Sunday, June 5, 2011

The past four or so days

Sorry about the long time with no post, but once I got back to Leadville from Colorado Springs I was pretty busy for a few days.

After leaving Leadville I went to Taos, New Mexico. It's a little tourist town in northern New Mexico primarily centered around outdoorsy stuff in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains, and just general southwestern-style Indian-themed stuff for people from Colorado who don't want to have to go too far south. I rolled in about midday after a mostly uneventful ride. I had a bit of trouble balancing all my bags on the bike, as I had accumulated a bit of stuff in Leadville, but I managed without crashing.
Upon arriving in Taos I realized I had a voicemail message on my phone (it's hard to hear anything above the sound of the engine of the motorcycle, especially with a somewhat-busted muffler). I'll write a whole post about that message later, but in this case later probably won't be until the end of the summer.
Once in Taos, I dropped all my stuff in a motel and set out in search of maps of Wheeler Peak, the hike I wanted to do the next day. After the troubles on Mt. Elbert I wanted to make sure that I had a damn good map.
I was able to find a quite good one, in what seems to be Taos's only outdoors store (the only one of which I could find any mention, at the very least). The cashier warned me, though, that there'd be two feet of snow on the mountain above 10,000 feet (that is, the entire length of the trail). A bit more than I'd like, but I wasn't going to let the weather stand in the way of another hike. This one was only to a bit more than 13,000 feet anyway, so at the very least there was less height to climb.
Someone in the restaurant I'm in just ordered a Miller Lite. It should be pointed out that I'm here for breakfast on a Sunday.
Anyway, after getting the map and a guide to the hike I headed back to the motel and got to sleep early, as I wanted to wake up before 6 the following morning. That didn't quite happen.

I rolled out of bed around 6:30 and managed to make it to the trailhead by 8. The trailhead was in the Taos Ski Valley, a small town (I believe the population is ~47, no joke) in the mountains outside of Taos that is, as you could probably guess, primarily concerned with skiing. The hike broke down into two parts. The first two miles was a hike up to William's Lake, a small (one or two acre, I would guess) lake at a hair over 11,000 feet. It was an easy hike, the kind I'm used to from Virginia. Elevation-gain-wise, even Humpback Rocks is more difficult (and as for the altitude, I was pretty much completely acclimated to Leadville's 10,000 feet at this point). I stopped at the lake for a breakfast of trail mix and to watch the chipmunks scurry around. Taos Ski Valley has chipmunks like UVA has squirrels. It's awesome.
Once I was ready to go I checked my GPS to see how far it was from there to the summit. It said about 4,000 feet. Not that hard. The hard part (that you already realize if you've been keeping track of all the numbers I've tossed around) is that there was also 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
(Aside: For those of you who don't have experience hiking tall mountains, for each 1,000 feet, imagine taking the stairs to the upper observation deck of the Empire State Building. It's about comparable.)
There was a trail that led from the lake to the summit along a slightly longer and less steep route (it probably stretched the distance out to a mile and a half of lateral motion), so I took this. The main change was over the first 500 feet of elevation gain, which wasn't too terribly much steeper than the earlier part of the trail, but it, like the trail up to the lake, was covered in fairly deep snow. On the way up, it was still early (I got to the lake around 9 and headed up around 9:15), so postholing wasn't too much of an issue.
(Another aside: “Postholing” is one of those terms used on internet forums that's never defined. If you've ever been hiking in the winter in an area where there's season-long snow cover, it doesn't need defined, as once you hear it, you know exactly what it means. Over the course of the winter, when the temperature gets above freezing, the uppermost snow melts, seeps down, and re-freezes, leaving a fairly strong top surface but normal fluffy snow below. If you're lucky you don't break through the top surface and it's just like walking on rough ice or dirt. If the ice isn't strong enough, you sink straight down, into snow that can be up to a few feet deep, as if you've just stepped into a post-hole. It happens more in the afternoon after the snow has had a chance to melt, but hasn't refrozen over the night.)
After that, it hit the last mile or so, where there was still 1,500 feet to gain. The first quarter or so was spent getting to the treeline, hiking up the rocky side of a chute of snow. After that, it was more rocks, just a steep, steep rocky slope, occasionally having to cross a bit of snow. There was a fair amount of snow, maybe a quarter of the mountain, but it was easy enough to avoid. The wind was strong, probably upwards of 60mph at the top, but not unmanageable (it was nothing compared with Pike's Peak).
Once I got to the top, I realized that the southern side of the mountain had significantly more snow – although it gets more sun, I guess the strong wind out of the north melts more snow. The summit itself was snow-free, except for a bit underneath some rocks piled to mark the top.
Also, marmots! It's good to know that no matter how good humans get at climbing mountains, marmots will be better. There were, in addition to the countless (okay, not countless, I did count: eleven, I think) marmots I saw on the way up, three just chilling on the summit as I approached. They scampered away once I got too close, but they were just sitting there, enjoying the view from 13,000 feet.
I got to the top a few minutes before noon, so over two and a half hours after leaving the lake. I stayed for a few minutes to take pictures before starting down a bit after noon. The first part of the descent was on the slow side – the highest part of the slope was nothing but talus and scree, so it was important to keep a steady footing while descending (although there were certainly parts where I felt like the illustration from the Magic card Avalanche Riders).
After that first part that was only rock, it sped up. The snow was avoidable, if I had wanted to avoid it, but that really didn't seem fun. There's a technical mountaineering term called “glissading” (not to be confused with the ballet term of the same name) that's basically a fancy-sounding French word for “sledding down a mountain without a sled”. Theoretically you do it with an ice ax to keep your speed in check, but I didn't have an ice ax, so my feet and my hiking poles had to do. And they worked masterfully – although it had taken me nearly three hours to get from the lake to the summit, it took me less than an hour to get down, because of the 2,000 feet I needed to descend, I'd estimate that at least a thousand of those were just sliding down the snow.
Back at the lake I took some pictures of the chipmunks before heading down. New Mexico is a really good state for seeing rodents: in addition to the marmots and chipmunks on Wheeler, I saw my first prairie dog in the wild in New Mexico, and also saw, although by no means for the first time, plenty of rabbits.
I got lunch (gazpacho) at the Bavarian Restaurant, conveniently located at the base of the trail (which happens to also be the base of the ski lift), and headed back to Taos proper. I did a bit of souvenir shopping for people (a reminder to people who have reason to believe you'll be getting something: keep in mind that I have highly limited packing space). Then, random work that needed to be done and then packing, and bed.

Desert Solitude:
The following morning was shipping a box of stuff home to Virginia so that I had less stuff with which to bike, and setting off for Shiprock, New Mexico, and then Page, Arizona. Shiprock was cool to see – it's a massive rock formation – but it was just a quick stop to admire it and take a few pictures. After that, on to Page.
Page is best known as a town set up to house the workers building the Glen Canyon Dam. As some of you know, I rather like Edward Abbey, and Edward Abbey rather hated Glen Canyon Dam, as he loved Glen Canyon, which was effectively destroyed by it (the canyon is still there, but it's now completely filled with water and known as Lake Powell). I wish I could've seen Glen Canyon, as from everything I've read it seems like a beautiful place, but such is life.
I camped there, and in the morning set out for Lone Pine, California. It involved crossing more state lines than any other day, I think (although it was only tied for most different states visited, at four), as I went from Arizona, to Utah, to Arizona, to Utah, to Arizona, to Nevada, to California, back to Nevada to fill up (so I didn't run out of gas in the middle of Death Valley), and then back to California.

A Surprising Lack of Mormons:
As I was going through Utah for the first time, the road twisted its way between a bunch of different mesas and hills that I just couldn't resist the urge to see closer up. I turned off onto one of the dirt side roads the cut across the desert, a rocky, tire-rutted trail across the sand, and less than a mile in, I crashed.
Not too bad, mind you. My wheels got trapped in a deep tire track left at some point that the road had been muddy, and the track turned before I was able to stop the bike, and I crashed. I wasn't doing more than fifteen miles an hour at this point, probably not more than ten, but the bike tipped over onto its left side (same as on Pike's Peak) with me still on it. The gear-shift pedal lever thing got bent, but I was able to bend it back to almost its original shape, and the left mirror shattered. With a ballpoint pen, the casing for the mirror, some electrical tape, and a supplementary convex mirror from an auto parts store I was able to make a passable replacement. I also lost the left passenger footrest (it didn't come off in the accident, but must've gotten loosened and fallen off sometime later), and the muffler repairs all got knocked around so as to be pretty much useless. I picked up more muffler tape but haven't had a chance to re-patch it yet (probably later today).

Pulp Fiction:
After that, it was relatively smooth sailing. I got annoyed and frustrated in Nevada in the section leading up to Las Vegas (now my second-least-favorite metropolitan area, just ahead of St. Louis). Way too many tractor-trailers. If any of you ever happen to drive a truck, please keep the following in mind: if you're going roughly the same speed as a small motorcycle, let the motorcycle be in front. Although it makes no difference to you, driving behind a truck is exceedingly difficult, due to the turbulence created, and as a result we either have to continually play leapfrog with you to avoid it, or slow down and let you get significantly ahead. This holds true for large motorcycles, too, but they've got enough power to just straight-up pass you and keep going. Small bikes such as mine max out at roughly 55-85 mph (depending on steepness of road, amount of luggage, and wind), and so we're stuck if you're doing the same speed as us, because on the interstate we're going as fast as we can.
Rant over.
Anyway, after that, Nevada wasn't too bad. After Nevada, after getting to California, I realized that, unless there happened to be a gas station in the middle of Death Valley, it was highly unlikely that I'd make it through with the amount of gas I had left. I turned around and had to backtrack about forty miles to the nearest service station (however beautiful the midwest and the southwest are, the barrenness is annoying when you're traveling with a 4-gallon gas tank). Tank filled, I set off into Death Valley, only to find that, about twenty miles in, there was, in fact, a gas station. The gas was $5.459 a gallon, but I'd have payed it given that I only would've needed two gallons, and that would've saved me about an hour and a half of driving time. Such is life. Next time I'll know.
Driving through Death Valley was fun, although it was also a little scary. I don't know whether it would've been better or worse to do it during the daytime, instead of the pitch blackness that I had. If it'd been light I could've seen the road a bit farther ahead, but I could've also seen over the side of the road, which, especially after Pike's Peak, would've been a bit scary (despite what almost all of my behavior seems to indicate, I am actually somewhat afraid of heights). It's called a valley, and yes, in the sense of having mountains on either side, it is a valley, but when you think of a valley, you, like me, probably think of a low place between two strings of mountains. It's true that Death Valley has low points – at one spot, I was over 100 feet below sea level. However, it then rises up to almost 5,000 feet, before dropping back to nearly sea level and then rising back up over 4,000 feet again, all in the course of twenty miles of road. I'm sure the views were excellent, but as it was as close to pitch black as I've ever come in nature (excluding one cave in Ha Long Bay where I literally hit my nose on the wall in front of my face), I couldn't see them.

After that, Lone Pine, California, in Inyo County. Inyo is notable in that it contains both the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater) points in the continental United States. I passed a few miles northeast of Badwater yesterday, and on Tuesday I'll be hiking to within a few miles of the Mt. Whitney summit. Due to the snow conditions, I won't be going for the top. It's advised that only those with significant winter mountaineering experience attempt the summit, and I have none, and am traveling alone (and, admittedly, don't much feel like looking for a group to join, as I like doing the hikes on this trip alone). So, I won't be going for the top, just one of the lower base camps. (To see the importance of experience and the potential risks of failure, go to the Wikipedia page for Mt. Whitney and look at the picture. There isn't currently that much snow, but still a significant amount.)
So, after arriving in Lone Pine, I checked into a motel and quickly passed out, because yesterday was a very long day. Today is planning and preparation and relaxation, as will be tomorrow.
I've taken photos of stuff the past few days, but because of the difficulties of working with them on this computer, I'm just going to hold off on posting them until the end of the trip. Speaking of which, where should I go next? I feel like changing the plan, so suggestions are welcome. I'm currently in eastern California, about the middle north-south wise, and after leaving here on the 9th I've got about 10 days to make it back to Charlottesville. I can ride upwards of 600 miles a day. Any suggestions?


  1. Head west and put your feet in the Pacific. You're also close to San Luis Obispo; perhaps Skip Parks would take you surfing. In New Mexico: the Very Large Array, White Sands, and Roswell. In Oklahoma: Enid (Mrs. Forney is from somewhere around there). In Arkansas: Go diamond mining. In Tennessee: Graceland (a logical follow-up to the visit to Roswell). I'm sure I'll come up with more ideas, so stay tuned. Hey! You asked for it!

  2. From Rick W-S: "umm, need I state the obvious? YOSEMITE!!!!
    and then there's King's Canyon.
    Less obvious, but historically significant: Owens Lake. This lake is at the center of the water wars and consolidation of LA's power through the mostly corrupt acquisition of water rights from the lake."
    From Jean (formerly Nadkarni) Burke: What Rick said. Also, Mohan Nadkarni and I love Lone Pine! We had a hilarious dinner there about a hundred years ago."

  3. From my friend Jayne: For some reason, I cannot post a comment on Steve's blog, so here are my ideas:

    if he has not been, from San Luis Obispo, ride US 1 to Half Moon Bay
    (through Big Sur) - a road with really beautiful scenery (do not know
    if he could do this AND make it back in time)

    or if he has not been, visit the Grand Canyon - have never been, but
    Kristy said she was surprised at how impressed she was with it the
    time she visited there

  4. Jean's friend VA also says Grand Canyon! (Crater Lake is too far away and too much snow!)