Monday, May 25, 2015

Great Basin Traverse: Ruby Crest, Part 1

5/17-5/18, 53m


Strategy is difficult to implement when emotions get in the way, when you really feel the need to be outside. But if I learned three very important things last year they are to not force things, listen to the truth Nature presents, and to not be so hard on myself.

After three long days in Eureka waiting out very unstable weather, I left town in hopes of traversing the Diamond Peak Range and the Ruby Crest, the latter most easily the highlight of the Great Basin Traverse. I hiked into the town of Eureka on an incredible high only to have my momentum waylaid by my early-ness of the season on the GBT and the weather. My mind caught up with me and my emotions settled. I felt cheated, lied to, because of the position I was in. Even though I know it isn't right for me to blame anyone else, and I won't; I had to make do and fight off these feelings.

I left under heavy clouds and a heavy heart. As I summited the crest of the Diamond Peak Range, a storm smoldered from the west. Grueling winds and puffy, dark clouds slammed into the ridgecrest. I took coverage beneath knobs between saddles on trodden wild horse trails, the air redolent of blooming sagebrush and dank horse apples. Diamond Peak loomed within a short distance away with clouds and vapor curtains smothering the aptly named peak. Suddenly, little pellets of hail fell, the wind whipped with gusts pushing 50mph. I could see the summit so close, so attainable, yet I knew what lay ahead of me: 25m or so along a severely exposed ridgecrest in inclement weather.

I scrambled down a broad ridge plunging steeply into a beautiful canyon. Water flowed in a small creek, babbling peacefully, as I picked my way towards Newark Valley. I felt safer under the dark skies. I ended up hitting a paved highway and walked it a few miles. I had wanted to cross the Newark Valley dry lake bed but with the unstable weather the prospect of such a crossing seemed unreasonable. Dry lake beds when wet are an absolute bear to hike across. You'd be lucky to keep your shoes. And they're even worse to hike across in thunderstorms. No cover whatsoever.

Nevertheless, I took a go. I needed a mission, something to train my mind on. I plodded on as thunderclaps pealed from behind me. I moved quickly on soft mud tiles, curtains of rain nearing me. Three large cells poured down on me, thunder reverberating all around me. After a few hours I hit the sage plains that had soggy meadows scattered occasionally throughout; due north of me the southern flanks of the Ruby Crest inundated with snow appeared imposing. This was my first observation of the 'Nevada Alps' and my first swallowing of the notion that I may have to take time off because of the conditions and the unstable forecast. I struggled with what I was going to do. The cloud level was around 8,500ft and I would be above that elevation in the Ruby Crest for roughly 70 exposed miles. I honestly didn't think I could keep warm with the winds and cold temperatures. After 33m I laid down under my tarp on the plains of the basin and told myself: you need to be nicer to yourself. Rain poured down all night.

The next day a dirt road turned into a 'really good' dirt road and I noticed a large mine near Bald Mountain. I thought this to be negative not because of the mine use itself but rather I knew it meant if I stayed down low in the valley I had a real road slog of a hike. I racked my brain. I was still 85m from the town of Elko via the road slog. I would hike, then look all around me and understand the predicament I was in. I knew I could not live with myself if I missed the Ruby's. It would be akin to missing the High Sierra on the PCT or the San Juans on the CDT. I felt a bit defeated. Then, I broke down. The same feelings I had in that Eureka motel room began to resurface. I felt cheated.

But this is my responsibility, my actions, and I have no one to impress out here. I have no one to blame. I chose my path, ultimately. My footprints leave a trace of me: my integrity, my character, and my honesty to myself. Since I already knew I'd have to sit out some days at some point since I was 13 days ahead of schedule, I told myself that I wouldn't stick my thumb out, however I would agree to a lift if someone asked what the Hell I was doing out here. After a slew of trucks, one finally stopped.

'Are you sure you WANT to be hiking this road. This road is not ideal for what you're doing,' says Randy.

I pointed up to the Ruby's. 'I'm supposed to be up there,' I tell him.

I hopped on in and like that I was on my way to Elko. And I'm glad I did. The road turned to pavement within a few miles and I understood clearly what I would've been in for if I hiked all the way to Elko.

I decided to wait out the instability in the weather until things warmed up. 

My own footprints are all that matter.

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. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Great Basin Traverse: Toiyabe Crest


The wind whistles and zips like a careening train. Constantly the wind pushes at full force, like a gale, and the whirl of the high pitched invisible air is deafening. The cold borne of the wind is biting, annoyingly so. It's all quite dreamy actually. I drift in thought hypnotized by the wind, by its metronomic whips, that every Eastwood Western should have been filmed in Nevada and the Great Basin. No extra filters needed, no additional sounds. It's all here. Sagebrush and juniper, gold mines and saloons, desert and mountains, barrenness, emptiness, loneliness, the whistling wind; philosophy.

I have not seen a trail yet. And that is what makes this route so appealing, that alluring freedom of not have any judgment from yourself or anybody else. You do what your personality needs, you go where your feet guide you, and you let your instincts take over. I have not seen a running stream or creek yet. Salt encases my clothing, dirt cakes my legs, and my skin is weathered like someone who has lived, worked and played outside in Phoenix all their life. I still get scratches from sagebrush or other spindly brush but I hardly get any skin punctures, just a dry slash mark. 

I squint. My brow is furrowed so I take on the look of a curmudgeon, yet I know the squint is an adaptive quality to my environment. Out here, I have no name, sometimes no voice. Only muted footsteps and muffled breathing. The wind pulses through everything out here.

North of Tonopah sits the San Antonio Range. Rising up to over 8,000ft, hardly a soul sets foot on the peaks where the dirt road ends. Beautiful pale-green sagebrush dot the hillsides, grassy shoots sprout up in between the sagebrush, and the occasional juniper makes an appearance. The rhyolitic rocks 'bluff' out the range in blocks painted with orange or green lichen. For miles you can see mountain range after mountain range as well as the basins that fill the void between the bulky mounds of mountains.

After crossing the Big Smoky Valley, I entered the Toiyabe Range from Peavine Creek on the south end of the range. I expected to see water further up the drainage but surprisingly found none. Guess it's been a dry year in most places. The cottonwoods bloomed in the lower elevations, while higher up the aspen had not quite leaved out. I immediately understood that I had arrived a tad early for a normal season, yet the snow was gone and the creeks were running dry. Either way, I was happy to be in the mountains.

I made my first camp at about 8,000ft under a cow-carved pinyon as huge tumbling clouds steered in threatening rain. All night my tarp flapped. My makeshift camp spot proved not only to be uncomfortable but the only place around to even set up a tarp, for there was no way I was venturing up to the divide with the way the wind was blowing. I slept well enough though. Up early the next morning with my excitement, plain sheer joy of being in the mountains, I scrambled up to the divide amongst a clear sky with a brisk wind. At the pass I spotted the pyramid peak known as Arc Dome that simply dominated the sky and landscape. 

I scurried down to the Reese River, which was basically running like a small creek. I passed beaver ponds, willows and dogwood along the river, and pine trees. I wanted to get as close as I could to Arc Dome to see if I had a chance to summit the lofty peak. As I hit the pass between the Reese and Twin Rivers large cumulonimbus clouds towered above me. I could scope out curtains of rain hitting other tall peaks. I forged ahead and took a side trail that would put me at a low point on the ridge beneath Arc Dome. Steeply I hoofed it up along overgrown trail. Cairns had been placed to mark the route but the sage grew over them. Eventually, I met a ridge that abutted a cirque filled with snow. The trail disappeared and I picked my way across boulder fields of clumpy talus and snowy slopes. The ridge I had wanted to attain rimmed out in an overhanging cornice. I continued picking my way until I found a manageable way up to the top.

Clouds continued marching in. The wind howled and screamed right in my face. I decided not to summit with the conditions. I did not want to be stuck up on an 11,000ft ridge with a thunderstorm hammering down on me. Up and down the ridge I went, northward along the Toiyabe Crest Trail. The views from the high alpine zone were stunning. I marveled at the vistas all around me. Enormously looming shadows moved swiftly over the golden alpine tundra and turned a bright environment to an ominous one. One after another, a massive cloud would move in. The wind shellacked me from the west, the gentler side of the ridge. I leaned in and powered on. I encountered a few large snow fields at sketchy angles. One in particular I maneuvered along the spine of the slope and a cliff. Block-shaped boulders peeked out of the snow and I lumbered down them very carefully, for below the cliff dropped a 500ft abyss. Now, in a steep gully I began to chatter my teeth and my extremities became numb. The air temperature was not the issue, rather it was the wind. I finally managed to get to some trees and take cover for about 5 minutes. I couldn't stay longer because I had become too cold. I hurriedly ate, put on all my clothes and left. Within a half hour I warmed up. 

All day I hiked on the crest. Snow flurries occasionally flew and the wind blew constantly at about 30mph. Gusts would sometimes push 50mph at least. I earned this day, to say the least, but god damn what an amazing day. To top it off, I was rewarded by a refreshing spring and a beautiful saddle to camp on top of with lush, fragrant sagebrush and large mahogany, even a pretty sunset.

I continued in the Toiyabe Crest Trail the next day. Rather than keeping to the crest itself like it did in the Arc Dome Wilderness, the trail stayed lower, around 9,000ft, for a good 15m or so. However, this meant running water sources and wind coverage. In and out  of drainages the trail meandered, even zipping through corridors of aspen. More mahogany groves embedded in the hillsides. These mahogany trees are as big as any as I've ever seen, including the Bighorn Mountains. Speaking of mountains, the Toiyabe Range reminded me of the San Juans of Colorado in the southern portion while the northern portion reminded me of the Beaverhead of Montana. I became amazed at how isolated the beauty of these mountains. The Crest Trail runs 71m, built by the CCC in the 30's, hardly sees any usage or maintaining, yet it is in primo condition, just ripe to be tromped. I did not see even a single soul, let alone a single footprint.

After the ins and outs of the drainages, the Crest Trail takes you up to the actual crest for the last 8m or so. It felt good to be back at 10,000ft again. Exhilarated, I pushed on quickly. Then, the savage wind hit. Pushing me and thwarting me side to side I hiked dead straight into the screaming wind. I marched entranced by my gait and rhythm. I soaked it all in and embraced the brisk and harsh invisible air. Near where the trail descends the crest for the last time, I spotted a large coyote. So large I thought maybe it was a wolf. Being that I was up wind from the coyote I ran a bit to get a closer look. The coyote trotted across a snow bank heading straight towards me with his head down. Finally he looked up and I ran faster. I had to catch the 'wild'. A fever took hold of me as I saw the coyote lope down the trail bobbing up and down between the sage. I felt alive, so fucking alive.

I got into the tiny town of Kingston before the storm hit. I waited it out for two days. You can spend all your time planning a route or an adventure, however, you can never plan for the random encounters with incredible people. Ann and John Miles at The Miles End Lodge B&B treated me like family. Secluded from the rest of the world, they helped me get centered, relax, and most importantly breathe.