HIKING OUR WAY HOME (May 2015) HEADING HOME
The pyramid of Pyramid Trail in New Mexico.
Several fully-booked national park campgrounds and the weather conspired to keep us away from our top picks on our journey home. Even checking for space weeks in advance, the Grand Canyon RV park and the campground at Zion were unavailable to us. And a round of Pacific storms dropped snow on the peak outside of Flagstaff that Bill had positioned us to hike. At 12,600’, it would have been our highest peak ever and we were both itching to test ourselves at that altitude with the benefit of some hard-earned acclimation under our belts. Unfortunately, the snowfall wasn’t low enough on the mountain for a half day of snowshoeing at the cross country ski area as a consolation prize.
Not quite sure what was ahead of us, we revisited the Pyramid Trail outside of Gallup, NM, to get in a certain hike. It’s a hidden treasure we discovered on our trip home a year ago. It only takes an hour to get to the top but it delivers a condensed visual experience of the red rock territory we enjoyed last fall. This delightful trail is only minutes off of the interstate and has an adjacent, basic campground.
Finally out of the deep snow, Humphrey Peak was still too far away.
Even when presented with limited hiking options, like one fall at Yosemite, we'd always consciously decided not to hike in snow. We settle for lesser venues so as to walk briskly rather than trudge slowly, and besides, we aren’t outfitted for snow hiking. But anticipating summiting Arizona’s highest mountain, Humphrey Peak, prompted some soul searching. Even though it was probably now blanketed in fresh snow, we were reluctant to abandon this grand adventure.
Despite the warm spring weather, we assumed there still might be too much snow on the mountain by the time we arrived in Flagstaff, but we showed up anyway and immediately started asking questions. An RV park staff member was quick to share her experience. “Will there be snow on the trail?” triggered a reflexive “Yes.” She went on to describe the various perils on the route and assured us that once we were above tree line, it would be snow free. With grand arm gestures, the slight, weather-beaten local woman demonstrated how the fierce winds would have blown all the snow off the top.
Reassured enough to proceed, we did decide to dress more warmly than we had done for our last hike to Albuquerque’s S. Sandia peak where the especially strong winds had chilled us. I stunned Bill by stating that I’d forego my usual “boots”, which were a worn-out pair of minimalist sandals, and actually wear my real minimalist boots. We only wear proper boots about once a year and concurred that this hike sounded like the day for them.
In hindsight, the event was far better described as a snow hike than a hike in which there was snow on the trail. It took us over 4 hours to get to tree line at 11,600’ even though we started at 9,300’. Listed as a 6 hour round trip hike, the peak was in sight after 4 hours but we estimated that it was still more than an hour away. Rather than just being a "steep up” another 600’, we still had a lot of horizontal distance to cover as well.
Yippee! At 12,000' for the first time. (Humphrey Peak Trail.)
There were 2 distinct challenges on this snow hike. One was that almost all of the trail surfaces were snowy, ranging from a mix of snow and mud at the lower elevations to the “sink down 6-12 inches” in snow higher up. About half of our time on the ascent was spent on trails and the remaining time was in snow without any trail at all--this lack of trails was the second big challenge for the day.
We and 3 young adults wandered about on a perilously steep slope in search of the most reassuring set of boot prints in the snow to follow up towards a ridge. Bill’s GPS app with a map of the trail saved the day for us and the other 3, as well as 2 others who had been off the trail with us lower down. The deep snow prevented us from being exactly on the trail but at least Bill's app kept us close enough to the course to intersect the trail when the snow cleared.
We’d allowed ourselves to press on longer than originally planned, consuming our buffer time for an emergency. We agreed to continue to 12,000’ to accomplish that secondary goal given we’d only ever hiked to 11,000’. We went a bit over on our re-negotiated turn-around time but were immensely pleased to reach 12,000’. It had taken years, but Bill had slowly learned how to push his altitude intolerance out from being significantly hampered at 7,000' elevation to being athletically effective at 12,000'. Pressing on as we had done took its toll: our descent time was longer than we had predicted and we arrived at our vehicles right at sunset and exhausted.
Given that we don’t anticipate being in the US in the summers, Humphrey Peak will likely always have a difficult amount of snow on it for us. But it is such a tantalizing trophy hike on our driving route to and from the SW that we’ll likely attempt it each year in hopes of making it to the summit one day.Soap Creek at Marble Canyon, AZ
In November of 2014, we’d had a historic defeat in the Grand Canyon vicinity when attempting to walk down to the Colorado River along Soap Creek—we only covered about 1.5 miles in 3 hours of effort and that was going downhill. According to the guide book’s estimates, we should have been at the turnaround point of the river in that amount of time. Instead, we turned around after practicing going up and down a boulder obstacle on our bellies, a boulder that we hoped represented the last major barrier to the river on our next attempt.
A glimpse of our high trail is on the right of the dramatic pour-off.
Knowing to head directly to the high trail detour around the 100’ deep pour-off and not even admiring it close-up, plus looking more carefully for discrete cairns through the immense boulder clutter rather than follow the dry stream bed, sped us along on our second attempt. We made the trek to the river in three and a half hours this time. With only 1300’ of gain, it was still a tiring hike because of so much climbing through the massive boulders and trudging through sand.
We were pleased to redeem ourselves on our this, our second crack at the Soap Creek Trail just like we had done on a second attempt in 2014 on the trail to The Window outside of Tucson. But of course, a few days before, we’d acquired another defeat in aiming for Humphrey Peak. Curiously, all of our failed attempts to reach a specific destination had occurred in Arizona but that was about to change.Bell Canyon, Draper, UT
Defeats were accumulating faster than conquests when we failed to reach the upper lake at Bell Canyon, south of Salt Lake City. A fellow hiker farther south in Utah's Snow Canyon had mentioned it as a good choice for our preferences. In hindsight, we wondered if he had ever reached the upper lake destination described in Bill’s hiking book or if he’d only gone to the end of the marked trail like the other local hikers with whom we subsequently spoke. We only made 3000’ of the planned 4200’.
We enjoyed the dramatic hike with ever-changing trail conditions until the trail unexpectedly evaporated. The guide book didn’t describe it as a bushwhacking event, but we were soon threading our way through endless thickets of brush and young deciduous trees following the faint lead of orange tape markers dangling from high branches.
Turning around at the Colorado River & heading back up Marble Canyon.
Frustrated, tired, and feeling a bit deceived, we finally declared we’d gone far enough when we failed to reach a hoped for clearing in which to make better time. We each looked for a bare spot in the brush that was large enough for sitting and ate our lunch. With further scrutiny, Bill decided that snow would block our way to our destination even if we had had enough time to continue.
The primary goal had been to get in a robust hike to maintain our fitness and we’d accomplished that. Bell Canyon was added to the growing list of destinations to again try to reach. Regardless of our performance, Bell Canyon was our last hike on our way home and now our attention had to turn to completing the drive.OMG!
We were in a state of shock: suddenly, instead of putting our camper in storage for 4 months as planned, when we arrived home in 3 days, we’d be readying it for sale.
For months Bill had been researching SUV-type-vehicles and trailers in anticipation of buying a new rig combo in a year or so. The bottom line was that our monster truck outfitted to both carry a camper and to take us off-road to trail heads only did 1 of the 2 jobs well, which was carrying the camper. The off-road package (big tires, skid plate, 4WD) was useless to us because the stiffening modifications made to the truck so it could carry the heavy camper made it a miserable ride, on or off road. We slowed to a crawl and braced ourselves when driving across supermarket speed bumps.
On the eve of returning home, it was downright traumatic to spasmodically shift from anticipating an unusually calm and orderly transition from 8 months of RV’ing to 3 months of cyclotouring in Europe to then also sandwich-in readying 2 vehicles for sale and buying 2 new replacements in a few weeks or in 3 months. The exact timing and sequencing of everything was up in the air.
It was an innocent trip to a camper dealer in LaGrande, OR on our route home for a skylight replacement that precipitated this abrupt change. The plan had been to look at several of the trailer models that Bill had been researching while the repair was made. The chit-chat with the dealer that was a neighbor of the manufacturer revealed that one of the trailers we were most interested in would be on the production line in August. That was near-perfect timing for us to make the swap-out because we’d be back home from Europe in early September. There was no way to know if the production cycle would match our schedule in a year or 2 so we decided to seize the opportunity for efficient retooling certainty.
Bell Canyon: the last of the trail before bushwhacking up a steep slope.
Suddenly, we were slammed into the multitude of challenges associated with disposing of 1 set of rigs and replacing them with another pair without missing a beat in our travel rhythm. Unsatisfied with the dealer we’d previously dealt with in Portland, we’d already decided to buy from the La Grande dealer 250 miles from home because of their first-name relationship with the RV manufacturer, especially since we’d be requesting modifications and upgrades. Needing to put 1,000 miles on a new car before towing the trailer was another timing challenge, as was never being able to park the trailer in our apartment building’s small lot.
Not having bought or sold anything big on the private market for 15 years, we also wondered about the nitty-gritty issues like: “How do you transfer thousands of dollars between strangers these days without getting ripped off?” Clearly the era of buying and selling vehicles with the exchange of a personal check after the Sunday morning paper came out was gone. Along the way, we learned new phrases like "Craig’s List troller" and experienced a Craig’s List scammer.
Our minds were swirling with problems, solutions, and scenarios as our planned 1-hour visit to the RV dealer extended to over 5 hours while we scrutinized trailers and strategized about timing issues. By the end of the day, we’d selected the trailer model to buy. I’d suggested we drop in the next day to revisit our selection, just to be sure. But before we went to bed another plan gelled: I proposed that we buy a different trailer. The next day’s quick visit turned into another big shopping event. We spent about 8 hours over 2 days seriously evaluating 4 different trailer models, with each being the #1 contender for part of the time.
The largest trailer on Bill’s short list had a shrunken bunk bed area that didn’t seem quite big enough to hold our pair of bikes if it were gutted but it was the trailer that always put a big grin on Bill’s face. Each time he sat in the dinette he broke out into a big smile and said “This feels like a home.” And given that we were living in our rig 8 months a year, feeling like a home was a good thing.
It took focused brainstorming and borrowing a customer’s bike for a few minutes for a new plan for the bikes to erupt the next day. And it was still a gamble. We hoped that the manufacturer would omit the bunks as requested but not promised, but if not, we’d rip them out. And if need be, we’d cut into the cabinetry so as to cram the bikes in. And since the special-ordered trailer couldn’t be refused, we were determined that we’d make the trailer work for the bikes one way or another.