Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Yellowstone Miles to Teton Highs

Needless to say, my adrenaline was notably elevated by the events of my second day in Yellowstone this year. I've had dozens of meetings with bears, mostly of the black variety, over the years, but two closely timed backcountry grizzly encounters really made me feel alive. Some may quip "lucky to be alive." I've already received some criticism for my solo hikes. And those remarks were precisely why I hesitated to tell that normal-for-me story.

I do not forgo accelerating my car onto a ridiculous stretch of local roadway known as the Lloyd Expressway, which comes with intersections, traffic lights, and construction barrels, just because I might encounter one of the many inattentive or otherwise dangerous drivers who cause daily wrecks (those are not accidents). Nor will I reconsider venturing onto a trail in a national park because I might run into a creature who resides higher on the food chain. Though there is inherent danger associated with almost every aspect of life, I believe that life should not be controlled or limited by fear.

That being stated, I have to admit that "death by bear maul" is not high on my preferred cause of death list. Oh, you don't have one of those? You should put some thought into it and see if it alters your behavior.

So, the story continues. With all of the road reconstruction behind me, I steered the ct200 around the Grand Loop that day, stopping frequently at trailheads. The hikes were short, between two and seven miles, but they added up to dozens of miles over a variety of landscapes all over the park. I walked alone several more times. Some sights were congested due to the summertime onslaught of auto propelled visitors like me and also due to those tourists, mostly foreign, who move about in tour buses. (How do they fit thousands of camera and iPad pointing people into each of those white buses?)

That day ended with a sunset hike and a meal at Old Faithful. Given my ease with sleeping on the ground, I must confess that the rustic Old Faithful Inn lures me in. A morning walk along the boardwalks of the Upper Geyser Basin provided another opportunity to stop and meditate in a tranquil environment. Then it was off to the Tetons with only one stop at the newly enlarged West Thumb Geyser Basin which lies next to Yellowstone Lake. What a visual treat to include in any Yellowstone visit. On a side note, I saw/heard a man break his ankle in the West Thumb parking lot when he stepped on the lip of a huge pothole. (Reread paragraph two now)

An hour after leaving Yellowstone I arrived at Grand Teton National Park. First stop - Blacktail Butte. This climb was wrought with reminiscence as I had scrambled up the steep nose of the butte with my sons back in 2004 on a whim. Blacktail Butte contains several rock faces that local climbers use to practice moves and guides use to teach and test moves. There was a makeshift scree and tree root slope up to the top where climbing anchors were (and still are) bolted in. A multi-switchback trail has been built up to that point now. The direct route is blocked, so I took the trail. That butte offers a view of the Jackson Hole valley and the Teton Range. The photos tell that story. Confession time. I loaded the AK with a water bottle and Hefe because the drive had left me parched. I have an affinity for a well made Hefe, but they seldom taste that good. Is that what Anton and Buzz really had in mind for this vest?

After catching the NBA playoff game at the Snake River Brewery I turned in early for a climb of the 13,770 -ft Grand Teton. I had heard about, and could clearly see, the snow on the summit dome, so I knew that reaching the summit was a long shot. Still, I had an urge to climb. My 2006 July 4th summit with friends and guides left a solid imprint on my mind, so I knew that I was in for a mighty fine walk.

I followed the Owen Spaulding route until, as expected, I reached heavy snow in the area above the Upper Saddle where I could see before close approach that the feature called the Belly Crawl, a ledge of 18-24 inches with an exposure to a 2000 foot fall, was impassable. It had already been treacherous going back and forth from stone to snow with (and without) micro spikes on shoes. The down climb was, well, exhilarating. See, I didn't supply the gnarly details to get people worked up. I topped out at just under 13,000 feet according to the Polar V800 (great review here). Close, but this wasn't washers.

Well, I will add that another Life Goal was achieved when I glasaded down from the Lower Saddle. Basically, glasading is sliding down a snow covered slope or sledding without a sled. It can be performed in sitting or standing positions (I sat) and an ice axe is used for stopping purposes. The guides did not let us do that on their watch (sounds like me, the teacher, taking fun out of an adventure), so I had only watched others do it back in 2006. I thought about filming my slide, but I could not get the camera rigged securely onto me. Trust me, it was better than any roller coaster I've been on. The soft snow enhanced the safety on the edge of the meadow at the bottom.

Three hikes/jogs, one that evening and two the next day, allowed me to explore new to me trails and canyons. Storm clouds formed above the peaks each afternoon before unleashing sporadic heavy rain up high and then in the valley. All three hikes involved showers for me. Perhaps those mountains had a message for me.

Half of the last day was spent taking care of business: uploading pics at the Cowboy Coffee Co., restocking food (coffee!!), oil change, and making new friends. In case you missed this message last year, I've been experimenting with what I call Smile Application. The evidence I have collected clearly shows that approaching people with a broad smile and offering a hearty "Hello" will brighten everyone's day and open hearts and minds to good conversation. Its like an invisible gaseous mind control elixir or one of those mysterious attractive field forces. Give it a go:)

The time spent at Yellowstone and the Tetons may seem redundant on the surface, but I chose to engage in new activities and explore new territory throughout my visit. Furthermore, I felt like I finally gained proper knowledge about how to manouver efficiently in both parks. I hope to someday make it back, because there are more summits in the Tetons and many square miles of territory to explore in Yellowstone. And then there are those items left on the Life List.

As usual, here are a few of the scenes from my adventure. Are you planning yours yet? ST

Yellowstone National Park

I did not create it, but I added to it. Bunsen Peak Cairn
A toaste to Robert Bunsen
Several miles of construction on the Grand Loop

Grand Teton National Park

Within 30 minutes I paused while climbing through those wispy clouds on
my way up the Grand Teton (middle) via the Lower Saddle left of the peak
Phelps Lake in Death Canyon
Death Canyon hike
Granite Canyon hike
Sunset walk around Jenny Lake to Inspiration Point
This curiosity lasted for several minutes

First glimpse of the Grand entering Garnet Canyon

Looking down from Blacktail Butte (see the ct200?)
Also check out that new stretch of bike path!
Narrowly escaped a few hail storms

And this little piggy went . . .
and kicked another stone.
The cabin from the move Shane is in Jackson Hole!
Yes, I was named after the main character.
Trails and life - obstacles and choices along the way

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tales From Yellowstone

There have been several publicized questionable incidents in Yellowstone National Park this year. It seems that far too many of the visitors have been behaving as if the park's animals are pets. I came across several videos of human interaction with bison and bears while researching my fourth Yellowstone visit. Although I believe it is impossible for me to act foolishly and put myself or the animals in danger, I did enter the Yellowstone this year with clear intentions of not ending up going viral on the YouTube.

Yellowstone is huge. It encompasses almost 3500 square miles of diverse and uniquely beautiful landscapes. Most of the park's millions of visitors choose to "see" the park while driving around the Grand Loop road system. This figure eight road provides access to all of Yellowstone's primary features: geysers, waterfalls, lakes, canyons, visitor center/museums, and campgrounds. Trailheads for 1100 miles of trails are also found along the roads. Those trailheads were my destinations along the Grand Loop for this visit as I sought vistas and solitude.

My visit lasted three days. I was entered in a half marathon out of the city of West Yellowstone, MT on the west side of the park. My first hike up Bunsen Peak made me annoyingly aware of the fact that my right hamstring would not allow more than a brisk walking stride. A twenty two mile hike to the top of Mt. Holmes would serve as the alternative activity.

Mt. Holmes is, at 10,336 feet, one of the tallest hiking destinations in Yellowstone. The hike to the peak would be picturesque. The view from the top would make the effort worthwhile. A solo hike in grizzly country would require caution. In fact, the signs at all the trailheads recommended hiking parties of three or more: Me, Myself, and I probably wasn't what park officials had in mind. Bear spray was also recommended and I had a $55 canister of said deterrent was strapped to my vest.

I purposefully ate a hearty breakfast in order to avoid carrying odorous food with me on the hike (I made Me and Myself leave theirs behind also:). Salty water filled my bottles. The camera was at the ready.

Two bison greeted me at the trailhead. Both were lying down, but one stood up as I parked. I reached for the fob and my sunglasses before grabbing the door handle. An expletive and a gush of fear sweat poured out of me when I realized that bison had its nose inches from the driver side window. Relax and get a grip on that bladder. After a long minute the huge beast sauntered into the nearby meadow to graze. It seemed like ten thousand cars pulled into the pullout to take pictures of the other bison while I applied sunscreen with the car between me and the curious bison. Only after that bison moved further into the meadow to the south did I put on the vest and walk onto the trail in the meadow to the north.

The trail crossed that huge meadow before climbing onto a steep hillside and rounding into a long valley leading to Mt. Holmes. I whistled and sang as I moved along. Too bad I don't have my flute. I sang loudly. Sneak up on a grizzly bear? Me? No way, man!

And, as if on cue, there was a medium sized (300 lbs?) grizzly standing on the trail a mere fifty feet away. Really?! I froze. We stared at each other for several seconds. In the Appalachians I would start talking loudly to black bears in this situation. Facing a grizzly - I stood silently for awhile before taking a few short strides backward. I was trying to recall the training I'd received before solo backpacking in Denali back in 1997. No fast or agressive movements. No direct eye contact. Do NOT run.

The bear eventually took a few steps upslope before stopping to look at me again. I took a few more steps backward. The spray canister, still lashed to the vest, was firmly in my right hand with the nozzle pointed at the bear. This stuff better work or I'll be part of a spicy hot meal. Fear swept through me causing goosebumps to swell on my arms. Why are you smiling? Stop smiling? The bear moved further upslope and into the valley before disappearing into the thin pine forest. I turned and walked the 1.3 miles back to the car. I was not going to push my luck by following a grizzly deeper into that valley. Maybe next time, Holmes.

With that hair raising experience creating "what if" scenarios in my mind I drove further down to road. I decided to hike near Bunsen Peak in a meadow - a big meadow where I could see omnivorous animals before they were within one hundred feet of me.

Once again, I shouldered the vest and walked onto the trail after starting my Polar V800 GPS. I planned to walk 3-4 miles along the Fawn Pass Trail and then turn back. The rolling meadow provided extensive views of the surrounding landscape. The path rounded earthen berms and climbed over ridges forged by glaciers as it meandered across and up the long valley.

After cresting one of the ridges I stopped to take a picture. While looking through the view finder I noticed movement about three hundred meters away. I zoomed in, but I saw nothing. Holding the camera focus on that area I tried to construct a photo. There it was again. What the hell?!! Really? Another bear. I was getting glimpses of a golden brown bear with a big hump behind its head. It was walking in the brush (on this trail?) and seemed in search of something. Head up, head down, it looked all around as it moved. I shot two photos but missed a full shoulder/head shot.  I realized from the review screen that I didn't have a good photo so I started to hoist the camera for another shot.

Wait. Wait a minute. Seeing only its head I could clearly see that its nose was turned up into the wind. I was upwind from it and now it knew where I was. And then it was gone. Where the hell did you go? I used the camera to search the area. I could only see brush blowing in the wind. What a gorgeous sight. After several seconds of searching for the bear I decided that it was time to go. I was 2.32 miles away from the trailhead.

Moving slowly at first, I walked until just before the trail dropped sharply from that last ridge. Once again I scanned the valley. Nothing. You're probably in the creek foraging or snacking on fish. Still, I dropped off of that ridge out of view and jogged as fast as my leg would allow. I jogged uncomfortably for about one hundred meters before stopping to look back. Again, nothing but waving meadow: plants blowing in a stiff wind. It would have normally been an incredibly relaxing scene, but I felt an urge to escape from it.

I walked briskly to the next ridge where I once again stopped and looked back. No bear. No panic. So, I dropped off of that ridge and jogged even faster. My hamstring seemed to be loosening up. I repeatedly ran for a bit and stopped to look back. When I finally reached the next ridge I had traveled  1.21 miles back toward the road. I looked back again. Dammit! No way! Not only was the bear dropping down from that last ridge, it was jogging along the trail and it had made up ground since our initial encounter. I was running seven minute pace!

Sure, I knew the bear could run four times faster than me, but I did not expect it to pursue me for such a great distance. I dropped off of that last ridge where it couldn't see me and once again began to run at what was likely 5:30 pace. My hamstring started hurting and I told it to shut the hell up and do its part or get digested. After running hard for about a minute I reached an earthen berm around which the trail would curve out of sight from the last ridge. A quick glance back let me know that the bear was not near me.

Rounding the curve also provided direct line sight of the many cars in the lots near Bunsen Peak. Almost there! I continually looked back as I sprinted, then jogged, then walked to the trailhead at the roadway. When I arrived there I bent over, hands on knees, to catch my breath in the thin air while keeping an eye on the meadow. That stupid grin was still on my face. Part of me wanted to claim victory. Part of me knew that I had not been participating in a game.

Before driving away I read from my list of possible hikes. I was looking for the short ones in open meadows. Within minutes I came upon one of those typical roadside Yellowstone scenes where a ranger was trying to monitor a large crowd of people who had abandoned their cars to get pictures of a grizzly. This one was on the edge of a lake a quarter mile away in a meadow. The ranger was making sure none of the gawkers foolishly moved toward the bear. I spoke with him briefly through my open window when I paused to take a few pictures of the crowd.

I didn't need a ranger to tell me to stay away from that bear.

Within minutes I came across another crowd of tourists being monitored by a ranger while they were hoping for grizzly pictures. My fourth visit to Yellowstone yielded four grizzly sightings within three hours while I had only seen one grizzly (and three black bears) during my previous visits. I wonder what experiences future visits will provide for me. Hopefully, I've reached my life quota for backcountry grizzly encounters.

That was an awesome and memorable day. And, I must acknowledge, a very lucky day. Maybe that message, subconsciously, kept that smile on my face.

Here are a few of the scenes from that day. Enjoy! ST

First bear encounter in those distant trees

No, I can't see the second bear there either, but it is just left of center
where the meadow drops off

Got most of that right