Subscription move

As stated in the previous post, all new content is going to http://drdirtbag.com/, though I will keep this site to avoid causing dead links elsewhere. If you subscribed via email to this site, you should now be subscribed to the new site. If you subscribed via WordPress (i.e. the “follow” button), I have not figured out how to transfer your subscription. If you want to follow the new site, please go to http://drdirtbag.com/ and subscribe via email, or add the site in your RSS reader (yes, I’m old).

Moving, new site features

Though wordpress.com hosting has been reliable and cheap for the past few years, it allows very little customization. Because I want to add some new features, I am moving the site to a shared hosting provider. The first new feature is an interactive map of trip reports, which should be much better than the state categories for browsing trip reports geographically. Click on a marker to bring up a link to the associated trip report.

In the interest of not breaking old links to http://drdirtbag.wordpress.com/, I will keep the old site up as long as it is free, but new content will only appear on the new site. Links to http://drdirtbag.com/ should work as before, though there will doubtless be some bugs in the migration. I have not yet migrated subscriptions, but will do so before abandoning the old blog, so there is no need to re-subscribe.

Please let me know if anything breaks, and feel free to offer suggestions for how to make the site more entertaining and useful.

Gebrauchsklang

While the growing pile of information on the Web makes most magazines obsolete, I still subscribe to the New Yorker because it has well-written articles about subjects outside my normal, narrow interests. Though most of a recent article about Berlin’s (mostly sex) clubs was alien to me, I identified with one passage:

[Techno] is, fundamentally, Gebrauchsmusik — “utility music”… The utility, in this case, is mostly that of providing succor and pleasure, a sense of direction and purpose, to addled bodies and minds.

I am usually alone in the backcountry, and usually listening to something. Over the years, I have developed strong preferences about what to play in various circumstances, to encourage or complement some mental state. While I listen to much non-techno and non-music, it is all Gebrauchsklang — “utility sound”. I listen not to appreciate the thing itself, like I would a Bach fugue, but to modulate the boredom, fatigue, and pain inherent in time spent in the mountains.

For physically and mentally undemanding activities such as trail “commutes,” there are various spoken podcasts: news, information, short stories. For periods of peak intensity such as grinding up talus piles, there is metal and other high-energy music: Ministry, The Prodigy. And for sustained periods of physical and/or mental exhaustion such as headlamp time and trail running, there is of course techno (or EDM) providing succor to the addled body and mind.

Crystal, Pacific, Atlantic

Sunrise behind Pacific

Sunrise behind Pacific


As I learned on a short trip up north, winter’s snow and wind test one’s patience and fitness; lacking in both, I have less than I had hoped to show for my suffering. After giving up in frustration in 3-foot-deep, crusty slush below treeline near Latir, then tiring of fighting the wind on a long ridge toward Casco, I finally managed to knock off a few of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks in the Tenmile Range. The good thing about these peaks is that they have winter trailheads above 10,000′ on both sides, removing most of the need to deal with unconsolidated snow below treeline.

After some time at the coffee place in Leadville, I drove past the strip mine and tailings ponds near Fremont Pass to sleep at the 10,800-foot Mayflower Gulch trailhead. The Colorado DoT generously plows a large parking lot here, and it is a popular starting point for backcountry skiers. Expecting a cold but quiet night, I was surprised by two silently creepy encounters. First, a man and his dog in a beater car (even compared to mine!) pulled into the middle of the lot, turned off the motor, and sat around for 20-30 minutes. Then, just as I was trying to go to sleep, a large black SUV pulled in, turned around so the lights shone directly at my car, and sat with the motor running for a similar amount of time. Drug deals? I did my best “empty car” impression, and finally had peace and quiet.

Dawn brought more normal visitors: a party of four snowshoers in two cars. I willed myself out of my bag, clumsily put on socks, boots, and gaiters under the steering wheel, and followed them a half-hour later up a well-packed trail. Not entirely sure about the route, I crossed the stream at a concrete penstock, following various ski tracks up the ridge to the left. The snow in the tracks was perfect for snowshoeing, and the grind up to the ridge went easily. Reaching the top, I peered east toward Pacific, and north over the other side, then reluctantly wound my way a couple hundred feet down a gentler section to the valley below, where I found another ski track.

The snow in the valley leading to the Pacific-Crystal saddle was more variable, and I meandered back and forth looking for the best line. Partway up, I saw the party of four making their way around the west end of my ridge to the head of the valley. I later realized that this is the “official” route but, following it on the descent, found that the snow was better my way.

I took off my snowshoes in a sunny part of the snow-rock boundary below the ridge, then picked my way up a mixture of loose talus and patchy snow. As the wind hit me near the ridge, my hands quickly froze in their sweat-soaked gloves; I ducked into a protected notch on the sunny side of the ridge to shove my hands under my jacket until they stopped aching, then donned my mitts. Though I saw bits of a use trail leading toward Crystal, it was mostly hidden by patchy snow, so I was forced to deal with the virginal talus while climbing the shaded, windy side of a subpeak. Crossing its summit, I was pleased to escape the wind and find a mostly-direct line on snow to the summit. Except in a few places, the wind-board was hard enough to hold under my snowshoes.

Returning to the subpeak, I once again removed my snowshoes, and was nearly caught relieving myself by the group of four. I returned to the saddle and made my way up Pacific’s north ridge over yet more wind-scoured talus. I admired the steep northwest couloir as I passed, though it is probably not yet consolidated enough to even be a snow climb. From the surprisingly calm summit, I could see 14ers from Pikes in the southeast to the Maroon Bells to the west, as well as Atlantic, my next destination.

The traverse was completely uneventful, and I reached Atlantic’s summit around 12:40. This gave me plenty of time to finish off this part of the range by traversing to nearby Fletcher and Drift. Being (Colorado) class 3-4, it would add some flavor to all the snowshoeing; however, one look at the ridge killed my motivation. While it did not look particularly difficult or dangerous, the traverse to Drift looked like slow, wretched work over loose fins, towers, and gullies, all covered in patchy snow. I took the coward’s way, retreating down Atlantic’s west ridge until I could glissade down a moderate snowfield into the valley to the north. From there, I picked up the party of four’s tracks and followed them down to the now-crowded parking lot.

West, Middle, South Truchas

West Truchas and upper ridge

West Truchas and upper ridge


Growing up, the Truchas Peaks were the best peaks I could see from home, higher and more rugged than the Jemez and the rest of the southern Sangres. They were also harder to reach, the easiest route being a 20+-mile hike from a trailhead known for vandalism at the end of a rough dirt road. For this reason among others, I never climbed them growing up, nor during my time spent in New Mexico since then. Living nearby and owning an old, high-clearance 4-wheel-drive, I thought this winter might be a good time to finally tag them.

On an earlier attempt, I had found the way through the maze of roads between the end of what is currently drivable, at the land grant boundary, and the Rio Quemado trailhead. I had also established that I would not get far without snowshoes. Despite the incredibly dry winter down in Santa Fe, there is waist-deep unconsolidated snow below treeline around Truchas.

This time, I started out from the land grant boundary at first light, with snowshoes on my pack and plastic bags on my feet. I made quick time to the trailhead, where the helpful snowmobile track ended, and put on my snowshoes for the long slog up the north fork of Rio Quemado. I followed my old tracks — unsurprisingly the only ones — until they turned the wrong way, then flailed around in the bottom of the valley for awhile before determining that sidehilling along the north side, where the south-facing snow was more consolidated, was the best option.

After the north side of a deep cleft containing the stream, I emerged in a small meadow below the headwall at the lower end of the Truchas cirque. After trying the direct route and finding thigh-deep postholing, I climbed an avalanche chute to the north, then side-hilled across a steep, wooded slope to emerge on the northern end of the cirque itself. Though the north side of West and Middle Truchas is imposingly steep, I worried more about crossing the cirque with minimal postholing. Staying on south-facing slopes and in open areas where possible, I made my way to the base of West Truchas’ northeast ridge, where I finally removed my snowshoes.

Starting near the toe of the ridge, I clawed my way up some nasty, loose, snow-covered rubble, avoiding it where I could by playing around on some partially snow-covered 3rd class. I eventually found some wind-packed snow that allowed me to kick steps to the ridge crest. There I found the expected slow, tiring winter terrain — unpredictable and partly snow-covered talus.

Head down, focused on breathing and not slipping, I noticed a surprising number of fresh animal tracks and, looking up, was surprised to see five juvenile bighorn sheep making their way up the ridge ahead of me. I followed them the rest of the way to the crest, while they easily kept a respectful distance, impressing me with their competence on sloping, snow-covered rocks.

Where the northeast ridge joins the main east-west ridge, the sheep moved off about 50 yards to dig for food in the tundra, while I turned left to tag West Truchas’ summit. Sitting west of the main crest, West Truchas has a panoramic view of the remaining North, Middle, and South peaks, including multiple sheep trails between the Middle and South. I followed bits of these trails over to Middle Truchas, passing some giant quartz outcroppings. The ridge to North Truchas looked like it might be fun, with a couple of 3rd-class sections, but probably too long for today without incurring headlamp time.

Instead I turned south, following more sheep trails to the slightly higher South Truchas. Nearing the summit, I was greeted by the main bighorn herd — rams, ewes, and kids — eating, lying down, or watching me with more curiosity than fear. Perhaps it was just their winter coats, but the rams looked much beefier than the ones I have seen in the desert. The sheep and I ate, rested, and watched each other for awhile, then I headed back for the trailhead. Seven hours into the day, I was fairly certain I would be back by sundown, but was not looking forward to the return slog through the woods.

As it turned out, the return was easier than I expected. After a painful slog back to West Truchas, I waved at the five sheep, who had barely moved, then started back down the northeast ridge. A quick, sketchy plunge-step down a steep gully to the northwest got me back to the cirque, where I took off my overshirt and put the snowshoes back on. I was pleased to find that the warm day had caused the snow to settle, greatly reducing my postholing. I rejoined my old tracks, then mostly followed them back to the trailhead, where I stashed my snowshoes for the final run-walk to the car. With a round-trip time of 10h40, and just over 12 hours of daylight, I could probably have done North Truchas as well, but I don’t mind coming back for it.

Nopah Point

Nopah Peak (l) and Point (r) from valley

Nopah Peak (l) and Point (r) from valley


Having noticed Pahrump Point and the Nopah range while driving by the day before, we decided to tag something there on the way back to Vegas. Unofficially-named “Nopah Point” is the range high point (not to be confused with Nopah, Moapa, Mopah, or Umpah Peaks), so we decided start with that and, time permitting, tag Pahrump Point afterward. After a night next to a dirt road and early-morning tire inflation, we headed south toward Shoshone.

The route description we found mentioned a rough dirt road leading toward the wash north of Nopah, but we found nothing of the kind. Instead, we found a well-graded dirt road extending less than a half-mile toward the peak before making a dogleg south. This seemed unpromising, and a combination of mud and aggressive “POSTED no trespassing” signage on a fork continuing straight from the dogleg led us to park at the intersection, some three miles from the base of the mountains.

After the classic Nevada experience of staring at the same scenery for over an hour while crossing a valley floor, we reached the base of the large wash between Nopah Peak and “Nopah Point.” After some disagreement about the route hinging on the distinction between a “gully” and a “wash,” I acquiesced and climbed a miserably loose dirt slope to reach the ridge directly in front of us.

It looked like we would have to nearly return to the right-hand gully to bypass obvious cliffs above, but I figured I might as well see what else could be done. After side-hilling along light-colored ground for awhile, I headed up a fairly stable class 2 gully to a higher shelf closer to the base of the main cliffs. My partner, continuing on the lower shelf, soon reached an impasse. It looked like it might be possible to pick one’s way up and around the south side of the cliffs and into a gully to their east, so after calling down to her that my way would “totally go,” I found a seat and listened to a bit of music.

Fortunately for me, my way worked pretty much as expected, with some fun 3rd class climbing on solid black rock and not too much cactus. From there, easier scrambling led to Nopah’s west ridge, where a line of cairns led over many false summits to the true one, festooned with mysterious boards and wire. I looked over at Nopah Peak, but even imagining Bob’s disapproval, I could not summon the motivation to hike over to the lower summit. I had been smart enough to bring my down jacket this time, so I was happy to lounge around on the summit instead.

Not relishing the thought of reversing our route, I figured I would try to find what I believed to be the official route down the southern gully (or wash). There were enough cairns and bits of use trail to suggest that it might work, so down we went along a ridge south of the southern canyon/gully/wash. Seeing a lone cairn on an especially loose and steep slope, I slid and picked my way that way until I reached an impasse, then headed back toward the head of the canyon, hoping to intersect the bottom.

As I had hoped, we found more frequent cairns leading into the canyon. Though it looked ominously narrow and steep, the bottom of the wash was mostly fun class 2 boulder-hopping and scrambling. The one exception was a cliff band near the bottom, bypassed by an improbable, loose 3rd class downclimb to its left. From there, more boulders led to the mouth of the southern gully/wash/canyon we had passed in the morning. Though we managed to reach the desert by nightfall this time, we still ended up putting in some headlamp time. Fortunately my partner had remembered to add a GPS waypoint for the car, because we were not as accurate on our return as we were the day before.

Eagle, Pyramid

Eagle from Pyramid

Eagle from Pyramid


It turns out that if you roll in late and leave early, the group sites at Red Rocks are free. That’s useful knowledge, since it’s a huge improvement over sleeping in a Walmart parking lot or driving all the way to BLM land past Las Vegas’ sprawl. After seeing the snow up high, we (well, mostly me — my partner is much more tolerant than I of that sort of hardship) decided to head west to the desert. I had enjoyed a quick climb of Eagle Peak on my way to Red Rocks last fall, and have admired nearby Pyramid on my many drives through Death Valley over the years. While my partner drove, I downloaded as many relevant topo maps as I could on spotty desert data coverage.

After cooking breakfast along the dirt pull-off near Eagle, we crossed the mighty Amargosa River, which miraculously featured actual water this time. Eagle is a small north-south fin standing by itself near Death Valley Junction. For variety, I had thought to traverse the peak from one end to the other, but upon closer inspection, I decided that looked time-consuming and not especially interesting. Instead, we followed the standard route up the west face.

This route is admirably direct and surprisingly steep for a desert peak. However rather than the usual desert rubble and dirt, Eagle consists mostly of solid and incredibly grippy gray rock. After the standard stroll across the desert floor, the climb to the ridge is mostly a walk up a class 2 ramp. Reaching the summit, we agreed that the traverse would not have been worth it. Even spending considerable time on the summit admiring the snow on Mount Charleston to the east and Telescope Peak to the west, we were back to the car by lunch, and headed still further west for Pyramid.

Pyramid starts with a much longer, slightly uphill walk along the desert floor. Along the way I was surprised to find faint traces of an old dirt road, leading to a couple pieces of timber and what might have been a small mining operation. With almost nothing growing in the exceptionally dry area, the walk was easy, but still took the better part of two hours.

Nearing the peak, we looked at the route description, squinted at the downloaded topo, then chose a feasible-looking spur to reach the southeast ridge. Our ridge was probably not the best, but it worked; as on many desert peaks, no route was free of cactus and loose rubble, but any one will do. Nearing the main southeast ridge, I was pleased to find a bit of exposed 3rd-class scrambling to break up the climb. Above that, more hiking over several false summits eventually led to black-and-white true summit visible from the road.

With high, thin clouds weakening the sun, my partner promptly put on her down jacket and sat down to enjoy our perch. Having left mine in the car, I put on my shell and tried to minimize my surface area. Though Pyramid is less visited than Eagle, it had a surprisingly nice register containing several familiar names. Though I have never and will never meet them, I almost feel like I know these people I have “met” on so many summits. After watching me do calisthenics to stay warm, my partner finally relented, and we started down. Though I got a good look at a lone bighorn sheep, he was too fast and my camera too slow.

We hoped to reach the desert floor by dark, but it grew obnoxiously dark as we made our way down the shady east side of the ridge. After a high-stakes round of headlamp chicken among the barrel cacti (“the most dangerous animal in the desert”), we sat to enjoy the stars and silence, with no living creatures, often no planes, and only a few distant cars disturbing the night. Though we had noted the direction of the car relative to the surrounding peaks, this forethought proved less than useful with no moon and clouds obscuring the skyline. However, by some combination of skill and luck, we finally emerged on the road only 50 yards from the car — only a fraction of a degree.

Moapa

Moapa from 2WD trailhead

Moapa from 2WD trailhead


I had never heard of Muddy, but I knew of Moapa, and had been meaning to climb it for some time. After waking up along one dirt road, we returned to I-15, where I got some lousy gas station coffee, then continued east before turning off on another, marked by an impressively burning semi truck. I would have taken a picture, but there was an extremely shouty cop on the scene. I don’t think there’s anything illegal about watching a burning truck from a safe distance, but he seemed to have a healthy dose of cop-rage, so I didn’t press the point.

We did much better on this road, getting within about two miles of the trailhead at the price of some scratches inflicted by the encroaching creosote brush, mostly on my side of the car. Where Muddy is shorter than it appears, Moapa is taller, rising 3500 feet from the valley floor with few visual cues.

From the trailhead, an old road leads through a gap in a rock fin to Jack’s Pockets, an apparently man-made catch-basin hosting a small, green lawn. A long walk across loose rubble eventually leads to a dry streambed connecting to Moapa’s southwest ridge. The streambed is mostly easy boulder-hopping, with one dry waterfall passed via a use trail to the left.

The way to the main west ridge from this southwest ridge appears to be blocked by a headwall. However, a meandering path marked by a series of cairns leads through the cliffs with no more than a few bits of 3rd class scrambling. From here, the broad ridge leads eventually to the west side of the large summit knob. This west side may go as a 4th class cactus-fest, but the standard route is easier and less direct, circling around the south side of the cliffs to the shorter, eastern end of the summit knob. From there, the path to the higher, western end follows an easy but surprisingly exposed ridge, gained by one of several short 3rd-class pitches. With decent balance and a head for heights, the rest can mostly be done hands-free or even hands-in-pockets.

Thanks to aggressive low-clearance driving, we had a short day, making it to the car before dusk. Unfortunately, after a long drive, we found the high trailhead in the Spring Mountains snowy and cold enough to make both camping and hiking unpleasant. Tired and frustrated, we headed back to the valley to camp. Hopefully, between my limited knowledge of area peaks and my partner’s data plan, we could find something else to do for the next two days.

Muddy

Approach valley from climb

Approach valley from climb


Desert peaks are usually something I do to break up the long drive between California and the Rockies. However, I decided to give it a try over Thanksgiving, tagging some of the more interesting desert peaks around Las Vegas. I shoved a bare minimum of gear into my climbing pack, suffered the degrading farce of airport “security,” and took a short, scenic flight to Las Vegas. A recent storm had left half a foot of snow at home, and the red deserts and forests of the Kaibab Plateau shone in the sunrise.

After grabbing some water — carrying a full Camelbak would certainly have annoyed security — I met my partner at the curb, and headed east to Valley of Fire State Park. Though desert peak-bagging is best done with a high-clearance vehicle, I had opted not to drive the 9+ hours to Las Vegas, so we had to park our impractical vehicle 2 hours’ walk from the old trailhead. Road hiking is rarely interesting, but this particular road, passing through sandstone reminiscent of Canyonlands, had enough scenery to pass the time.

From the sturdy metal trailhead sign, the route follows an even worse, closed-off road into the valley north of Muddy, then takes off for the peak as the road wanders further west. I am not sure why this road was created, as I saw no signs of mining along the way. The route description mentioned an unpleasant loose climb, but the scramble out of the valley was, by my low standards, relatively solid and free of spiny plants.

Muddy’s summit lies to the south along a surprisingly long ridge with a few 3rd-class sections, a surprise after so much easy hiking. Though it was t-shirt weather below, it was surprisingly chilly for mid-day on the windy ridge. However, we spent quite awhile on the summit, enjoying the views of higher mountains to the west and north, and dreading the long, evening road hike out. This delay probably cost us about an hour of headlamp, and complicated finding a campsite, night comes early this time of year, especially at the far eastern edge of the Pacific time zone. We still had plenty of time to burn things and stare at the stars while trying to get to sleep.

2013 in review

When our memories outweigh our dreams, we have grown old.
– Bill Clinton

With a hand probably months from full function, and a shin requiring ice and rest, my season is undeniably over. For unimportant reasons, it has been neither the season I expected nor one I wanted — call it regression toward the mean, toward life’s natural mediocrity.

I doubt I will spend as much time in familiar places next year. Hiking around the Sierra and Tetons this summer, I have been surrounded by the ghosts of better climbs and better years. If I return to either place next season, it will be on short trips aimed at specific objectives. I have ideas for both places, but they depend on developing sufficient fitness, skill, and motivation over the winter.

If I do anything interesting, I will write about it here, but as usual, winter posting will be sporadic. If you have enjoyed following along this year, I encourage you to subscribe in some manner, so you will know when the quiet period ends.