Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Which I Make it to Phoenix and Listen to a Tale of Exploration

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts about my recent road trip from San Antonio, TX, to Washington State. If you missed the previous three posts, they may be viewed here:

February 4

I feel a lot better today. Still not 100%, but vastly improved since yesterday evening. I’m going to check out of the hotel shortly and hit the road with the goal of reaching Phoenix by this evening.


I made it to Phoenix just in time to enjoy supper with the Harding family. I’m really grateful for their hospitality while I’m in town - it’s so much better to stay with friends than book a hotel. The driving between El Paso and here was fairly uneventful. I realized that there were actually two Mesa Streets, and the second one would have had better (read “more economical”) options for lodging yesterday evening...oh well. I stopped a few times to take some pictures (something I wish I would have done more yesterday, especially for last night’s sunset). Texas Canyon along I-10 was particularly interesting - a jumble of rust-colored boulders, some perched precariously on top of one another. I got a few shots, but was unable to get to the best viewpoint.

Texas Canyon, Arizona
Along the way I listened to “Sea of Glory” by Nathaniel Philbrook, a story of the U.S. Expedition of Exploration of 1838-42. The expedition was headed up by Charles Wilkes, by all accounts a very disagreeable fellow, but remarkable in his self-discipline and perseverance during the long 4-year voyage to Antarctica, the South Pacific Islands, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. It’s interesting to see how a man with so many flaws was able to successfully mount and lead such a monumental expedition. Equally interesting is how little-known the U.S. ExEx is today...
Mountains in northern Texas

Monday, February 21, 2011

Mt. St. Helens: Conquered

Last Saturday we again worked up the resolve to summit Mt. St. Helens - this time in the snow. Having climbed it a handful of times before (in the summer), we were fairly confident in our ability to reach the mountain's 8,525' summit in spite of the additional exertion required for snowshoeing. I, for one, underestimated just how hard it would be...

Jonathan was the de facto leader of the expedition since he knew the most about mountaineering and had pulled together most of the logistics. He, Chelsea and the kids came over on Friday and spent the night at our place, so we could be ready for our 4:00 a.m. departure the following morning.

We were on the trail from Marble Mountain Sno Park by 6:30 a.m. and made pretty good time up to timberline. The sunrise was beautiful, glistening off the freshly fallen snow that blanketed the surrounding forest. In the days preceding our hike the mountain had accumulated a few feet of fresh powder, but that wasn't a major concern since the trail was fairly well packed. It was awesome for the skiers and snowboarders I'm sure!

As an anecdote, last week I attended a Winter Safety presentation put on by Portland Mountain Rescue in which they discussed the hazards of hiking in winter conditions and told some stories to illustrate their points. Though I paid careful attention to their warnings and advice, I couldn't help but think, "that would never happen to me." I mean, I can understand other people succumbing to the elements or to fatigue, but not me. This hike was my reality check.

I could tell almost right away when we hit the trail that I would need to warm up and kick into gear if I was going to summit. My pack certainly wasn't helping; it weighed in at 36.5lb fully loaded - nearly as much as I carried on a 3-day backpacking trip a few years ago. But, I wasn't carrying extraneous gear - it was all needed. In winter conditions you have to be ready and it generally pays off to be over-prepared.

Like many other mountains, Mt. St. Helens has a few tricks up its sleeve, the worst of which is its false summits. From the base you can see what appears to be the summit, but when you reach it, it turns out to be just another ridge. Of course, you're positive that the next "summit" is the real thing, but it's not. The best plan is to assume that what you're looking at is not and never could be the actual summit - fewer disappointments that way.

When I reached the last false summit I was exhausted. I thought the likelihood of me reaching the top was extremely slim, unless I could make it up there by sheer willpower. There were several times where I just wanted to fall on my face in the snow and stay there, but I kept going regardless. The last 50 feet were pure misery, but God gave me the strength and I finally collapsed on the summit with the other guys. (I really did "collapse." The other guys were understandably concerned ;)

The view from the summit has become somewhat familiar to us, but it's a completely new experience in the snow. Being careful to avoid the cornice (the overhanging snow along the rim), we set up our little stove and melted some snow to replenish our water supply. Jonathan and I took some photos, at one point venturing to an overlook which allowed us to see Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier to the north. I shot a few photos holding the camera way above my head so I wouldn't have to get any closer to the edge. Not that I'm afraid of heights...but there was no telling where the edge actually was and I wasn't about to take any chances.

Some people say that going downhill is just as hard as going uphill, only faster. In this case, I disagree. I found the descent to be comparably easier than the climb, especially when we broke out the avalanche shovels and started sledding down the mountain!

As we neared timberline we got to enjoy one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. It was so worth it to pull out my camera and get a few panoramic photos (even though I fell behind the rest of the group).

The 2.5 mile stretch to the car was arduous. Mike and I teamed up for the last mile and we couldn't believe how far a puny little 1/2 mile was! We finally reached the Jeep about 30 seconds before our 6:30 p.m. goal, and thus were on the trail for almost exactly 12 hours.

When we got home supper was waiting. After we ate I was so whooped that I just sprawled out on the floor for a while. Kaylee kept coming over and giggling at me - she had no idea, but it was cute anyway!

Make sure you head over to Jonathan's blog to read his trip report and see his photography.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In Which I Finally Get a Solid Meal and Escape the Snow

February 3

This morning I woke up rather sore but well-rested. I boiled some water and headed up to the heated restroom to drink my tea and try to restore feeling to my toes, which were completely numb. Realizing that I hadn’t had a solid meal since Monday evening, I then headed up to the lodge restaurant and ordered their “Emory Peak” omelet. Ironic... :) Never has a hot meal and coffee tasted so good! Now I just need to pack everything up and figure out how to get out of here. The roads are pretty treacherous and it’s not getting any warmer out there. The rangers are periodically taking people down in caravans, so I may be able to join one of those in the next few hours.


I was one of the last people they let out of the park today due to the weather conditions. Once I reached lower elevations, snow was no longer a concern. I took Hwy 385 N to US-90, where I then headed west toward Alpine, TX. It’s incredible how long it takes to get out of Texas!

In Alpine I encountered more snow and some ice on the sides of the road. I talked with Christopher and he said that Alpine was likely to be snowed in, but if I made to Van Horn I would probably be fine. I was originally going to camp in Van Horn and then make the trek up to Phoenix from there the next day, but decided to press on to El Paso where I could find a hotel. I pulled in around 7:00, found a place to stay, took a hot shower and am ready to crash for the night. I’m not feeling too well, so I hope that a good night’s rest will provide the remedy.

Dad's little MSR Whisperlite stove (International) - brilliant little piece of equipment!

I don't know why I hadn't thought of it sooner, but that morning I was desperate to get warm so I headed up to the Chisos Basin lodge. At this point a hot meal was not only a luxury, it was a necessity! My feet were grateful for the opportunity to warm up as well.

While I was at the lodge I heard one guy loudly explaining his exit strategy to the rest of his group. It was clear that road conditions were getting worse by the minute, and that the only options available to visitors were to either pack up and leave soon or stay put and risk getting snowed in. I was driving a '99 Honda Accord, had two sets of tire chains, and have had more experience driving in the snow than most Texans, so I wasn't too concerned. I realized, however, that I would need to make my escape soon while they were still letting people on the roads; I went back to camp, packed everything up, and waited at a gate for about 15 minutes while a ranger checked for other vehicles that needed to be escorted out of the basin.

The descent wasn't too bad. I stayed in 1st and 2nd gear the whole way down and there was only one time when I completely lost traction and began sliding happily down the mountain... (it wasn't that bad ;)

I emerged from the park around 1:30pm and began the 350 mile drive to El Paso. Apart from the occasional tumbleweed crossing the freeway and a bit of snow, it was an uneventful drive. By the time I arrived in El Paso I was completely whooped so I found a hotel as soon as I could. (I had been wearing a beanie almost constantly for the past 2 days so my hair was an absolute mess. I pictured myself as the daring adventurer just emerging from the wild, but the folks at the front desk seemed to think I was some guy off the street, judging by the looks they gave me.)

I settled for some snacks instead of dinner and, after journaling for a few minutes, went straight to bed.

God's Extraordinary Provision - A Heartening Reminder

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My New Road Bike!

Last night I picked up a Scattante R660 off craigslist. I'm stoked! (pun intended)

Monday, February 14, 2011

In Which I Find a Suitable Campsite and Hike to 7,825 Feet

February 2

I didn’t sleep well last night. Woke up to frost on the inside of the windshield and windows, and upon stepping outside I finally saw the surrounding mountains which had been phantoms against the stars the night before. This place is pretty incredible.

I made some tea and oatmeal, periodically jumping in the car to warm up a bit. I needed to find a new campsite, so I set about searching, and once I found one I managed to set up my tent and get it staked down securely. The winds were picking up, but as the sun rose the cold began to subside just a bit.

At noon I packed a lunch, poured myself some water from one of the few unfrozen jugs of water I had (water freezes in a matter of minutes out here), and set out to hike Emory Peak via the Pinnacles Trail. It was beautiful country, accented by the constant flurry of ice particles (despite the sun being out) which lasted until late afternoon. The photographic opportunities were great, especially as I got into the higher elevation areas around Emory Peak. The 1 mi. spur leading up to the summit took me longer than expected, and ended with a 30 foot sheer scramble up a rock face to reach the real summit. The views of the Chihuahuan desert were breathtaking, but the winds made things a bit uncomfortable. I took it easy, shot some panoramas, and carefully made my descent down the rock face again.

The trek back was pretty strenuous, albeit downhill. Anytime I hit a shady spot, the temperature dropped dramatically. If my hands were un-gloved for more than a minute or two, I quickly lost all feeling in my fingers. Once I reached the valley again, the mountains were lit by some truly awesome evening light. I hurriedly got some panoramas, put my gloves back on and made the final mile or two back to my car. As often happens when I’m on the trail, tired and footsore, I could just picture my car with me in the driver's seat, leaning on the steering wheel breathing heavily...

When I returned to camp I decided to “test” out my sleeping bag, so without bothering to change into fresh clothes I climbed in, coat and all, zipped it to the top and soon began to feel pretty comfy. I wasn’t too hungry so I just decided to call it a day and get some shut-eye. I slept a total of 12 hours, in spite of the wind whipping at my tent. The only thing I really don’t like about this Marmot tent is that it’s primarily mesh, so when the wind blew under the rain fly it kicked ice and dirt up against the mesh and got a bunch of fine dust all over me and my gear. It’s a three-season tent though, so it’s not meant for these kinds of conditions.
I had a pretty rough night trying to sleep in my car. Those mummy bags don't insulate well unless you can constrict airflow, and that's nearly impossible to do unless you're lying flat...which, incidentally, can't be done in my car.

When I cracked open the car door I was finally able to see the scenery around me. The campground I was in sits at 5,400 feet and is almost completely surrounded by the Chisos Mountain Range (the only mountain range to be completely enclosed within a national park). It was quite a sight.

The weather that morning was absolutely frigid - 4 degrees according the campground host, but easily below 0 when you factor in windchill - and I was very reluctant to venture out and make breakfast. I finally worked up the resolve to get out and light the stove, but as the water was boiling I jumped in the car to stay warm.

My hike up to Emory Peak (7,825 feet) began around noon, covered 10 miles, and took me 7 hours to complete. The temperature hardly relented in spite of the sun, and tiny ice particles continued falling until mid-afternoon.

The scenery seemed very unusual for Texas. Of course, I've become accustomed to San Antonio, the southern hill country, and the flat scrubby landscape around Corpus Christi. It was a welcome surprise to find some real mountains again! The ascent up the Pinnacles Trail was largely forested, and any time I encountered shade I would find tell-tale signs of the extreme winter conditions - icicles lining the trickles of water coming down from the hills, frost on the grass and leaves, etc.

The route to the summit of Emory Peak was relatively easy, but the last 25-30 feet involved a sheer climb up to the true summit (YES!!). Once I got up there the 360 degree view was incredible! I could see at least 50-100 miles in all directions. Down in the basin, I could barely make out the lodge and visitor center, and knew that I would have to make the descent in good time to get back to camp by nightfall. The park rangers advise against hiking during the evening hours due to danger from mountain lions and other critters. Bears are fairly prevalent in the park as well, but my fear of mountains lions is exponentially higher than my fear of a measly little black bear!

I finally made it back to the car around 7:00pm, exhausted, but thrilled with the experience and the opportunity to actually exert myself and have some fun instead of sitting at camp freezing. The sunset was nothing spectacular, but the light it threw on the surrounding mountains was simply awesome.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

In Which I Depart San Antonio and Encounter Hazardous Weather

February 1
Departed San Antonio later than I had hoped, around 3:30. Made decent time on the interstate, but nearly decided to pull into a rest stop and spend the night there. Instead, I pulled through and made it to Big Bend by 11:30pm. Tried to set up my tent but the wind was too strong and the ground was very rocky and hard, unsuitable for stakes. I abandoned that idea and figure I’ll try to set it up tomorrow if the wind dies down. I can’t afford another broken tent... Tonight, I’ll sleep in my car.

It’s absolutely frigid out there. My guess is that it’s close to 0 degrees before you factor in wind chill. I’m SO thankful for the cold-weather gear that I bought.

It took me close to 20 minutes just to light the Whisperlite stove, but once it got going it was great. I made some soup and boiled some water, but had to be quick about eating it because even boiling water won’t stay hot for more than a few minutes out there. Anything that has water in or on it will begin to freeze in minutes.

Time for bed now. I hope I can sleep tonight - it’s pretty cold in the car too
That is the first entry in the journal I kept on my recent journey from San Antonio to Washington; it was written almost entirely as things happened, or as a recap at the end of the day, hence the bad grammar and incomplete sentences. Writing a cohesive entry can be rather difficult when you're out in the wilderness huddled in your car, trying at all costs to stay warm.

I had been planning this adventure for months and everything was coming together beautifully. Jonathan would be flying down to Phoenix to join me on Saturday (February 5), and from there we planned to head up to Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park to do some hiking, photography, and camping.

My departure date from San Antonio was Tuesday, February 1. I planned to spend 1 1/2 days in Big Bend National Park up in Western Texas, and then travel up through El Paso and Tucson to arrive in Phoenix by Friday night. I had a terrible time trying to pack all my things in my little 99 Honda Accord - most of it wouldn't fit - so I hit the road later than expected on Tuesday (Feb. 1). The journal entry above describes that evening simply, but well. An extreme cold front hit the southern states that day and made my life a lot more interesting...

As I was driving along Hwy 385 S. toward the park I began to see faint flurries of ice particles and snow. It wasn't until I stopped and got out of the car that I realized how cold it was. They weren't kidding about that cold front! Being the more adventurous type, I was rather pleased since the inclement weather added an unexpectedly hazardous edge to my trip. Call me crazy, but it's true.

As the journal entry notes, I was unable to set up my tent that night. The wind was blowing hard and, despite my efforts to anchor it with rocks while I worked to hammer in the stakes, it was a lost cause from the start. So I resolved to sleep in my car that night - never a welcome prospect, but in this case it was my only option.

I managed to light the MSR Whisperlite stove I had borrowed from my Dad, and warmed up some Chunky's soup for supper (at midnight). I think I also made some tea - black, and therefore caffeinated, but that didn't matter; everything centered on staying warm and believe me, it was hard to do!

I "went to bed" cold, but thankful for the Lord's blessing on my journey so far, and hopeful that I would be able to catch a few winks of sleep that night even though my situation was devoid of most earthly comforts.

There are no photos for this entry since I didn't take any that day. I was too preoccupied with keeping my toes warm. Upcoming entries will contain photos.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Seven Days, Four National Parks

My brother Jonathan and I just returned from a 7-day, 2,800 mile whirlwind adventure from Texas to Washington state through the Midwest. I will be posting more details about the trip over the next few days (including stories, snippets from my journal, etc.), but for now, here are some photos I captured at each of the four national parks to tide you over.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Zion National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah