Monday, October 31, 2016

Post-Trip Highpoint Difficulty Rankings

And now it's time to do something I've wanted to do ever since I arrived in Seattle: rank the high points by difficulty!

I'd come across the Martin Classification of state high point difficulty while planning my trip, but it didn't quite satisfy me. For one, it only considers the easiest route to a high point's summit, which leads to sizeable mountains like North Carolina's Mt. Mitchell and New Hampshire's Mt. Washington being ranked in the easiest class. While technically correct, in that those summits can both be accessed by walking less than 0.2 miles, such a ranking is useless to one who intends to hike those high points from their base. What's more, both those mountains have "standard approach" trails that could easily be incorporated into the ranking alongside the drive-up routes.

And second, Martin's classification takes little account of the technical difficulty of a route; instead, it relies almost exclusively on elevation gain and trail length. This also leads to some odd rankings, in my opinion (for instance, the gentle stroll up Black Mesa, OK is ranked a class above the rough, rocky trails on Mt. Frissell, CT and Mt. Mansfield, VT). While an experienced mountaineer considering the glaciated Western high points might not care whether the approach is Class 1 or Class 2 terrain, the distinction matters to casual hikers, not to mention those with mobility issues, acrophobia, and/or small children in tow. And regardless of ability, many people would find a 7-mile hike easier than a 4-mile scramble of equal elevation gain (just ask anyone who's done both Mt. Marcy and Katahdin's Knife-Edge which was harder).

Thus, I've put together my own ranking of the highpoints I've climbed, available here as a list and on my homepage (where I control the backend code) as a sortable table. The standard route up each high point (as selected by me) is listed below, as are any alternate routes of sufficiently different character (again, my judgement call). Starred routes are featured in this blog. I intend to complete this ranking as I continue highpointing, so check back for additions.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Post-Trip Gear Post! (and Trip Stats)

A couple of you have asked about the gear I used this trip, so here's the lowdown:

The two most important pieces were definitely my tent and my day-hike pack. The tent was a 1-person Big Agnes model designed for backpacking (but conveniently light and compact even for lazy car-campers like me). It was quick to set up and plenty spacious for my needs. At first I used the raincover even on clear nights, but after that mosquito mess in Ogema I started leaving it off--and what do you know, half of those weird, rustley, potential-bear noises that had kept me up at night went away.

My pack, a 28 L Osprey (that link isn't quite it, but it's the closest model I could find in their current product line), was thrust upon me by the employees of the Eastern Mountain Sports in North Conway when I showed up for their mountaineering course without one. Though designed for snowboarding, it served my day-hiking needs just fine. It has way more pockets and features than anyone could conceivably use, like all modern hiking packs. I stuck to the two main pockets (it's reassuring to be able to segregate one's spare clothes from one's water bottle), a medium-sized pouch where I kept small things I hoped I wouldn't need (bandages, headlamps, a compass, water-filtration tablets, matches, emergency cash, etc.), and the pockets on the hip belt (where the Lars and my phone rode).

Friday, October 28, 2016

Epilogue: Atlantic to Pacific

On my way home from Mt. Washington in February, I detoured through Maine so that I could say I'd been there (not knowing I'd return in the summer). I didn't go far, just across the Piscataqua River to a town called Kittery. The town was nice enough (in a cramped, steep-roofed, narrow-streeted New England way), but what I really wanted was to see the sea.

And I did, at a local park called Fort McClary Memorial:

Quite the contrast it was from the ice-coated slopes of Mt. Washington. I dipped my fingers in the water, then sat down on the grassy bank to bask in the warm sun.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Side Trip: Crater Lake, OR (8929')

I doubted correctly. The only other person I saw all night was a dude in a white SUV who pulled into the loop around 5 am, set up a hammock in the trees, and slept. Hail, fellow illicit camper, I'd have called, but I didn't want to startle him into thinking I was the angry ranger I'd at first thought he'd been. 'Tis a strange shadow-community to which we belong.

I woke with the sun, more or less. The morning was both cloudy and hazy, as if a fire was burning somewhere in this pine-tinderbox of a forest. But if it was, I couldn't see it through the trees. After decades of artificial protection, the forests around Crater Lake are unnaturally thick. Ecologists, you see, didn't realize until halfway through the park's existence that wildfires are a natural (and beneficial) occurrence in the fir forests of the Cascades. Prior to that, park policy had been to immediately extinguish all fires, whether natural or human-caused, which left nothing to thin the young trees and clear away dead wood. Natural fires are now allowed to run their course (though kept in check so that they don't escape the park or destroy its structures), but they've still got lots of catching up to do. Parts of the park haven't burned in over a century, including (I'd bet) this one.

It turns out I'd spent the night at the head of the Pinnacles Trail, a short trail built to showcase a line of pumice spires sprouting from the side of a steep river valley. Might as well take a look, I figured, since I'm here. So I rolled out of my car-bed and headed down the trail:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Side Trip: East Oregon (~5000')

(Just so we're clear, Borah Peak was my last high point on this trip. If that's all that interests you, you can stop reading now. However, if you'd care to see my journey through to its conclusion, I've got two more posts for you...)

With mighty effort I roused myself from the abyss of dreams and returned (up a Class 3 chute) to reality the next morning. Here I lay in my motel room, stretched horizontal beneath the sheets, still, sheltered, and safe... and holy cow it was 10:20 am. I had forty minutes to eat, shower, and skedaddle before they tacked an extra night's stay onto my bill.

Thirty-nine and a half minutes later, I emerged blinking into the Idaho sun, toting all my possessions in a profusion of bags. I shoved the stuff haphazardly into the front-passenger seat and set off, heading west down I-84. The Oregon border was less than an hour away. I crossed the Snake River on the interstate, then pulled off at the oddly-named Ontario (aspirational...?) for gas.

Remember, back during my brief sojourn through New Jersey, when I had my gas pumped by an attendant? Only two states in the Union have enshrined that antiquated profession into law, and, as I discovered that day, Oregon is the other.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Highpoint #38: Borah Peak, ID (12,668')

What does one do with an unclimbable mountain? Give it a try anyway and see how high you can go.

I woke before dawn the next morning due to both nerves (upon my decision) and the commotion of day-hikers arriving. The air was frigid; I shivered all the way to the outhouse, where I tugged on my spandex climbing-pants and down jacket (though, as usual, I'd shed the latter within the hour). I packed away my tent, strapped my new trekking poles to my day-pack, locked the car, double-checked that it was locked, and--oh, there's no sense delaying it. Up the mountain I went.

Borah or bust...?
I honestly didn't expect to make it to the summit. Something--bad weather, elevation, exposure, exhaustion, Pamola's last revenge--was sure to intercept me along these next 3.4 horizontal miles (and 5200' in gain) and force me to turn back. And, honestly, I'd be lucky if that was the worst of it. The mountain would remain after a failed attempt; would I? (I'd like to think I have enough sense to keep myself alive, but I'll admit the matter's not entirely in my hands.)

But the route up Borah began, as all trails do, relatively gently, as a simple dirt path.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Side Trip: Base of the Lost River Range, ID (~7000')

In August, the Lost River range is defined, or rather, undefined, by haze. Dust hangs in the distance, obscuring the elegant curves of the foothills and reducing the peaks to no more than cloud-shadows hovering over the horizon. As one approaches, they solidify one by one into gray granite pyramids sprinkled with shreds of snow, each summit higher than the last.

This, of course, makes spotting the high point rather difficult. As I drove north on US-93 that afternoon, a new candidate emerged for every mile I progressed--but no sooner had I voiced aloud "Is that one Borah?" than a higher peak popped into view just beyond. Finally, a dozen miles past Mackay, a clear victor emerged. I followed the highway's curve around its magnificently smooth slope, then turned up a gravel road towards the Borah Campground... and caught my first glimpse of the real Borah Peak behind it.

Several hundred feet higher, of course.
That road took me over a brook (one of many "lost rivers" in this valley with no aboveground outlet: they gather, flow a ways, then vanish into the water table):

around a hairpin turn, and up to the campground itself:

Side Trip: Craters of the Moon National Monument (~6000')

And so I headed north again on I-15... and before I knew it, I was in Idaho. The Spud State greeted me with a beautiful broad valley lined with moderate mountains covered in grass and pines:

Sorry, North Dakota, but the summer-yurt just jumped 500 miles west.
It wasn't quite what I had expected... then again, my entire prior knowledge of Idaho consisted of potatoes and Mt. Borah, so I didn't really know what to expect. I read up on the state that evening as I dined in Pocatello: apparently it's known as the Gem State due to the immense variety of gemstones and minerals found there. It's also home to Hell's Canyon, the deepest gorge in the United States (out of my way, unfortunately), and quite a bit of recent volcanic activity.

If you've been following along on a map, you might be wondering why I veered so far north on I-15. The direct route to the coast from the Great Salt Lake runs through Nevada rather than Idaho, and if all I'd wanted was a glimpse of the latter, I could have gotten that just as easily westbound on I-84. But out of all the western highpoints I'd hoped to climb this summer, Idaho's Borah Peak was the one I'd most looked forward to. Even if my lungs wouldn't let me summit, I wanted to see it with my own eyes--and thus the Lost River Range, north of Arco along US-93, was my destination.

But I couldn't quite make it there tonight. The hotels in Pocatello were pricey, so I drove another 30 minutes northeast to North Bingham County Park, a small park along the Snake River whose website promised both tent and RV camping. I arrived to find the tent site(s?) were unlabeled, so I pitched my tent on an unoccupied spot of grass, paid my fee, and settled in for the night, hoping I wouldn't be evicted midway through.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Low Point: Great Salt Lake, UT (~4206')

I woke the next morning just as the sun rose over the walls of the Colorado River canyon:

After a quick breakfast on a flat-topped boulder, I packed my gear away and set off for the Great Salt Lake.

View from the boulder.
All morning I drove northwest through the most arid desert I'd yet seen on this entire trip. Texas and New Mexico had been dry, for sure, but at least their lowlands were filled with grass and scrub and cacti. Utah's were only rock and sand. Weird rock formations reared up beside the highway, mesas crumbled in the distance, and in between the road stretched ever on.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Side Trip: Arches National Park, UT (4085-5653')

I spent the first half of the next day bouldering in the Sandia foothills:

and the second half recovering from my injuries (I didn't fall off a problem, I'll have you know--I tripped over a rock on the ground). That pretty much exhausted my list of things to do in the Sandias. I could have stayed longer--my hosts were glad to have me, and those two German Shepherds wanted me to move in for good--but the open road was calling me... and if, for some reason, I changed my mind about climbing those other high points (perhaps because I'd made it up and down from 10,678' without incident?) I'd have to do it soon. August was nearly up, and the alpine winter sets in quick.

So the next morning I departed Albuquerque (with a chunk of Sandia granite squirreled away in my luggage and a strange urge to rewatch Breaking Bad) and headed northwest up US-550. I drove through reservation land all morning, painted deserts dotted with the occasional small town or casino. At Shiprock I turned north and continued into Colorado. Here on the far side of the Rockies, the land was high, dry, and gently rolling, save for a few lonely ranges jutting into the skyline. Most notable of the bunch was Sleeping Ute Mountain, which lingered in my sights for several miles. The local Ute tribe likens its shape to a gigantic warrior resting from his battles against evil--a sort of western Mt. Mansfield.

Around midafternoon I crossed into Utah. I'd held off on filling my gas tank in New Mexico, hoping it'd be cheaper across the state line, but instead, to no one's surprise but mine, the price shot up 20 cents a gallon. Utah is pretty remote, you know; it's hard to ship fuel there. The higher prices held all the way through Idaho and eastern Oregon until I crossed the Cascades, where they jumped an additional ten cents for no apparent reason. Anyway, I filled up reluctantly in Monticello, then turned north onto US-191 and headed for the day's destination: Arches National Park.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Side Trip: Sandia Crest, NM (10,678')

I headed out early the next morning and drove north across town, parallel to the ridgeline of the Sandia Mountains. The trailhead of La Luz was on the far northwest corner of Albuquerque, sharing an access road with a Forest Service picnic site. I hopped out of the car, changed into my boots, and headed up.

We'll follow the light all the way to the summit!
The trail began with a gentle climb up and over the foothills. It contoured south through the scrub in the shade of the mountains:

then, as the slope increased, started to switchback.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Side Trip: Albuquerque, NM (4900-6000')

Whereas in northern New Mexico half the population looked Hispanic, here in El Paso half the population actually conducts business in Spanish. The girl at the front desk was flawlessly bilingual—she spoke perfect Spanish to the guest before me and perfect English to me. I understood snatches here and there: the guy calling his buddy an idiot, the mom yelling at her kids to stop running in the halls, but for the most part I was shut out of sus conversaciones. As a chronic eavesdropper, I suppose that’s my just deserts.

I woke up late that morning, as though my body was in on my mind's conspiracy to postpone decision-making. With Guadalupe climbed, I was now past the planned portion of my journey, but on the opposite end of the country from its destination. All the remaining high points were over 10,000 feet high and thus unreachable, but where else was I to stop on my way north to Seattle? The most direct route was 1700 miles long, 25 hours of driving--I'd need to split that over at least three days.

I glanced over at the clock: there was an hour left until I had to leave. An hour to figure out where I was leaving for. I turned on my laptop and pulled up the maps.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

High Point #37: Guadalupe Peak, TX (8751')

I headed out early the next morning, since all the campsites at my destination, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, were first-come-first-served (and it was a Friday, too). The roads through the eastern New Mexico plains were nearly empty. I made good time at a conservative 5 mph over the speed limit. The shoulders were littered with the night’s crop of dead jackrabbits, whom the vultures would no doubt devour before evening. I bypassed Roswell around midmorning (seeing nothing weird in the skies, but you never really know...) and stopped for lunch in touristy Carlsbad.

New Mexico has so much character, I thought as I drove through town, with all its adobe buildings and clay-tiled roofs and fiestas and roadrunners and red-or-green chili peppers. It's a land apart from the lawns and shade trees of suburbia, a place that's not afraid to flaunt its differentness. And, what's more, I fit in with the locals; we're all suntanned and at least vaguely Hispanic (unlike, say. Minnesota, where my dark features stuck out like a sore thumb). Call me enchanted.

As I emerged from the built-up part of Carlsbad, I spotted the Guadalupe Ridge on the horizon:

Note the drop at the end.
The long ridge rises up from the desert and follows a gentle curve southwest for nearly a hundred miles, looking for all the world like the spine of some long-dead earth giant.

Monday, October 3, 2016

High Point #36: Black Mesa, OK (4975')

I popped back over the state line to spend the night in Lamar, CO--the only town within a hundred miles large enough to host multiple motels--then woke with the sun and headed south down US-385 to the Oklahoma Panhandle. The low scrub of the plains did little to keep the sun from my eyes; the 18-wheelers I kept having to pass did much better, though with the side effect of checking my speed to the posted limit (sigh).

The Panhandle, by the way, has quite the interesting history. Originally part of the Republic of Texas, the strip was ceded to the federal government when Texas joined the U.S. as a slaveholding state, since that land was north of the 36°30' slave/free cutoff imposed by the Missouri Compromise. It spent the second half of the 19th century as an unorganized no-man's-land, serving as a hideout for outlaws and squatters. Towards the end of the century it campaigned to be recognized as its own Cimarron Territory, but was instead incorporated into the Oklahoma Territory in 1890.

I arrived around midmorning at Black Mesa State Park only to discover that the high point wasn't actually there:

but in Black Mesa Nature Preserve a few miles up the highway.