Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pittsburgh Wilderness

*** Saturday: Snow. Highs in the mid 20s. Total snow accumulation 10 to 14 inches. Northeast winds 10 to 15 mph with gusts up to 25 mph. ***

This forecast was the last thing I read before going to bed Friday night and I could hardly sleep. My alarm sounded at 6:30 Saturday morning and, with sleep still in my eyes, I hobbled over to the window and parted the blinds. Thick and white, it was like a heavy layer of fondant covering the city. I roused my sleeping wife, gathered my gear and out we went.

I know I'm stating the obvious, but this much snow - close to 20 inches - really transforms a place. Especially a place like Pittsburgh, where it's far enough north to get really hammered once every few winters, but not so far north that the city is fully prepared to handle it. What this kind of snow does is take the relative clockwork of our urban lives and gum it up. This force majeure takes our plans for the day and scraps them. It leaves us in a world controlled by things that are not us, much like the deep forest or high mountain.

So out Les and I stepped, bound for the wooded park we frequent whenever we've had too much of the indoors.

Photo Essay: Click on the above image to begin a photo essay on our trip. The right and left arrow keys can be used to navigate among the images.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dolly Sods Packsledding

After an early-morning odyssey that included getting nearly stuck in tire-deep snow ruts, my sister and I found ourselves sitting on a chairlift, packs in our laps. It was a strange way to start our trek to a wilderness area, but was the only option that didn't include trespassing or a very long hike in. Our destination: Dolly Sods North, a high plateau with a western ridge granting long views. Our purpose: finding some gnarly hills to try out the packable sleds we discovered on the way out of our parents' house. The slopes weren't epic, but we had a really good snowshoe.

Photo Essay: Click on the above image to begin a photo essay on our trip. The right and left arrow keys can be used to navigate among the images.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Glacial Retreat Exhibit: Double Exposure

This summer, I was fortunate enough to happen upon Double Exposure: an exhibit capturing glacial retreat by contrasting aerial imagery taken by Bradford Washburn between 1937 and 1960 with that taken by David Arnold between 2005 and 2007. I was well aware of the phenomenon, but still found the exhibit profoundly impressive.

One comparison from the exhibit: the Matterhorn, then and now.

It included massive panoramas, shot on either Washburn's 8x10 film (that is so huge!) or Arnold's 5x7 (still big), panels with information about glacial mass loss, and a video interview with Washburn, the legend. Standing there, looking at images larger than I am of the denuded mountains, listening to Washburn's description of hanging out the side of an airplane with a rope around his waist, I couldn't help but feel like something very import has been lost.

The romanticism of Washburn's extreme tactics I can get over: he wore wool flannel shirts while shooting in freezing temperatures, thousands of feet in the air, hanging from a hemp cord. I'll keep my high-loft insulation and WPB shell, thanks. But the vanishing glaciers make the permanent, timeless beauty of these landscapes feel vulnerable and ephemeral. That's not to say that they won't be impressive in the future, but it will be like a forest that has forever lost its leaves.

The exhibit is now a couple years old, and has since left Pittsburgh. It will be in Oklahoma City, OK from January 10 to May 1 and then Norwich, VT from September 25 to November 28. For those outside these cities, the exhibit website is still a worthwhile if unequal way to experience the project.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Catskills Bail

Snowshoe fail.

Bailing sucks. It sucks less when your heart's not in it, when carrying on would be dangerous, or when it's easy to try a route again later. It sucks more when you've anticipated a trip for a long time, when the cause for bailing could have been easily avoided, or when it's difficult to try the route again. Either way, it can lead to a cascade of disappointment, self doubt, rationalization, and (if part of a group) finger pointing.

All things considered, my bail in the Catskills earlier this week could have been worse, but it still sucked. On the upside, I met couple cool guys, caught two cheesy serial killer books-on-tape during 16 hours of driving, and got home early to prepare for the coming semester of school. On the downside, I had sketched and planned the aborted route months in advance, there were 16 hours of driving, and the coming semester will preclude another try for some time.

What was remarkable about this trip wasn't that we didn't finish it. It was a challenging route in challenging conditions: 47 miles with 19,000 ft of elevation gain, a third off trail, over three days; temperatures in the single digits, snow approaching three feet deep, increasing wind with elevation. What was remarkable was how precipitously it unraveled during our first morning. Within three hours of waking up, we had each decided to call it quits. In retrospect, it is clear that seeds of trouble were sown the night before.

The planned route: a traverse joining the Burroughs and Devil's Path ranges.

The plan for the evening of January 5th was for Chris and me to leave one car at the end of route, meet Jon at the beginning, and for the three of us to hike in a mile or two so we could get an early start on the morning of the 6th. Chris and I arrived first, with Jon joining us after having to wait for someone to pull his car out of a ditch. As we made our final preparations, we noticed two things: 1) Jon had a really, really small pack and 2) One of the snowshoes I had rented from REI was missing the cotter pin that connects the foot bed to the body of the shoe. Jon explained that he had lent out some of his better gear to his sister, but that he thought he'd still be fine. I rigged up a fix for the snowshoe with a ring from my key chain, and kicked myself for ignoring the rudimentary step of checking all my equipment before leaving for a long trip.

We hiked in about a mile, and the night was cold but uneventful. Jon left us shortly after we packed up camp, explaining that his minimal gear was, indeed, not warm enough. Chris and I started the trek, but would soon join him.

Trip Autopsy Report


TOB (time of bail): 6:59 AM
Immediate Cause: The cold.
Underlying Cause: Lent out warmer gear.


TOB: 8:18 AM
Immediate Cause: Deep snow, steep terrain.
Underlying Cause: The same. Deeper snow, steeper terrain lay ahead.


TOB: 8:51 AM
Immediate Cause: Broken snowshoe, apprehension of continuing solo
Underlying Cause: Didn't check rental equipment, planned route with long off-trail sections.

As we started the climb up Peekamoose Mountain, the first peak of the trip, I noticed that Chris was falling behind. It started with trouble keeping his snowshoes' heel straps from sliding off. After temporarily fixing the problem, he soon confessed that the climb was tiring and that he wasn't feeling too good. We agreed to make it to the top of Peekamoose, and then decide the future of the trip. But as we continued, he apologetically said he was throwing in the towel, given the fact that the terrain would only get more difficult and the snow would only get deeper. Shortly thereafter, the keyring fix for my snowshoe gave way.

The only view of the trip. Enticing enough, I think, to lure me back.

Given our miserable state, Chris set up behind a few rocks to heat water for coffee and hot chocolate. I swapped in a new keyring and gingerly proceeded to at least this first summit. Before leaving, I told Chris I'd be back to walk out with him. Even if I could borrow the good snowshoes and his stove, I was apprehensive about solo off-trail navigation in unfamiliar woods given the conditions. As I proceeded, the wind picked up, the snow deepened, and the consistently spaced hardwoods gave way to denser brush and evergreens. I found a single view and gazed out over the vista of snow and bare wood. It was a strange feeling, like saying goodbye to a friend you just met.

I returned to Chris's kitchen and profusely thanked him for sharing his hot water. As we walked out, my shoe's new fix also broke as did the remaining pin. I strapped the snowshoe's detached body to my pack and carried on, with a snowshoe on one foot and a foot bed with crampon on the other. I dropped Chris off at his car and bid him farewell.

As I drove back home, I went through the range of bail reactions: the disappointment, the self doubt, the rationalization, and (hopefully not too much) finger pointing. In all reality, my single mistake of neglecting to check my snowshoes before leaving would have derailed the trip for me even if everything else had gone as planned. I enjoyed meeting and hiking with both Jon and Chris. I will be back to try the route again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Leslie's First Overnight

It was almost a year ago that I bought my wife, Leslie, the makings of an ultralight kit: backpack, sleeping bag, pad. What better gift could I have given her that Christmas than the tools necessary to join me in my treks through the beautiful outdoors? Since that cold morning she had actually used each piece of gear on one or more outing. The bag and pad on a bike tour, the pack on a day hike, but she had yet to make her first overnight, full-fledged backpacking trip. So, in the early November indian summer of southwestern PA, we corrected the situation with a short overnight on the Laurel Highlands Trail (LHT). I already knew it, but the trip confirmed that Les makes an excellent trail partner.

Photo Essay: Click on the above image to begin a short photo essay on our trip. The right and left arrow keys can be used to navigate among the pictures.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Moonlight Presidential Traverse

On Labor Day weekend my friends George and Mckean and I traveled up to New Hampshire to make a moonlight traverse of the Presidential Range. It was cold, dark and windy, but the mountains were beautiful under the full moon. It was a stunning way to experience such rugged terrain. It was also a chance to learn that telling a prospective hiking partner that "It's going to suck" is still an insufficient disclaimer for a 19-mile hike with 9,000 feet of elevation gain in freezing weather and the dead of night.

The moon above appropriately-named Star Lake between mounts Madison and John Quincy Adams

Video: Taken just below the summit of Mount Madison, the first peak of a North-South traverse of the range.

Mckean is in black, George is in green. You can't hear what George is saying because of the wind, but you can assume it's all cursing. He had a pretty rough hike from the beginning.

(The right and left arrow keys can be used to navigate within the gallery)

Full Report: For a full report on the hike, see the trip report I wrote for SummitPost.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dolly Sods/Roaring Plains Circuit

This May, I took a three-day, forty-mile hike through West Virginia's Dolly Sods and Roaring Plains West wilderness areas. Much of the area I hiked through just received the wilderness designation earlier this year. It was a great trip on multiple levels, and an article I wrote about it just got published by BackpackingLight!

A flagged maple in the thick mist of Dolly Sods North.

Read the article: New Wilderness! Dolly Sods North & Roaring Plains West