There are some times in life, when it feels as though the universe is conspiring to make something happen – and there are times when it feels the opposite is true.
This was one of the latter times.
We were really looking forward to our second attempt at an off-the-beaten-path hike through the Grand Canyon that Jonno had pieced together. The plan was to drop into the dry Little Colorado River (LCR) canyon near a viewpoint on Navajo land and follow this north, then west for 1.5 days until we reached Blue Spring (and could get water), and then for about a day further still to the confluence with the Colorado River. From there, we would follow the Beamer trail west for a day, and then ascend the Tanner trail to climb out of the canyon.
We’d first attempted to do the hike right at the beginning of our US adventures in June, but a strongly voiced park ranger, who “could think of no place in hell I’d rather be at this time of year than down in that LCR canyon”, talked us out of it . Given that we were in the middle of what we later found out was a significant heat wave – and that we would have had to carry water for 1.5 days – that was probably good advice, although we were very disappointed at the time.
As we were looping back past Arizona again in October after flying back into LA from our friends’ Jen and Todd’s wedding in New Zealand, we booked permits to do the hike then. This timing coincided perfectly with when our great friend Chantel was coming to the US, and she was super keen to hike the Grand Canyon too!
Well, despite all this planning, it just seemed that this hike wasn’t to be.
Our flights from New Zealand over the US were delayed by 24 hours. Then we arrived to find that recent rains had turned the normally dry upper reaches of the LCR into a raging (virtually undrinkable, and also potentially unnavigable) chocolate milkshake. Nonetheless, we tried to scout the entry route into the LCR and while we were 90% sure that we’d found a good route down, it was very steep and sketchy – and probably not ascendable if it cliffed out in parts that we couldn’t see. Still not fully dissuaded, we went to see about Navajo permits – and turns out they’d shut the office early and wouldn’t reopen for 3 more days. In a last ditch effort, we went to the Parks office to discuss options for going in anyway and seeking permits retrospectively – but were strongly advised not to…
So we looked for a Plan B.
Soon, we had our permits for what turned out to be a wonderful alternative – a return trip down the Tanner and northeast along the Beamer to the confluence with the LCR. Given that the normally breathtaking Blue Spring (a real feature of our initial hiking plan) had certainly lost its trademark colour and clarity anyway, it seemed like a pretty good option.
Day 1 – Down the Tanner Trail
After a great night of free camping on some BLM land near the Grand Canyon, we arrived at the Tanner trailhead at around 10am, after the usual amount of pre-hike packing, planning and pfaffing.
We were soon hopping our way down the steep switchbacks that lead into the canyon. We stopped for lunch about halfway into the canyon under the shade of a tree at a plateau, admiring the beautiful, muted red, orange and green hues of the canyon were all around us.
It was another couple of hours before we reached the Colorado River at Tanner Beach – around 1400 metres below our starting point, over 14.5km. After a short break, we turned east and walked for another hour or so, to find a campsite near Palisades Creek, just under 5km from Tanner Beach. Our legs were tired from the steep descent for the day, and we pitched our tents on the hard sandy bank of the Colorado River for the night just before the sun set.
Attention soon turned to the need for drinking water, with the Colorado full of mud. We filled all our bottles and cups to let the water sediment out, but fortuitously (and unsurprisingly), my patience for a cup of tea ran out and I tried boiling the turbid water hoping that the tea would disguise the mud – and found that the boiling caused rapid sedimentation of the water – a neat trick!
Day 2 – The confluence with the LCR
We woke early the next morning, keen to continue up the Colorado for around 10km to the confluence with the LCR and to explore as far beyond as we could. The trail took us around some very steep drop-offs that we preferred not to look out over – and offered incredible views up and down the canyon.
At the confluence, we could see that the muddy water was coming from the LCR – and that if we could just cross the LCR, we could then get much cleaner water from the Colorado upstream of the confluence. We spent 30 minutes trying to wade across, but the soft, sludgy bottom combined with the strong, deep flow of the LCR was too challenging.
So we resigned ourselves to another night of sedimentation, and went exploring up the LCR canyon, and quickly found a little shelter that was built into the rock side of the canyon by Ben Beamer, a miner who had been living here around 100 years ago who is credited for having constructed the Beamer trail (hence it’s name), which most likely followed older Hopi Indian trails.
We picked our way up and down the LCR canyon a little more, before returning to the confluence for an early lunch.
We were sitting beside some salt pools, which the ranger had explained to us were part of a still going initiation rite for the Navajo and Hopi Indian tribes. Youths must find their way down into the canyon, collect a bag of salt from the bank of the river, and return back to their tribe with it – a trip that would often take weeks.
We found an even better campsite that evening, nestled in amongst the trees and well protected from the wind, and soon had our tents set up and were ready to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary! Jonno had carried a bottle of anniversary wine that our friends’ Cheryl and Alex had given us over from Australia and all the way down into the canyon. Only when we went to open it, did we realise that it was an old-school corked bottle and we didn’t have a corkscrew! But then, who needs one when you have hiking poles?
Jonno McGyver’s a solution to a corked bottle of wine
Day 3 – Up, up, up and out again
On our final day, we started early to get as much shade as possible and retraced our steps back along the Beamer, and up on the Tanner. Those 1400 metres felt a lot harder on our thighs and glutes, and we were glad to reach the top by mid-afternoon and headed off in search of a shandy!
Chan powering back along the Beamer towards Tanner Beach
On a previous trip to New Zealand in 2014, Jonno and I hiked (with some packrafting by Jonno) the Travers-Sabine circuit near St Anaud in the Nelson Region, at the northern end of the South Island.
It was one of the best hikes we’d ever done. Epic views, ridgeline walking, some hefty uphills and a little scrambling, beautiful river valleys… it really had it all. And best of all, the surrounding area was dotted with little huts, offering countless opportunities to explore and create a new itinerary. In particular, Angelus Hut – perched up high near a long ridgeline, sitting astride the beautiful Lake Angelus – was absolutely stunning, and Jonno immediately saw the potential for a winter snowshoeing trip there for a whole new kind of adventure.
So, when Jen and Todd invited us to their wedding in Kairoura, New Zealand in September – and mentioned that they were keen for a hiking trip with the crew of adventurous buddies who would be in attendance, we knew just the hike to suggest!
We were indeed a honeymooning bunch! Jen and Todd were still glowing from their wonderful wedding a few days ago, Tim and Martina were fresh from their Croatian nuptials a week earlier, and we were in the middle of our year-long extended honeymoon travels! We hoped all the love vibes might convince Jon and Jude to finally throw a big bash of their own (although they’ve held out for around ten years so far!), and Mike is as always insightful and generous with his reflections on love and life!
Day 1 – Up to Angelus Hut
We were finally parked at trailhead to Robert Ridge by 11:00am just outside St Anaud, after a detour past the DOC office to leave bags in safe storage and pick up hut tickets. Jude had broken her toe at Jen and Todd’s wedding, so they had headed off a little ahead of us all to get a headstart, and we planned to all meet for lunch at the shelter on Robert Ridge.
The climb up from the carpark is a steady set up of uphill switchbacks, and we were all feeling the indulgences of the last week! After an hour or so, we spotted Jon and Jude, who’d already broken for lunch. They were happy to pack up and keep going with us all a little further, and we soon reached the shelter. After windy lunch, we continued along the ridgeline with eyes on the clouds around us.
Robert Ridge was a little scrambly at times, with the snow covering the path in places and we alternated between picking our way through the rocks and walking on the firm snow.
Before we knew it, the sky began to turn pink, and we became surrounded by the most majestic sunset over the mountains around us.
By this stage, everyone had realised that Jonno’s predictions of how far the hut was weren’t to be trusted, so we kept walking with headlights as it grew dark around us, paying careful attention to the trail markers around us.
After controlled slides down a steep, snowed over hill, we arrived at Angelus Hut to find the fire going and another couple keeping Mike (who had beaten us there) company. It was Jude’s birthday, so as soon as we had changed clothes and gotten warm, we set to the business of celebrations, dinner, birthday cake and dutch stroopwafels – and a beautiful evening of laughing and swapping stories and philosophies of life, love and adventures.
Day 2 – Exploring the surrounds
We woke up leisurely to some yoga and coffee, before strapping on our snowshoes and heading out to explore the area around Angelus Hut. Jon and Jude opted to stay behind to give Jude’s toe a rest, and waved us off as we headed southwards, up onto the ridge in front of the Hut.
We ascended and then traversed along below the ridgeline with ease, however some very steep – and sketchy – sections were required in order to reach the ridgeline proper above us – with Jonno and Todd out ahead cutting steps while the rest of us watched and followed.
We had an early lunch admiring the views, and Todd and Martina’s acro-yoga, before realising that we would actually have time to scramble up Mt Angelus, which was standing tall just behind us.
Tim and Martina decided to head back to the Hut a little earlier, and as they didn’t have snowshoes, took the fast route down the snow slopes and blazed off into the distance.
The rest of us scrambled around on the rocks to the base of the scree field leading up to the summit. We dropped our packs, and puffed our way up through the slippery scree. After about half an hour, we found ourselves on the snow with just a short burst up to reach the summit. We were well rewarded with panoramic views of the mountains around!
We scree-skiied our way back down to our packs, and then set off in Tim and Martina’s foot (and bum-sliding) prints. It was a relatively easy traverse around to the west and back towards the Hut, where Mike stopped for a swim in an open section of the otherwise frozen in lake – the rest of us watched and shivered in amazement (it turned out that Tim had done the same just a short time before!).
Day 3 – down to Sabine Hut
We woke up early keen to make a good start, hoping to reach Speargrass Hut so that our final day would be a short one.
We reached the treeline under the snow by lunchtime, and had a break to eat here fore heading on. Once within the trees, there was a lot of scrambling over fallen trees and wet roots, which slowed progress substantially. The clouds overhead were darkening, and by the time we reached Sabine Hut it was raining. We decided to pull up for the day and brave the notorious sandflies that plagued this particular hut – and all dived into Lake Rotoroa for a swim before hitting the tea and snacks.
Day 4 – fallen trees and missing water taxis
We woke early the next day, as we needed to cover a lot of ground in order to be sure to get back to our cars and to the DOC office before it shut to collect our bags.
We set off in the drizzling rain, and within metres were faced with a thick tangle of fallen trees. As we wove over, under and through the trees and thick undergrowth, slipping on wet roots and mud, we realised that this could take much, much longer than we had anticipated. Jude’s toe was certainly feeling the strain, and she and Jon decided to head back to the Hut to see if they could call a water taxi to come and collect them.
The rest of continued on with our slow progress, losing the trail at times, and were greatly relieved when around 1.5 hours out from the hut, the trail became clearer and we could stretch out our strides.
We continued on and crossed a swollen river with a variety of techniques, reaching Speargrass Hut for lunch. We realised that we were making good time despite the morning’s delay, and powered on in the afternoon to reach the carpark by 3pm. We picked up all the vans, and headed over to the DOC office to collect our bags – expecting to see Jon and Jude waiting there for us… but no luck!
After a few phone calls, the DOC officer informed us that someone had indeed tried to call the water taxi, but hadn’t been able to connect through. We realised then that Jon and Jude would likely try to walk out with Jude’s broken toe. They might make it to Speargrass Hut and stay overnight, or they might get all the way out that same day. With no way to contact them, all we could do was return their van to the trailhead, hike the keys for them, leave a note to let them know where we were and hope that all would work out!
Sure enough, we had all no sooner settled in to the Alpine Lodge and showered, when they walked through the door – having made excellent time with Jude powering on with her usual, indefatigable style! It was a great hike, with wonderful friends, and one we’d certainly recommend!
The Sierra High Route was first conceived by leading Californian climber and outdoorsman Steve Roper in 1977. His book – which we haven’t read, but probably should have – describes a route through the Sierra mountains that stays as high as possible, rarely dipping below 10,000 feet in elevation, while visiting some of the most spectacular, iconic settings of the high alpine regions of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
The route consists of about 210 miles (340km) of on- and off-trail hiking, crossing 33 high alpine passes and running from north to south across the heart of the Sierras, through Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, John Muir Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Yosemite National Park.
It has been variously described as “brutal”, “the hardest hike in America”, “a remote trek and a route finder’s dream”, and “a rugged alternate to the John Muir Trail (JMT)”. As a result we had thought long and hard about this trip, and whether we should instead stick to the immensely popular, and well marked JMT. In the end, the SHR won out for two main reasons: challenge and solitude. Armed with a mapset and compass we set off with strong legs, an enthusiastic spirit…and heavy packs.
We’re pleased to report that we completed the route in 13 days, with one resupply along the way. Over the 340km route, we ascended over 18km, and the same again of descent. That’s a lot of up and down – the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest from sea level twice – much of it off-trail and over talus and scree.
Day 0 – Roads End to Grouse Lake (nearly)
Most of today was spent racing towards our starting point, Roads End in Kings Canyon. Despite encountering a succession of ‘Sunday drivers’ and several road closures (to repair bushfire damage), Bryan, our Fresno-based driver, was doing everything in his power to deliver us to the Road’s End ranger station before it closed at the unusually early time of 3.30pm so that we could collect our permit.
We arrived at 3.20. Ranger Sailor scribbled some indecipherable information onto our permit, signed it and we were off. We immediately began slogging it up the Copper Creek trail – sweating under the weight of 8 days food (hopefully enough to get us to our resupply) as we clawed our way up 1,700 m of graveled elevation gain to reach our first evening’s camp just after dark, just shy of Grouse Lake.
Day 1 – Grouse Lake to Marion Lake
The day started well with a short hike to have breakfast overlooking Grouse Lake, followed by a couple of hours following vaguely forested trails into the more exposed rocky outcrops of the high Sierra.
By mid-morning our shoulders were aching, by mid-afternoon we were contemplating whether our insurance would cover knee replacements.
We followed our nose to Grouse Pass, Goat Crest Saddle and Gray Pass, which we managed without too much trouble. White Pass was a different matter. A long, steep ascent up a pine dotted mountainside, hopping across splashes of granite, took us several hours – and constant map checking – in the afternoon heat.
We weaved left and right as we slowly fought our way up the hill, that seemed relentless. Finally, near the top, we were rewarded with a view of the pass – no more than a mile away – and put our heads down to grind up to the top. Both of us had tired legs, but marched on thinking about the downhill on the other side – and deliberately not thinking about the several hours of daylight left that meant it was some time yet before we could kick out boots off for the day!
Cresting White Pass, our eyes ventured east – and not too far away we spied Red Pass. It was an enjoyable traverse of the rock slabs from White Pass to reach Red Pass, then, as dusk approached, a bone-rattling, knee-pounding descent to the turquoise of Marion Lake…
We found a good tent site just above the lake, set up camp in the fading twilight, and enjoyed our first taste of couscous, dried vegetable and TVP surprise – little did we know that both the dinner and the day was to become typical of the days that followed.
By the end of the day Jonno was spent. “That is the toughest day of hiking I’ve done in a long time”, he said – one day down, only two weeks to go…
Day 2 – Marion Lake to Lower Palisade Lake
We woke early, breakfasted and started the day with far more spring in our step than the previous evening. With the sun still hiding behind the morning cloud we navigated our way around Marion Lake and up the stepped slopes of Lake Basin toward Frozen Lake Pass.
Locating Frozen Lake Pass was, for us, problematic. The terrain features didn’t marry with our map but we pressed on for 30 minutes regardless. We triple-checked our map and realised the error of our ways. Too far north and not far enough east. We scurried across a couple of gulleys and managed to regain the approach to the pass. We had lost an hour and we were both frustrated and annoyed. We needed a snack.
This was our first major DNF (Daily Navigational F…ailure). Similar such navigational hiccups were to become a feature of our first days on the trail and it wasn’t until day 7 that we were able to celebrate a daily where we had succeeded in getting the nav right for the entire day.
Eventually we crested the steep rock. The sketchy descent down scree and talus from Frozen Lake Pass met with its sphincter-tightening reputation, and lasted well over an hour – broken by a lunch and swim intermission at a small glacial-fed lake that gave the pass its name.
By mid afternoon we had joined the John Muir Trail – a veritable superhighway – and were zig-zagging our way up the long switchbacks that led up to Mather Pass. After seeing nobody for the first couple of days on the High Route, we were a little overwhelmed to meet a dozen people in the first 30 minutes. The well-maintained trail up to Mather Pass, cut into the seemingly impossible face of the rock, was an engineering marvel – a series of long, low-angled switchbacks leading up through jumbled rock and scree to our second major pass of the day.
On our descent the storm clouds that had brewing all afternoon finally opened up. We continued walking for a couple of hours in the drizzly rain past numerous tents (their occupants firmly ensconced in book reading and tea drinking) until finally setting up camp alongside lower Palisade Lake. We had hoped to get over Cirque Pass that afternoon, but the rock looked to dangerous in the wet, so we agreed to head off early the next morning to try to make up time. Cirque Pass would again take us off trail, so while Angie cooked up couscous delight (again), Jonno scouted out a route up the rock face that stood impressively in front of us.
Looking back from the trail up to Mather Pass
The trail up to Mather Pass
Day 3 – Lower Palisade Lake to Head of Kings River
We woke and packed early, planning to breakfast after we had climbed up the steep rocky slabs that led up to our first objective of the day – Cirque Pass. We reached a plateau with gorgeous views back down to the Palisade lakes, and up to the rock cirque that still sat above us, after an hour. We breakfasted by a little lake (noting that this could have been a great campsite!), and tried to work out the route to the Pass above us, through the steep series of rock slabs at the head of a hanging valley. It was very picturesque, even in the overcast morning light.
Our breakfast spot, looking out over a little perched lake to the Palisade basin beneath
Jonno heading up towards Cirque Pass above
Soon we were scrambling up and over the rock slabs, with Angie scouting ahead on a potential route out to the far right. Unfortunately, she soon found herself stuck with a set of steep ledges and overhangs above her and no choice but to try to scramble back down, losing a lot of both energy and time. With a little more looking around, we found a few rock cairns, and managed to pull ourselves up to the pass with much relief.
From there we traversed across to Knapsack pass, and then dropped into the Dusy Basin from Knapsack Pass – it felt very remote. The terrain was the most rugged we had yet experienced, but the scale of the scenery was impressive… treeless, rock slabs and boulders hung from the jagged mountain ridges like an unkempt hipster’s beard. As far as the eye could see there was talus, talus and more talus…
Picking through talus
Talus fields stretching out ahead of us
En route towards Knapsack Pass
By late afternoon we had wandered down into a treed valley to join up with the Bishop Pass Trail. Again it began raining. We descended a steep, switchbacked trail past water streaming down giant slabs of rock to arrive back at the JMT.
We had hoped to meander up the LeConte Canyon and cross Muir Pass today, but the DNF and the rainy weather curtailed our plans somewhat. We ended up camping in a wet, snowy campsite a couple of hours below the pass – much to Angie’s relief, with her legs aching and feeling right at her physical limits. We passed a number of JMT thru-hikers who shared stories of their afternoon anguish up on the pass. Apparently where we had experienced a bucketful of rain they had experienced a gale, with a thunderstorm and hail thrown in. “Terrifying” was how one hiker described it.
As we settled into our dry sleeping bags that evening we felt exhausted – and lucky.
Day 4 – Head of Kings River to Upper Wahoo Lake
Waking early, we quickly ascended the trail to Muir Pass through the most spectacular basin of sapphire blue lakes, reflecting perfectly the surrounding mountains, which were to become a feature of the day.
After a good snack break at the pass, we descended into Evolution Basin, the trail hugging the edge of a number of pristine alpine lakes – Wanda Lake, Sapphire Lake, and finally Evolution Lake. The sun was out and without a doubt it was the most incredible scenery we had witnessed so far.
We left the trail late in the morning to scramble up to Darwin Bench, aided by a few strategically placed rock cairns. We spent the following hours being frustrated by the navigational challenges imposed on us by the undulating terrain. We scrambled up, down and over endless trees, rock ledges, streams and thick brush, in contradiction to the notes we’d read that suggested the Bench provided an easy path. It was very challenging, physically and mentally. Eventually we broke out of the treeline to cross the swampy sections of a high plateau.
Suddenly, the skies opened yet again and we found ourselves in the midst of a hailstorm. The hail was fierce, stinging our eyes and exposed skin. We huddled behind a stand of pines until the storm abated. Once the hail had slowed, we continued our ascent of the valley toward a small groove in the fearsomely corrugated ridgeline, Snow Tongue Pass. The sun eventually broke its way through the cloud cover to shower us in late afternoon alpenglow.
At Snow Tongue Pass we stared down into the abyss below. It was an extremely steep descent ahead of us – real sphincter-clenching stuff. “Probably Type 3 fun”, Jonno offered in jest. Then, after a minute or two of descent, the hail started again. “ Let’s revise that to Unfun.”
We slowly inched our way down the steep scree and loose talus, firmly thrusting our poles into any nooks and crannies we could find along the way. With the hail biting at us with every step, it was painfully slow going.We agreed on inventing new categories for describing the personality of the talus we encountered. ‘Friendly’ talus is large blocks firmly rooted in place, where one could hop from one rock to another without fear. “Unfriendly talus’ is the opposite – loose and unstable, often smaller, and ready to crush a limb at any moment.
By dusk we had picked our way down the car-sized rocks to Humphrey’s Basin and arrived at upper Wahoo Lake – with just enough moonlight for us to see each other we pitched the tent on the shore of the lake, before collapsing into bed absolutely exhausted.
Day 5 – Upper Wahoo Lake to BearPaw Lake
The following morning we again woke at dawn and started off straight away. It promised to be another big day, with several more passes and some significant changes in elevation.
More talus greeted us as we made our way to Piute Pass. From there we made our way past Tomahawk Lake and Mesa Lake, then scrambled up a ramped series of rock benches to Puppet Pass, where we met the first people we’d seen in a day or two. They were doing a day trip from their camp. We rock-hopped quickly past them on the descent, now used to traversing the (in this case friendly) talus.
A few hours later, scrambling down through forests of pine and mixed vegetation we joined the Pine Creek Pass Trail and descended into French Canyon, giant slabs of dolomite dominating the northern side of the valley.
We then scrambled northwards up a very steep trail that led through the forested dolomite slabs to Merriam Lake, continuing past the lake up a broad valley surrounded by jagged ridges of loose rock. Another steep scramble led us to La Salle Lake, and from there toward the impressive prominence of Feather Peak. It was tough work hiking up to Feather Pass amongst yet more haphazardly strewn talus – we celebrated the achievement with an early dinner at the Pass of soup, mashed potato and vegetables, and dark chocolate.
Following the watercourse up to Feather Pass
Dinner at Feather Pass
After gingerly descending from the pass on a giant field of talus we arrived at the damp, spongy shoreline of BearPaw Lake just on dusk. It had been yet another knee-grinding day and we were both relieved to tumble into our sleeping bags.
Day 6 – BearPaw Lake to Laurel Lake
We passed another couple of campers and an avid fisherman early the following morning as we bounded down the valley. Unfortunately we bounded a bit too far. We missed a critical NE turnoff up a rocky gully to Black Bear Lake – only when we arrived at Big Bear Lake did we realize our error. Within 30 minutes we were back on course, the annoyance of yet another DNF subsiding rapidly with the onset of a hearty breakfast.
We traversed the rocky walls, slabs and blocks that surround White Bear, Brown Bear, and Teddy Bear lakes, slowly descending a vast valley under the watchful eye of the chiefly eminence of Granite Peak that led us toward Lake Italy. As Jonno was engaged in discussion with a solo hiker whilst re-filling his water bottle on the shore of Lake Italy, Angie led the way up a series of rocky, red slabs toward Gabbot Pass. The sun was out in force as we powered our way up and over the pass, the sweat cooling quickly on our bodies as we descended a steep pseudo-trail that dropped us into Mono Creek.
From Mono Creek we continued northward up a steep switch-backed trail to Laurel Lake, where we found a great lakeside campsite in an amphitheatre surrounded by serrated ridges of red, white and silver rock.
Day 7 – Laurel Lake to Deer Lakes
Within 30 minutes of leaving camp the following morning we had made our way up to Bighorn Pass, a steep scramble up rock and grass slopes. We had taken to selecting ‘green ramps’ as our way up steeper slopes and gullies – figuring that if the grass could grow there then we should be able to climb it.
Some complicated navigation – which we managed without error – brought us to Shout of Relief Pass.
Crossing the Silver Divide we descended into a basin of silvery lakes, before joining a use trail that allowed us to descend to Tully Hole and back up to the beautiful Lake Virginia where we lunched under a warm sun. A few other Pacific Crest Trail hikers had the same idea so we enjoyed a brief interlude chatting to them.
In the afternoon we followed an easy, well-maintained trail to the spectacular Duck Lake, then left the trail in a westerly direction to skirt along the edge of the Mammoth Crest, a ridge with a very steep drop-off to the NE.
After all the up and down our legs were extremely tired. We had planned to have dinner at Deer Lake and then continue on another hour, but halfway through our meal it began to rain again, and so we were both secretly relieved to set up camp beside the scenic Deer Lakes just as the fiery sun began to set.
Day 8 – Deer Lakes to Superior Lake
Skirting along the edge of the Mammoth Crest to Mammoth Pass the following morning was one of the highlights of the trip. The views opened up around us – we soon saw signs of the human sprawl from the Mammoth township. We skied down a near-vertical slope of dust to reach Mammoth Pass, then wandered through a forest of charred, post-apocalyptic-like tree stumps (the result of fires way back in 1992) toward our one and only food resupply point at Reds Meadow.
We stuffed our faces with ice cream, hamburgers, beer and chips at Red’s Meadow, had a much needed shower, washed our clothes and repacked, and listened to a number of PCT and JMT hikers regale us with their stories of how well they were managing (or not) on their respective trails. Around mid-afternoon we continued northward on a trail leading toward Superior Lake, dodging a sizeable contingent of tourists huddled around the Devils Postpile National Monument on the way.
Day 9 – Superior Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Early the following morning we met a father-son duo intending to complete a section of the SHR – this was their first off-trail section, so they were keen to set out with us. Together we began a very steep scramble up to Nancy Pass, through dense, unpleasant vegetation. Sweat ran into our scratches. Our colleagues laboured under the weight of their packs, so once the rest of the route to the Pass was clear, we pushed on without them as we were mindful of the distance we still had to cover that day. It was the first time we’d met anyone hiking the SHR in the same direction as us and it was noticeable just how much ‘route fitness’ we had acquired over the previous week.
The view from Nancy Pass was impressive and well worth the scramble up! We dropped down into the Minaret Basin, traversed a number of rock ledges, then climbed up to turquoise blue Minaret Lake. We met a number of other hikers on shorter trips, who encouraged us to continue onward to Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake. This series of lakes was one of the scenic highlights of the route so far.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The afternoon was spent scrambling up and down passes, and immersing ourselves in the solitude of the valleys in between. We pushed past Lake Ediza and over Whitebark Pass, before dropping our jaws at the sight of Garnet Lake, closely followed by Thousand Island Lake, our campsite for the night.
Day 10 – Thousand Island Lake to Lyell Forks
Some very technical navigation took us to the first of the Twin Island Lakes. We scrambled along the ledges on the eastern side, after descending steeply from Glacier Lake. There was no semblance of a trail and the scrambling down the valley to Bench Canyon required some careful navigation and footwork.
Under a hot afternoon sun we scampered up past the pristine Blue Lake and Blue Lake Pass to join the Isberg Pass Trail, which took us through pine forest, finally descending to our day’s rest at a makeshift campsite near Lewis Creek.
Day 11 – Lyell Forks to Gaylor Lakes
This was our easiest day of hiking – we covered about 30 miles on well-worn trails. A slow grind brought us to Vogelsang Pass where we passed a couple of cowboys languorously guiding some heavily laden horses up the trail.
We lunched and bathed at Vogelsang Lake before a long march took us to the well-known Tuolumne Meadows. Much to Angie’s disappointment we arrived a few minutes too late to catch the last bus to a café and shop a few miles down the road. Somewhat disheartened we settled for a riverside dinner of… couscous and vegetables (surprise!), before another couple of hours brought us to a mosquito-infested campsite near Gaylor lakes.
Day 12 – Gaylor Lakes to Shepherd Lake
The sky was clear as we began our day hiking past the ruins of the Great Sierra Mine and then over gentle terrain toward the Conness Lakes. We traversed various rock outcrops under a warm sun, then roller-coasted over one pass after another. We lunched alongside an unnamed alpine lake, then clambered up the ridge to the north. We looked west to see a band of mountaineers being trained in crevasse rescue techniques on the lower reaches of the Conness Glacier.
Suddenly we heard loud cries of ‘ROCK!’. A giant block, perhaps the size of a small bus, had been dislodged by some other climbers further above and was pummelling down the steep glacier toward the trainee mountaineers. They were desperately straining to get out of the path of the falling slab, but were fastened to the spot by snow anchors they had hammered in for safety. We stood, absolutely horrified below, watching an absolutely disaster unfold above us as the climbers remained pinned to the spot, about to be wiped out.
Fortunately, just above the climbers, the rock collided with a pile of rocks and splintered, with the rock fragments coming to rest just metres short of the trainees. We were both quite shaken, although no doubt not nearly as much as the climbers who probably couldn’t believe they were still alive.
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By this stage, the end of the SHR felt within our grasp, and our thoughts wandered more and more frequently towards showers, hot meals (that didn’t include couscous!) and a proper bed. But, to squish any hint of over-confidence, we soon encountered Sky Pilot Col. This high pass was undoubtedly the toughest we had to navigate and previous trip reports had described it as “dangerous”, “irresponsible” and “offensive” (this last being a description by Roper himself).
A faint use-trail led up through loose, dusty scree and over an interim pass consisting of what can best be described as rockfall – extremely loose rock clinging desperately to faces of a ridge. From there, the way ahead was very unclear. We could cross the scree basin ahead of us and try to ascend a wall of steep, loose scree ahead – or try to scale the (also) steep, but firmer rock to our left and see if we could traverse the ridge line around to the north where we thought the pass lay. We opted for the firmer rock, but soon realised the ridge was impassable, and hence soon found ourselves skirting around the rockface on some of the sketchiest terrain we’d covered to date. As we clambered over the steep ridgelines that ran down the face, we tried to keep focused on the way ahead and not to look down. Finally, we climbed over one last ridgeline, and found ourselves looking down a steep gully that we realised – with much relief – was the correct one.
But as it turned out, we hadn’t even done the hardest part yet! The talus we had to climb and skirt through was some of the loosest yet, and perhaps due to the near-accident we’d witnessed earlier in the day, we were a little more ‘on edge’ than usual. It was seriously heart-pumping stuff, requiring constant attention at every step. Jonno – who normally feels pretty confident on this kind of terrain – fell more than once and unleashed a torrent of abuse on the mountain while trying to regain his footing. After several hours of soul-depleting talus-hopping we finally reached Shepherd Lake, where we had dinner and set up camp as the sun set.
Day 13 – Shepherd Lake to Twin Lakes
This was to be our final day on the trail. Several grassed valleys contained a variety of lakes, streams and rocky sub-alpine passes, before we would finally arrive at Twin lakes, a welcoming site, a glistening blue gem set amongst the pines of the Hoover Wilderness. And cold beer.
First up we had to descend into Virginia Canyon, up the other side, and traverse the edge of Soldier Lake. A faint use trail helped us to find our way to Stanton Pass, where we cautiously made our way down the left hand side of steep rock slabs and scree. We then traversed the eastern flank of Spiller valley – giant rock ridges staring back at us – before grinding our way up to the gold, cream and brick-red rock of Horse Creek Pass.
After lunch we scrambled down faint, occasional paths – through heavy scrub in many places – before finally joining a well-travelled switchback trail for our last hour to the lakes. It is hard to describe just how elated we were to reach the end of this route – definitely one of the most challenging and rewarding that either of us have undertaken. Almost immediately we had forgotten that our legs and feet were aching, and we couldn’t stop grinning as we remembered the last 13 days with the breathtaking views, rare wilderness and spectacular challenges.
 As one blogger noted “Snow Tongue Pass would better be described as “Sketchy Ass Pass.” Rock falls were waiting with every step.”
It’s not exactly the news you want to hear, an hour before boarding your flight. We’d spent the last two days driving from Portland to LA to fly out to Belize, so that we could renew our visa exemptions and spend a couple of weeks relaxing by the beach. And now we sat staring at our laptop in LAX, being abruptly discharged of our blissful ignorance of world events, discovering that Hurricane Earl had just hit Belize.
“It was only Category 1” said Jonno “so it shouldn’t be too bad. We’ll just play it by ear.” Jonno had organised the Belize trip as a birthday surprise for Angie, and spent the flight over filling her in on all the adventures ahead – which were many!
We landed in Belize city to the thick, tropical humidity. As our taxi weaved its way through the bumpy, narrow roads towards the bus terminal, we looked anxiously out the window to assess the damage. There was a lot of water still pooling, and a mass of trees and vegetation strewn on the ground. The odd house had lost a roof and we passed a couple of buildings that seemed to have been blown entirely sideways – but otherwise, it didn’t seem too bad.
“Da road to San Ignacio be shut, man” the taxi driver said in his creole accented English, as we chatted about our onward plans. “I check for you, eh? Maybe it open now.” After a flurry of phone calls chasing phone numbers and information – he finally had good news for us that the river had receded beneath the bridge and the buses were headed out west again towards San Ignacio, on the Guatemalan border.
Jonno had spent 4 months living in San Antonio, a small village half an hour south east of San Ignacio nearly 15 years ago, working with Raleigh International and a crew of disadvantaged youths from the UK as well as the locals to build a new school building. We based ourselves in San Ignacio, and caught the local bus out to San Antonio first thing the next morning. Jonno spent the ride gazing out the window, noting all the changes and development that had taken place in the last 15 years.
Much to the credit of the Raleigh team’s construction efforts, the school building was in great shape, even after the hurricane. The local community had repainted it – much to Jonno’s dismay (as it had previously been painted with art, handprints and names from all those who’d helped build it) – and they’d added an extra classroom of questionable standard to the end of the building.
We wandered the town to the old haunts, in search of old friends and colleagues from Jonno’s time there. We found a trusted guide – 8 year old Miguel – who directed us towards Antonio’s house, who had been intimately involved in the project. Antonio and Jonno were thrilled to see each other, and sat enjoying fresh limeade made by Antonio’s wife, filling each other in on all the news since they last saw each other.
Jonno with our trusty guide, Miguel
Antonio recounting tales from the 15 years since he and Jonno last shared a limeade and hammock time
As all the caves, waterfalls and ruins near San Ignacio were still closed after the hurricane, we headed directly towards our next destination: Caye Caulker. A very chilled out island off the coast of Belize, we spent a relaxing couple of days eating lobster ceviche, snorkelling and swimming at the beach. A welcome change to the last few months of hiking!
Before we knew it, we were jumping on board the Ragga Empress – a 38 foot catamaran that would take us sailing down 80 miles of the second largest barrier reef in the world. Over the next few days, we snorkelled, fished and swam our way down the reef, serenaded by our charismatic guide Shane’s singing, and his sidekick Shaq’s daily calls for rounds of Rum Punch (that seemed to arrive earlier and earlier each day)…
We slept on secluded desert islands scattered along the reef
Sunset swims in the balmy ocean
The highlights were snorkelling with a manatee – the herbivorous ‘sea cow’, sunset swimming on our own, miniature desert islands, spear fishing for lobsters and lion fish (exotic, and destructive), and fishing off the back of the boat – where our friend Grant caught an enormous barracuda (which we sampled a fresh sushi less than half an hour after it had been drowned in rum)!
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Placencia – which had all the markings of a lazy beachside town, where we could let the day quietly pass while we alternated between our hammocks and the beach. The only detractor was our steroid-bloated, overly-opinionated, ex-marine, Trump-supporting, private military Texan roommate who’s philosophy in life was ‘only the strong will survive’ and who’s answer to everything seemed to be “more guns”, and if all else failed, “more knives”.
With a few days to spare, we then headed back out to San Ignacio, so that we could visit the famous caves nearby, that had been closed when we were first there. We were so glad we did! The annual September festivities that marked Belize’s establishment as a nation had begun early, and we were treated to an evening of local performances in the town square. The weekend markets were also back to their full glory, and we filled our bellies on all the delicious local fare, and stocked up on scrumptious fruit and veggies with excitement of having a full kitchen at our hostel to cook meals, after a couple of months cooking out of the back of our van or on our MSR stove.
We took day trips to the local Cahal Pech ruins, where there is evidence of continuous habitation from as early as 1200 BC – and to Monkey Falls, where we could sit beneath the deliciously cool waterfall and swim in the gorgeous green rock pool beneath for hours.
Jonno taking a shower at Monkey Falls
The incredible and extensive ruins at Cahal Pech
We also took a tour to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, which had been a significant Mayan site for centuries and is now unbelievably full of artefacts, including innumerable ceramic pots that were offered to the Gods alongside potentially more significant offerings including remains of monkeys, and several human skeletons that were sacrificed to the gods. The Mayans believed that caves were the gateway to the underworld and the zone between life and death, and priests would take offerings from the people there to appease the gods. In particular, offerings seem to have been made to gain relief from a centuries-long drought that afflicted the Belize region. Tens of human skeletons have been found throughout the ATM cave complex, indicating that the people were getting very desperate indeed!
Unfortunately, some years ago a tourist dropped their camera on top of one of the skeletons and smashed the 1,000 year old skull, and so today cameras are banned – but the organisation who took us through did provide generic photos to jog our memories.
There were SO many vases in the caves, they were literally strewn everywhere – alongside several skeletons!
The caves themselves were magnificent, not hard to see how they were seen as the entryway to the underworld
Before we knew it, we were back on the bus and bumping our way towards Belize City to fly back to LA, to get back on the road again and head towards the Sierra Nevada mountain range with our next adventure in sight – the Sierra High Route.
It’s hard to miss the fact that you’ve crossed the border from Utah to Colorado. For one, the landscape dramatically changes from the multi-coloured palette of desert sandstone that have produced the vertical relief of canyons, hoodoos and peaks for which Utah is famous, to the white-capped mountains of Colorado that seem to rise up all around you, separated by the fast running glacial rivers and streams that cut between them. Secondly – and more recently – the preponderance of marijuana dispensaries that populate street sides on most towns you drive through, thanks to Colorado becoming the fourth state in the US to decriminalise its sale and personal use.
As you drive up and onto the Colorado plateau, the air temperature gratefully drops with the higher altitude, and after the heatwave of Utah, we had been increasingly excited about heading into the mountains for some relief – and to finally explore Colorado’s famed ‘fourteeners’. Hailing from the giant pancake of Australia, the concept of a whole state filled full of mountain peaks all reaching 14,000 feet and higher had our toes tingling – not to mention all the 13-ers and 12-ers, all of which collectively had a lot to contribute to Colorado’s notoriety as America’s outdoor adventure state.
We’d picked out a shortlist of those we were keen to tackle first, and after a solid couple of days of driving, found ourselves camped out near the trailhead to Crestone Needle in the Sangre De Cristo wilderness area. Crestone Needle is known for some fun, Class 3 scrambling and epic views from its peak, and sounded like the perfect peak to cut our teeth on.
The adventure began before we’d even laced our boots, with yet more 4WDing to test Sherman on, as we wound our way up the deeply rutted dirt track towards the start of the walking trail. Our nerves gave way before we made it, and we opted to walk a few extra miles than risk the van’s structural integrity any further!
The hike into Crestone passes through some beautiful wooded and grassed areas, before popping you out in front of the Needle, where you continue to traverse along some snow and rock fields towards the peak proper. From there, it’s straight upwards through a deep, gully for a few hundred feet – then traversing across into a second gully to the west, that you also scramble up to reach the peak.
The clouds were closing in as we reached the summit – and having been forewarned of how quickly thunderstorms in Colorado can develop, we scoffed down some lunch and quickly started to scamper back down!
Jonno scampering along the ridge
Quick stop at the summit
From Crestone, we headed north towards Quandary – the second peak on our list. There are many routes up this 14er, and we’d picked out the West Ridge as another fun scramble. We parked our car at the trailhead the night before, and were bemused by the hoards of mountain goats who seemed overly taken by the residues on our car and spent the afternoon and following morning licking it clean…
We made an early start the next morning in the hope of beating any afternoon storms, beginning with a traverse around the dam wall near where we’d parked. The route is fairly straight forward, following use trails and cairns over grassy and rocky fields, until reaching the ascent proper – that was blocked by the still-remaining snow fields. We could see that others had scrambled up the slightly steeper, but still accessible scree fields, avoiding large patches of snow. So we took off scrambling up these also. A couple of hours later we found ourselves on a knife-edged ridge running toward the main peak.
Ascending up to the ridge
Jonno climbs along the ridgeline
It looked pretty close, and we were so busy high-fiving on such a quick climb that we failed to realise just how much scrambling up, down and around the ridge we yet needed to do in order to reach the summit.
It took us another hour to scramble the final five hundred metres along the ridge, including a couple of off-route deviations that persistent snow forced us on to. It made our hearts pump so much that we forgot to take a photo at the top!
Endless up and down off the ridge en route to the summit
Along the ridgeline
After Quandary, we’d hoped to climb another few peaks, but the steering on our van was getting looser by the day, so we decided instead to swing past Boulder to see if we could get it looked at. We eventually found a mechanic who had time to look under the hood – and told us with much alarm that he’d never seen anything like it before!
Check out some of those alc%s!
So it looked like we were spending the 4th July long weekend in Boulder, which worked out great! Whilst canyoneering in Utah, we’d met a lovely bunch of guys, one of whom – Andrew – had asked us to contact him if we happened to be passing through Boulder. Before we knew it, Andrew and his friends were taking us out for a daywalk out near Blue Lake north of Boulder, showing us around town (aka the craft breweries), and… taking us along to the Dead & Co concert at Folsom Field! We even ‘found a miracle’, being given two free tickets at the door! We had an absolute blast, and were so grateful to Andrew and his mates for such incredible hospitality and kindness!
Grateful for a miracle!
And what a place for a concert! Fulsom Field.
Sherman was ready to go again on the 5th, replete with new shock absorbers (this time NOT attached with zip-ties), and we set off with big smiles towards Wyoming and the Wind River Range!
Out hiking with Andrew, Sarai and co near the Blue Lakes
The further north-west we drove towards Utah, the higher the thermostat rose, with both our sweating, red faces and Sherman’s engine attesting to the fact. We subsequently found out that we were in the middle of a heatwave in the Utah desert, but our blissful ignorance of all news and current affairs left us naively persisting with our fore planned driving and hiking itinerary, before we landed on the best way to beat the heat: in Utah’s many, amazing canyons.
Zion National Park greeted us with awe-inspiring layers of all shades of red, yellow, white and purple rock carved out into the most magnificent array of vertical structures on all sides.
To give you an idea of the Zion experience let me paint you a picture…
According to the Dulux color charts, the range spans from Butterscotch Tempest to Pink Chablis to Iced Cranberry to Razz Berries. There is plenty of Chinatown Orange, Bongo Jazz, and the occasional splash of Mardi Gras.
Even when the main canyon – through which the Virgin river runs – was still some miles away, the cliffs and peaks that withstood the forces of all the tributary creeks and flows over millennia still stopped us in our tracks as we drove the windy roads through the western section of the Park.
We didn’t waste any time once arriving in the main section of the Park, and promptly headed out towards the Narrows – the upper section of the Virgin River canyon, where you can wade through the river – and the crowds – upstream to where the canyon walls narrow. Whilst the canyon was beautiful, we were shocked by the volume of people, feeling as though we’d landed in a theme park, rather than a national park! Fortunately, the further upstream we went, the fewer people we encountered – and soon we found ourselves really enjoying the cool water and the beautiful, deep canyon.
The next day, we woke at the crack of dawn to climb Angel’s Landing – planning to beat both the crowds and the heat – being mildly successful on both counts.
On the scramble back down from the viewpoint – which gave epic views up and down the main canyon – we met a local adventurer Philip, who’s brain we eagerly picked on all the best local canyons to explore. We’d come over to Utah armed with notes from Jonno’s canyoning buddy, Richard – including a spreadsheet that even impressed Jonno – detailing the type and difficulty of each canyon. Rich had strongly emphasised to avoid canyons that have a particular feature not commonly seen in Australian canyons: potholes. Potholes are basically big holes in a canyon, drilled out to large proportions by gritty water over hundreds of years, with deep, smooth walls that are virtually impossible to climb out of. Canyoneers resort to all sorts of creative approaches to escape these natural obstacles – pack tosses, sand bags, partner hoists to name a few. Many an unsuspecting person has gotten stuck before – and when they’re full of icy cold water, succumbed to hypothermia.
With Philip’s advice and Rich’s notes, we soon found ourselves at the Park’s office, applying for any permits that we could get our hands on for pothole-free canyons. We headed off early the next morning to explore Pine Creek Canyon. The canyon begins on one side of the 1.1 mile long Zion Tunnel, and, after passing beneath it, loosely follows its path until you emerge on the other side. Pine Creek had a few great rappels, some icy swim-through sections, and beautiful tight, etched out walls. The best bit, though, was the huddle of shady and secluded rock pools downstream of the canyon where we could sit in the sunshine, listening to the birds around us, as we could warm up and have lunch.
We had so much fun that we went straight back to the Parks office to see what other permits we could get, and managed to score some for Keyhole that afternoon, and Middle Echo the next morning.
Keyhole is a dry, relatively short canyon, easily accessed from the side of the road with red, sandstone walls that form concentric waves as you squeeze through the narrow gap carved out by the ephemeral creek that at times runs through it.
Middle Echo, by contrast, is a wet – and extremely cold – canyon that, despite our intentions to avoid them, included our first pothole. We had been well reassured that this was relatively easy to escape, but as Jonno stood chest-deep in the frigid water waiting for me (so that he could launch me up and over the rim of the pothole), we both quickly understood why these can be so dangerous.
The power of the water that flows through these canyons (into Middle Echo), to wedge this tree in sideways!
Middle Echo, rock formations
En route to Middle Echo Canyon, we’d hiked up to Observation Point – which gave a stunning view of the Zion Canyon – and on the way, met a friendly local who’d spotted our helmets and canyoning pack, and proceeded to fill us in on more of the local canyoning gems. Road Trip Ryan’s website was one of these, which contains excellent and comprehensive descriptions of canyoning and climbing routes throughout Utah!
We hustled back to our self-appointed ‘basecamp’ at Springdale council park (replete with picnic tables, shady trees, barbecues, powerpoints and an adjacent library with wifi!), to research our next canyoneering adventure: Robbers Roost.
Before we knew it, we were abusing Sherman with a 40 mile jaunt on the most punishing, corrugated, potholed road to the middle of nowhere: Larry’s Canyon.
Much to our surprise, when we finally arrived, we found a small camp set up at the entry point! We soon met the gang of fellas from Boulder, Colorado, who’d come over for a long weekend of canyoning in Robbers Roost – and who very kindly offered to shuttle our car to the exit point of the canyon the following morning. We were delighted to avoid the 5 mile hike in the hot, desert sun – and as it turned out, we were incredibly lucky they did.
Larry’s canyon was breathtaking – as with those in Zion, it was tight and deep and the walls etched out to form amazing patterns and textures.
Jonno rappelling into Larry’s canyon
Tight canyon walls
About half way down the canyon, the harsh rock ripped through Angie’s backpack and, as she rappelled down a short drop, the lid of her water bottle that was protruding through the hole was unscrewed by the rock and emptied out beneath her.
Jonno rappels down
Whilst the canyon itself was shaded and cool, by the time that we exited into the wider river bed, the sun was beating down on us to the tune of 115F. The 1.5 hour scramble out of the canyon and up onto the plateau above soon turned into a race to get back to the van and the water inside before dehydration and heat exhaustion struck. We were so grateful to have had the car shuttle, and our big water barrel inside!
Jonno rappelling in Larry’s Canyon
Our last stop in Utah was Moab, famous for the slick-rock mountain biking trails that are proliferate around the town. While we were waiting for the day to cool enough to get out on the bikes – and to catch up with our friend Ian who was meeting us there – we headed out to Professor Creek for one last canyon. The road out to the Creek follows the Colorado river to the north of the town, a beautiful experience in itself to wind alongside the fast-flowing water gazing out at the tempting sets of rapids, and vertiginous cliffs on the north side.
Upon arriving at the trailhead carpark, we eagerly set off along a well-marked trail towards what we thought was the entry point into the canyon. An hour later, we met a couple en route to the same canyon, and we collectively realised that we’d all taken the wrong trail – unnecessarily sweating it out in the full-sun, when we should have indeed been following the creek itself up, knee-deep in its cold water!
We all hiked back to the carpark, where our newfound friends decided to abort the mission due to the rising thermostat, while we still couldn’t resist the lure of a day in the cool creek. We followed the creek upstream for around 1.5 hours, before finding the little exit gully. We then had a steep scramble up crumbly rock and scree to the canyon rim, before hiking across the oven-like terrain to where we could drop back into the head of the canyon.
We were relieved when we finally reached the distinctive ‘dome’ like hill that marks the head of the canyon. We dropped down in, and what followed was the most enjoyable combination of short, easy rappels, slippery slides and splashing downstream through the creek until the final, 10 metre rappel down a waterfall.
Slipperly slides down
From there, we followed our tracks back down Professor Creek towards the carpark, lapping up the cool water and the shade. It was a great way to wrap up our canyoneering in Utah…
We lost our leatherman up top of one of the short rappels, and had to climb back up to get it – dirty success!
And a rinse off afterwards 🙂
Tips and Tricks
Road Trip Ryan gives excellent details for canyoneering (as it’s called in the US), hiking, climbing and rafting in Utah. He’s got the website, and an app that you can download. Note, the GPS points are all in UTM format!! We made the mistake of not double checking before heading out… Mountain Project and MTB project are two free apps that also give loads of info on climbing and mountain biking areas throughout the US, well worth downloading!
Angie arrived in LA early on the morning of 10 July, and despite Jonno’s big hopes for a romantic reunion and to regale her with tales of his Mt Logan escapades, she promptly fell asleep and stayed that way for the next two days, battling jet lag and the aftermath of too much fun in the weeks before leaving Australia.
Not dissuaded, with one eye on the road and the other intently focused on Sherman’s temperature gauge, Jonno drove straight to a small town in northern Arizona called Page, eager to get onto the trail for the first of our long-awaited forays into the American wilderness. Our first was to be to a rock feature nearby called the Wave. As we bumped along a ridiculously corrugated dirt road during the night, Angie marvelled at how Jonno had stumbled across this seemingly obscure and exciting hike for us. Taking advantage of Angie’s jetlag, we woke up at very early next morning and set off in the darkness, with our trusty internet printout guiding us through dry creek beds, across little sage fields and over saddles and rock features in our mission to reach the Wave by sunrise.
We weren’t disappointed – the multi-coloured layers of sandstone had been carved out by rock and water into the most beautiful and mesmerising curved walls and patterns.
We scrambled around the Wave for 45 minutes, delighting in the colours and textures, and commenting on how sad it was that the other couple of folk we’d seen parked at the trailhead probably didn’t even know that this was here.
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A few days later, in a chance encounter with another adventurous fellow we met in Zion , we learned that the Wave is in fact one of the most prized features in Utah, and that access is heavily restricted : the Navajo nation in fact run a lottery permit system that people have been waiting for years to come and explore! Yikes!!
“We’ve had some great weather lately but today is really something special” says Tom, our Kiwi pilot.
Above the din of the Helio Courier’s propeller Liam and I nod in agreement. For the past twenty minutes our eyes have been silently roaming the jagged ranges and crenellated glaciers of Kluane Park.
Our destination is the Quintino Sella Glacier, the drop off point to climb Mt Logan via the popular King’s Trench route. At 5,959m Mt Logan is Canada’s highest mountain, and the second highest peak in North America. Logan is, however, more infamous for its remoteness, difficult access, and its unforgiving cold. Temperatures are regularly below -20C, before even considering windchill. And it can get very windy indeed. In fact the International Mountain Guides website says that “50-100mph winds are commonplace”.
We are soon deposited on the glacier and immediately set about repacking our equipment for sled carrying, and establishing an emergency cache of food and fuel just in case we needed to descend to this ‘base camp’ and wait out bad weather for several days before we can be airlifted out. Tom arrives soon after with Nick, another Kiwi and the third member of our team, and within half an hour we are roped up for our ‘carry’ to camp 1.
Thanks to a handful of teams already on the mountain we’re able to follow a line of ski tracks through some tightly crevassed terrain, weaving our way slowly up the head of the glacier and onto the lower tongue of King’s Trench.
The sky is a sapphire blue with the sun out in force, searing any exposed skin and melting the bodies within. The sun stays high above the horizon until well after we have set up our first camp several hours later.
Carrying all our equipment, food and fuel for twenty days we have managed well on our first day. As we tuck into our first foil-wrapped dehydrated dinner we silently congratulate one another on a solid start – many previous teams had waited at either base camp or the airstrip for over a week before having the opportunity to start their journey up the mountain.
Nick, the elder of our trio, is strong and fast, and his pace and walking style matched mine. Nick is a hard-working old-school Kiwi, with – as I will find out in the next week – more than his share of Kiwi determination and grit. Uncharacteristically Liam struggles as we make our way up to Camp 2 over the next couple of days, and confides that he is keenly aware of his pre-disposition to altitude sickness, given that two years’ previous he had to be airlifted off Mt Logan’s east ridge with oedema.
At Camp 2 we meet Rich Paraska, a very experienced mountain guide, and his two clients. With something like 17 years of guiding on Mt Logan, Rich is without doubt the most experienced person to have visited the Logan massif in the last decade, and we feel fortunate that we’ll be progressing up the mountain alongside Rich and his team.
The continuing fine weather allows us to carry and cache another load of gear at Camp 2 just below King Col – this is to be our primary cache of food and fuel on the mountain in case of bad weather. As we ascend to 4,000m for the first time I feel my lungs working harder in the rarified air. In the afternoon patches of cloud intermittently pass over, interrupting the harshness of the sun, and we feel both weary and sweaty when we pull into camp.
The following morning we set off early, immediately up the steep terrain toward McCarthy Gap. The headwall involves several hundred metres of steep, somewhat seracced terrain. It is arguably the crux of the entire route to the summit. The snow is soft and I decide to remove my snowshoes and posthole it in my boots. Crampons would make life more comfortable, but these are back at camp (we expected the ramp to have firmer snow cover).
Amazingly Rich is so confident in his client’s ski-mountaineering ability that he decides to short-rope them as they ascend on skis.
Liam finally hits his straps on the route up to Camp 3. He sets a fast pace for the route to our campsite, with Nick and I struggling to keep up. Both of us are surprised at Liam’s turn of speed, but we are happy to take in the majestic mountain-scape as Liam surges ahead. The terrain has become more forgiving and the slopes are less menacing.
Soon after reaching Camp 3 Liam suffers a relapse . Thoroughly exhausted, he curls up in his sleeping bag and waits patiently for some boiling water.
I visit a large British team that has recently returned from caching food at Camp 4. They welcome me with a hot cup of tea and tales of the cold we can expect up on the summit plateau. Other teams have already been up to the summit plateau this season, but for various reasons only one team has summitted the mountain so far. I leave the British tent with the added knowledge that at various times in the coming days strong winds are forecast up high. Great.
A combination of less than ideal weather, inadequate acclimatisation and general lethargy results in us taking an ‘enforced’ rest day and we enjoy the opportunity to lounge around in our sleeping bags, dry gear that has succumbed to condensation during the night, catch up on journal writing, eat, and rehydrate.
The following day is cold but clear and we carry a small portion of our remaining food and fuel up to Prospector’s Col, located above camp 4 at about 5,400m. As we descend Nick, Liam and I agree that Camp 4 is unnecessary. Instead we will jump from Camp 3 straight to Camp 5, and collect our small store of cached food on the way.
The route up and over Prospectors Col is straightforward. We quickly descend from the col into a large basin that is the summit plateau, and hustle along the western edge of the basin toward our fifth camp. The climb to the col has wearied us and we stop to debate briefly about where camp 5 should be.
Rich and his team soon appear behind us. Both clients appear to be struggling. One, Bryan, needs some strong encouragement from Rich. Rich confirms where Camp 5 should be and we scurry ahead, eager to set up camp before the sun disappears the crest of the mountains and leaves us to the mercy of the cold night air. It will be -25C tonight.
The following day we wake early and don our summit gear. By 7.30 we are plodding up the north-western flank of the massif, and an hour later a stiff breeze is hitting us in the face. The sky is overcast and silvery, and visibility is limited to 200 metres. Half an hour later we make the decision to turn back. Nick, who has spent his life working off the south west coast of NZ and is used to doing things in terrible weather, is unhappy but abides by the majority views of Liam and me. We agree that if the weather improves, we will try again later in the day.
Just after noon, we begin our second attempt. We are approaching the peak directly from the north-west, where we intend to summit the West Peak and then traverse the snow slopes on the eastern side to reach the main summit.
Mindful of our late start I push on in the lead. After a couple of hours we meet Rich and his team on their way down from the west peak. He does all the talking. His team are silent. They are spent.
We push on up a ridge to the base of the west peak. Suddenly I feel very weak and tired. I am unable to remove my snowshoes in order to replace them with crampons. I tell the guys and they are both understanding. Liam in particular shares my view that it is getting too late in the day to continue to the main peak and I decide to descend. Liam joins me.
Nick believes that the route to the summit is achievable and says he will take it on alone. Liam and I know that this game of ghosts is a very personal game, a mental game – and Nick is comfortable with the risk he is taking on going solo. Without further ado, we wish him well and begin our descent.
Liam and I chat about the climb with some disappointment – we had made a risk-based call to turn back but had not made it to the summit. Will the West Peak suffice? The more we think about it the more we agree that it will not. We decide that unless the weather is really horrible we will make an attempt on the true summit, via a longer but less direct route, the following morning.
We arrive at the tent about 6pm, eat and curl up in our sleeping bags. I wake up just after 11pm for a call of nature, and less than 500 metres away I can see Nick swaying down the tracks leading to our tent. We welcome him in with a pot of hot tea.
“Yep, it was a fairly long way around to that main peak…and I stuck my foot into a crevasse a couple of times on the way back” says Nick
We are both thrilled for Nick, and with some anticipation look forward to our own attempt the following morning.
Liam and I start our summit bid under a clear blue sky, dropping down to the summit plateau a few hundred metres below, then traversing southward to the foot of as headwall below the summit ridge. We can see four members of the British team ahead of us, and are able to use their tracks to guide the way through the crevasse field.
A couple of hours later, at the foot of the headwall, we stop for a short break and Liam changes from snowshoes to crampons. It takes us 45 minutes to scramble up the steep slope, zig-zagging up the face, half out of breathe. It is hard work. By the time we reach the top the clouds have closed in and we are in a whiteout.
We drop our packs in a saddle, then begin the scramble up and along the short summit ridge. We meet the British team descending – they are all smiles after summiting – but with limited visibility and a rising wind (we can barely hear each other) they are keen to continue on their way down the mountain.
We continue to weave our way along the southern edge of the ridge until, rather surprisingly, we find ourselves atop the summit. Liam can barely contain his excitement and sense of relief at reaching the top – after 4 attempts he has finally achieved the summit. It is cold, windy, and snowing now, so we quickly snap a couple of photos and begin our descent.
Returning to the saddle we collect our packs and begin our descent of the headwall. Snow has blown into our footprints and all we can see is white. I step down into a bowl of snow and suddenly the ground has fallen away. I’ve lost my footing and within a second I’m sliding on my back down the face. A second or two later I realize that I’m not slowing down, I’m gaining speed. Flailing, I plant my axe and it fails to take. I push the axe in harder, but it feels impotent in slowing my progress. Eventually, after 20 metres or so, I come to a halt and breathe a few big lungfuls of air.
Prompted to take extra caution, we decide to navigate our way down the mountain using GPS, backtracking on our ascent route. Visibility is down to about 20 metres. With some difficulty we locate Liam’s snowshoes and begin the long, slow descent to the summit plateau. Mindful of the crevasse danger, Liam is staring fixedly at the GPS to navigate our route. Meanwhile I am staring fixedly ahead to advise Liam of the undulations in the terrain – the stuff the GPS will not tell us. It feels like the ‘blind leading the blind’ – for both of us. I tell myself that next time I will plant more bamboo wands.
After a couple of hours we have descended to the edge of the plateau, and the sun is pushing hard against the cloud cover to expand our field of vision. After nearly 8 hours we are beginning to tire and keen to return to the warmth and security of our tent. We decide to take a short cut.
Suddenly I see Liam has half-disappeared. No more than 20 metres ahead of me he has plunged into a crevasse, and within seconds is furiously wriggling himself out of it.
“My feet were dangling free”, he recounts to me, clearly spooked by the experience. We agree to revert to the original path of ascent. I tell myself that next time we will rope up. And not take short cuts.
An hour or so later we arrive at the tent of the British team, a couple of hundred metres below ours on the fringe of the summit plateau. They welcome us in for an inviting cup of tea and shortbread biscuits. Everything feels good and Liam and I are both very grateful for the hospitality. Liam’s hand is still shaking from his crevasse fall experience, and he struggles not to spill tea throughout the tent.
It is almost 9 am by the time we depart the following morning. Nick is already below us at Camp 3. Liam and I decide that we will travel as fast as we can to get as far down the mountain as possible today. We know we need to be on the other side of Prospector’s Col by midday, as the weather is expected to turn in the afternoon – with an unhealthy onslaught of 100mph winds predicted…
After an overcast start the sky is clear by mid-morning and we are approaching the col. We can see the British team following some way behind. From the col we descend to Camp 3 in quick time, where we meet a solo Japanese climber and offload much of our remaining food. He is very grateful.
We continue down to Camp 2, but the afternoon sun has softened the snow and made the headwall traverse rather precarious as a result. I take over half an hour to descend the lower part of the face, being cautious with each step. No sooner am I resting at the bottom of the slope than the British team ski the same slope in about 20 seconds and join Liam and I for a snack break at our Camp 2 cache.
Nick has done a great job ahead of us uncovering the caches, making it easy for us to load them onto the sleds and continue our descent. Several hours later, at dusk, Liam and I pull into base camp exhausted but happy. Nick, Rich and others greet us with hugs and a hot bowl of tea – this mountain may have a reputation for being cold but the people help to make it a very warm place.