Thursday, October 08, 2015

Adventures in roadtripping

I love long drives. I love traveling at 80 miles per hour across vast empty landscapes, shamelessly guzzling cheap gas station coffee, listening to NPR and singing out loud with pop radio. I love glancing toward the mountains and imagining adventures along their contours. I make the commute between California and Utah at least a couple times per year, and recently decided to start acting out some of these daydreams. Twelve hours is a long time to sit in a car, and I've found it goes a lot smoother if I punctuate the drive with two or three hours of off-highway adventuring somewhere in the middle.

Light rain pattered the windshield as I pulled off an exit near Donner Pass on the eastbound trip. Castle Peak is a prominent landmark just off I-80, but I didn't know exactly how to get there. The Pacific Crest Trail climbs to Castle Pass here, so it seemed like the appropriate route. With the long Grand Canyon trek coming up, I was feeling lazy. Although I set out with an intention to run, I mostly jogged and hiked as the path meandered through the woods and under the freeway via a dark pedestrian tunnel.

Through this flat, forested basin, the trail became less defined. Although it seemed odd to be crossing over increasing deadfall and brush, a fair amount of distance passed before I realized I wasn't on a trail at all. From what I've read about it, the PCT is one of the most manicured trails in the American West, and I'd managed to lose it. And although I'd turned on my Garmin eTrex at the start, two miles later it had yet to find satellites, so I had no points of reference. I continued to meander through the deadfall-strewn forest until I found a dirt road, climbing gradually in the direction of Castle Peak. From there I located a fantastic trail that was definitely not the PCT — the dust was rippled with bike tracks and there wasn't a footprint to be found — and followed it uphill.

When I reached the ridge, Castle Peak looked to still be at least a half hour away, and I'd already burned up nearly 90 minutes bumbling around for five miles. I took a couple of photos from what I later learned was Andesite Peak, and started down. The sky opened up with hard rain just as I passed two mountain bikers who were stopped at an overlook, so I picked up my pace on the fun, swooping descent (trails built for mountain biking are also generally the most enjoyable to run. Banked turns are the best.) I could hear the mountain bikers' brakes screeching as they descended somewhere close overhead, and constantly looked over my shoulder to let them by, but strangely they didn't catch me. They finally passed on the road, yelling, "Rain! Run away!" (I was dressed like a hiker with baggy pants and a fleece top, and was walking when they first saw me.)  I pushed to maintain my relative sprint because I was soaked, a little bit cold and hadn't planned my supplies well for this impromptu trip (I had a 12-liter pack full of pretty much all of my Grand Canyon snacks and two liters of water, but no rain jacket.) All the steam went out about a half mile from my car. Although I didn't reach my intended peak, it turned out to be a diverse little outing with jogging, 'shwacking, hiking, a tiny bit of scrambling, fast downhilling, road sprinting, and back to plodding when the bonk hit hard (yeah, all those snacks in my pack. I didn't eat any of them.)

Oh well, more room for gas station M&Ms.

For the westbound trip on Monday, I decided to exit I-80 at Wells, Nevada. I first learned about this mountain paradise last December during another road-trip outing, a snowy run on Angel Lake Road. October is early enough in the season to climb snow-free peaks in the Humboldt Range, so I set my sights on Greys Peak, elevation 10,674. SummitPost informed me that the peak was only two miles from the campground, there was no trail, but the route was Class 2 scrambling with cairns leading the way. Easy peasy, right? I budgeted two hours and set out under clear skies with temperatures in the low 60s.

Sometimes I think the contributors to SummitPost are either elitist mountaineers or liars. Okay, so the information in the Greys Peak entry was mostly accurate, except for the cairns part. This image is the only photo I took during the approach, because I was either sliding backward in ankle-deep loose dirt down a 40-degree slope, squinting for the slightest evidence of a rock cairn while squatting on all fours atop a boulder, or clinging precipitously to a rock ledge. Still, I think this photo gives a snapshot of the scrambling experience. I had to pick my way along this ridge, traversing boulder-strewn slopes and then climbing ledges to cross over the spine and look for another traversable slope on the other side. None of the scrambling was exposed, but there were enough sheer drop-offs to make route-finding tricky. There were not enough cairns to be helpful, but just enough that I could occasionally confirm — with a baffled shake of my head — that I was still following the intended route. On this ridge, unless one was willing to venture onto some pretty harrowing Class 4 terrain, there probably was just one viable route. But it wasn't easy to find.

I stayed on the ridge for far longer than I needed to, and crawled over a bunch of car-sized boulders that I didn't have to, because I'd become so spooked about leaving the ridge (the terrain on the slope below was steep, often loose, and occasionally ended in cliffs.) I admit I had my Delorme out and readily accessible so I could alert Beat in what seemed to be the likely event of breaking a wrist or ankle. But when I reached the summit ridge, it was all worth it — empty ranges and basins as far as the eye can see. I love Nevada. I'm always rushing through this state, and every time I stop for even a moment, I promise that I will return soon for an extended stay.

Looking down at Angel Lake and a splash of fall color in the desert. My time for the ascent was 95 minutes, which was more than I'd budgeted, but how long could the descent take, now that I knew the way? An hour, maybe?

The summit ridge itself would actually be a relatively easy and fun ridge walk. Someday I will return with more than just a few hours to burn.

For the descent, I switched my GPS watch to its tracking mode so I could follow my own breadcrumb trail. Even with an exact line to follow that was easily viewable on my wrist, I still frequently lost the route while crabwalking down loose, boulder-strewn dirt. The footing was just really bad. It definitely wasn't my shoes — worn-out, torn uppers, almost-bald Hokas (maybe the shoes were a little bit to blame.) Back on the knife ridge, I frequently found myself standing at the edge of a cliff, with my GPS watch telling me I was 50 feet away from the spot where I climbed up, and I was completely baffled as to where that was. In hindsight, I probably would have been better off feeling out the route rather than tethering myself to the GPS track, although who knows where I would have ended up if I just descended freely. Probably in the wrong basin. Or at the bottom of one of those cliffs.

Anyway, by the time I returned to my car, 3 hours and 34 minutes had passed, which means it took me two hours to descend two miles. My triceps and lats were quite sore, which was another important reminder that I need to focus on upper-body strengthening this season. I also had to call Beat and let him know I was going to home a little later than I hoped.

Still, those last 9 hours of driving went by really fast. I was buzzing on adrenaline, and before I knew it, I was home. These road trip side-adventures are not only fun, but they're also a great way to generate driving energy. Even better than gas station coffee!


  1. Cairns, never enough when you need them, way too many when you don't

  2. At Donner you were on the famous Hole in the Ground trail!

  3. Geez Jill, your first paragraph brought back memories of how we used to travel by motorcycle (BMW's, no Harley's here) for days on end. I could get XM through my GPS, and with custom earplugs could easily cover 800-1200 miles per day if I had to. Yes, fueled by truck stop coffee, or the excellent stuff found in small town cafes. I could start out, knock out a hundred miles, get some breakfast, keep going, stopping at any place that looked interesting for a short walk, and some pics, listening to NPR until the 1PM baseball games, then listening all the way through the west coast games if need be.
    For sure, it wasn't reality, what with the responsibilities of a family, a business, all the things included with that, but there were moments of mindful freedom, which, truthfully were made all the sweeter because of those responsibilities.
    Thanks for that.

  4. The scrambling-ascent shot is terrific! (I like your hat, too.)

  5. Strangely, we fumbled around for at least a half hour trying to find the PCT south from the north side. You would think it would be better marked, but we also found two other hikers looking as well.

  6. 50 Shades of StrayedOctober 11, 2015 at 6:36 PM

    The PCT south of Donner's Pass was unusually rock-strewn and slow-going a couple years ago. I was nobo and trying to descend to beer at the bar before closing time.

    As usual in Cali, the PCT wobbled around Donner and Castle like a cash-poor hiker who gets to town and prioritizes spending on beer over food.

    Not that the analogy would apply to me or any hiker trash I knew personally. Just saying.

    North of the highway I recall (maybe blurrily) that the trail was in its usual manicured condition. It hooks West and parallels 80 then north. I think you lost it pretty quickly after the rest area.

    Flush toilets. Ah, sweet memories of the wild.

  7. Next time heading through NV check out Toiyabe Crest, Ruby Mountains and Great Basin National Park. Recently back from a Nevada road trip and all three were very cool.


Feedback is always appreciated!