Monday, July 20, 2020

Section 6 of the Great Basin Trail

Sections of the GBT: Section 6

Section 6: Ely (at Kalamazoo Road) to Lake Valley Summit

Wheeler Peak finish:
(approx. 126m)
(section mileage with XC factor: 134m)
(section elevation: 26,450ft gain, 27,775ft loss)

Baker Creek finish: 
(approx. 123m)
(section mileage with XC factor: 129m)
(section elevation: 24,875ft gain, 25,675ft loss)

Section 6, Segment U: High Schells
Kalamazoo Road to Spring Valley
(approx. 34m)
(16m road, 4m trail, 14m XC)
(mileage estimation with XC factor: 37m)
(approx. 9,325ft elevation gain, 10,075ft elevation loss)

Continuing along the Great Basin Trail, the hiker once resupplied from Ely or McGill now has the task of venturing up into the High Schells. Still in the Schell Creek Range, the crest now topples out at 11,883ft on North Schell Peak. Bristlecone and limber pines reach timberline, dwarfed and wind-blown, and after picking your way over a talus-topped crest the hiker will eventually summit Taft Peak and South Schell Peak. After nearly 14 miles of spectacular spine walking (hoping the GBT hiker is blessed enough to have the fortune of good weather to amble the complete crest), where lingering cornices hang tight to the leeward facing bluffs, I decided to have the route venture into the North Cleve Creek drainage. (Note: The drawn and suggested route is to stay on the crest unless one absolutely needs the water in the upper reaches of the North Cleve Creek drainage). The basin is in an high alpine environment where spots of tundra exist before you enter the sub-alpine conifer forests. Clear water rages down and easy cross country exists in between the glades of aspen. At a hunter's camp a carved arrow etched into an aspen signifies the way out of the drainage where travel downstream becomes nearly impossible (believe me, I tried and did it, although painstakingly). Utilize more or less a cattle and game trail out of the drainage, then once over the ridge again a more discernible path appears to a rugged jeep track below that leads the hiker out into Spring Valley past well-constructed campgrounds.

The cross-country along the High Schell crest in this section is very tough. Although, the crestline is fairly easy to follow, the elevation profile is staggering, The length of time to do this traverse will vary with each hiker. Physical condition and fitness level will dictate how swift a hiker will traverse the crest. The initial climb is steep but follows a foot path. The rest of the way is purely cross-country and the 14 or so miles across the crest probably tops out at around 16 miles due to the exposure, ruggedness, and navigation skill level. Please, do not take this section lightly!

I'll share my experience:

'I flipped the couple $20 and told them a small party would be on me for the favor of saving me from hot soles. As I got ready to shut the rear door the old man told me to watch out for mountain lions up in these parts of the High Schells. 

"I hope I'm bigger enough. 'Cause I've lost some pounds. Ain't got much meat on me anymore, so I doubt I'll taste good." He smiled with his eyes, his gal with her laugh. Then, we bade each other safe travels and good luck and we split ways, a moment of connectivity in this chaotic world between perfect strangers. Then, in moments, an even older man, a rancher too, stopped by on his side-by-two and asked if I was okay. I hollered at him over the grumble of his engine that I was. He chuckled and zipped off to swing the ATV around. He swung back to me and said, "What did you say your name was?" "Ryan." "How did you know my name," he asked curiously. I said I didn't and he shrugged, so I asked him his name. "Jim!" he blurted, smiling. We shook hands and I thought about getting old. I thought I'd rather wither up and die out here than to wilt in the city. 

As soon as he left a truck rolled on up with two speed-freak looking dudes---no teeth and a strange glare. Pleasant enough, however, they too asked if I was okay. I told them I was and I was 'just walking.' The dudes couldn't wrap their head about what I was doing out in the middle of nowhere on foot, 'just walking.' They offered me water and I assured them I was okay, that I was good, my belly fat with water and food. The waved me onward but stopped shortly thereafter.

"Hey, where's your car??" the toothless driver yelled. "In Colorado!" They roared in laughter, in befuddlement, and the toothless driver laughed, snorted and stuttered: OKAAAAAY! I was on my way, ready to get out of anybody's way, no matter how extroverted I felt during those quick moments. A couple hours later I found myself on the High Schell crest just below a grassy knob that blocked the wind. I watched the sun set, the view enormous and wide, my belly fat with food and water, my head right, and my heart full.'

Section 6, Segment V: Mt. Moriah
Spring Valley to Snake Valley
(approx. 46m)
(24m road, 17m trail, 5m XC)
(mileage estimation with XC factor: 47m)
(approx. 7,125ft elevation gain, 7,375ft elevation loss)

Mt. Moriah is part of the Snake Range, in which the peak when viewed from a distance looks to be in a completely separate range. Wheeler Peak to the south book-end Sacramento Pass wedged in between to the two towering massifs. Mt. Moriah is the seldom visited little sister range of Wheeler Peak and the Great Basin National Park. The peak sits at 12,050ft that spires the top of a large tableland area where a large bristlecone grove resides. Although this wilderness has four wheel drive roads surrounding the area, access is fairly tough. Hikers and peakbaggers usually use the trailhead and well-groomed trail out of Hendrys Creek. The GBT utilizes the seldom tramped Negro Creek where once in the heart of the drainage what appears to be an overgrown path has been cut out underneath the majority of the canopy. Mt. Moriah looms at the head of the drainage reigning court over the high wilderness. Towards the main fork in the drainage, the hiker departs from the trail corridor and heads up Deerhead Canyon. A cattle path more or less meanders up the canyon through sagebrush and aspen groves. Travel feels straightforward as the canyon narrows with amalgamated rock and tall limber pines. Once atop, the hiker has the option of summiting Mt. Moriah or continue on to the broad table just beneath the flanks of the silver peak. I have chosen the route to stay on the Table because one may walk among the ancient bristlecone pines that just feel older than and larger than any seen so far on the GBT. From here you can admire the 5,500ft ascent to the west only to un-admire the knee-pounding 5,500ft descent to the east. 

The majority of this section is split between little used dirt road and well-groomed trail. This section is still as tough as others, however, it feels less-stressful due to the limited cross-country travel.

Once you have soaked in the expansive views of surrounding the wilderness and pondered the condition of your tender knees, one will descend into Hendrys Creek where elk roam the higher grassy slopes. Very good tread follows the ribbon of water weaving a lengthy way down until ponderosas appear. Views of the incredible chunky walls are hidden by a thick forest, but the hiker get an opportunity to gander at the high cliffs the further downstream one gets. The east side of Mt. Moriah is so much more dramatic, diverse, and rugged than the ascent up Negro Canyon. From desert to alpine and back again to desert, from sagebrush to bristlecone, from aspen to ponderosa, the incredible difference in elevation is astounding once you stand on top of Mt. Moriah.

The shorn and crumbly walls of Hendrys Canyon shows the preciousness of rock under such geomorphic pressures. The white underside of fallen rock tiles resemble flaky skin after a sunburn and show a striking contrast to the red rock in the cliff faces above. The cleaving of the rock shows the slow widening of the canyon, the slow drag of time and erosion. Thrilling to observe and to inspect the cliff faces, for the ledges and benches and faces play with one's imagination, flirts with the notion that ruggedness is soft, that the trait of being weathered is beautiful and crisp, that although excruciating slow time is swift and ruthless.

Section 6, Segment W: GBNP
Snake Valley to Lake Valley Summit
Two Options:

Wheeler Peak to Snake Crest (Main route):
(approx. 46m)
(22m road, 8m trail, 16m XC)
(mileage estimation with XC factor: 50m)
(approx. 10,000ft elevation gain, 10,325ft elevation loss)

Baker Creek to Mt. Washington (Secondary route):
(approx. 43m)
(30m road, 6m trail, 7 XC)
(mileage estimation with XC factor: 45m)
(approx. 8,425ft elevation gain, 8,225ft elevation loss)

The Great Basin Trail weaves up and along the Snake Range's crest through Great Basin National Park. I had initially hesitated to have the route go over Wheeler Peak, which is the proclaimed highest peak in Nevada despite the discrepancy with Boundary Peak which is actually a sub-peak of Mt. Montgomery in the White Mountains along the California and Nevada border; I decided for routing the route over Wheeler Peak because of the doable yet challenging and incredibly scenic knife ridge above Baker Lake. In the end, this way through represents the most apt vision I have of the Great Basin Trail. This knife ridge just feels right, just feels the most intuitive, and provides one with the most profound moment while on the GBT. That moment: on top of the Great Basin at its highest point seeing all that you have encompassed through your hike. 

All the fluffy words aside, the Mt. Wheeler knife ridge towards Pyramid Pass is VERY difficult and requires excellent navigating on talus slopes and comfortability with exposure. I recently did this travers with Salty in June of '21. We had good weather, not too cold or windy. We also have a fair amount of exposure experience from living and exploring in the high country of Colorado. All this aside, I recommend this route over the Baker Creek route. Even though the mileage is quite comparable, the toughness of the Snake Crest Traverse far out-demands and out-challenges the Baker Creek way through. Please, take your time in considering which option to. There are multiple ways through and linkages. However, the thru-hiker who is about to tie up an entire Great Basin loop, I totally recommend the Snake Crest Traverse.

After one attains Pyramid Pass and replenishes water down about 200 feet below the pass, the hiker continues along cross-country towards Mt. Washington. While difficult enough, navigating and scampering across this section is fairly straightforward. After a steep climb up to Mt. Washington, the Snake Crest Traverse once again becomes focused and challenging. This is no easy feat, especially after having crossed the crest trailless from Wheeler Peak. Take a rest atop Mt. Washington and go for it---it will be so worth it. 
Following the Highland Ridge south, the ups and downs continue almost relentlessly. Mt. Lincoln is another block massif made of limestone and one continues to walk among the bristlecone. This is a very special place that is devoid of much human presence. One feels so isolated and solitude is so abundant one feels to be floating in a Great Basin globe.

I do not want to remove my initial impression of my first time through this area. So, what is typed below is from June of '20. After doing both ways through this area, I want the hiker to choose the way through. Both are the official GBT route (both 'red lines') and I believe the hiker should choose which way based off experience in high ridge exposure situations, weather, timeframe and window of time, and general stress management. Both are rewarding, incredibly so, and offer the feel of a true ending and non-ending of a completed loop. 

In June of '20, I went up the Baker Creek drainage, which for an added reward has the hiker passing by the Lehman Caves Visitor Center and the cafe that is there. For once, while I noshed on three separate meals on the patio of the cafe I felt like a 'thru-hiker' in all my glory and stench. But, in sincerity, the way up Baker Creek is dramatic and eventually reunites the hiker with the Wheeler Peak traverse at the Snake Range Crest. From Pyramid Pass, scrambling ensues along the crest and you reach a high point on an unnamed peak of 11,775ft. The views up here are breathtaking and simply awe inspiring. Wheeler Peak's massif dominates the skyline to the north, Mt. Washington flashes a brilliance from its limestone blocked summit to the immediate south, and some 5,500ft below Lake Valley Summit and the Fortification Range tantalize one's spirit of connection as the Great Basin Trail's loop seems within near-cinching distance. The feeling is simply exuberance, just pure joy.

I left Baker Creek campground after having another interview with Squatch for his upcoming Nevada documentary and hiked on into the evening. After a few miles, I set up camp in a lodgepole forest and fell asleep rather quickly to the hypnotic soughing of the wind through the trees. I felt pretty damn lucky at this point. Not only was I going to finish the GBT, a route I had been envisioning for some time now, I had a ride lined up with Squatch at Lake Valley Summit at Highway 93 the next afternoon. I rose early the next morning to get a beat on the day and after I attained the crest I headed straight towards Mt. Washington, which is such a totally different mountain within a range of granite. Limestone cliffs drop precipitously on the west side end on the east side the limestone is more sloped and eroded down into a pumice type of sand. Once atop a ramp, I headed down southwest slopes and after a couple miles I encountered a mining road intertwined with switchbacks enough to bring dizziness to the walker. After a knee crunching descent, you fall into the alluvial fans above Spring Valley. I jammed on that day listening to music, smiling to myself, grooving a little bit. I felt happy. I felt ready to share this Great Basin Trail with the long distance hiking community. I had put so much work and passion into this trail that I hope one day to have another hiker hike the GBT in its entirety. I felt the closure, the cinching of the loop, the completion of something unlike any other. Almost like I was revisiting an experience, I hiked into the place where I began to relive those moments of  before when I started, of seeing Ruta off, of feeling the excitement of something new. And now, I felt a part of the Great Basin having been immersed in the core of the Great Basin. My heart thumped. I looked around and felt so small, so insignificant and puny, yet I felt fulfilled, complete.

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