Sunday, February 27, 2011

Trip Report: Tetons - Paintbrush Divide & Cascade Canyon Loop

Sunset from our campsite situated in front of the cathedral group
Over a year ago I went on the best hike of my life to-date. What, you may ask, actually defines a hike as being "the best"? Pristine scenery, prime weather, great company, and the list goes on and on. In saying this, I must admit that anything I try to explain in this post will fall short of doing justice - hopefully the photos will help though.

Two years before planning this trip, I slowly began saving up for my backpacking equipment. About a year before, I started donating plasma once or twice a week for the sole purpose of purchasing everything I would need for such backpacking trips. Once I saw this suggested hike in Backpacker Magazine, I wanted it to be the first hike to test out all of my equipment, and to finally start my backpacking adventures.

Holly Lake - where we stopped for lunch, and had a failed fly-fishing attempt 
My friend Geoff and I planned the trip a couple of months in advance, and felt that the month of September would be much cooler than July, but we were a little worried that we would be hit by an intense early winter storm - which are known to hit the Tetons as early as the end of August, or first part of September. Geoff and I slept at his place in Rexburgh, ID the night before, and then had an early start the next morning.
Second photo taken during the trip - LOVE when the scenery makes
every photo look as though it has been edited
By the time we hit the trailhead it was already 9:00 in the morning; not too early of a start when faced with a 12 mile hike which included a nearly 4,000 foot climb in elevation. Backcountry hiking in the Tetons means you are obligated to pay for a backcountry permit, and to leave a deposit on a bear canister (yep, for blacks, and even potential grizzlies:) Although the parking lot had plenty of cars, we didn't see anyone until we hit the trail. From the time we left our car at the trailhead to the time we returned we probably came across 50+ hikers.

The hike on the first day was brutal. This was the first time that I had ever carried 40+ pounds of equipment on my back, let alone the first time I did so while hiking up the side of a mountain. Although I fared well the first half of the day, taking a break for lunch (and a poor attempt at fly fishing) was just enough for my body to decide that it didn't like the heat, didn't like the extra load, and didn't like the gain in elevation. I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back on it, I can see that my labored breathing, mild headache, and extreme fatigue = heat exhaustion. This came at the worst possible time (as if there is ever a good time for heat exhaustion), as we had just begun the final push to the divide and crossed through snow and climbed up a slippery field of shale rock.

Looking into the valley where we camped
Once over the divide, it was all downhill. I filled our water supply from a small spring at 10,700 feet, and although I didn't need to, I used this opportunity to try out my new MSR filter. Pretty sure I've never tasted anything so good. The satisfaction of finally completing an intense climb to the divide only made the freezing water that much more divine. From the divide down to our campsite we had an amazing view of the cathedral group.

The best part of this trip was, by far, the fact that our campsite had a perfect view of the cathedral group that makes up the breathtaking skyline so many are familiar with. We were all alone at our campsite, which only added that much more to this amazing experience. Arriving just before a magnificent sunset almost felt as though the Tetons were welcoming us after a long, strenuous climb.

The hike back to our car the next morning felt like it took no time at all. It is natural to want to hike twice as fast as you normally would since you have gravity on your side. Since this hike, I have read that hiking downhill is twice as hard on your body, and you actually cause more strain on your muscles and joints. For these reasons, you should stop just as often as you normally would when going uphill. My body definitely felt the consequences of hiking downhill so fast once we made it back to the car.

Saying farewell to the Tetons
In closing, I have to say that it is hard to imagine experiencing another backpacking trip quite as impressionable as this trip was. Geoff and I have said repeatedly that this trip has spoiled us. It will be very difficult to experience something as magnificent as this trip was.

Up Paintbrush, camped at Solitude Lake,  and then down Cascade

One of my favorite parts of this trip occurred when driving back home to Provo. I called one of my best friends to tell him about the amazing time I had, and told him that I would love to come do it again when he would be able to join me. Assuming that he would see that being my willingness to drive such a long distance again for this same exact trip would be an indicator of how great the trip really was, he instead said, "it sounds like a long way to drive just for a hike...". This took me back for a second, but I laughed it off, and promptly sent a text to Geoff, relaying the message. I realized after this conversation that backpacking is not for your regular day-hiker, and that it really does take a higher level of commitment to plan such a trip, carry it out, and actually enjoy it. I was reminded once again how lucky I am to have a friend who shares my desire and passion to be in the outdoors.

Best trip EVER!!!!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment

My brother in-law told me about some show that it was "right up (my) alley" a couple of weeks ago, so I figured I would take his word for it and check it out. I'm glad I did! I ended up finishing the complete (and only) season of Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment within a week.

Out of the Wild starts with 9 random individuals from various walks of life - all intent on surviving the Alaskan wilderness for 30 days or more, and on nothing but what they can find along the way for food. The purpose of the "experiment" is to see how many can make it through without pinging their SPOT locator beacon. If someone gives up, than he or she simply hits the button, and a helicopter picks him or her up. After that, it's to civilization, easy meals, and the warmth and comfort of being home.

During the very first episode you learn that the group went through basic survival training before starting the trip, but they don't specify what that training really consisted of. You do find out that they learned how to make Yukon packs, but it's apparent that they didn't learn about how to be selective when choosing what to carry and what to leave behind. Before starting the first leg of their trip, they are given a bunch of supplies to go through for their various needs while on the trail. They foolishly decide to bring everything "just in case" (interesting that this folly was never mentioned by the narrator or any of the participants) they end up needing it. I mean they even brought a thirty pound cast-iron dutch oven!!! May not be the smartest bunch of people, but still entertaining nonetheless.

The group is given maps to find each destination to hike towards throughout their trip, and each destination has a different form of shelter for them to stay in. Sometimes it is a decent cabin with additional supplies and a stove, and other times it is little more than a little rock wall they tie their tarps to in order to keep the wind and rain out. Sometimes their spirits are lifted as they see that they have a decent bed to sleep in, and other times it is too much for one or two of them to handle, and they end up pinging their beacons.

There were several intriguing parts of this show, but I'll only name a few for the sake of not having to write a complete novel:

  • During the very first episode the group foolishly decides to take a "short-cut" by hiking over a high hill-top instead of following the trail found on the map, and which suggests walking through the valley. 50+ pounds in each Yukon pack + several out-of-shape individuals = a nice start to the series.
  • It was interesting to me to see the lack of know-how that the members of this group had. I thought that it would be interesting to throw a seasoned backpacker in the group to help them survive, but realized that the producers probably thought this would make things too simple.
  • The main focus on the show is really how difficult it is for the group to find enough to eat, but it does get annoying when the narrator repeats dozens of times how many calories they have been able to digest by eating squirrels and birds, yet they each need thousands of calories more than what they have found. Personally, I think the show would have been more entertaining if the group had started on their trek at least a month earlier than they did instead of waiting until the very end of Fall - at which point everything starts to die, and wildlife seems to vanish.
  • It seemed that the cameras were quite selective with what they did and did not show. Not once did you see what the group was forced to go through each time they had to use the bathroom - they never even MENTIONED having to go to the bathroom during the 30+ days they are in the wilderness! Going to the bathroom would have been an especially big deal for the girls as two in particular didn't seem to be very comfortable in the outdoors. The cameras also failed to show how difficult it was to collect water and to purify it. I seriously wondered if the producers of the show provided the water in order to keep anyone from dying...
  • Whatever survival training they received seemed to be very limited. They were able to spot berries from a mile away, yet passed over all sorts of insects, worms, and several other plants they could have eaten. In reality, they were so focused on meat for protein that they didn't think about the lack of vitamins they had. Survival 101 - meat is not enough when trying to survive for a long length of time. Without eating the proper vitamins and minerals, your energy will never be replenished,
For the most part, I really enjoyed this show, but I can see why there has only been one season. Without enough success (such as finally killing big game in order to eat well), the audience loses interest. It's interesting to see the group suffer after repeated failed attempts to catch fish, snare small game, and find large game, but this sad story can only loop so many times before the viewer becomes frustrated. I was impressed that the individuals of the group got along as well as they did, but it would have been nice to see someone who was really educated to take control and be a hero in this impossible situation. By the end of the series you get the sense that the group is only trying to hike out of the situation, and have forgotten about trying to survive - not to mention enjoying themselves. I was surprised how many times they chose to collect wood or play house instead of searching for food. Instead, they give one or two the responsibility to find food while the rest do other random things.

One of the most profound moments that stuck out to me in this series actually occurred during the second episode. The one guy who has any experience in the outdoors (a fly-fishing guide) becomes annoyed when the group was willing to stop repeatedly when one member continuously stops to catch his breath. I asked myself if I would have done the same thing. If one individual is threatening the whole group's safety by stopping continually, all the while the daylight continues to diminish and the stopping point is still miles away, would I tell the group to leave him behind? Would I pull him to the side and tell him to ping his beacon for the sake of the rest of the group? Or would I, myself, ping my locator beacon and leave the group to fend for itself? Ironically enough, both the experienced outdoorsman AND the slow-poke ping their beacons and get taken out on a helicopter.

I don't think I would recommend this show to anyone who doesn't find enjoyment in watching a group of average-Joes struggling to navigate and survive in the wilderness. I personally enjoyed everything about the show, but can understand why it didn't make it past the first season.