Jan 22, 2011

Winter Backpacking in Joshua Tree National Park

Being well aware that the school semester started on Monday I needed to get out and do a little backpacking with the time that I had left even if it was only for a couple of days.  Plus, I wanted to try out an important new piece of gear. I retired my old "Zip" pack from Mountain Laurel Designs that I've had and used extensively since 2007. I had cut the hip belts this summer figuring I wouldn't need them anymore but I overestimated how my shoulders would be able to handle the entire load and the entire 9oz pack was starting to look pretty shabby.  It has been great to me and has never failed in any respect on any of the trips that included on/off trails domestic and overseas.
Overall, I liked the design of the pack in terms of functionality that I decided to get a similar style of pack. Instead of getting the updated version of the Zip from MLD, the Exodus, I decided to get the ULA CDT for a few reasons: the 5 week wait at MLD to make the gear, the price ($50 cheaper), hip belt pockets, and the desire to try something new. In terms of main pack volume the CDT is slightly smaller but I have my 3-season gear dialed down and I typically had excess space in the Zip. Other than that I pack it the same and took off some of the bells and whistles the ULA packs come with.
What I soon discovered was pure elation on ability to carry weight comfortably and accessibility to items. On this trip I had one cache and carried 4L of water at a time with a few days of food.  Most of the 50 mile loop of West Joshua Tree NP was pretty straight forward and saw some great weather albeit relentless cold 30mph winds during the night; and with no shelter, a very bright moon, and 12 hours in the sleeping bag it made for a rough sleeping night, if you can call it that. The next day saw an unexpected deviation from what was supposed to be a routine trek.  The Bigfoot Trail, which is marked on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series maps, follows a wash through a wash-mired flat land enclosed by unnamed peaks. I first lost the "trail" when it intersected what looked to be a large recent wash. I saw what looked like horse prints up the wash where I saw a sign for a trail not marked on the map.  So I backtracked and pulled out my compass.  I knew the general vicinity of where I was and I figured if I headed west I would run into it. Sure enough there was something so I followed but fifty yards later it disappeared.  However, I continued to follow what I believed were a series of washes and game trails.  An hour later I found myself out in an expansive valley surrounded entirely by desert mountains and no idea whether a path existed anymore.  With a 1:80,000 scale the trails illustrated maps are produced in don't really give you enough detail when off trail in a landscape full of seemingly random rock formations and unnamed peaks.  I told myself that if I didn't find a way through these mountains ahead of me by 1pm, I would retrace my steps and head back, assuming I could find the way. I also had an extra 2L of water just in case I had to stay an extra night out there.
So I started a scramble and bushwhack up the first set of mountains.  What stood before me was another cluster of mountains so I oriented my compass and headed to the top of the second set.  Fortunately, this area of JTNP was traversable without Class 4/5 excursions so it was pretty straightforward cross-country hiking.  At the top of the second set of mountains I saw another set in front of me.  This would repeat two more times and the entire time I'm headed due West. Finally, I reach an area that is a high plateau and look on my map and estimate where my current location is and then I head due south hoping in a couple of cross country miles that I'll hit an old dirt road.  Sure enough after I finally reach the southern border of the mountains I glance upon Covington Flat and see the thin sliver of dirt road.  Finding the best option of descent I scramble and weave my way through loose sandstone boulders and sharp desert fauna (evidenced by several lodged pricks in my calf and thigh) to finally hit the road.  What was supposed to be a routine day turned out to be one little mini-adventure. I was slightly worried at one point but kept myself focused and moving.  Even though I've done some cross-country travel before I'm usually with another person so this was my true first solo cross country experience. I certainly came out of it the better for it and thank goodness for a compass. As for the pack, well I didn't take it off once from 630am-430pm; I didn't notice it, even with 4L of water.

Mt. San Jacinto 

Mt. San Antonio (Mt. Baldy)

Cool little ridge walk

Silver Cholla Cactus



Water Cache

Very windy night didn't allow for much sleep

Moon setting with Mt. Baldy in the distance

Lost all signs of a path

Starting to x-country the first set of mountains

Jan 17, 2011

Calico Ghost Town 50km Trail Race

Coming down with an injury after the last trail run put me in a 6 week zone of recovery, cross-training, and wondering when my next run would be.  After the first couple of successful weeks of running post-injury I began my search.  Before I make a commitment to any race I look for the uniqueness of the race and whether I've done it before. If I'm going to plunk down $50-70 per race on my student budget then it should be a unique and worthwhile experience.  So I happened upon this race in the Mojave desert starting/ending in a ghost town while running in the surrounding desert mountains. Uniqueness: check, new run: check. Megan would be running the 30km race there too.

I reserved a campground spot adjacent to the town to make a fun mini-trip out of it and save us the hassle of driving the 2.5 hours out there in the very early morning. Thanks to this bizarre weather, high 75/low 43 in the dead of winter, we slept under the stars.
Early Morning
The race started at 7am sharp with everyone gathering in the middle of Calico excited to get moving.  The first two miles had us on Ghost Town Rd before turning off onto the dune buggy trails which caught me off guard with its sandy and rock-filled track. I was constantly looking for ground that was semi-firm so that I wouldn't sink 2-3 inches with each push-off. You can imagine how much more difficult it is to accelerate and maintain speed compared to a stable base, especially on a slight but steady climb.  The first 17 miles of the race followed these types of trails and through very rocky unmaintained washes which felt like off-trail scrambles at times.  This didn't allow for the development of running rhythms but that's a part of what makes trail runs unique, fun, and challenging.  I ran with Matt from Flagstaff until the 11.5 mile aid station and from then on was pretty much alone until the finish.  When I arrived at the 17 mile aid station I expected to pick up my drop-off bag that I had left at the start, which contained my GU Gels and Body Glide. However, the volunteers at the aid station said they didn't receive anything of the like.  So the gels that I had planned on using to off-set some the inevitable aches and slow down as the run progressed were not going to be there.  So I stuffed half a banana in my mouth and then moved on.  Near mile 19 Pat Sweeney caught up to me while wearing Luna Sandals, courtesy of Barefoot Ted, who happened to be running in this race as well. For any of you who have read Born To Run you know who he is.  Pat won the Palos Verdes Marathon with the sandals and when we briefly chatted he mentioned he PR'd in a 10K recently with them, but was now dealing with a small stress fracture and some achilles tenderness.  We spoke after the race and he talked about how the main thing is dealing with the pebbles that get caught under your foot during trail  runs. That guy has tough feet.  My 8oz x-country shoes held up really well during the entire run but they ultimately offer nothing in terms of stability on rocky terrain and you feel every rock you step on. There isn't much traction to begin with as well so they wear down much quicker than other shoes. With that being said they will continue to be the shoe-of-choice on my trail runs.
The Last Half Mile
With a headwind and lack of carbohydrates I started to slow down, evident by 3-4 runners passing me in between 21-24.  I got a boost when I reached the 27 mile aid station and one of the volunteers pointed to Calico 4.3 miles away. The next several miles were on the short but steep rolling hills of the Calico Mountains with it's greenish dirt and very cool dirt tunnels that I ran through.  Finally, after running up a 1/4 mile steep hill I finished back where I started, but with a new PR in the 50K of 4:51.47, besting my previous one by 30 minutes. To be fair, the other run had more elevation gain. That placed me 11th overall and 2nd in my 18-29 age group.
Megan finished her second trail race ever 1st in the women's 30K, and 5th overall, in a time of 2:38 breaking the course record by 10 minutes. She received a comp into next year's 30K and we both received hand-painted saw blades for placing with out names, times, and place painted in.
All in all a very cool way to start the new year!

Hand painted saw blade awards

January 11-14: Colorado Winter

 Flew to Colorado to visit my backpacking buddy Joel Peach, whom I met and backpacked with on the 2nd half of my first JMT hike in 2006.  The next year we backpacked the Colorado Trail together and those experiences have created a deep friendship. I credit him for playing an important role in my life-altering decision to return to school in 2006.  When I first visited him in 2006 after the JMT we have started this tradition of coming up with adventures during the visit. True to form, Joel came up with a 1000km bike ride from Saigon to Hanoi in Vietnam during winter 2011-12.  Having been there once and, in my opinion, not fully experiencing what Vietnam had to offer I jumped on the plan! Coincidentally, one of my PT professors has been getting grants the past few years to go to Vietnam during the winter with several students to participate in an internship at a local hospital. Hopefully she gets that grant again because I'll just stay after that's done and go on the bike trip!
Not to get too far off track here are some photos from our snowshoeing trip in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and rappelling at the Golden Cliffs outside of Golden, CO.

Denver from Golden Cliffs (Photo: Joel Peach)
Fresh Powder (Photo: Joel Peach)

Joel on top of the snow covered boulders
Sandstone-like Snow
Indian Peaks Wilderness outside Nederland

Lost Lake

(Photo: Joel Peach)
(Photo: Joel Peach)

Golden Cliffs (Photo: Joel Peach)

Denali Expedition Recap

Summit Ridge I won’t be writing about the day to day as that was succinctly put in the twelve “Denali Transmit” posts which you ...