not before watching a magnificent sun slowly sinking over the Alta Toquimas. Positivity rewarded me despite a frustrating day with the glow and cast of the sun rays filming on the valley and dry lake bed in front of me as I walked through. I had to look at this as a searchlight, a beacon to keep striving.

The night ensued swiftly and I humped over the Monitor Divide. Mule deer bounded everywhere and the birdsong of the meadowlark and mountain blue bird flirted with my ears. I found a piped spring and hoofed it across the Little Fish Lake Valley using jeep track, horse trail, and cross country. Wild horses roamed the flats with flared nostrils, wild eyes, and flailing manes. Horned antelope hopped around, then a sudden burst would zoom them a good distance away. I pushed hard as the pleasant valley dwindled in my hindsight. I took a dirt road over the mountains and settled into Antelope Valley as a mysterious fog that resembled a heavy smoke sunk from the crest of the northern Monitors. Eerily, I hiked through it as dusk barged its way into the valley. The curtain of cold darkness slammed shut my 40m day. 

Nevada has 314 mountain ranges, the most mountainous state in the contiguous U.S. and second to Alaska overall. An impossible task it seems to see all of them, I humbly trekked through 5 ranges in this section including the aforementioned ones as well as the Mountain Boy and Fish Creek Ranges. I slugged out 35m by 430pm to get to the Eureka Post Office just in time. Instead of the estimated 140m I hiked approximately 167m in 5 days to accomplish this last section despite not hiking what I originally intended to do. I digress to Pepper's quote and that of the character of Nevada: bonanza and borrasca. Slowly I am sinking the experience all in and preparing for the next challenging section with newer storms rolling in. I fathom my life as the fat and the lean and understand that I did not know at one point in a certain time and now get not fully knowing but acknowledging that an adventure existed. Assuredly, I venture into the next unknown knowing I am on a pure, wild adventure.