Roads Rivers and Trails

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Monthly Archives: August 2013


Making the Middle Teton

Making the Middle Teton
Written by: Louie Knolle  

Who starts a hike at 3 a.m.?  If you say only crazy people, then paint me crazy.  Starting from the Lupine Meadows trail head parking lot in Grand Tetons National Park, my 8 fellow summit seekers and I had over 6,000 feet in vertical elevation to gain before accomplishing our goal.  Why so early?  As afternoons progress generally, chances for storms at higher elevations increase dramatically.  When you’re above tree line on the side of the mountain, your body is way more conductive and lightning friendly than any boring rock.

The climb began first with 4 miles of trail up the base of the Tetons through largely lodgepole pines.  With only the light of our headlamps and the moon, we were all abnormally quiet reflecting in the serenity of the early morning.  As the time neared 5 a.m., we paused for a group break having reached the bottom of the boulder field.  Finally, the sunlight began to creep over the horizon and we began the slow crawl over boulders higher than our heads.

teton1

When climbing a mountain and hiking in general, if you’re in a group, you should do everything in your power to stay in that group. In our group all 9 of us were in good shape after hiking around Glacier and Yellowstone for two weeks, so stragglers were not an issue we worried about. After a bit of boulder hopping, two members of our group continued upward when the rest of us descended a little following the “trail”.  One of the two was used to hiking alone and the other was not as experienced, but was in great shape so we didn’t think much of it.  An hour later however, we lost sight of the two and the yelling began.  As it turned out, they continued too far to the left of the valley on the Northeast side of the Middle Teton and starting going up a different peak entirely.  We were able to catch John, who was closer to the group (the experienced solo hiker), but Brad, who was way out in front kept going, more on him later.

After reassembling and a speech on sticking together, we split up again (ironically) and left 3 members of the group to wait for our crazy friend who decided to climb the wrong mountain.  After reaching the lower saddle which would commence the final push of 1200+ vertical feet to the top, we were stopped by a breathtaking view of Iceberg Lake.  The western edge of the Tetons literally drops right down to it.  The final push is always the steepest part. (Which makes it my favorite part!)  I was not feeling the effects of the altitude at all and led the remaining 5 of us most of the way to the top.  Pausing for breaks and being careful on loose rock, the final ascent took us almost 2 hours.

teton2Near the top, 2 more from the group said they were not feeling well so they turned back and eight dropped to three.  The rest of us took this a cue to stop for a food break, but I was already consumed with summit fever.  With prowess a mountain goat would envy, I was at the top in what seemed like no time and I could see everything.  The Grand Teton looked like it was close enough to be grabbed and surrounding me were sheer rock faces and glistening blue lakes.  I was glad I continued the last little bit alone before the other two joined me.  There is no greater feeling of solitude than on top of a lone peak, no other word to describe your feeling but “infinite.”  After my hoots and hollers to tell whoever was listening in the cosmos that I had topped my mountain, I began the climb down so the others could experience their own Middle Teton.

And back to the courageous/foolish young man who summited his own peak that day, suffice it to say he got off very lucky.  As it turned out, Brad climbed a much more difficult route by hand on the way up, and once on top, was not able to find a way down.  After 20 minutes of pacing back and forth, swearing, and near self-defecation, he was able to find an old climbing rope.  He then bravely/foolishly climbed down the length of the rope,

teton3

rocks falling on his head and everything, and went back to the trail head where he napped for 2 hours waiting for our return, utterly exhausted.  Thankfully on our way down, we had enough cell service to receive a voicemail letting us know he made it down safely.

So a variety of lessons were learned on the Middle Teton that day by the University of Cincinnati Mountaineering Club.  1) The larger the group size, the more important it is to stick together when attempting to summit a mountain on a day hike.  2) When you’ve never actually climbed a mountain before, don’t go off on your own thinking you’re Superman.  3) Drink lots of water during your hike.  As your body adjusts to altitude, you have to pee… a lot.  4) Take your time.  Start early, take sufficient rest breaks, and don’t rush yourself especially going from boulder to boulder and ascending on loose rock. 5) Most importantly, have fun!  Don’t ever get discouraged, the euphoria you feel on the summit of a mountain far surpasses as negative thoughts of not being able to complete the climb.

RRT Adventure: Gates of The Arctic Part 2

Gates To Another World
Living Your Dream
Written by: Bryan Wolf

Time has no place in the real world. I don’t mean the “real world” that includes long hours at work or traffic jams on the way home. I am referring to a different world, one that I have had the pleasure of visiting yet again. You see, the real world is the one that has been here for billions of years, and the whole time it has been living and breathing all on its own. Long before our manufactured world existed, there were cities of stone peaks that were thousands of feet tall, and these cities had more travelers pass through than any of our cities today. Each bit of land was self sustaining, unaltered, and beautiful. When you see Alaska, and especially Gates of the Arctic NP, you will see this world because it is still here, and is all around us. Time disappears, you wake when you are rested, you sleep when you are tired, you eat when you are hungry, and you move at your pace. Blueberries grow at your feet, Caribou herds flow into the deep valleys, Wolves sing to you, and Grizzlies play.  This place is unaltered, it’s life unshaken from our worlds existence, and for that reason it is more real than all else.

Our trip began in Fairbanks Alaska. The remoteness of the park requires from here a bush plane flight to Bettles, a town with just over 50 residence.  The hour plane ride drastically changes your mindset from one of civilization to one of adventurous spirit. The town is more bare bones than most people care to go, but we are just half-way there.  We check in with the Rangers at the National Park Service station and get briefed on what the current season has been like.  You should always check with your local resources for that first hand information that never makes it online.  With our group size she didn’t expect us to see much in the way of bears but maybe some Caribou migrating from the north.  From her past 10+ years working at that station in Bettles however she couldn’t recall anyone else heading out for the route we had planned, which is exciting for us!

Jumping in an old pick up truck we throw our backpacks in the bed of the truck and dive into the plush double bench seats of the extended cab.  The truck hasn’t even been registered in 10 years and I’m sure it dates back further.  Just a short drive and we get to the second Bettles landing strip, the lake.  From here we’ll take off by float plane and head another hour north into the park.  Finally to our destination at Lake Agiak in a Northeastern area of Gates of the Arctic NP.

The planes leave but the buzzing continues, our friends the mosquitoes have been waiting for us.  The mosquitoes only purpose is of course to fly into your ears, eyes, and mouth, and to bite you if you dare reveal an inch of skin.  No worry, we anticipated this, we freshen up with repellent and some of us dawn our ever fashionable bug head nets. I think bug nets are the new in-thing, all the Hollywood stars are doing it.  We sit, glance over our plans and the map to set route, and pump our first collection of fresh Alaska water. I gotta tell you, my Alaska glacier water tastes way better than that plastic bottle of “fresh glacier water” that you’ll find at the store so I’m not sure what they’re doing to it.

Our trek started by trying to escape the boggy low ground near the lake.  Alaska doesn’t have the usual terrain, there is very little soil to pack and harden the ground. The water washes the ground away from around the vegetation and we are left to hike through the tussocks. Think of tussocks like ankle twisting basketballs glued to the ground spaced just inches apart.  With the rocky and permafrost under-layer the ground between the tussocks is often a mucky puddle.  The first day and a half were long, we covered nearly 10 miles as the crow flies but struggled to find the path of least resistance.  We would come up and down off ridges as they spilled into river valleys, and had a few tricky river crossing en-route.  So I know I’m not painting a glorious picture of Alaska so far, mosquitoes and slow miles that make your knees scream, but I’ll get there, I promise.

RRT Owners Bryan, Emily, and Joe

RRT Owners Bryan, Emily, and Joe

The first few days it seems you are just happy to be there.  To stop and look around at the most open and vast landscape, to have giants around you in all directions, and even to breathe the fresh air is silencing.  These are the days that the setting for your next 10 days is still becoming real, the realization of escape.  So although the first few days can be the toughest physically I consider them very important transition days.  They were also days that would teach us a lot we came to find out.  There is not a topographical map that shows bogs or tussocks, you have to spend some time with the land to learn how it really moves.  What took us four backpacking days to get to took us but two days to come back on.

The sights and the experience was absolutely amazing! If you have not already you have to check out some pictures we’ve posted.  Our route took us west from Agiak and then north through a valley up to the north slope.  We would cover nearly 50 miles backpacking and another 20 miles through our day hikes. Despite our group size there was no shortage of wild life encounters either.  The trip summary would include well over 100 Caribou, the first sighting of which was a herd of nearly 70 at best count making their way right toward us!  The herd was broken up for reasons that were not immediately clear.  At first we thought it was the scattered showers that made some of them move on but we found it to be much more interesting than that.  The Caribou herd was split by the sight of two adolescent Grizzly Bears.

The Twins as we would then call them were seen several times on our trip and always close together in their adventures.  Adolescent bears can actually be the most dangerous due to their unpredictable nature.  What started as two blond hair balls across the river bed very quickly became two large (adolescent or not) bears on our side of the ridge.  A Grizzly moves at up to 35mph covering 100 yards in 3.5 seconds.  At the time we were a group of 9 with 4 other adults out in front of the group and around the ridge.  Keeping everyone calm, together and prepared was crucial for these next moments. Holding our

"The Twins"

“The Twins”

trekking poles in the air and shouting we readied our bear spray.  The bears slowly but surely continued on a path towards the group.We shifted from a large cluster formation to a very tight and long line to show more numbers, louder than ever we gave up no ground.  Forward progress became more of a lateral movement as the bears, still curious, moved along the ridge and away from the group.  Then we all exhaled for the first time in 10 minutes.

We would see 9 different Grizzlies and have 13 different bear sightings over our 10 day trek.  The third time we would see the twins became the most interesting, all this from a group that didn’t expect to see any bears (but were very prepared).  It turns out that because nobody had explored this region for so long that nobody could predict the exact conditions.  The height of blueberry season and the early migration of the caribou set the stage however for heavy Grizzly activity.  Our eighth day had us venturing back that same river.  We hit the river bed this time for easy walking.  After a glimpse of the twins up in front of us we veered out of the thicker brush and up on the higher bank.  With in a few minutes of shouting at the twins, who didn’t pay much attention this time, the unthinkable happened.  Across the river on the opposite ridge was a third Grizzly, a large adult Grizzly!

The group reformed to be all 13 of us strong together. We had look outs for all directions and our now 6 bear sprays ready to go. Oh but wait, that’s not all, we hit the jackpot on this one.  Right when it seems the adult bear is in retreat we notice a head pop up from the very river bed we walked out of.  That is when we looked over and just 3.5 seconds away was “Peek-a-Boo”.  Peek-a-Boo was the closest a Grizzly had yet been and standing tall with his head peaking above the brush he seemed the most content to stand and just watch us.  We wouldn’t win this stand off, we were cornered now by 4 Grizzlies and one of them was not going anywhere.  In groups of 6 and 7 we moved very slowly backwards away from the river.  Always keeping sight of Peek-a-Boo we moved one group back about 20-30 feet.  Next the other group would come back to meet us and we would regroup.  Repeating steps one and two eventually got us in the clear and for the first time in 15 minutes, we exhaled.

Our day hikes took us to two unnamed peaks, which we took the liberty of naming since we may have been the first to climb them.  On day three a group of us went up “Dragons Peak”.  The mountain was the closest to our camp but towered above the valley around us.  This was a good opportunity for both spectacular views and to scout the valley ahead of us.  The hike was moderate in difficulty but felt great with a light load.  On the fifth day a group of us crossed the north valley that we had yet to go up and set our sites for “Dragons Perch”.  We are obviously convinced that dragons do or did rule this land at some point.  Dragons Perch was unique because it was more isolated and gave us 360 views leading up into 5 different valleys and over top of neighboring mountains.  The Perch was not as kind either, a steep cliff side of broken slippery shale made for a complicated and sometimes nerve racking ascent. This extremely difficult summit was well worth it though.  The peak had a sitting perch for us to view far in any direction and to no doubt feel like the only people to see the world from that perspective!


Bryan trekking up Dragons Peak
Our third day hike brought the entire group along.  Traveling all the way up the valley we headed for the North Slope. The North Slope is the point where the Brooks Range Mountains begin to tapper and elevation slowly drops to the sea.  At the end of the slope, at the very last peak, we would climb the ridge of rocky boulders and broken shale to get a sight of the ice field that lies within its grasp.  An exhausting ascent led us to a spectacular view of the valley back to camp and that which then drops back down the other side.  We could see the ice pack but our adventurous side wanted more.  Splitting up half of us moved forward for a closer look.  The ridge walking became a glacial rock field working down and then back up to the basin holding the ice in.  Stowing the trekking poles away we had to scramble large boulders of often moving and unstable rock until close was close enough.  The field was tricky to maneuver and since it has been untouched it presented too many dangers for us to continue on.  Being close enough to see the blue shine on some of the ice was awesome though.  The way down was

From the top of "Dragon's Perch"

From the top of “Dragon’s Perch”

just as precarious with the wind and rain making the temperature bitter at that elevation.

The group, together again made the long hike back to camp and fired up the camp stoves.  The group meshed incredibly well and I am lucky to have shared this experience with those that came along.  Dinner time was a family event for us.  We all huddled around the bear cans sharing the days stories and telling jokes.  Be it gear junkies we couldn’t help but to pick everyone’s mind about there gear as well.  Bartering was the most popular post dinner entertainment.  Chili Mac for Rice and Chicken and two Starburst first required two Starburst for two Jolly Ranchers but the trade was almost soured by the infamous Twix bet of 2013.  Like most trips into the wild there is a large emphasis on food at camp.  A yawn and a stretch and it was time for bed, because we were tired. At one point I had to throw my sunglasses on to sleep.

I love camp sleep, especially with a new luxury pad.  There was but one night that I slept poorly and it isn’t what you’d think.  Sound asleep, I hear a light whisper, “Beej”.  I hear it again, “Beej”. Vince who I shared a tent with was waking me up.  I turn over in my sleeping bag and look up to him staring right at me.  “There is a bear outside of the tent” he says with a frozen look on his face.  I slowly and quietly unzip myself and grab the bear spray sitting between us.  My heart goes from 0 to 60, the adrenaline pumping though my veins.  I assume at this point he is frozen with fear so I jump into action and pull the safety right off the spray.

As I start to get out of the bag and ready for my next move he finally speaks again having been silent this whole time. “What are you doing?” “Whoa, what are you doing?” he says with a blank look. “You said there was a bear outside of the tent!” I said at this point more than confused.  Still staring me down he says “No, I said Caribou”.  Immediately following this he turns and falls fast asleep.  I’m in a daze at this point, my heart still racing but this time a little angry.  Looking outside the tent I can’t see a thing, caribou, or bear.  I shake him awake “What were you talking about”, he responds with a “huh”.  “You said there was a bear!” to which Vince replied, “No I didn’t”.  It took me about an hour to calm down and get back to sleep and the next morning he didn’t remember a bit of it.

I took a swim in Agaik Lake on our last day

I took a swim in Agaik Lake on our last day

Looking over the trip there is very little I would ever do differently.  Our gear performed exceptionally and I look forward to doing individual reviews after this post.  Our food plan was stellar, our bear protocol and Leave No Trace ethics impeccable (we actually carried out trash and set GPS coordinates for larger debris left by early explorers), and our route (much improved on the way back) was beautiful! We stopped by and exchanged some information with the rangers upon return.  The park ranger said she considers us the “foremost experts on the area”.  Of  all the gear I brought the least used were my mosquito net (we ended up real lucky) and my headlamp. The headlamp seemed silly to bring in the first place due to the 24 hours of sunlight but dark cloud cover would make you regret not bringing it even more.  I hope that this post brings you closer to this wonderful world, or that one day you can visit it for yourself.  We will give a free presentation on our experience on 8/27/13 at 7pm at Roads Rivers and Trails.

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