Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Section 1 of the Great Basin Trail

Sections of the GBT: Section 1

Section 1: Lake Valley Summit to Crystal Springs                          
(approx. 156m)
(section mileage estimation with XC factor: 165m)
(section elevation: 21,400ft gain, 23,375ft loss)

Section 1, Segment A: Fortification Range 
Highway 93 near Lake Valley Summit to Fortification Well
(approx. 26m) 
(7m road, 18 XC)
(mileage estimation with XC factor: 28-29m)
(approx. 4,225ft elevation gain, 3,900ft elevation loss)

The Fortification Range is a low elevation mountain range eastern Nevada made mostly of volcanic rock. The highlights of the range include the wilderness area (which is close to 31,000 acres in size), the bulky, vertical ramparts at the heart of the range, and the system of wild horse trails that weave through the rocky terrain. This range is different than the usual Great Basin ranges dominated by limestone. The Fortification Range is made of a volcanic tuff that is pink, white, and orange in color and as you walk the Great Basin Trail you will find this range is drastically different than any of the other ranges you will traverse through. 

This range is very rugged and nature and will challenge the hiker with difficult navigation as well as being rough underfoot. Of the 26m in this section, 18 miles are cross country mainly composed of wild horse trail. The northern half, the Gouge Eye area, and Smiley Canyon of the range is relatively easy in XC travel, while the rocky sections under the rampart crest is more difficult. Of the 26m, 7 miles are on two track. Smiley Canyon has more or less a faint two track that is mainly used by hunters in the Fall time, while in the northern approach to the range, the hiker follow a sometimes sandy, sometimes compact two track flanked by sagebrush. This approach is not well traveled at all by vehicle.

The Fortification Range surprised me probably more than any other range throughout the GBT. Not only was the range my first to hike through but the beginning of my thru-hike. After Ruta dropped me off I made my way unknowingly into the range, basically kind of freestyling and hoping that the cross country route I had planned would work. I found and explored a network of wild horse trails that otherwise made the inaccessible palisades pleasant to walk through and made progress through the range in an efficient and passable manner. Leaving the lush area of Indian Springs I followed the contoured horse trails ascending above an angled cliff band. Red and orange boulders dotted the benches above the cliffs while in the background Wheeler Peak loomed across the wide basin of Spring Valley in a haze of gray clouds. The trails kept persisting beneath the craggy crest. After a pass, I ambled down a hardscrabble descent pockmocked with boulders and tainted potholes. 

The sign of wild horse is everywhere, not only in the trampling of a trail system to get through the range but the weaving way to watering holes, springs, potholes, or tiny streams. Under the vertical ramparts lining the walls ravens flew above and circled the pinnacles before swooping into the potholes gouged into the walls. At Fortification Spring water bubbled up from the ground into small pools. The water is filled with horse piss and shit but one cannot be picky out here in remoteness. Horse bones littered the worn out area near the springs. The wind howled and the vast basin below me felt endless, even hollow, an illusory void of spookiness, as if moans from the sun-bleached bones loomed a tortured bellow. 

At Gouge Eye Spring, a tiny chickadee alighted on the rusty pipe dripping spring water about a foot from my eyes. Out here in the Great Basin life lives on a thread and the wildlife shares the precious and scarce water. I am included in that wildlife. To that chickadee in particular, and not so much to the wild horses who keep their wariness and trust at a distance. I crouched to fill my water bottle as the chickadee sipped the trickling water from the rusty pipe. I admired the markings of the small bird. Then, suddenly, the bird flew above my pack and sat on a broken stob and moved its head around in excited, flickering movements. Just as quick as the chickadee landed the bird darted off. I patiently waited for the water to fill my bladders as the hillside casted a dusky shade as the basin cove erupted in alpenglow. After, I ascended to a knoll above a lonesome pass in the southern part of the range as a dark night enveloped me. 

Update: In May of 2021, the way through the Fortification Range held true. Again, I followed faithful horse trails that led me through rugged terrain. The water at Fortification Spring appeared less tainted, while Gouge Eye Spring was dry as a bone. With no magical moment this time through, I have updated the Water Chart accordingly. Gouge Eye Spring is unreliable, which now poses a potential waterless stretch (18m-20m) that a hiker will need to employ some water carry strategy through this section and the start of the next.

Section 1, Segment B: Wilson Creek Range
Fortification Well to Pioche 
(approx. 54m) 
(43m road, 11m XC)
(mileage estimation with XC factor: 57m)
(approx. 8,500ft elevation gain, 8,575ft elevation loss)

The Wilson Peak Range is a typical basin range but traits of the Mojave Desert chaparral start to persist as one nears Pioche. The route through this area follows little used jeep track through the foothills of the range until Atlanta Summit. From there the hiker begins a rugged cross-country stretch that takes the hiker into the high table region of the range. Beneath Willow Tub Peak, the cross-country ends and a rugged two track begins in a large meadow. Table Mountain holds a quiet beauty that is hard to reach. Although horse and elk trails are present, the hiker needs to be diligent in navigation because an error in navigation can make the way through thicker in vegetation. Once across Table Mountain area, the two track ends and the hiker is back up on the Wilson Creek Range crest. This area has a wilderness feel and the crest is blanketed in thick mahogany and manzanita. Because of these shrubs and trees travel across the crest can be a hassle and agonizing, not only for the shins but the mind. Thankfully, one is not in the tangled mess for too long, although the travel can be gruelingly slow. Solitude dominates the crest. In a small clearing or flat knob one can hear one's pulse beat because the air is so quiet. Thousands of feet down below the desert basin looks bleak and barren but more attractive than the burliness of this crest.

After this slow-moving stretch, a backcountry byway is intersected as the way through. The backcountry byway gives way to a more rugged two track that takes the hiker up to the high point of the route through near some communication towers. The round Wilson Peak looms off to the west where an observatory facility resides because of the range's remoteness and dark skies. From peak 9,306 and a short jaunt down, the main road begins. This main road is a maintained dirt road where one may encounter an occasional vehicle. Take this main road all the way into the neat western town of Pioche. 

The Wilson Creek Range section is a mix of tough cross-country and relatively easy road walking. Of the 54m, 43 miles are on dirt road and 11 miles are of the XC nature. Once up into the range, water is plentiful and the temperatures are much cooler that the Fortification Range and the basins below. The GBTer will spend some time between 8,000ft-9,000ft. The only real water concern is in the beginning of the section where one would be carrying over from the previous section. Also, a spring in Page Creek is the last reliable source until Pioche, which is 20m away.

Section 1, Segment C: Delamar and Pahroc Ranges
Pioche to Crystal Springs
(approx. 76m)
(58m road, 18m XC)
(mileage estimation with XC factor: 80m)
(8,675ft elevation gain, 10,900ft elevation loss)

This is a long segment because of the long desert stretches and the brief spells into the mountain ranges. After Leaving Pioche the hiker ascends into the Highland Mountains. I have routed the GBT through Pioche for the sheer simplicity and ease of resupply in this charming Wild West town. But Highland Peak beckons the hiker from Pioche with its looming presence. From Pioche, the hiker takes a series of old mining roads before hitting the tri-springs of Lime, Deadman, and Connor Springs that are all in close proximity of each other. Up a rugged mountain road, one can make speedy miles up onto the high ridge of Highland Peak. Once atop Highland Peak, the views astound the gazer in all directions. Excellent navigational skills are required for the descent off of the peak. Limestone ledges are encountered, open slopes, and thick mahogany and pinyon forests dot the ridgeline. Travel can be difficult, however, the route down is somewhat obvious and very doable. On top of that, the rewards of the climb and the descent are awesome with the payoffs of the wide views. 

Travel through this section will be swift besides the Highland Peak segment. Of the 76m, 58 miles are on little used dirt road or two track, while 18 rugged cross-country miles make this segment feel a little bit longer. This stretch is lonesome and filled with solitude. The hiker will also enter land characteristics of the Mojave Desert zone, where one will walk among Joshua Trees and other desert shrubs familiar to Mojave travelers.

I hit this stretch in the late afternoon and walked under the purpling sky. The night skies felt adorned in the brightness of the full moon. Ritually I gazed at the moon and spoke some type of prayers and ambitions, some type of gratitudes and lunar invocations. By this point, I felt completely committed to the Great Basin Trail. I camped under Chief Mountain in the high plateau dotted with juniper and pinyon. The next morning I played leap frog with a white wild stallion dusting up the loamy dirt between the sagebrush. Then, I found my water cache which proved to be beneficial. This segment holds the most unreliable sources and the longest average distances between springs or corrals. 

The OHV area surrounding Oak Springs Summit provide the hiker with an open path while hidden to maneuver through the range briefly I found a dirt bike trail that delighted my feet. The springs I passed seemed soaked up dry from older mining activity. Fences still lined most of the springs to protect from the tramplings of wildlife but all obstruction felt pointless because of the dryness. I did, however, found an insanely slow trickle that took 5 minutes to fill a 1L water bottle at Grassy Spring. With my confidence in water low amid the dryness and heat I felt lucky to have had my water cache fill my belly and pack with reserves. 

The long straight line of a seldom used dirt road across Delamar Valley transfixed my squinted eyes as the heat waves kept the Pahroc Range appear still some distance away. Thankfully, the evening became cool and breezy as the sphere around me dipped into the purple spectrum. That night though I startled awake from my torpid state, half awake yet half asleep, from a couple of sonic booms. Supersonic jets zoomed in the sky with the glow of dusk on the western horizon. A blue contrail glittered from each jet amid bright stars. I looked up baffled at what I was witnessing and I realized once I wiped my grogginess away that I was camping under the training ground of fighter jets from Area 51. 'No wonder,' I thought aloud, 'that the night skies are so fucking dark.' These jets continued to train at night over the next week as I paralleled north of Area 51. The only difference is that as the moon waned the Milky Way smothered the night sky seemingly darker than anywhere in the intermountain West I have been.

I have an unvetted alternate planned for the South Pahroc Range. I refrained from venturing up the route I had planned because I did not have the confidence in the lack of water. But, sometimes when making a route you take chances and get lucky and sometimes you play it safe and miss out. In this case, I missed out. From afar, the route looked doable from the east side. And from my camp in the Delamar Valley, I stumbled upon a corral with tanks filled with clear water. As I passed through the easy way north of the range, I could see cottonwoods at Sixmile Springs which I decided to mentally focus forward as to not regret missing a wilderness stretch. Through a rocky gap of the Hiko Mountains, I gathered up my food and water cache hidden among the rocky outcrops in a wide wash and hiked on to Crystal Springs and the roadside rest area under very large cottonwoods. Crystal Springs is the low point of the Great Basin Trail at 3,800ft above sea level. I waited out the heat under those cottonwoods and napped. 

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