Winter Backpacking Gear: Light Weight Gear for Temperatures < 32F/0C

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The  extreme air temperatures on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire can range from the 40°s (F) to the -40°s (F) during the winter months.

Before I delve into the details of my winter backpacking gearlist, I want to start by defining ‘winter backpacking’. Although most people define winter backpacking as backpacking between the first day of winter and the first day of spring (eg,  December 21 to March 20), the definition of winter backpacking that I use to guide my gear decisions is more accurately reflected by the lowest temperatures (as well as snow/ice conditions) that I am expecting to encounter on my backpacking trip. The rough definitions of backpacking seasons that I use are:

  • Summer Backpacking (lows ≥ 45°F)
  • 3-Season Backpacking (lows: 30°F to 45°F)
  • Shoulder-Season Backpacking (lows: 20°F to 30°F)
  • Winter Backpacking (lows: 0°F  to 20°F)
  • Expedition Backpacking (lows: -40°F to 0°F)
    • Winter Alpine Backpacking (lows: -20°F to 0°F)
    • Extreme Cold Backpacking (lows: -40°F to -20°F)
  • Arctic Backpacking (lows ≤ -40°F)

In this post I’m going to describe the gear that I use for ‘winter’ and ‘expedition’ backpacking (primarily) in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

If you do a lot of hiking/backpacking in the White Mountains I highly recommend purchasing a 2017 New Hampshire Voluntary Hike Safe Card for $25; it helps cover the cost of search and rescue because sh** happens!

¡DISCLAIMER! The following descriptions of the way I use and/or am considering using gear are NOT indicative of safe or manufacturer approved uses; winter backpacking is inherently dangerous and you are responsible for any/all risks that you assume when heading into the backcountry.

Sleep System

My winter backpacking sleep system consists of my tent (Nallo 2), sleeping bag (Marmot Lithium 0° F ), sleeping pad (NeoAir XLite), an emergency bivvy, and an extra insulated foam pad. The combined weight of my winter sleep system is: 8 lbs 2 oz (3.7 kg).

Shelter/Tent:

  • ≥20°F: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 ( 1 lb, 15 oz)
    • 3-Season Tent: acceptable for minimal snow load, can feel draft at temperatures below 30F due to large % of mesh
  • ≤20°F: Hilleberg Nallo 2 (4 lbs 7 oz/2.0 kg)
    • 4-Season Tent: Easy to pitch alone, and spacious for solo adventures. Cozy (but workable) for 2 people winter backpacking trips. I would opt for a larger tent for winter car camping trips.
  • Emergency Bivvy: SOL Emergency Bivvy (3.8 oz /107 g)
    • I bring an emergency bivvy on all winter hiking/backpacking trips, especially since they are cheap ($16.95), light, and warm, and the cold can kill you very quickly when the temperatures start dipping near (and especially below) zero.I’m considering the SOL thermal bivvy (8.9 oz) as a replacement for adventures in the extreme cold (≤ 0°F to -40° F).

Sleeping bag

  • ≥35°F: Marmot Hydrogen 30°F Bag (1 lb 7.3 oz)
  • ≥0°F: Marmot Lithium 0°F Bag ( 2lbs 9.5oz /1176g)
    • Temperature Rating (EN Rating)
      • Comfort (9°F / -12.8°C): the temperature at which a typical woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position
      • Lower Limit (-4.5°F /-20.8°C): the temperature at which a typical man can comfortable sleep curled up for 8 hrs
      • Extreme (-45.2°F /-42.9°C): the minimum temperature at which a typical woman can sleep for 6 hrs without dying from hypothermia
    • Comment: I love this sleeping bag. Even after ~3000 miles use (purchased in 2013) it is still cozy for me down to temperatures in the teens and single digits (°F); the EN comfort rating is consistent with my personal experience with the bag.
      • ≤10°F, I start getting cold and need to wear additional layers (eg jackets, slippers, insulating pants inside the sleeping bag). I’m considering purchasing a vapor barrier liner (VPL) for use inside my sleeping bag (eg. the Western Mountaineering HotSac Vapor Barrier Liner [4.5 oz])
  • ≤ 0°F to -40° F: Currently considering acquiring a -40° F sleeping bag

Sleeping pad

  • ≤ 0°F to -40°F: NeoAir® XLite XTherm (15 oz)
    • Thickness (2.5 inches/6.3 cm); Length (72 inches/183 cm)
    • R-Value (5.7)
    • Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm mattress R-value chart
    • This was a Christmas 2016 gift, that I’m looking forward to trying out!
  • NeoAir Mini Pump (weight: 2.3 oz / 65 g)
    • Comment: a worthwhile addition especially for winter backpacking so you don’t get moisture from breath freezing inside mattress

Backpack

For winter backpacking I need a larger pack to accommodate the extra weight and volume of my winter gear; I also want larger buckles so that I can take my backpack on and off without removing my gloves (NOTE: I keep an emergency knife attached to front of my pack so that if my hands no longer have the dexterity to unclip my pack I can cut the straps to gain access to the lifesaving gear I’m carrying).

  • ≥0°F: ULA Catalyst (3 lbs)
    • Total Volume: 4,600 cu in (~75 liters)
      • Total volume includes the volume of the side and mesh pockets
      • Internal volume: 2,600 cu it (~42 liters)
    • Recommended max load: 40 lbs
      • I’ve definitely stretched this to 45-50 lbs without any trouble
    • Pack Cover: Large Etowah Pack Cover (3.8 oz)
    • Comment: this pack works for me for winter, but is a bit small for extreme backpacking (the internal volume is low); the buckles are also too small for me to easily use when wearing bulky gloves or mittens
  •  ≤0°F: Wishlist? Hyperlite 4400 Ice Pack (2.56 lbs)
    • Load capacity: 30 to 65 lbs
    • Interior Volume: 4400 cu. in. (70L)
    • Waterproof

Specialized Snow/Ice Gear


For winter backpacking trips I usually carry light traction (ie microspikes), ultralight (UL) snow shoes, and my ice axe, for a combined weight of 3.7 lbs (1,677 grams). Although I always use trekking poles, I don’t count them towards my pack weight since they never end up in my pack (I’m going to continue claiming this loophole).

  • Light Traction: Kahtoola Microspikes (13.5 oz/ 383 grams)
    • Indispensable for winter hiking/backpacking; allow me to leave my crampons at home in most winter conditions. Crampons still required for anything that requires kicking steps or climbing ice flows at steeper grades.
  • Crampons: Grivel 12-Point Crampons (31.1 oz)
    • These crampons clip onto my mountaineering boots (C2)/plastic boots; I have been using them for over a decade and I still love them. In conditions where I’m need to kick steps, or will be traversing steep ice flows I bring my crampons instead of my microspikes
    • To review proper crampon use check out:
  • Gaitors: Men’s Crocodile Knee-high Goretex Gaitors (10.2 oz)
    • Comment: These gaitors are useful for keeping the snow out of my boots (keeping my feet dry), and are also critical when using crampons to help prevent accidentally shredding my waterproof pants/insulated pants
  • UL Snowshoes: Louis Garneau Women’s Transition Boa (2.4 lbs /1089 g)
    • Length: 23 inches long, 7 inches wide
    • Load: 100 to 220 lbs
    • Notes: I love these snowshoes, they are light and easy to to put on/take-off on the trail. For winter backpacking, as long as I remain below their max load, I enjoy them. They have 360 degree crampon traction, lightweight decking flexible to -40°F, awesome foot clasp system.
  •  Ice axe: CAMP Corsa (7.2 oz /205 grams)
    • Length: 70 cm
    • Uses: Probing terrain, self-arrest, snow anchor, chipping out ice/snow for water. It’s not as rugged as a heavier ice axe, but it works well for my needs.
    • Before taking your ice axe into the mountains make sure you know how to use it. The following links have some useful reminders for ice axe use:
  •  Trekking Poles: Leki Carbon Ti (14.9 oz/pair)
  •  Snow/Avalanche Shovel: Snow Claw Backcountry Shovel & Multi-tool (6 oz)
    • A lightweight, easy-to-pack snow shovel for clearing campsites and digging snow caves; I only bring it when I anticipate deep snow
  • Avalanche Safety Gear (Transceiver/Probe)
    • Always check with the local avalanche center (for the White Mountains in NH: The Mount Washington Avalanche Center) for snow conditions and warnings prior to winter treks, avoid avalanche prone areas, and carefully monitor snow conditions. Prior to venturing into avalanche terrain I’m considering purchasing:

Emergency Locator Devices

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  • Personal locator beacon (PLB): ACR ResQLink+
    • If I get lost or seriously injured I want to be found, so I carry this PLB. It doesn’t have lots of whiz-bangs of the satellite communicators, but the engineering is better, it doesn’t require the purchase of a contract, the battery life if guaranteed to last five years (not rechargeable), the power output of its frequency beacon is higher than any other backpacking locator device I’ve found, it broadcasts at multiple frequency, uses the government/military satellite systems, and is registered with NOAA.
  • Satellite communicator: Delorme InReach SE+
    • This device allows two-way satellite communication with family, friends, and rescue services. It also allows you to post/track your routes and location online; in addition to purchasing the device you must also purchase a service contract, and you need to be mindful of battery use (the more you use it for tracking/messenging, the less you’ll be able to use it for emergency rescue)
  • Map and Compass: Don’t leave home without them

Footwear


For winter backpacking, I always bring a pair of knee-high waterproof gaitors and a pair of ultralight down booties to use as camp camp shoes. I keep using my trail shoes (waterproof trail shoes, or a thru-hiker hack with waterproof socks) into the early winter backpacking season when snowshoeing or when minimal/light traction (microspikes) is required, but I’ve learned the hard way (multiple toenails sacrificed) that my trail shoes (eg, Altras, Oboz, and Merrell Moab’s) don’t have rigid enough soles for heavy microspike/crampon use, especially on uneven terrain. For colder, more rugged conditions I switch to my mountaineering boots, or the dreaded plastic boots.

  • Camp Shoes/Booties
    • ≤30°F: Western Mountaineering Flash Down Booties (3 oz/pair)
      • Comment: As somebody that frequently has cold feet, these down booties are one of my favorite pieces of winter UL gear; I’ve backpacked over 1000 miles with these booties, and can’t complain about their durability ;) They do have some drawbacks for winter use though: they’re not waterproof and they don’t have much traction. I’m considering purchasing:
  • Socks

Additional Personal Items

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  • Water
    • 32 oz Nalgene wide-mouth bottles (2)
      • CAUTION: Not all 32 oz wide mouth Nalgene’s are created equal!!! I will be replacing my old Lexan Nalgene’s (which may contain BPA) with the lightweight HDPE Nalgenes (3.75 oz) and NOT the new Tritan Nalgenes (6.25 oz) because the Tritan Nalgenes are not rated to handle boiling water and they are brittle in extreme cold. Detailed explanations of the plastics used for each of the Nalgenes is available online (click here for the pdf); below I’ve listed the max use temp (Max), the heat distortion temp (HDT), the brittleness temp (Low), the chemical resistance (CR), and the recycling symbol (♻) for bottle identification.
        • HDPE (high-density polyethylene) Nalgene:
          • Max (120°C), HDT (65°C), Low (-100°C); CR (g00d), ♻ 2
        • Lexan (PC-polycarbonate) Nalgene: 
          • Max (135°C), HDT (138°C), Low (-135°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 7
        • Tritan (PETG-polyethylene terephthalate glycol) Nalgene:
          • High (70°C), HDT (70°C), Low (-40°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 1
    • Insulated bottle holders (2): Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka (~1 oz each)
    • Purification: Boiling
      • Caution: Water filters are typically ineffective if they’ve been frozen and chemical water treatment methods are highly depend on the temperature of the water being treated
  • Food: a subject of a post of its own
  • Cooking/Stove
    • ≥20°F:  Jetboil Sol Ti Cook System
      • Jetboil Sol Ti (8.5 oz)
      • Winter Blend Canister Fuel:
        • Winter canister fuels I’ve had good luck with (≥20°F):
          • MSR IsoPro Fuel Canister: 80/20 blend of isobutane/propane
          • Snow Peak GigaPower: 85/15 blend of isobutane/propane
            • lowest working temp according to manufacturer: 15°F
          • For winter use I keep my fuel canisters warm (sleep with them and/or put them in a pocket before use), shake them, and place them on a foam pad to isolate them from the ground.
        • NOTE: For canister fuels to function, the ambient temperature must be above the boiling temperature of the fuel mixture. Higher percentages of low boiling point fuels will lead to lower boiling point mixtures. For reference, canister fuels are a blend of:
          • isobutane (boiling point:11°F)
          • propane (boiling point: -44°F)
          • n-butane (boiling point: 31°F)
    • <20°F: Whisperlite (11.2 oz)
      • Titanium pot
      • Comment: a classic that I’ve had forever
    • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Fire Starters (cooking/emergency):
    • Emergency Stormproof Matches
      • Waterproof matches are notoriously hard to light; I’m considering upgrading my emergency matches to:Titan Stormproof Matches
    • ≥20°F: Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz)
      • Bic pocket lighters use isobutane as fuel (boiling point:11°F), but I find that below 30°F they don’t keep a flame very long unless I’ve kept them warm in a pocket close to my body; their safety mechanisms and flicking mechanism are also challenging to use with gloves on, making them a poor choice for cold weather conditions
    •  <20°F: flint/steel fire-starter
  • Sun protection
    • Sunglasses/glacier glasses
    • Sunscreen
    • Lip balm containing sunscreen
  • Additional Emergency Gear
    • First-aid kit
      • Pills/Capsules:
        • aleve (6), tylenol (4), 12-hour sudafed (2),  Nyquil capsules (2), benadryl (4), 12-hour immodium (2), nuun electrolyte tablets (4)
      • Asthma/Allergy
        • Epi-pens (2), Inhaler
      • Wound management
        • Bandages: Duct tape, 2 gauze pads, 2 maxi pads, 6 steri-strips, 3 tega-derm dressings
        • Triple antibiotic ointment
        • Alcohol wipes
      • Survival
        • Length of Rope/cord
        • Matches/Mini-lighter/Flint&Steel fire starter as described above
        • Knife
      • Hand/Foot Warmers (2)
      • Water purification: Aqua Mira/Iodine Tabs
      • Additional items that described elsewhere that reside in my first aid kit include:
        • sunscreen, lip balm with sunscreen, compass, PLB, ultralight headlamp, emergency bivvy
  • Headlamp with spare batteries
    • All season: Petzl e+LITE (< 1 oz)
      • Spare batteries (2x CR2032 Lithium)
      • Max lumens: 26
      • Comments: It doesn’t through much light, but it’s more than enough to hike with and set up camp with. Down to temperatures in the teens it continues to perform well.
    • ≥20°F: Nitecore Headlamp Series HC60 (3.47 oz)
      • Battery (1 × 18650 lithium ion, micro-USB rechargeable)
      • Max lumens: 1000
      • Comments: This isn’t the lightest headlamp on the market, but it’s bright, its rechargeable, and it generates enough heat on its own that it seems to do better in harsh winter conditions than in summer conditions. I love this headlamp for winter backpacking/nighthiking; I wish that it had a red light mode, but otherwise I can’t complain about this headlamp
  • Hip pouch: to keep inhaler/cell phone etc close to body and warm
  • Bandana/hankerchief: the only cotton items I carry while backpacking

Clothing Layers

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If you have any questions about my gear choices, or if you have a favorite piece of winter gear that you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments below! If there’s sufficient interest in any particular gear item let me know, and I can work on writing up a more detailed review in a separate post.

Happy hiking!!

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A fellow winter hiker descending from Mt. Lafayette and enjoying a phenomenal January sunset in the White Mountains of NH


Additional Links

For other gearlists/reviews that I’ve published check out:

Links to other winter gearlists you might find interesting:

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Appalachian Trail selfie in low visibility conditions above treeline in the White Mountains in January (temp 5F, windchill -30F)

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The X-Zone (In Memory of Christina)

The X-Zone (In Memory of Christina)

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“We smiled + laughed + it was good.” -Christina Jenkins

Prologue

For this post I am skipping ahead to the story of my last day in Peru… the last day I would spend with my friend Christina… the day we explored the caves and tunnels of the ancient Incan site known as the X-Zone.

When I got the news that Christina died in Peru on November 5, 2016 my heart broke. I’ve been trying to sort through the pieces ever since.

I  linger among my memories of Christina, trying to write them down so that I can keep the cruel sands of time from sweeping them away. I don’t want to forget. I don’t want the sound of her laughter to fade from my ears. I want to remember, and I want you to know how amazing she was… I keep thinking that if I find the right words I’ll be able to show you the Christina that I knew, but my words keep failing me.

Christina was a free spirit. She refused to let life box her in, so I shouldn’t be surprised that her spirit refuses to be caged in by my clumsy words now that she’s gone. If she were here she’d encourage me to take the time and space I needed to grieve, but she would also gleefully dance in and around my ‘word cage,’ laughing and sticking her tongue out at me while she doused it with glitter, rainbows, and ponies. Eventually I would have realized the futility of my efforts. Then I would have turned to her with eyes wide, feigning as much uncertainty (and innocence) as I could muster, and say, “I think I might not be able to capture your spirit in words.” I can imagine how she would roll her eyes at me, gesture that it was about time that I figured that one out, and say, “Ya, think!”

I realize that my words will never be right. I’ll never be able to describe Christina’s incredible spirit to you, but I hope that you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of it here and there as it dances around my broken words. The story of our adventures at the X-Zone is the only story I seem to be able to tell right now, and it feels strangely fitting for it to come before its time.

Christina following a path towards the tunnels of the X-Zone (Photo by Jari Jarvela)

“A Pachamama,” I said as I popped the cork and poured the first sip of Prosecco onto the ground as an offering to the Earth. “A Christina,” my voice wavered as I said her name and began pouring a second offering of champagne onto the ground. My voice cracked, “Te amo,” and I finished the pour with tears leaking from the corners of my eyes and down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe she was really gone, that I’d come back from my trip to Peru, but that she wouldn’t. I took a deep breath and lifted my glass, “a vida, a aventuras, a sueñas y glitter, a todo que fue, y todo que será.” I drank my my sip of the Prosecco and stared up at the moon lost in grief and memories.

“Cloud bed, I missed you!” Christina said smiling as she threw herself onto the impossibly comfortable bed at the posh El Convento hotel in Cusco. I flopped down beside her, my body sinking into the fluffy white comforter. After spending 13 days sleeping in a tent and trekking through the Andes among strangers (some of whom became friends), it was really nice to relax and have a slumber party with an old friend  in a place that had the most comfortable beds in the whole wide world. The extra oxygen they were pumping into the room to help offset the effects of altitude probably didn’t hurt either!

A beautiful bit of serendipity had led Christina and I to the convent in Cusco where we were having our slumber party and planning our adventures. Christina had come to Peru to volunteer at a center for women and children recovering from abuse in Cusco, and I was there to trek through the Andes and to visit Machu Piccu. We didn’t realize that we were both going to be in the same city at the same time until I reached out to Christina on the off-hand chance that she might like to join me in fulfilling the dreams of visiting Peru that we’d talked about almost a decade earlier.

During our time in Peru Christina and I celebrated our friendship, roasted marshmallows, discussed our journeys through darker times, and rejoiced that the paths we were on seemed to be leading us to better, happier places. It was the first time in a long time that we were both experiencing an upswing in the roller coaster called life at the same time and we were making the most of it.

“We could go explore the X-zone tomorrow,” I proposed almost immediately. I’d been intrigued by the Inca/pre-Inca site from the moment Christina first mentioned it a few weeks earlier. Heading to the mountains to explore a network of caves and tunnels steeped in mystery and mysticism seemed like the perfect adventure for us!

“You are so predictable,” Christina laughed as we pulled out our cell phones to try to solve the X-Zone’s first mystery: it’s location. The directions we found were just about as clear as mud, but when Christina discovered the GPS coordinates for the X-Zone (13°29’47.1″S, 71°58’26.5″W) we decided to go for it. We’d try to find the mysterious X-Zone in the morning and we’d invite my new friend Jari (the Finnish writer I met during my trek through the Andes) to come with us.

An alpaca in the hills above Cusco

“Aqui?” asked the cab driver looking skeptical as he stopped the cab. Jari, Christina, and I had asked thim to drop us off in the middle of an abandoned field high in the hills above Cusco, miles away from the nearest tourists. The cab driver seemed less than thrilled by the idea.”Sí,” we replied, eager to get out of the cab and start on our adventure. The cab driver continued to look dubious and, switching to English to make sure there wasn’t some sort of misunderstanding, said, “Here? Are you sure?” Christina and I each assured him that were sure. We paid the fare, and started getting out of the cab, thinking that the discussion was over. It wasn’t.

The cab driver turned pointedly to Jari, “Are you really sure?” Jari seemed startled by the sudden attention and puzzled by the question since it had already been asked, and unambiguously answered, multiple times and in multiple languages. Jari turned to me and Christina looking to us to answer, beseeching us with the silent question, “What am I missing here?”

Photo of Jari, Christina, and I at the X-Zone (taken by Christina)

As soon as Jari turned to us for the answer, Christina and I started to giggle and the cab drivers shoulders began to sag. The cab driver was finally realizing that even though Jari was male, he wasn’t secretly in charge, and the answer to the question wasn’t going to change. While Christina mumbled something about smashing the patriarchy, I assured the cab driver that we definitely wanted to be dropped off exactly where we were, in the middle of the field.

Still shaking his head, the cab driver reluctantly drove away. As we watched him disappear (driving at about 1 mile an hour in case we decided to change our minds and chase down the cab) Christina and I couldn’t help but laugh… the absurdity of the whole situation was overwhelming.

Looking out at Cusco from the base of the X-ZOne

After regaining our composure we starting walking up the road. The X-Zone was supposed to be located in one of the rocky outcroppings on the far side of the fields, but the nearest fields were all cordoned off with barbed wire. Hopping barbed wire fences was not on the list of approved adventure activities for the day, so we continued up the road.

About 200 feet after we passed the last of the barbed wire, we left the road and set off across the fields. Accompanied by friends (both old and new), I was in my happy place as we walked through the hills without a trail, and without a care. The sky was blue and beautiful, the air was clean and clear, the day was warm, and the terrain was gorgeous. I was loving every minute of it! In truth, I wasn’t in a hurry to find the X-Zone… The sooner we found it, the sooner our adventure would be over, and I didn’t want our adventure to be over.

In retrospect, it was nothing short of a miracle that we managed to find the X-Zone. Even though we knew exactly where it was (we had its GPS coordinates), our technology had stopped working as soon as we got outside of the city limits so we had no sense of scale, and there were at least half a dozen rocky outcroppings that all seemed equally likely to house the X-Zone.

We weren’t exactly lost, but we didn’t exactly know where we were either.

The dry fields we were cutting through as we followed the directions from the herdsman (unbeknownst to us we were heading away from the X-Zone instead of towards it)

As we looked around uncertainly we spotted a herdsman resting in the shade and eating lunch. He seemed rather entertained by the sudden appearance of our motley crew. “¿Sabes donde estan las grutas?” (Do you know where the caves are?) I asked him. “Sí,” he replied, pointing to a rocky outcropping on the hill above us.

When we arrived at that rocky outcropping we were disappointed to discover its distinct lack of caves. It wasn’t the X-Zone. Perhaps the herdsman had been pointing to an outcropping further up the hill? We hoped that was the case, as we continued picking our way through the eucalyptus trees towards the next rocky outcropping.

Looking through the rocks of the X-Zone to the hills of Cusco beyond

The next person I asked for directions was the guide for a group of tourists exploring the hillside on horseback. He seemed irritated by our presence and replied gruffly, “Go home, hire a guide, and come back to look for the X-Zone tomorrow.” When I explained to him that I was getting on a plane to return to the United States later that day, he reluctantly pointed us towards the X-Zone.

We followed the new directions back down the hill, bushwhacking through another forest of eucalyptus trees, and scrambling through the rocks until we stumbled into a small clearing. As we entered the clearing we interrupted the romantic entanglements of a pair of teenagers. “Ah, so cute!” Christina squeezed my shoulder while embodying the cute. “I know, right?” I replied. Unfortunately they seemed embarrassed by our presence and quickly drew apart.

Our real focus was the rocky outcropping above us. Had we finally found the X-Zone? As we stood in the middle of the clearing wondering if this was it, two guys emerged from what looked like the opening of a cave. We’d found it!

Excited, but ever practical, Christina insisted that we stop and have a picnic before exploring the caves. We’d worked up our appetites with all of the gallivanting we’d done!

Christina checking out the view of Sacsauhuaman from amidst the rocks of the X-Zone

The men descending from the caves approached us. Carefully ignoring Jari and I, the one covered in talismans and crystals, looked directly at Christina and said, “You are obviously a very spiritual person. You are here to visit the X-Zone, yes?” She smiled, said yes, and they had a short conversation.

“That was odd,” I remarked as he walked away. Christina nodded her head, “Yeah, I end up having a lot of weird conversations like that. It’s because of my tattoos.” I looked at her, still puzzled.

“My tattoos, especially this part,” she explained as she rotated her arm and showed us the colorful red and orange circles/rings on her elbow. “People seem to associate my tattoos with Pachamama (Mother Earth/The Earth Goddess) and believe that I honor her with them. That’s why that guy looked at me and said that I was obviously a very spiritual person.”

Evidence of Inca/Pre-Inca stonework at the X-Zone

After we finished basking in the sun and eating our lunch, we began exploring the caves and tunnels of the X-Zone. Everyone else had left by then and we had the tunnels to ourselves.

As we entered the shade of the caves we marveled at the signs of Inca/Pre-Inca civilizations that had used the caves in centuries past. It is believed that the caves and tunnels of the X-Zone (also known as Lanlakuyuq) were of special importance in Inca times because they directly connected visitors between two of the three worlds of the Inca belief system: Kay Pacha (this world) and Ukhu Pacha (the world below).

Fresh coca leaves left as an offering to Pachamama in a natural crevasse in the rock

Throughout the tunnels and caves of the X-Zone were small offerings of coca leaves from modern times that had been carefully tucked into crevices of the rock, and left for Pachamama. Although I’d never heard of Pachamama before visiting Peru, the sense of reverence and respect for nature associated with the offerings to Pachamama were powerful to observe and something that I could identify with at some level.

Christina leading the way through one of the tunnels at the X-Zone

As we wandered through the X-Zone we were constantly discovering new tunnels and caves. Each time we discovered a new path, one of us would volunteer to check it out, and we’d take turns disappearing into the darkness of the unknown. The rest of us would wait eagerly to hear the first reports of what lay ahead.

We never knew whether we’d find a new route, a dead end, evidence of ancient Inca civilizations, or something else entirely. The only thing we knew for sure was that it would be interesting.

“The rock formations in there are really cool!” exclaimed Christina as she emerged from the darkness. “I went as far as I felt comfortable going, but I bet Jari could squeeze his way through even more,” she she said laughing. Jari seemed to delight in squeezing himself through the tiniest of spaces, which was pretty entertaining to watch.

One of the narrow cracks that Jari and I squeezed ourselves through at the X-Zone

As Jari disappeared into the darkness, Christina turned towards me. She confided that she was a bit claustrophobic, but loved the way the no pressure dynamic we had allowed her to explore her fears (and these spaces) as much or as little as she wanted. I confessed that I have a touch of claustrophobia too, but that most of the caves and tunnels I’ve explored haven’t been small enough for it to be a problem.

As we went deeper into the X-Zone it didn’t take long for me to find a tunnel that pushed me right up to the edge of my comfort zone… A series of ancient stone steps plunged steeply into the belly of the earth on the path branching to the left. My curiosity piqued, I asked if I could be the first one to explore this tunnel. After following the steps down into the darkness, the tunnel turned sharply to the left, and the last of the light and sound from the surface faded away. I turned my headlamp on, and snapped a rushed photo of the stairs behind me before excitedly pressing forward to explore more of the tunnel.

Inca stairs in a tunnel at the X-Zone

At the base of the stairs, the tunnel widened enough for two people to stand side by side, but quickly narrowed, and was barely wide enough for me to walk through it comfortably. My small headlamp illuminated the way as the path continued downwards at a gently grade. After descending about 10 paces (30-40 feet) it looked like I’d come to a dead end. I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more to explore, but it was still pretty amazing. I gazed upwards, marveling at the beauty and texture of the rock, listening to the silence of the darkness, and wondering how far below the surface of the Earth I was because I truly had no idea.

Looking at the rock formations above me I noticed that there was a crack in the wall of the tunnel to my right. My gaze followed it down and I was surprised to discover that the trail hadn’t come to a dead-end! It just took a sharp right into an impossibly narrow looking crack. I eyed the crack carefully. The upper portion of it was too narrow for me to squeeze through, but it flared open just a little bit towards the bottom, and the floor of the crack was well-worn from (presumably) human traffic.

One of the tight squeezes at the X-Zone

The average-sized Quechuan person would probably have no trouble crawling through that opening, but it wasn’t clear that the same would be true for me so I got down on my hands and knees and looked more carefully at the opening…

The flared section at the bottom looked to be around 15-16 inches high and extended into the crack about 3 feet (~1m) before opening up into an area that would be wide enough and tall enough for me to stand up in. I could definitely squeeze my way through it, but I’d need to crawl/wriggle through some of that space on my belly, “pecho a tierra.” As I thought about it, a wave of panic quickly washed over me and I reflexively looked back along my path of retreat, towards the exit.

Nothing had changed, the path was still clear. I reminded myself that I was still okay, and the panic faded away. I took a deep breath and weighed my fears against my desire to keep exploring. Throwing caution to the wind, I lowered myself onto my belly and squirmed through the opening.

A tricky maneuver in one of the cracks at the X-Zone

After squeezing through the narrow stretch, I stood up with a sense of exhilaration. I made it and I was still okay! Smiling, I looked around at my newly discovered world. It was small, and I was definitely pushing at the edges of my comfort zone, but I was still on the fun side of that boundary.

I gave the crack ahead of me a calculating look. It seemed like it was way too narrow at the base for me to navigate, but it looked like it might be possible to climb up a few feet and squeeze through the upper portion. That seemed a bit risky though… especially since there were no indications that the crack would widen again.

If I’d been with a guide that could assure me that the crack was passable and safe, I may have been able to push through my claustrophobia enough to keep exploring the crack… maybe. As it was, continuing to follow the crack seemed dangerous and stupid. I decided that I would quit while I was ahead and spend a moment enjoying the space that I had discovered.

“Are you okay??” Christina’s muffled voice, barely audible, broke through the silence. “Yes!” I replied into the darkness. “Are you okay??” Christina repeated, clearly unable to hear me from where she stood at the entrance of the cave.

I dropped down onto my belly, squirmed through the crawl space until I could project my voice into the wider part of the tunnel and repeated, “yes!” I finished crawling through the space, stood up, and shouted, “I’m okay,” into the silence.

“Okay!” replied Christina, her voice still muted but much louder now.

The entrance (left) to the longest/deepest tunnel I explored at the X-Zone

“I’m on my way!” I exclaimed as I headed back towards the mouth of the cave. “There’s enough space in here for two if one of you wants to come down,” I continued. I’d forgotten that I’d asked  Christina and Jari to wait for me at the entrance of the cave. I’d been worried that if my claustrophobia reared it’s ugly head I might need to be able to make a hasty exit from the tunnel, and that would be impossible for me to do while someone else was descending into it. Luckily my comfort level had grown, and that thought no longer worried me.

Jari descended into the tunnel and almost instantly disappeared into the darkness beyond me. As I reached the foot of the stairs leading out of the cave I paused and looked around again. This section was wider and much more spacious than I remembered. “Christina, do you want to come down too? I think this section is wide enough that it’s probably within your comfort zone.” I was feeling reluctant to emerge from the cave, so was glad when she decided to come down and join me.

Christina’s ankle was bothering her, so she descended slowly and cautiously. “Yeah, this is fine,” she said once she reached me. Then, before turning her gaze to the walls of the tunnel, she gave me a quick and impulsive hug, “You were down there so long, and your voice was so muffled, I was starting to worry about you! I’m glad you’re okay!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how long I was gone!” Time had disappeared in the darkness and silence of the cave and I had absolutely no idea how long I’d been down there.

Inca stairs leading down through a tunnel at the X-Zone

As Christina and Jari finished exploring the tunnel I began poking around the adjacent tunnel. It was much shorter, following a number of Inca stairs up into a smallish clearing on the side of the hill. It didn’t seem like it went anywhere interesting, so I descended and waited for Christina and Jari to finish exploring. As I waited, I checked the time and was surprised and saddened to learn that it was already late afternoon. I was going to have to head back to Cusco soon :(

“I’m going to have to come back here!” Christina exclaimed as she emerged from the cave beaming.

“By the way…” she said as Jari emerged from the cave and the three of us prepared to leave the area. “Did you notice this?” She pointed to some small white letters painted on a rock near the entrance of the tunnel we’d just been exploring. Jari responded while I moved closer, “Yeah, I saw that before. Do you think it’s official, or is it just graffiti?” The words, which were carefully painted in all caps about 1 inch high, said, “NO ENTRAR,” (DO NOT ENTER).

In general I think of myself as being very observant, but I hadn’t noticed the fine lettering either on my way into- or on my way out of- the tunnel. My heart sunk. I was pretty sure that it was official because of the way the rock had been scraped away to make an uncharacteristically smooth surface in just that one spot, and because the size, styling, color, and type of paint didn’t seem typical of graffiti.

“I think it’s probably official,” I confessed, feeling especially guilty because I was glad I hadn’t seen it until after I’d explored the tunnels. I view myself as a trail ambassador, so I wouldn’t have felt comfortable knowingly violating the (presumed) property owner’s wishes if I’d seen it before.

“I thought it was probably graffiti,” shrugged Jari. Perhaps we were just seeing our own biases? As a scientist I thought it was written by an archeologist, and as someone that writes about graffiti, Jari thought it was graffiti. We looked expectantly at Christina, she would be our tie-breaker.

She looked at us and burst out laughing, “I don’t know, but if it’s graffiti, it’s f***ing brilliant!”

She turned to me, “Don’t you have a plane to catch? Let’s get moving.” She was right, I did have a plane to catch, but exploring the X-Zone was a lot more fun than sitting in an airplane. “Fine!” I said, sticking out my tongue out at her and laughing.

“Let’s go that way,” I said pointing towards a tunnel that we hadn’t explored yet, but that seemed like it would lead us vaguely back towards the point where the taxi had dropped us off. I was definitely procrastinating. We’d worked plenty of buffer into our schedule, so we still had plenty of time left… or, perhaps more accurately, we weren’t out of time yet ;)

Emerging from the tunnel we were presented with a choice: we could either squeeze through the lower doorway to the right (which seemed to lead us back away from the road), or we could climb the steep narrow stairs that started partway up the rock on the right…

“Are those actually stairs?” asked Christina skeptically.

“Hmmm… probably? What else would they be?” I said looking at the stairs carefully to make sure that I wouldn’t damage them by climbing them. “I’ll go check them out!” I offered selflessly… Yeah, I was definitely procrastinating.

The high road or the low road at the x-zone

“The view from here is pretty good,” I told Jari and Christina as I reached the top of the stairs. Hopping to a rock a little bit higher up, I gained a spectacular view of the golden hills surrounding us. I was near the top of the rocky outcropping, and at this altitude the horizon looked even further away than usual.

I didn’t realize quite how far up I’d scrambled until I looked back down into the craggy chasm and saw Christina nervously eyeing the steep stairs. “I think it might not be a good idea for you with your ankle,” I admitted to Christina as I headed back towards the top of the stairs. I figured I’d head back down to Christina as soon as Jari finished coming up.

Christina looking dubious and deciding not no, but heck no

When I got over to the stairs, however, I noticed that Jari had stopped, and was gingerly dabbing at the top of his head. “Jari?” I asked, looking at him and sensing that something was wrong. He was so distracted he didn’t notice.

“He just slammed his head into the rock,” Christina explained. Jari remained silent, focusing on the task of climbing the remaining stairs. Christina broke the silence to say, “It was a pretty good hit.” If Christina thought it was a good hit I was definitely worried.

As Jari approached the top, he looked up at me. As soon as our eyes met I knew that Christina was right. Jari’s expression remained stoic, but his eyes spoke volumes. Normally they were full of intensity, regardless of whether they were sparkling with laughter, flaring with irritation, or hardened into a steely focus… That intensity was always there, but not this time. His gaze was directed but unfocused, and I wasn’t 100% sure he was seeing me. I hoped that the only thing hiding behind those eyes was pain, but I had no idea how hard he’d hit his head, or what kind of injury we might be dealing with.

As I helped him to his feet he distractedly lifted his hand and gingerly touched his scalp. I reflexively asked, “Is it bleeding?”

“Yes,” he said, turning his head towards me and meeting my gaze, “quite a bit.” That was his way of saying that it hurt like a motherf***er. I breathed a sigh of relief. Jari was responsive and his eyes were focused and reactive. That was really good news.

“Would you like me to take a look at it?” He nodded. There wasn’t enough space at the top of the stairs where we were, so I suggested a suitable rock just a couple feet of way. “Let’s go over there.”

I looked down to check-in with Christina. “Yeah, no,” she quipped. “I’m not going up there… Nope. No way,” she said with an air of infallible certainty. “I’m good, I’ll wait for you down here.” It seemed like a prudent decision to me, so I nodded and turned my attention back to Jari.

I led him over to a slightly larger space, sat him down on a rock, and took a look at the gash on his head. It was about an inch and a half long, and although I didn’t think it needed stitches, it looked like it might leave a scar. “Would you like me to clean it up for you?” I asked. There were some small bits of rock and grit in the open wound that really needed to be dealt with. With Jari’s consent, I moved to the other side of him, put down my backpack, and started taking out my first-aid kit…

“Jocelynin lääkekassi muistuttaa kulma-apteekin ja kenttäsairaalan yhdistelmää, saan häneltä pikakurssin ödeemaisen ihmisen elvyttämiseen. Keuhkojen hapenottokykyä hän on mitannut koko porukalta kahdesti päivässä oksimetrillä.” -Jari Järvelä in Tintinä Andeilla for Suomen Kuvalehti

“Jocelyn’s first-aid kit seemed like a combination of a field hospital and the corner pharmacy…” -rough translation from the Finnish article “Tintina Andeilla” by Jari Järvelä

Suddenly a security guard materialized in the clearing below us,”¡Bájense!”(Get down from there!), he bellowed. I apologized immediately, and told him we’d come down. The security guard pulled out his walkie-talkie and called someoen. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was clearly unhappy.

I paused to weigh my options… On one hand, I was dealing with an angry guard. On the other hand I was dealing with a head wound. Since the guard wasn’t pointing a gun at me, and cleaning the detritus out of Jari’s wound before it scabbed over would be much better than doing it later, I decided to deal with Jari’s injury first. Besides, I’ve never been good at following orders :-P

I felt the guards impatient gaze upon me as I slowly and carefully prodded at Jari’s gash, dislodging the grit and cleaning it up as best I could. Despite the pain, Jari remained stoic and unflinchingly still, which was surprising until I remembered that he was ex-military.

While I cleaned up Jari’s gash, I thought about how we were going to get down from the rocks. Scrambling down the way we’d come up seemed like a fantastically bad idea given the circumstances, but I didn’t want to get separated from Christina either. After I finished getting Jari cleaned up I looked back down at Christina. Although she couldn’t see the guard, she’d heard him yell at us. “How about I just meet you around front?” she offered.

“That could work,” I replied. “It looks like there’s another way down from up here, so I could meet up with you at the front of the outcropping.” I felt uncomfortable splitting up our small group, but in this case it seemed wise. “Are you sure that’s okay?” I asked, double-checking that Christina was really okay with this plan.

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She rolled her eyes at me just a little bit, as she said, “Of course.” Christina was like me: if she said she was okay with something, she was. We both smiled, knowing that if our positions were reversed we would have had the exact same conversation. I turned my attention back to Jari and we started making our way down through the rocks.

“Get down from there!” the guard repeated as soon as Jari and I started moving. “Yes, yes, we’re coming down,” I replied wondering how the guard could imagine we were doing anything else. “Don’t you know this area is closed?” he continued, pointing to the sign in the clearing beside him, which read, “Cerrado, área en mantenimiento” (Closed, maintenance area). He clearly wasn’t sure how we could have ended up where we were without seeing that sign.

“Lo siento,” I apologized again and admitted (truthfully) that we had come in from the other side and hadn’t seen the sign. As Jari and I continued our descent, Christina emerged from down below and approached the guard. She offered to pay any admission fees that we might have missed due to our round-about approach to the site. She wouldn’t knowingly evade the tourist fees because she believed that we should do our part in supporting the local archeological sites (I agreed). Although that seemed to placate the guard, he continued to watch Jari and I like a hawk. At least he’d stopped interrogating us, which was definitely an improvement.

“Maybe you’ll end up with an unexpected souvenir from this trip,” I commented, looking back at Jari. He seemed to be feeling much better, but was completed befuddled by my non sequitur. “Oh,” I said smiling as I realized that I was channeling my mother, “If you end up with a scar, it’ll be an unexpected souvenir.” He smiled as I went on to tell the story of how I’d fallen during my PCT thru-hike and broken my nose, and that my mom’s reaction had been to ask if the fall had given me a ‘souvenir’ (most people can’t tell, but I did end up with a ‘souvenir’ from that fall).

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When we finally reached the clearing where the guard was waiting for us we asked him about the best way to get back to Cusco from there. He was eyeing us impatiently, but explained that we needed to, “Follow the path through the trees over there,” while waving off towards the right. We set off in what we thought was the correct direction.

“No, not that way!” the guard yelled, clearly exasperated. “Over there,” he pointed and waved to a different spot. It was not even a little bit clear where the path he wanted us to follow was located, but we tried again.

“No,” the guard replied again, “you see, over there, the path goes over there!” Even then it wasn’t clear to us, but the guard clearly thought that there was a path, and that there was both a right way, and a wrong way, for us to leave the clearing. 

We continued this comical dance of taking a couple steps towards what we thought was the path, looking to the guard, having him redirect us, and then trying again until we finally made it out of the clearing and into the safety of the eucalyptus trees.

“Well, that certainly ought to have convinced the guard that our story about getting lost was believable,” Christina blurted out as we hiked down the narrow dirt path. “You’re not wrong,” I laughed, and within a few seconds we were all laughing so hard we couldn’t walk and had to stop and take a break.

After we escaped from the clearing it seemed like the hands of time sped up. Before we knew it we were walking along the road back to Cusco contemplating the chances that an empty cab might happen by, and trying to decide if we’d be better off hitchhiking or walking the rest of the way into the city. While we were contemplating which bad plan was our best plan we happened upon a Quechuan woman and her son standing expectantly by the side of the road.

“¿Está esperando un taxi?” (Are you waiting for a cab?) we asked. She shook her head, “No.” Then after a moments pause she continued,  “Estoy esperando el autobús” (I’m waiting for the bus). In an amazing stroke of luck, the was due within moments, and it would take us almost exactly where we needed to go.

As Christina, Jari, and I climbed onto the bus I turned to take one last look back at the rocky outcropping of the X-Zone. I didn’t want my adventures in Peru to end, and I didn’t want to say good-bye to my friends, but I had a plane to catch.


Epilogue

The first weekend of November (2016), was the first big adventure I went on after returning from the X-Zone and my adventures in Peru: a solo backpacking trip to the White Mountains where I climbed 4 of New Hampshire’s acclaimed 4000 footers (North Tripyramid, Middle Tripyramid, Whiteface, and Passaconaway). I trudged through the crusty snow, my head in a cloud of icy fog, feeling more intensely alive than I had in weeks. I pitched my tent in a snow-covered clearing, ate a simple dinner of mac-and-cheese with tuna, and curled up to sleep, happy and content. As I drifted off to sleep I imagined Christina laughing as I tried to explain to her how sleeping on the wet, cold, snowy ground after a dinner of processed mac and cheese could possible be defined as ‘fun’ and not just ‘miserable.’ She would have hated it!

That same weekend Christina was also off on an adventure. Her time volunteering at the women’s shelter in Cusco had just ended, and she was enjoying her final days in Peru at a spiritual retreat in the Sacred Valley. While enjoying Pisco Sours and causas (a layered potato dish typical of Peruvian cuisine that Christina loved), Christina had explained to me that she was hoping the guided shamanic journeys at the retreat would help her integrate her experiences in Peru (her work, her activism, her newfound joy of solo adventuring et al) with her life going forward. She was looking forward to the new world she was going to create for herself when she returned to the United States, and was confident that the retreat would leave her feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on whatever it was that the world would throw at her next.

On Sunday night (November 6), I returned from my adventure, exhausted, but feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on life’s challenges… I crawled into my bed, which was so warm and comfortable that it felt like a little slice of heaven, and started drifting off to sleep. Mere moments before becoming completely unrousable my phone rang.

Half-asleep, I answered it. It was the late night phone call that everyone dreads. Christina was dead. Still groggy, I hung up the phone, incapable of believing what I’d just been told… Moments later a fitful sleep overtook me.

I awoke the next morning, uncertain whether the call had been real or imagined. My mind rejected the unbearable truth. I prepared for, and then gave a talk to a room full of colleagues at 10 am. It had to be done. It went well. Christina and I had always been able to do what had to be done… It’s what we did… But we had also learned the hard way that we needed to allow ourselves time and space to grieve.

On November 8th I dragged myself to the polls amidst my grief and voted. It needed to be done. The next day, as my liberal friends mourned the loss of the country, I mourned the loss of my friend. I wanted to shout at them, “America isn’t dead! Maybe she’s different than what you thought she was, but she’s not gone!” Sobbing, I’d finish with a whimper, “Christina is dead! No matter how much I fight, I can’t get her back!”

In fact, just getting Christina’s body back to the United States turned out to be an ordeal. Memorial services for Christina were delayed as the people closest to her dealt with the repatriation of her mortal remains… It took longer than it should. Finally her body was returned to US soil, and on December 10th we were able to hold a Memorial service for her in a small space just outside of Boston.

As I prepared for the services I struggled to find words to describe what Christina had meant to me. During a rough patch in her life, my ex-husband and I had welcomed Christina into our home, and she’d transitioned from being one of my friends to being one of my sisters. Like my little brothers, she teased me mercilessly and helped me learn to take myself less seriously. She also knew that when the sh** hit the fan she could count on me to wade through it, stand by her, and help her clean it up. It’s what we did.

So, what did Christina mean to me? When I tried to distill my words into thoughts, they came out as fragments, and I ended up with was this poem:

“Be the TROUBLE you want to see in the world”

A mischievous twinkle in her eye

Suddenly a ridiculous adventure

Butterfly wings and glitter

Happiness found

Embrace the whimsy, the joy

It is okay to play!

TROUBLE is fun

“Be the CHANGE you want to see in the world”

Strong and in charge

Life is messy

The work is never done

Embrace the challenge, the tears

Fight for what you love

CHANGE is hard

“Embrace the power of BOTH”

This isn’t the Highlander

There can be more than one

Be trouble, be change

Discover more options

Responsible and fun

Whimsical and strong

Laughter and tears

Glitter and Grit

BOTH is better

I miss her, and I don’t expect that to change. She has been woven into the fiber of my life and my being. She was family, and the love I have for my family is unconditional and unfettered by bounds between life and death.

Christina and I causing ‘trouble’ in 2009 (Photo by David Green).


The words Christina used to describe herself were, “survivor. radical. traveler. she/her. leaping. healing. glitter + grit.”
“Love, as I am often heard saying, is a verb. To love involves choices + acts,  including – perhaps, especially – difficult ones. Love is showing up when it is hard. Love is saying no when it is the true choice for you. And love is using our voices, speaking up + calling out, when needed.” -Christina Jenkins

“I love writing. I love finding my words, using my voice, sharing + listening. Writing is a form of visibility that is both a privilege + a way to continue showing up for radical social justice.” – Christina Jenkins

Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)

Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)

“How much water will you need for the day?” the guide asked as we prepared for our second day of trekking through the Andes.

“I don’t know, a liter?” answered one of our group members. I gave the guide a skeptical look, that number seemed dangerously low to me. Our plan for the day included ~4700ft of elevation gain through an exposed section of high altitude desert with no shade and the forecast was predicting temperatures over 90°F. Both my experience and the research I’ve done on water requirements for hikers suggested that 1L wouldn’t be anywhere near enough:

“When’s the next time we can get water?” I asked, hoping I was missing something since the guide seemed unconcerned. “We can get water when we stop at Maranpata for lunch,” he replied. I looked at the elevation/mileage cheat-sheet that I’d made up before the trip. Maranpata wasn’t that far away, but we had to climb from the Apurimac River at 5084ft (1550m) up to 9950 ft (3033m) to get there.

“Hmmm,” I paused to to do some calculations. The guide estimated it would take us ~6hrs, it was going to be a strenuous climb, and it was going to be extremely hot.  I would probably need ~4L in that time, but I could ‘camel-up’ and drink a liter with breakfast and drop that number a bit. “I’ll take 3 liters,” I concluded.

“Really? Are you sure you?” replied the guide, urging me to take less.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I replied confidently. I’d made the mistake of skimping on water during a heat wave on my AT thru-hike in Virginia and ended up suffering from heat exhaustion (complete with nausea, vomiting, and double vision). It wasn’t an experience that I cared to repeat.

The guide remained unconvinced, “Water is very heavy. Make sure you don’t take more than you need.”

“I know,” I replied.  “A lot of people skimp on water because water is heavy and they want to keep their pack weight low, but when temperatures climb over 90°F skimping on water isn’t just a bad idea, it’s dangerous! Even though its heavy, for conditions like these most hikers I know would carry 2-3 L of water.” Eventually everyone sorted out how much water they were going to carry (the range was 1.5L to 3L) and we set off on our adventure.

The trail rose steeply out of the canyon, providing us with some shade as we started our first uphill climb of the trek. Since the temperatures were already in the ’80s, we would enjoy the shade while it lasted!

The first couple of switchbacks leading up from the river seemed long and gentle, especially since our guide was leading us with a slow deliberate pace called rest-stepping (a strategy I was familiar with from high-altitude mountaineering). Down by the river at ~5000ft rest-stepping felt awkward and out of place, but as we gained elevation and the switchbacks got steeper it began to feel more natural for me.

Unsurprisingly, the distance between the fastest members of our group (me, Jari, and the guide) and the slowest people in our group began to grow as we climbed. We also lost the glorious shade, and began to split our time between hiking in the blistering heat of the sun and baking in the middle of the trail while waiting for the group to catch up.

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After three hours of hiking we’d traversed 1.2 miles and reached Santa Rosa, a small oasis at 6873 ft (2095m) with shade, benches, toilets, and a stand selling beverages and snacks. We took a 10-minute break there and bought beverages. I bought a blue Gatorade, someone else bought a coke, and the Quechuean woman running the stand brought out a pitcher of mud-colored liquid and poured some into glasses for both the cook and the guide.

“¿Qué es esto? (What’s that?)” I asked, my curiosity piqued by the milky-brown liquid. “Acca,” replied the woman. “Chicha,” clarified the cook. I furrowed my brow as I tried, and failed, to translate chicha from Spanish into English. “Inca Whiskey,” elaborated the guide smiling broadly. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, but it seemed plausible that it was some sort of home brew. The only way to know for sure would be to try some. Even though I like whiskey, alcohol seemed like a bad idea on a scorching hot day when I was headed to altitude, so I went back to drinking my unnaturally blue Gatorade.

Since our group had struggled with the first part of the climb, the guide offered to take the day-packs of the slowest group members and put them on a horse that would stay with us as we climbed. While he and the head horsemen (Gumercindo, pictured above), re-sorted gear to free up one of the horses, we headed out.

In the guides absence the group seemed willing to let me set the pace and lead the charge up the mountain. As a kid, my dad had one simple rule for hiking as a group, “you start as a group, you hike as a group, you end as a group.” So I tried to keep our group together by setting a relatively slow pace, and making sure that everyone was caught up at each switchback.

The midday sun directly overhead was blazingly hot. Even in the best conditions the ~2700 ft (~823 m) of elevation gain in the 2 short miles (~3 km) between Santa Rosa and Maranpata would have felt steep, but with temperatures soaring up over 100ºF it felt even more impressive.

I found the steepness of the switchbacks particularly impressive. When I’d seen the elevation profile for the hike I’d assumed this stretch of trail would be a steep, rocky scramble straight up the mountain like the scrambles in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Instead it was a consistently graded dirt track more like the trails I’d hiked in California, but much, much steeper. The impressive elevation gains on this hike (1800 ft in the first 1.2 miles, and 2700 ft in the the next two miles) rivaled some of the steepest sections of the trails I’d hiked on the AT and PCT. One advantage of the super-steep switchbacks was that they were so steep they created shadows, which gave us a little bit of shade to rest in.

We were taking the hike so slowly and resting so often that despite the elevation gains, the heat, and the altitude I was feeling pretty good. It also gave me plenty of time to marvel at the beauty of the trail around me and wonder at its curiosities. Per usual, I took pictures of each new flower and strange plant that I saw. I also marveled at the things I didn’t expect to see while hiking through the desert in Peru,  like the groves of bamboo tucked into the ravines. I’d always thought that bamboo was strictly native to China, but it turns out that bamboo is also native to Peru and the Americas!

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As the morning turned into afternoon the energy levels among the people in the group started to drop. One person in particular was really struggling. Her pace had slowed significantly in the last hour and she was feeling nauseous. In addition, she was starting to stumble in a way that I found alarming. Unusual “umbles” (stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles)  while hiking are classic warning signs that something is going seriously awry.

Since we were going up in altitude, we hadn’t eaten in 6 hrs, and the temperatures were excessively hot, it was hard to tell if the problem was dehydration, altitude, declining blood sugar levels, or all of the above. The next time she stumbled I suggested we stop in the shade for a few minutes to rest and drink some water. I also offered her some of my favorite electrolyte gummy candies (shot bloks). Luckily she started to feel a little better after that, and her gait and nausea began to improve.

Finally at around 2 pm we made it to our lunch destination at ~9,573 ft (2918 m). By then a lot of people in the group were feeling excessively fatigued and headachey. Since temperatures had reached 102°F and it had been about 7 hours since we last ate, dehydration and low blood sugar were definitely a part of the problem, but exertion at high altitude was also likely to be part of the problem.

  • 75% of people have some symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) above 8000ft (2500 m)
    • Mild AMS: headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, disturbed sleep, and a general feeling of malaise
    • Moderate AMS: severe headache (not relieved by medication), nausea and vomiting, increasing weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, and decreased coordination (ataxia)
    • Severe AMS: shortness of breath at rest, inability to walk, decreasing mental status, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE)

While we rested in the shade waiting for lunch I pulled out the pulse oximeter (Acc-U-Rate CMS 500DL, US$19.95) that I’d brought along. I’d purchased it because I was curious about how the altitude would affect my poor asthmatic lungs, and as a scientist I’d hoped that the entire group would join me in collecting data  about the effects of altitude on our physiology. I measured my oxygen saturation (SpO2) and then passed the pulse oximeter around to the rest of the people in the group. Sure enough, every single person in the group had a lower SpO2 at Maranpata than they had had that morning at the Apurimac River. Mine had dropped from 96% to 93%, but other people in the group had seen more dramatic drops. For example, the woman that had been struggling with nausea on the way up had dropped from 94% to 74%.

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*The decrease in mean SpO2 levels between our campsite at the Apurimac River (94.4% +/-0.3SE, n=7) and Maranpata (86.9%+/-2.6SE, n=4) was statistically significant (p<0.03)

Luckily after resting, hydrating, and eating lunch everyone started to feel better. Besides, the rest of the day’s hike was what the guide called, “Inca flat,” which meant that there were plenty of little ups and downs, but not significant changes in altitude.

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Heading from Maranpata towards Choquequirao the cacti quickly gave way to greener, lusher vegetation, and we caught our first glimpse of the Inca ruins of Choquequirao in the distance. The steep farming terraces of the lowest sector of Choquequirao seemed to be cut into the face of sheer cliffs. It was incredible to think about what kind of oasis this must have been when it was actively being farmed and maintained. Especially since only a fraction of the site at Choquequirao has been excavated.

As we got closer to the first visible ruins of Choquequirao (Phaqchayuq, or “the one with the waterfall”), which sports at least 80 agricultural terraces I noticed the unmistakable  purple star-shaped flowers of the nightshade family mixed in among the vegetation. They reminded me of the potato plants that used to grow in my grandfathers garden. I wondered if this plant might be among the 2,500 varieties of potato cultivated in the Andes, and if its ancestors had escaped from the Inca terraces centuries ago.

Even though the two miles (3km) from Maranpata to the Choquequirao campsite were relatively flat, the pace of our group as a whole was still incredibly slow. As the sun dropped behind the ridge a sense of disappointment welled up within me. One of Choquequirao’s claims to fame is that it contains the only known Inca site dedicated to the sunset and I’d really been looking forward to watching the sunset from that amazing site. It was only as I realized that I wasn’t going to get to watch that sunset that I began to understand that the speed of our group might have a negative impact on our itinerary and on my vacation.

After settling in among the terraces at the Choquequirao campsite and admiring the beautiful mountains around us, Jari and I headed into the dining tent for tea, snacks, and cocoa. It turned out that he was just as disappointed about missing the sunset at Choquequirao as I was and was concerned that the slow pace of our group might prevent him from getting to visit the ‘Llamas del Sol (Sun Llamas)’ at Choquequirao the next day. I had no idea what the Llamas del Sol were, but I was excited to find out, so I said that I’d happily explore them with him.

Eventually everyone else from the group filed in and we ate dinner. Once again the cooks prepared a real feast for us, including something that I’d never eaten before, lupine salad (ensalada de tarwi). “I had no idea that lupine was edible,” I commented as the guide described each dish. “Usually it isn’t,” he explained, “raw lupine beans are poisonous, but the Inca learned that if you soak the lupine beans in the river for two weeks they become edible.” I was curious about what the white beans from the pretty purple flower tasted like, so immediately tried one. Their flavor was absolutely unique. They were slightly bitter, nutty, and vaguely reminiscent of bug spray, but still surprisingly good. I took a heaping serving of them and enjoyed imagining that they might act like a natural bug repellent.

While the cooks prepared bananas flambé for dessert,  Jari quietly asked the guide if we were going to get to be able to check out the Llamas del Sol at Choquequirao the next day. The guide explained that to see the llamas we’d have to hike half-way down the mountain and back up again, and that it would be way too much for our group. “Yes, but I would still really like to do it,” insisted Jari. “Count me in!” I added.

The guide sighed, “I don’t know why Jari is fascinated with dead llamas. We’ll see plenty of live llamas on this trek without having to do any extra hiking.” I still had no idea what the Llamas del Sol were, but I was intrigued, especially since it would involve extra hiking. “The two of us (Jari and I) could go check out the llamas and then catch up to everyone afterwards,” I proposed. Although the guide wasn’t enthusiastic about it, he gave an affirmative nod, “that could work.” Jari and I would get our adventure at Choquequirao!

–Next Installment: Day 3-Choquequirao and the Llamas del Sol–

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Summary: Day 2 by the numbers

  • Apurimac River (5084ft/1550m) to Santa Rosa (6873 ft/ 2095m)
    • Distance: 1.2 miles (2 km)
    • Elevation gain ~1800 ft (~550m)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5 hrs (3 hrs)
  • Santa Rosa to Maranpata: 9,573 ft (2918 m)
    • Distance: 2.1 miles (3 km)
    • Elevation gain: 2700 ft (~823m)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5-2hrs (4 hrs)
  • Maranpata to Choquequirao Campsite: 9950ft (3033m)
    • Distance: 2.1 miles (3 km)
    • Elevation gain: ~0ft (‘Inca flat’ as described by guide)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5hrs (3 hrs)
  •  Totals: 5 miles (8 km)
    • ~4700 ft (~1400 m) elevation gain
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 4-5 hrs (~11 hrs: 7:30 am to  6:30 pm)
Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1)

Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1)

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“Slow,” responded our guide with brutal honesty, “You are are very slow.”

He had tried to get a way with the politely evasive answer, “Hard to say,” when the woman with the baseball cap and jaunty step had asked him how the pace of our group rated, but she’d persisted. She’d even given him options to choose from, “Would you say that our group’s pace  is pretty average? Is it faster than usual? Is it slower? How would you say our group is doing compared to other groups that you’ve guided?”

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We stopped and looked back towards the rest of our group, many of whom were so far back that we couldn’t see them. Our guide shook his head, “Today we have gone only down, and still you are very slow.” He looked across the river at the switchbacks we’d be climbing in the morning, “Tomorrow we go up.” A vague note of concern in the guide’s voice as he discussed the slowness of the group drew my attention to the position of the sun in the sky… it would be setting soon. Suddenly the guides concern with the slowness of the group became clear.

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Blue agave by the side of the trail as we descended towards the Apurimac River

Although I’d noticed that our group was slow, I hadn’t thought much about it. I’d been soaking up the beautiful and exotic views of the altiplano (high andean desert) with the mountainous cloud forests off in the distance. In short, I’d been lost in the timeless beauty of the Andean mountains…

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A cliff covered with hundreds of bromeliads

Hiking through the altiplano reminded me of trekking through the Sonoran desert on the PCT in California with its dusty trails, distant forest fires, desert scrub, prickly pear cactus, giant blue agave (American agave; an invasive from Mexico and central America), and tall columnar cactus (unlike the columnar cactus in the Sonoran desert, these Peruvian cacti contain mescaline). There was also a succulent that the guide referred to as Inca agave, which was used in Inca times to make cloth and rope (it looked so much like yucca, I couldn’t  believe it was agave; it turns out that it is fourcroya/furcreaea andina).

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Heading into a steep switchback surrounded by cacti

I was also captivated by new-to-me sights, like hundreds of bromeliads growing on the faces of cliffs, and a tree that looked like it was straight out of a Dr. Seuss book (a Ceiba/Kapok tree).

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A Ceiba/Kapok tree with it’s cottony puff balls

When I took a minute to stop to think about it, I realized that it had been taking us (as a group) an awful long time to descend the 6 miles (~10km) down to camp. Since we were descending more than 4400ft (~1350m) and it was only day 1 of a 12-day trek, I didn’t mind going a bit slower than usual (it would really suck to sprain an ankle or twist a knee on a loose rock on day 1)!

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Trail sign saying, “Danger Landslide Zone,” indicating no headphone use

Despite the large drop in elevation, the trail was mostly nicely, if steeply, graded switchbacks and since we were only carrying day packs we should have been able to descend it fairly quickly. Our itinerary suggested it would take us about 3 hrs to descend, which seemed like it would have been an entirely reasonable pace of about 2 miles/hr (~3km/hr).

Instead, we’d started hiking at 11:30 and when we stopped for lunch 3 hours later we were about halfway to our riverside campsite. By 3:30 we were hiking again, but by 5, when the guide was forced to admit that we were slow, we were still at least an hour away from camp.

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The trail disappearing off into the distance

The mountains were starting to glow with the low angle light of the golden hour and the Apurimac river, a headwater river of the Amazon, was sparkling with the late afternoon light… I desperately wanted to be closer to those amazing waters before the light completely disappeared from the valley. The guide, ever perceptive, noticed that I was getting a bit antsy and said,  “I’m going to wait here for the rest of the group. You see those tents down there by the river? That’s us. The three of you can keep going to camp if you want, just don’t cross the bridge over there.”

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The little voice inside my head danced, and shouted, “Freedom!” For the first time all day I set off at my normal pace, stretching out my legs, and enjoying my full stride. There was so much more oxygen here below 6000 ft (~1830m) than there was in Cusco at 11,000 ft (~3400m) that I felt like I was flying. The trail into and out of the canyon kept reminding me of the long, hot, descent into Belden on the PCT (aided by a similar looking ascent immediately afterwards), and my body was feeling like my thru-hiker body as I danced around the rocks, and whipped around the switchbacks.

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The turquoise waters of the Apurimac River at sunset

I loved it! The steep canyon walls lit with the orange glow of the sunset, the sparkling turquoise waters below headed on their amazing journey to the amazon, and many miles of open trail ahead of me on my journey to Machu Piccu… I was in the mountains, I’d found my happy place, I was home again!!

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A sunset view of the bridge over the Apurimac River

I ran out of trail and sunlight at about the same time, but my face remained lit up by a giant smile as I settled into camp. Not only was I in this amazing place, but when I arrived in camp my tent was already set up for me, hot chocolate and cookies were waiting for me, AND I didn’t have to make dinner or wash dishes?!! It seemed to good to be true. The horsemen (there were 3 for our group) even brought us wash clothes, basins, and soap to wash up with.

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After we all arrived and got cleaned up, we reconvened in the dining tent. Seated around the table were the 8 people of our fellowship: the guide, the Finnish writer, the 5 friends from Wisconsin, and me. As we drank cocoa and tea the most amazing meal materialized before us, thanks to the men behind the curtain, our two amazing cooks. There was no denying that our group was slow, it had taken us 6.5 to 7 hours of hiking to descend 6 miles on relatively decent terrain, but as we all sat around eating our gourmet dinner on the banks of the Apurimac river, there was nothing but smiles all around.

My tent at the Playa Rosalinda campsite

Day 1: Capuyiloc to Playa Rosalinda (By the numbers)

  • Total Distance: ~6 miles (~10km)
  • Starting time: ~11:30 am
    • Capuyiloc: 9,561 ft (2915m)
      • Groups Oxygen Saturation: 91.1±1.5 (n=8)
  •  Finish time: ~7:00 pm
    •  Playa Rosalinda/Apurimac River: 5,084ft (1550m)
      • Groups Oxygen Saturation: 94.4±0.8 (n=7)
  • Temperatures: Daytime (~100°F/~40°C), Nighttime (88°F /31°C)
  • Total Elevation: -4400ft (-1350m)

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–Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)–

 

Trekkers Wanted! (Adventures in Peru: Part 1)

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“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir

The Andes called to me, their thunderous voices promising beauty and adventure. I listened to their Siren song, strapped inside the belly of a small airplane, my body crunched into the unnatural seated position that civilization all too often forces me into. I dreamed about stretching my long legs out and hiking thru the Andes. It was a dream that I’d visited often in the 6 months since I booked my trip to Peru, but now, from my achingly small seat in the plane, the Andes were so close it felt like I could reach out and touch them.  “Soon,” I reminded myself, “soon I’ll be hiking in these mountains!”

Back in March I’d responded to an ad reading, “Trekkers Wanted: departs September 11/ returns September 23: 12-Day Choquequirao, Salkantay Pass, Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.” It sounded like the perfect adventure for me. It was the longest (and most rigorous) guided trek that I could find that included the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. The itinerary for the trek listed ascents of 5000 to 6500 feet (~1500 to 2000 m) per day, and involved trekking up to altitudes of ~16,000 ft (~4950 m)… The elevation gains and the daily mileage of 6-11 miles/day (11-18 km/day) seemed very do-able, but being asthmatic and living at sea level, I couldn’t help but worry about how the altitude might impact me…

Though I’d done treks to higher altitudes without any trouble (eg, Kilimanjaro 19,341 ft/ 5,891 m), my asthma had made me slower than most of my fellow PCT thru-hikers whenever we were at altitudes above ~9,000 ft (~2,743 m). Would I end up being the slowest person in the group if I joined this trek? It was possible. The listing told me very little about the group I would be joining, just that they were an American group from the midwest, they welcomed people of all ages, and their previous international trekking experience included high altitude adventures in Nepal (the Annapurna Circuit).

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The Plaza de Armas (Cusco, Peru)

When my flight finally touched down in Cusco (11,152 ft/3,399 meters) I was so excited about finally getting off of the plane that I forgot all my worries about the altitude. As I carried my luggage through the airport, took a cab to my hotel, and settled into my room I still hadn’t noticed any effects of the altitude. It wasn’t until I set off at brisk walk to go explore the Plaza de Armas in downtown Cusco that it hit me. I’d made it across the street and halfway down the block (~20 steps), when suddenly I was out of breath…Was my asthma acting up here in Cusco? Was it the altitude? Was it a combination of both?

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Statue of Pachacuti in the middle of the Plaza de Armas

I stopped and inhaled deeply. The air was cool, dry, and full of diesel fumes. As cars and buses rattled down the cobblestone street beside me, I exhaled slowly… If I was out of breath because my asthma was acting up, exhaling would trigger an asthma attack (never fun). If I was out of breath because of the altitude, I would be able to exhale cleanly.

I exhaled cleanly and smiled… My body was just a little cranky because the high altitude in Cusco meant that I was getting about 33% less oxygen per breath here than I get at home. I reminded myself that my body would adjust to the altitude, but that I should try to take it slow for a couple of days to give my body the time it needed to make those adjustments. Maybe it had been a good idea to spend the extra $$ on a hotel that pumped extra oxygen into the room at night!

  • Boston, USA:
    • elev. 142 ft/42 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~101.325 kPa (760 mmHg)
    • % of 0xygen available compared to sea level: 100%
  • Cusco, Peru:
    • elev. 11,152 ft/3,399 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~68 kPa (512 mmHg)
    • % of oxygen available compared to sea level: 68%
  •  Recommendations for exercising at altitude:
    • Days 1-3: 25% – 50% reduction of activity level compared to sea level is recommended as your body begins to adapt to high altitude
    • Days 4-7: Resume normal amount of exercise, but keep a slower pace/lower intensity than sea level activities

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A quechuan woman rests with her baby llama (Plaza de Armas, Cusco)

Moving slowly, I continued exploring the narrow streets leading to the Plaza de Armas. The layout of the streets and the distinctly Spanish architecture reminded me of wandering through the streets of Toledo, Spain… In many places, however, the old stonework looked like something different, something that I would learn had roots in the masonry of the Incas.

As I wandered through the plaza I was bombarded by people trying to separate me from my vacation dollars. “Massage! Lady, would you like a massage?” cried young women as I walked by. Other people frantically waved artwork and prints in front of my face, “You want?!” Women in traditional dress carrying baby llamas or herding young llamas constantly approached me offering to let me pet the llamas (or take my picture with them) for a small fee. Everywhere I turned someone was trying to get my attention in the hopes that I might buy something.

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Quechuan woman with baby llama in traditional dress on the corner near my hotel (Cusco).

A curt,”No,” and a firm nod was my response to every query. I quickly scanned the plaza de Armas looking for a quieter, less hectic area where I could relax for a minute and soak in the sights unmolested.

Paradoxically, the corner of the plaza that seemed to be the quietest was also the most crowded. A group of ~50-60   young(ish) people were clustered together, motionless, and quietly staring into their cell phones. Although I’d frequently seen the same phenomenon in the plazas and squares around Boston, my mind didn’t put two and two together until someone noticed that I was staring at the crowded corner and said, “Pokemon. They’re playing Pokemon Go.” I laughed and decided to keep exploring in the plaza even if that meant continuing to practice the art of saying “No” every 10 seconds.

Although the Plaza was beautiful, it was with relief that I finally excused myself from it and started walking out of the central tourist district, towards the office where my pre-trek briefing would take place. The adventure I was about to embark on may have started with a “Trekkers Wanted” ad, but I was more than ready to leave the city and head off into the mountains for a couple of weeks. I wanted my trek!!

— Next Installment: Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1) —

Lost and Alone: A Solo Thru-Hiker’s Perspective

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26 days lost, alone, and starving. Inchworm (Geraldine Largay) had gotten lost while backpacking along the Appalachian Trail and had survived for at least 26 days before perishing in the backwoods of Maine. I didn’t want to imagine it, but as I read the heart-wrenching words in her journal, imploring whoever found her body to let her loved ones know that she was dead and where to find her, I couldn’t help it. It’s the kind of thing that both tragic heroes and horror stories are made of.

I’d had similar thoughts in far less dire circumstances on my solo PCT thru-hike in 2014. Deep in the high sierra, alone, exhausted, hungry, and trudging through the snow with no trail in sight, no people in sight, and surrounded by nameless white peaks I was was overwhelmed by the realization that if I was truly lost, I might die out there and my body might never be found. I’d thought that I’d come terms with the risks and solitude of solo backpacking, but the thought that if something happened to me my family and the people I cared about might not even find my body… it haunted me as I doggedly plunged through the snow, postholing along the route where I imagined the trail to be.

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As it turns out, I wasn’t lost. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, I’d like to imagine that my experience, my GPS, my map, and my compass, would prevent me from ending up in a situation like Inchworm’s, but I have enough experience to know that sh** happens, the mountains are unforgiving, and nobody is perfect.

Instead of second guessing Inchworm’s decisions and her personal character (read this article in the New York Times and this one in the Portland Press Herald if you want to reassure yourself that this could never happen to you because you’re a better outdoors-person than Inchworm was), let’s take a more objective look at how prepared she was.

Bushwhacking through the dense forest in Maine a couple of miles away from where Inchworm was found.

Did she have the “10 essential” pieces of gear every hiker should carry?

She had at least 9/10 of the essentials listed on the HikeSafe website:

  1. Map (yes)
  2. Compass (yes)
  3. Warm Clothing (yes)
  4. Extra Food and Water (yes)
  5. Flashlight or Headlamp (yes)
  6. Matches/Firestarters (yes)
  7. First Aid Kit/Repair Kit (yes)
  8. Whistle (yes)
  9. Rain/Wind Jacket & Pants (yes)
  10. Pocket Knife (unknown to me)

It looks to me like she was fairly well prepared (in terms of gear). Besides, she had enough stuff so that she was able to survive for 26 days after getting lost, which is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.

FYI: Many thru-hikers I know skimp on this list (especially the map, compass, and whistle). I didn’t carry an emergency whistle on my AT thru-hike until I was gifted one by the folks at the Mt. Washington Observatory on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I’ve carried it ever since.

Did she share her travel plan?

According to the HikeSafe website you should “tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.”

Inchworm shared her travel plan. Her husband knew her planned 3-day itinerary, saw her off, and planned to meet her at the next trail intersection.

Graphic: James Abundis/Globe Staff (Note that peak labeled Redington Mountain is not the 4000 footer; Redington Mt. is unlabeled)

Did she S.T.O.P.? (Stop, think, observe, plan)

If you get lost on an outdoor adventure, the general advice is that you should stop (or sit), think, observe, and plan (STOP). All of the evidence suggests that Inchworm did stop, think, observe, and plan, although it can be argued that she should have stopped sooner. The more detailed advice provided by Hike Safe says, “if the last known location is within a reasonable distance, try to go back to it. If you can’t find any recognizable landmarks by backtracking, stay put,” and further elaborates, “you may need to be on higher ground in order to identify landmarks such as streams and ridges.”

The evidence suggests that Inchworm followed this advice, perhaps to a fault. After realizing she was lost she headed to higher ground to try to get her bearings (and to try to get cell phone service) and then she stayed put. With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to criticize her decision to stay put, but “staying put” and “charging on” are both considered reasonable actions after a few days of waiting for rescue according to some sources.

Did she do the “5 things” you should do if you can’t rescue yourself?

According to hike safe the 5 things you should do if you can’t rescue yourself are:

  1. Stay warm and protect yourself from the elements. If possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.
  2. Try to remain hydrated.
  3. Put bright clothing on, or put out something that’s bright to attract attention.
  4. Continue to blow your whistle at regular intervals
  5. Don’t lie on bare ground. Use the equipment you brought to protect yourself from the elements.

At first glance the evidence suggests that Inchworm did all 5 things. However, there’s that second sentence in step 1, “if possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.” Inchworm’s camp was in a warm and protected space, but it wasn’t readily visible from the air and ground. It seems likely that she looked for an open space and didn’t find one, so opted for higher ground not knowing that there was a nearby ATV road. There is evidence that she tried to increase here visibility by hanging her mylar blanket in the trees and there’s eveidence that she tried to light signal fires.

A campsite in an open area near the Appalachian Trail in Vermont

FYI: Open spaces can be hard to come by in New England’s backcountry, and most of us are used to pitching our tents under the cover of trees. This is especially true since we know that the fields are full of ticks (Lyme Disease is endemic), and camping is strictly prohibited in most other open areas along the trails in the Northeast. “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you” is a helpful reminder if you’re only hope is a helicopter rescue. It’s also important to know that most searches on the ground never get more than 1/2 a days hike from the nearest road, so if you’re backpacking in a remote area you’re best hope is probably going to be getting sighted by someone in the air.

Conclusion

Based on the Hike Safe Hiker Responsibility code developed by the White Mountains National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game, I’d have to declare Inchworm a responsible (and prepared) hiker. In TV survival shows like Naked and Afraid they drop people into the wilds and see if they can survive for 21 days. Inchworm survived for at least 26 days in the wild, and in my opinion that deserves a heck of a lot of respect. Misfortune, tragedy, and death should not be mistaken lack of preparedness, lack of moral fiber, or irresponsibility. Were there things that she could have done differently? Undoubtedly. Does the evidence suggest that she was ill-prepared, or incompetent? No.

Our Role: The Hiking Community

Although there has been lots of discussion about what Inchworm did wrong, and a lot of second-guessing of her actions, I haven’t seen much reflection on what we, as a hiking community, could have done better, or things that search and rescue could have done differently. Take a look at the reduced search area where efforts were focused after the first 7 days.

Map of the narrowed search area for Inchworm

Now take a look at the location where Inchworm was found.

Though earlier searches had come very close to her actual location, later searches focused on a different section of the trail. Why? How did they end up focusing on the wrong stretch of trail? I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons, but one contributing factor could be “a tip the warden service received about a hiker who reportedly stayed with Largay at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to the night before she was reported missing.” Certainly when I hiked through the area in late September the prevailing opinion was that she had gotten lost somewhere between the summit of Lone Mountain and the Carrabassett River (and I’d thought that the river might have done her in). We were all wrong.

She’d made a wrong turn at Orbeton Stream, and was found  much closer to the Poplar Ridge Lean-to than anyone expected (GPS Coordinates of her final location: N44 59.011 W70 24.099). When you look at the time, effort, and heart that went into the search for her by both search and rescue and the hiking community it’s impossible to find fault, but it is a reminder that we should be careful when trusting our memories, and with our reporting of events.

This map shows the tracks of searchers and the location where the remains of Geraldine Largay were found.

Heartbreaking map of the search areas, with a yellow dot showing Inchworm’s final location.

Yeah, but what did she do wrong?

Let’s take a look at the things people say that Inchworm did wrong.

Inchworm hiked alone. Inchworm started out with a hiking partner, but when her hiking partner got off of the trail due to a family emergency she decided to continue on. Although there is no guarantee that hiking with others will keep you safe, there is also no doubt that there is “safety in numbers,” and Inchworm was hiking alone when she got lost.  There are lots of reasons why people hike alone. I always invite other people to join me on my adventures, but when I can’t find people to join me, I frequently make the decision to hike alone. I love hiking and backpacking, and I have no intention of letting the fact that I’m solo deter me from following my dreams. For me, the benefit is worth the risk. That said, I try to minimize that risk as much as I can… lost, alone, and starving to death is not my idea of a good time!

Inchworm may not have known how to use her compass. Inchworm’s friend Jane Lee said that even though Inchworm carried a compass she didn’t know how to use it. Regardless of whether or not this assertion is true, it serves as an important reminder that your safety gear is useless if you don’t know how to use it. If you are a hiker that carries a compass, when is the last time that you used it? Chances are pretty good that a little practice and review with a map and compass would do you good. I think that it is also worth noting that most of the “concerning evidence” reported about Inchworm’s incompetence comes from the hiking partner who had to leave Inchworm and the trail because of a family emergency. As her hiking partner is human, it is incredibly likely that Inchworm’s disappearance was traumatic for her and that she was struggling to understand her friend’s disappearance and trying to bridge the gap between knowing that her friend’s disappearance was not her fault, and feeling like Inchworm wouldn’t have gotten lost if she had still been there hiking with her… Coming to terms with those feeling in the immediate aftermath of Inchworm’s disappearance may have caused her to overemphasize her concerns.

My impromptu backcountry campsite nestled under the trees near Mt. Abraham in Maine

Inchworm stayed in one place for too long. This criticism largely seems like a hindsight is 20/20 kind of issue. Inchworm followed conventional wisdom, sheltering in place, near water, and minimizing her hypothermia risks. I haven’t seen any guidelines that say that you should abandon your camp and move on if rescue hasn’t arrived within a day or two (please comment and share if you’ve found any). Bumbling around in the woods, especially after you’re been lost and when you have a dwindling supply of food, puts you at a high risk of injury and will cause you to burn calories and eat through your resources more quickly. I don’t think Inchworm stayed in one place for too long, it is more likely that she stayed in the wrong place for too long.

Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her. The missing person’s report states “SPOT@hotel.” Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her! Why? Why would it be listed as “SPOT@hotel”? Why didn’t she have it with her? My guess is that it’s absence from her gear and her person was 100% accidental. Why she’d taken it out of/off of her pack we may never know (perhaps to replace the batteries?), but this is the most tragic example of “your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you” that I have ever heard! Would Inchworm have been found? Would she be alive today if she’d had her locator device with her and activated it? Probably. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes! Your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you!

An InReach satellite messenger lent to me by my friend Root Beer Float

What would I do differently?

If I get lost, I want to get found!! When I think about what I could do differently one thing immediately comes to mind. I can carry some sort of personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger with me. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be found and rescued, (Kate Matrosova had a GPS, a PLB, and a sat phone with her when she perished in the White Mountains in the winter of 2015), but it certainly increases the chances.

The only question is, which device should I carry? Since I’m looking for a device/technology that my life may depend on, I’ve done a lot of research on the current SOS/locator/messenger technology and devices available. Stay tuned for my analysis, gear-review, and decision based on the three main options:

For more information on what you should do if you get lost and how to avoid getting lost, check out NOHLs “What to do when you’re lost in the woods” post.

USGS Topo Map showing the GPS Coordinates where Inchworm was found along with the AT and 4WD roads nearby.

‘Tis the Season for High-Vis Hiking… (Hunting, blaze orange, a high-vis gearlist and more)

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The sound of gunfire shattered the stillness of the trail. “Oh, shit!” I thought. “It’s still hunting season!” Once again I’d forgotten that the winter hiking and backpacking season was also hunting season. I paused, trying to remember where my blaze orange was… Doh!! The answer was nowhere useful. I have a blaze orange hiking T-shirt that I wear in the fall, along with a blaze orange reflective baseball cap-I love them both. I also have a blaze orange expedition parka, but I don’t have any blaze orange for the in-between-winter season. Clearly, I needed more blaze orange backpacking gear. The only problem was that I needed it right then!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

“Pop!” another shot went off, “Pop!,” And then another. I frowned as the AT was bringing me closer to the hunters and not further away from them. As a 4-season hiker and backpacker I share the mountains and the woods with hunters; I just want to make sure that I do it as safely as possible. That means being both seen and heard! Since I didn’t have enough blaze orange on, and my path was predetermined by the route of the Appalachian Trail, I opted to make my presence known with the only tool I had on hand: my voice. I started singing. Loudly:

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

As I hiked through Vermont singing, I remembered that I’d run into this same issue last year on a section-hike of the New England Trail during the week between Christmas and New Years. I’d known that the regular deer hunting season ended by the second-week of December, but I’d failed to take into account the ‘primitive firearms’ season which runs until December 31 each year. On that trip I ran into five hunters for every deer track I’d seen. Even though they’d surprised me, I hadn’t surprised them. All of the hunters had both heard and seen me coming long before I’d seen them; still, I’d like to give them as much advanced notice as possible!

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September through November I always remember that it’s hunting season and I wear my blaze orange, but for some reason in late December I forget that there are still plenty of people in the woods with guns that are shooting at things. I don’t want them to accidentally shoot me, so I want to make it as easy as possible for them to see me, and avoid me… blaze orange it is, but, how much blaze orange should I be wearing as I wander through the woods in the winter? (Check out the educational video below, which has information about how much hunter orange you need, and how visible it is).

The safe bet seems to be to wear the same amount of blaze orange they recommend that the hunters wear: a blaze orange hat during most of the hunting season and 500 square inches of blaze orange on the head, chest, and back during shotgun season. Perhaps due to my motorcycling background I figure if I I’m going with high-visibility for hunters, I might as well go high-vis all the way, so here’s my high-vis hiking gearlist/wishlist:

Once I have my blaze orange gear, the tricky part is remembering when hunting season actually is so that I’ll know when I’ll need wear it… The answer varies by state (check the listings near the bottom of the post), but it’s a good bet that you should be wearing blaze orange whenever you go out into the backcountry between September and May. For example, in Massachusetts hunting season started on September 8, 2015 (with deer archery season), and will extend until May 23, 2016 with the end of wild turkey season.

Is hunting really allowed on national scenic trails like the Appalachian Trail?

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Yes! Hunting is allowed along most of the Appalachian Trail, or at least 1,250 miles of it according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For a large portion of the remaining 900ish miles, hunting is allowed just outside the 1000-foot wide AT corridor. On my thru-hikes I’ve encountered a fair number of hunters on the trails: on my 2013 AT thru-hike I ran into turkey hunters on the trail in Georgia and North Carolina in May, as well as moose hunters in Maine in October. On my 2014 PCT thru-hike I ran into hunters in the woods of both Oregon and Washington, and on the New England Scenic Trail I ran into dozens of hunters in late December.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

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As a thru-hiker I’ve heard gunfire on the trail so often that I’ve started to recognize, and be able to tell the difference in, the patterns of sound between: people firing at clubs and ranges (there’s a spot on the AT in Pennsylvania where the firing range sounds disturbingly close to the AT), people randomly firing at objects and targets (hiking through the desert on the PCT provided plenty of data points for that), and hunters firing at game (see above)…

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

As if the sound of frequent gunfire wasn’t enough evidence of gun use on the trail, on the PCT there were shell casings all over the trail… I ended up making a game of keeping track of each new type of casing I saw, just like I was keeping track of each new type of flower: there were casing from handguns, shotguns, and rifles in all shapes and sizes… Too many to count! Thru-hikers have a tendency to write-out the mile-markers for the long-distance trails using sticks, stones, and pine cones. But near mile 500 of the PCT the only thing around were shell-casings, so I made my mile-marker out of them :-P

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Since there are plenty of folks with guns out there, take a minute to review your local hunting seasons and land-use rules before heading into the woods this winter, and remember to wear plenty of blaze orange! Below are links to hunting information for the states that the AT, the PCT, and the Florida Trail cross through, along with a rough range of the current hunting season to give you a sense for why you want your blaze orange if you are thinking about doing a lot of winter hiking, or setting off on a thru-hike:

Hunting Seasons on the Appalachian Trail:

Hunting Season for the PCT:

Hunting Season for the Florida Trail:

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***

All together now, let’s sing (To the tune of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song):

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I sleep all night and I hike all day
I’ve got a pack, upon my back
And boots upon my feet.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I’m not a doe and I’m not a steer
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I hear gunshots, I eat my lunch,
I go to the lava-try.
I follow the white blazes
Singing loudly and off key

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like Bambi stew, and duck confit
My whiskey strong and neat.
I should be wearing orange
Now wouldn’t that be sweet!

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

Living On The Edge! Katahdin’s Knife Edge and More…

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Treebeard traversing the Knife Edge after completing his AT thru-hike.

If you are looking for one of the most spectacularly beautiful hikes in the Northeast, you should add Mt. Katahdin and the Knife Edge to your bucket list… but I have to warn you, it’s also one of the most rocky, brutal, and exposed hikes in New England. When I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike on the summit of Mt. Katahdin on October 4, 2013 I looked around and realized that the AT was missing some of the best parts of Katahdin and I knew that I’d be back. This summer (2015), after hiking all of the trails up Mt. Katahdin except for the Abol Trail (currently closed for repairs), I’ve finally decided on my favorite Mt. Katahdin day-hike, a hike that contains two of Maine’s official 4000 footers:

The view hiking up the Hamlin Ridge Trail 

Katahdin- Knife Edge Loop (Hamlin, Baxter, and Pamola Peaks)

    • Date: August 16, 2015 (Sunday)
    • Peaks: Hamlin Peak (4756 ft, official 4000 footer), Baxter Peak (5268 ft, official 4000 footer, AT terminus), South Peak (In the Middle of the Knife Edge), and Pamola Peak (4919 ft)
    • Parking: Roaring Brook Day-Use Parking Area (pit-toilet, ranger station sign-in with current weather report, no potable water). The roads into Baxter State Park are gated at night and open for Day-Use at 6 am. Parking is limited within the park, and spots may be reserved up to 4 months in advance. A small number of spots (5 for Roaring Brook) are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Prepare to get up early and wait in line at the gate if you are hoping to get one of the first-come, first-served spots, and have a back-up plan for enjoying one of Baxter’s other peaks, like North Brother, if the lots for Katahdin are full.
    • Conditions: Extreme Heat Warning! temps in the 90’s. 5-10 mph winds with gusts up to 20 mph
    • Total Mileage: 11.3 miles
      • Chimney Pond Trail- 3.0 miles. 0.2 miles to Helon Taylor Junction, 2.1 miles to North Basin Cut-off (originally planned to take cut-off, but water sources at junction were dry), 0.7 miles to North Basin Trail. Trail followed along roaring brook, below treeline with occasional views; rocky with constant, but relatively easy grade; crowded despite early (6:45 am start).
      • North Basin Trail- 0.4 miles. Large boulders,  below treeline (shaded), no water, no people
      • Hamlin Ridge Trail- 1.3 miles. First 0.2 miles below treeline; trail is rocky, with large boulders, rising steeply along the fin of the ridge to Hamlin Peak. Awesome views of Baxter Peak, the Knife Edge, and the North Peaks throughout; I didn’t encounter any people on this trail. (I’ve hiked all of the trails to Katahdin’s summit except the Abol Trail, and found the ascent up the Hamlin Ridge Trail the easiest)
      • Caribou Springs Trail- 0.2 miles. Rock-hopping from summit down to saddle, above treeline the whole way. Small clear spring located just off trail to the right as you descend and intersect with saddle the Northwest Basin Trail. Encountered 2 backpackers and 1 hiker while breaking for lunch at the spring. The spring was still freely flowing in late August.
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      • Northwest Basin Trail- 0.9 miles. easy rock-hoping along ridge, above treeline, no people.
      • Saddle Trail- 1.0 miles. Slow and steady climb to Baxter summit, droves of people, some rock-hopping, some loose gravel, many false summits. Exposed with gorgeous views. Intersections with cathedral cutoff (0.5 miles), and later Cathedral Trail provide welcome evidence of progress along ridge
      • Knife Edge Trail- 1.1 miles. Put your trekking poles away, you will need both hands and both feet to climb up and over boulders, rocky slabs, and fins. Do not attempt in wet weather or with approaching thunderstorms. Not recommended for folks with full packs. Not recommended for those with fear of heights. Very exposed, and awesome!
      • Helon Taylor Trail- 3.2 miles. Above treeline for the first 1.2 miles. Large Boulders and moderate to steep decline for the first ~2 miles. Large stream with good flow ~1.8 miles down. Final miles fairly easy going.
      • Chimney Pond Trail- 0.2 miles. I took a break back at Roaring Pond and then finished off the rocky, but easy last 0.2 miles to the parking lot.
    • Total Duration: 10 hrs, 15 minutes: 6:45 am – 5:00 pm (1 hr break at Caribou Springs, 2 hr break at Baxter summit, 45 minutes at Avalanche Brook)
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Mt. Katahdin at dawn as seen from Roaring Brook Road

Unlike most trailheads in the Northeast, the parking within Baxter State Park in extremely regulated, and you’re supposed to reserve your parking spot in advance (up to 4 months in advance). I was not that organized, so I was hoping to get one of the 5 first-come, first-serve parking spots in the lot at Roaring Brook. I’d heard rumors about people getting in line as early as 3:30 in the morning in the hopes of getting a spot but that was too early for me so I decided that I’d get up when I got up, and figured I’d take my chances!

I ended up waking up fairly early, just before 5 am, so I hoped I might actually stand a chance. Still in my pajamas I crawled out of my sleeping bag, rolled into my car, and drove over to the Togue Pond Gatehouse where the road into Baxter State Park was literally gated off. When I got there at 5:15 am there were already three cars in line (the people in the first car said they got there at 4 am), and by 5:30 am there were at least 10 cars in the line behind me. When the rangers finally arrived to open the park at 6 am the line of cars behind me stretched down the road, around the corner, and out of sight… It probably contained upwards of 60 cars, and 4 of the first 6 cars were hoping for the first-come, first-serve parking spots at Katahdin’s main trailhead! Although the rangers tell you to get there by six for the first-come first-served spots, on most popular days the folks arriving at six are already too late.

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Taking a break to look back at the trail I’d just climbed along Hamlin Ridge.

By 6:10 am I’d filled out the paperwork for my spot and I headed down the dirt road towards the main trailhead. I was tired, but excited… The drive down the dirt road to the parking area felt like it took forever, but eventually I joined dozens of other cars at the lot, packed my bag, and by 6:45 am I was on the trail and headed off on my adventure!

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The first part of my hike (the Chimney Pond Trail) was crowded with dayhikers, backpackers, scout groups, and camp groups, but as soon as I turned onto North Basin Trail I had the mountain to myself… I enjoy interacting with other hikers, but there’s something about being in the woods alone that I’ve grown to love. I reveled in the solitude and the joy of only interacting with the rocks, roots, earth, and sky… The going was rocky, but before long I’d turned onto the Hamlin Ridge Trail, and by ~8:30 in the morning I’d popped up above treeline where I would stay until ~4:30 that the afternoon.

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Looking up the Hamlin Ridge Trail towards Hamlin Peak.

As I hiked I marveled at how lucky I was… the weather was picture perfect and I could see both Hamlin and Baxter Peaks rising ahead of me, with the Knife Edge in silhouette off to my left… If I looked very carefully I could see the ant-like people scurrying across the top of it’s ridge. It looked truly impressive!

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Looking over at the Knife Edge from Hamlin RIdge Trail

When I reached Hamlin Peak I had the summit all to myself… The rocky alpine meadow up there was still  intact and seemed to stretch almost endlessly in every direction. “This is how the other summits should look…” I thought contemplatively and almost mournfully. Here, at the summit of Hamlin Peak, there was almost no sign of the erosion damage that is so pervasive on almost every other alpine peak in New England… There haven’t been enough travelers to trample the meadow and damage it’s fragile ecosystem (yet)… I found my irritation with Baxter State Park’s rules, gates, and lines beginning to melt away… “There need to be places like this, places where the foot traffic is limited, and some semblance of the native alpine environments exist,” I thought as I enjoyed the privilege of being there… It was beautiful and it was wild, and I hoped it would stay that way!

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As I lingered at the summit I noticed the sign for ‘Caribou Spring.’ Was it really possible that there was a spring up here above treeline on one of Katahdin’s flanks and that I was going to be hiking right past it? It was late August in the middle of a mountain heat wave, and the thought of getting to top off my water bottles before continuing my hike across the exposed ridgeline to Katahdin’s Baxter Peak was more than a little bit appealing! I was skeptical though, in late August a lot of New England’s mountain water sources go dry…

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The quiet of the mountains stayed with me as I continued towards the spring… I could see the crowds on the Saddle Trail headed towards the summit of Baxter Peak, but they were over a mile away. I lingered on my peaceful mountaintop trail, enjoying the solitude while it lasted.

When I got to the trail junction and looked around sure enough there was the little spring burbling away. I decided to sit there a while, eat my lunch, and top off all of my water bottles. It was hot and I still had a very long day ahead of me! While lingering there for lunch I encountered the only three people that I’d see on the trails around Hamlin Peak.

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On the Northwest Basin Trail looking at the cloud enveloping the summit of Katahdin.

The difference in the number of people hiking on the Northwest Basin Trail along Katahdin’s ridgeline and the Saddle Trail was stunningly impressive… I had the Northwest Basin Trail all to myself, but I could clearly see a constant stream of people ascending and descending the Saddle Trail… I felt no need to hurry as I picked my way through the rocks… I’d get there soon enough, and no matter how many people I encountered, Katahdin’s majesty wouldn’t be diminished… The mountain and its ridgelines were breathtaking!

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On the Saddle Trail looking back towards Hamlin Peak and North Brother.

I’d forgotten how rocky Katahdin’s trails are… They look so beautiful and well defined, that I’d somehow thought of them as being like the trails along Franconia Ridge, which almost feel like the gravel trails you’d find in a well-groomed park, but in truth they are much more like the rock-hopping trails that you find near Mt. Washington’s summit… beautiful, but definitely knee-busters…

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On the Saddle Trail looking back at Hamlin Peak and North Brother

As I slowly, but steadily climbed the Saddle Trail I met and passed many of the same scouts and campers that I’d seen earlier in the day (back on the Chimney Pond Trail), and we cheered each other on. Sure, the solitude I’d been enjoying earlier was gone, but it was replaced by a sense of community and comraderie that was special in a different way.

“Is there an easy way down?” asked a bedraggled couple just beginning their descent and looking like the heat was getting to them. “Well,” I thought, “I think the Saddle Trail down to Chimney Pond is your best bet if your car is at Roaring Brook.” They looked at me and moaned, “That’s the way we came up!” They were radiating a sense of misery and defeat, that knew very well… I’ve been there before.

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“Do you guys have a map? How are you doing on food and water?” I asked and encouraged them to step to the side of the trail for a minute. They didn’t have a map, so I took a break and showed them mine… It was their first time up Katahdin and it was a heftier climb than they’d expected, and the weather was a lot hotter than they’d anticipated as well. “I think we have enough water to get back to Chimney Pond,” they replied, “but we’re out of food.” I nodded, dug around in my pack and gave them the extra granola bars and packets of Oreo Cookies I had. “Thanks!” they exclaimed digging into the Oreo Cookies right away. “No problem, I always carry extra,” I assured them as we parted ways.

Approaching Baxter Peak on Katahdin all I could think about was the last time I’d been here… I didn’t notice the crowds of dayhikers swarming around me at the summit. I was lost in memories of my 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike…

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Standing at the summit of Katahdin in 2013 at the end of my AT thru-hike

Memories of my thru-hike, memories of the amazing adventures I’d had, and the incredibly people I’d met… Memories of the crew I’d celebrated with on summit of Katahdin in 2013, and grief over the loss of Shady, who I’d last seen here at this summit. I retreated to the rocks where our group had huddled for warmth two years ago on that day in 2013, and had a moment of silence for Shady… Remembering not just the grief of loss, but the joy of the times we’d shared…

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The crew I celebrated with in 2013

While we’d huddled in this spot in 2013, Shady, with his ever adventurous spirit, had decided that finishing the AT and summiting Katahdin wasn’t enough, so he’d done a quick hike across the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak and back again. Remembering that brought a smile to my face… there was no denying that Shady was a Bada** Ranger with a heart of gold!

I slowly returned from my reverie and looked around… I was surrounded by day-hikers… There were at least 50 of them, but there was no sign of any thru-hikers, but wait… wait… “That’s totally a thru-hiker,” I thought in the second before I recognized him… “Treebeard!” I exclaimed realizing that it was the thru-hiker that had camped with me at Abol Pines Campground the night before. “Congratulations!”

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Treebeard celebrating amongst the crowds at the summit of Mt. Katahdin

“Are there any other thru-hikers around?” I asked. “I haven’t seen any,” he shrugged in reply. When I’d summitted early on an October morning in 2013 the people at the summit were almost exclusively thru-hikers, I couldn’t imagine what it would have felt like to finish my thru-hike without any other thru-hikers or friends and family around… “Could you take some summit pictures for me?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied enthusiastically… I’d wished I’d taken more fun and creative summit photos at the end of my AT journey, so I was more than happy to help Treebeard get the photos he wanted!

OMG, it was a zoo up there! Absolutely everybody wanted to get pictures with the sign at the summit of Mt. Katahdin… there was a disorganized line, and people were either calmly waiting their turn, or pushing their way to the sign and taking their photos oblivious of everyone else… We waited in line and eventually got to take a series of photos, some funny, some serious, and some with me joking with the crowd about thru-hiker modeling,”Work It! Work It!” I yelled laughing and snapping photos…

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Eventually Treebeard got all of the summit photos he wanted and we prepared to set off. Since he and I were both planning on descending via the Knife Edge we decided to head of together. Nowadays I don’t get to hang out with fellow thru-hikers very often, so it was nice to get to relax into thru-hiker mode for a bit… From the summit the Knife Edge looked pretty intense, and I have to admit that I didn’t mind the idea of hiking it with another person instead of hiking it solo!

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Looking out across the Knife Edge from the summit of Katahdin

Though I’ve hiked the Knife Edge before, I was surprised by how crazy, rugged, and awesome it was… I don’t know of any other trails in New England that are quite like it! As Treebeard and I slowly made our way across it we were constantly amazed by both the beauty of the ravines falling off to either side of us, and at the path that the trail took across the ridge.

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Preparing to cross the Knife’s Edge

We were lucky that we had perfect weather crossing the ridge, and as we crossed we could see the people scurrying along it’s edge almost a mile away… “Wow!” I kept thinking, “just wow!” Since Treebeard is a 2015 thru-hiker and I’m a 2013 thru-hiker I figured he’d outpace me and be on his way before long, but we ended up crossing the whole Knife Edge together… The fact that he’d hiked 20+ miles to get there and was doing the Knife Edge with a full pack probably slowed him down a bit ;)

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Treebeard stopping to look back at the Knife Edge trail winding it’s way down from Mt. Katahdin

“There’s nothing like this on the AT,” Treebeard exclaimed as we bouldered across the ridge and skirted narrow rock ledges. I absolutely agreed, but it felt kind of nice having someone who had just hiked the entire AT that summer put words to that feeling! As we threaded our way through Katahdin’s rocks we talked about our thru-hikes and some of our experiences on the trail in the lazy off-hand sort of way that sometimes comes with having lived through similar, but different, extreme circumstances.

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We took it slow, taking pictures, and taking care with our footing… We’d both had long days and it didn’t seem like it was worth risking injury to rush through the Knife Edge. Nobody else seemed to be in a big rush either.

After spending a full day rock-hopping on Katahdin, I was feeling pretty confident with my balance and foot placements as we went across, but I was incredibly glad that I wasn’t carrying a full pack, and that I wasn’t wearing thru-hiker shoes (by the time thru-hikers get to Katahdin their shoes are usually falling apart). Treebeard seemed to be handling it with not problem, but admitted he wasn’t sure that he’d recommend that other thru-hikers go this way. “Actually, I talked to the ranger about it this morning,” he confessed, “and he said that they don’t recommend this to the thru-hikers…” He paused, “I can see why!”

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It turned out that the most challenging portion of the Knife Edge for us came at the very end. It was a steep descent down a slightly jagged rock-face right before we got to Pamola Peak. As Treebeard and I approached we saw a group of people staggered at different spots, unable to figure out how they were going to get down, but confident that there was no good way.

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The first section of the descent didn’t seem so bad and Treebeard and I quickly passed everyone, but I have to admit, we were a bit stymied by the final section… No matter which way we looked it didn’t seem good. Treebeard went down the way we’d seen a couple of people ahead of us go, but seemed to struggle with it, so I looked for an alternative. “Sh**,” an expletive floated up from down below as Treebeard almost pealed off of the rocks. “Nope,” I’m definitely not going that way I decided as I looked for a safer way to meet him at the bottom. Eventually I found a way that worked better for me, but it still involved one slightly risky move…

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The last descent along the Knife Edge (look closely and see the people in the process of descending… I blew up that section for the next photo)

At the bottom Treebeard and I looked back at it, “Is this worse than Mahoosuk Notch?” I asked. The Mahoosuk Notch is infamously the hardest mile on the AT… It’s not as exposed as the Knife Edge, and certainly doesn’t have the same kind of spectacular views, but crossing it during my thru-hike had definitely seemed like a death-defying act. “Yup,” he replied, “worse than the Notch!”

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Standing on Pamola Peak and looking back at the Knife Edge we’d just crossed Katahdin seemed like a mammoth of an awesome mountain… It felt strangely bittersweet though… All day as I hiked I’d had amazing things to look forward to, first Hamlin Peak, then Baxter, then the Knife Edge, but now the next stop was the parking lot… I didn’t want to be leaving Katahdin… I didn’t want to be leaving Baxter State Park… I wanted to stay up there above treeline soaking it all in, at least until sunset and the light went away.

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Unfortunately, better sense prevailed… I’d been up since ~4:30 that morning, and had been baking in the sun above treeline since 8:30 that morning… It wouldn’t be smart to stay up there and I knew it, so I slowly began my descent down the Helon Taylor Trail. As we descended into the shadow of Katahdin we remained above treeline, but dropped out of the wind… Suddenly it was oppressively hot… It had been abnormally hot all day, but the temperatures were at their hottest now, and peaking into the 90’s even on the mountain.

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The rock-hopping that had been fun just moments before began to get tedious… did every step really have to be this rocky? And though the views were still impressive, I began to long for shade… Shade that I knew wouldn’t come until I was within 2 miles of the end of my hike. As I continued to descend I noticed that I was getting unreasonable irritated every time the trail decided that the best route involved me dropping down 3+ feet in one step.

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“Hey Treebeard, I’m going to have to stop for a snack and for some water,” I said as soon as we dropped below treeline and I noticed a bit of shade. “Ok,” he replied, “I think I’m going to keep going.” We exchanged contact information and headed our separate ways. It had been nice to hike with someone for a while. It was also nice that in true thru-hiker style there wasn’t any pretense or hurt feelings when we decided to part ways again when our needs differed.

I sat in the shade, taking a leisurely break, eating a snack, and double checking my water reserves… I had about a liter and a half left… “Wow, I’ve been going through a lot of water!” I thought. I’d started up the Hamlin Ridge Trail with 5L of water, and had topped off my water with another 2L at caribou Springs… It’s really unusual for me to go through 5+ liters of water on a hike, but it had been a long day, with temps in the 90’s, and a lot of sun exposure.

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After eating my snack I felt energized and starting dancing down the rocks like I used to as a thru-hiker… Since I was down below treeline I could focus entirely on the rocks, roots, and finding the best foot placements amongst them… It was a weird sort of fun, but I enjoyed it. As I booked it down the mountain I passed a couple of guys that were looking truly miserable. “Are you guys ok?” I asked. The first one nodded his head, but the other one said, “We’re out of water, do you have an extra?”

My answer was unfortunately yes and no… Given the conditions, I was figuring that I needed a full liter of water to get back to the parking lot, so all I could give them was 1/2L to share. They took it gratefully, but I knew it wasn’t enough :-/ I looked at my map and it showed a stream crossing the trail in about 1/2 mile… “Do you have any water filtration or treatment stuff?” I asked them. “No,” they responded sadly. “Well, when we get down there if the stream exists, maybe I treat some for you?” I offered.

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Hiking down towards the stream our paces were very different, and I was way way ahead of them within moments. The rocky downhill seemed to go on forever, but eventually I got to the branch of Avalanche Brook that crossed the trail  and happily discovered that it was running strongly. It takes 15-20 minutes to chemically treat drinking water using my system, so I immediately starting preparing one of my one liter bottles for the guys coming behind me knowing that they were far thirstier than I.

I set a timer for 15 minutes to make sure that the water would be all set before giving it to them and decided I might as well prepare some extra water for me while I waited for them to show up. I waited for them until the alarm went off and then started wondering if they were ok, or if I should just leave the water bottle in the trail for them or… Eventually I decided I would backtrack just a little bit to look for them.

Luckily I found them almost immediately. They were not having any fun at all. When they saw me they sunk down onto a rock and gratefully accepted the water. “We were beginning to think we might die out here,” one of them panted. I looked them over. They weren’t showing obvious signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion, but given the conditions it’s possible that they weren’t far off. “Do you guys have some water bottles?” I asked. “I could treat some water for you. You’ll have to wait 15 minutes to drink it, but after that it’ll be good.”

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It didn’t take much convincing, and I filled up 2 more water bottles for them for their descent, explaining the process of treating the water as I went along. I ended up spending a half hour or so with them and gave them the last of my oreo cookies and topped off their water bottles before heading off. “Thank you sooo much!,” they exclaimed, looking much better as I prepared to head off. “No worries,” I replied, “It ends up happening to everyone at some point, I’ve certainly been there! I’m glad I could help!”

After taking that break I felt rejuvinated and zipped down the rest of the trail, completing my loop at the Chimney Pond Trail with a quick jump into Roaring Brook… I didn’t want the hike to be over because it had been so beautiful, but I have to admit that the air conditioning in my car was sounding mighty appealing at that moment… Civilization does have its perks!

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P.S. When I checked out at the ranger station I told the ranger that there were a couple of guys that had been struggling on the Helon Taylor Trail, explained the situation and comments I’d heard from hikers that passed them after I left them… I figured they’d be fine, but I wanted to make sure that if they didn’t get back in the next couple of hours that the rangers would know where they were and go looking for them.

Treebeard standing at the top of Pamola Peak

Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 4: Gently Down the Stream?)

Part 4 of the story of my ill-advised whitewater kayaking trip down the Penobscot river picks up with me looking like a drowned rat at the base of Big Ambejackmockamus Falls (class IV). The first three parts of the story can be found at:

“Are you ok?” the kayaker on the rocky outcropping above me shouted, noticing me for the first time. I looked up, catching a glimpse of the tip of my kayak churning around in the whirlpool right behind her.

“Yeah,” I’m ok, “but I could use some help.” I had no idea how I was going to safely retrieve my kayak, or whether or not it was even still in one piece… it might just be mangled mess. The kayaker stared at me, unmoving, so I decided to wade from my rock, up to where she was standing. The water was knee-deep, but the current was strong and the rocks were slippery. I slipped once, falling back and bruising my butt (miraculously the only injury I sustained) on my way to her rocky perch.

By the time I joined her, another kayaker had arrived. They both looked at me, confused and said, “You don’t have the right gear for this.”

“No, no I don’t…” I affirmed. I knew that I was still in shock, but was surprised that they seemed to be as well. “I shouldn’t be here… there’s no way that I should be here… I shouldn’t be on anything harder than a class II,” I said while they looked at me silently, still befuddled. “I could use some help getting my kayak and paddle back.”

“Sure,” they said as we watched the kayak and paddle for a minute as they rotated around the pool for the fourth of fifth time. They talked briefly and one of them left, leaving the other to help me. We were only distracted for a minute, but by the time we looked back at the whirlpool the kayak was gone…“Where’d the kayak go,” asked the woman that had stayed… I studied the water, looking for the kayak’s white-tip, amongst the foam… “I don’t know,” I replied with the sinking feeling that it may have finally succumbed to the rapids and was now at the bottom of the river.

“There it is!” she said pointing to a spot about 100 yards downriver. I looked at the paddle, still in the whirlpool, and at the boat downriver… “What should we do?” she asked. I didn’t want to face that waterfall again, or the whirlpool below it, so I said, “Why don’t you go for the paddle, and I’ll go for the boat!”

Horse Race (Class II)

“It’s a nice day for a swim!” I yelled to the raft that as I swam past it. After the insanity of the swimming through class IV rapids, swimming with the current towards my boat was actually quite pleasant.

“You don’t want to swim this, it gets really shallow!” yelled the whitewater rafting guide as I approached. “The other raft has your kayak” he continued as I floated by him, “If you want we can give you a ride down to it!”

“Sure!” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, besides I could see the ripples of rocks ahead and my goal was still to have the least exciting kayak trip possible (which I’d completely failed at). “Just swim on over to us,” the guide instructed… I tried not to laugh… The raft was at least 20 feet upstream, and I was in the middle of the strongest part of the current… At my strongest and most rested it would have been pretty ridiculous to think that I’d be able to swim upstream towards them… At best I could try to get out of the current, swim towards their side of the river, and maybe slow down… if I was lucky! “You’re going to have to come to me,” I replied.”

Eventually the raft pulled up beside me, “Hop on in!” they instructed… I grabbed the safety rope, which ringed around the outside of the raft, and floundered as I attempted to pull, push, and kick my way over the ginormous lip of the boat… It just wasn’t happening… “I’m gonna need some help!” I exclaimed, tightening the side straps on my life jacket so they could grab it to help pull me in… Even with their help, it took two more tries before I managed to roll up over the side, and into the raft.

“What happened? How did you end up here?” the guide asked as I perched on the edge of the raft. He was also clearly baffled by my presence… “Well, a friend dropped me off upriver. He said I should expect still water with occasional class II’s, but that,” I shook my head, “that wasn’t a class II!”

“Class II?!” chimed in one of the rafters, “These are Class IV’s and V’s, maybe your friend is dyslexic.. He saw the 5 and thought it was a 2?”

“Are you ok?” the guide interrupted. “Well, I’m a little shaken up,” I replied honestly. “But medically speaking,” he pressed, “Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” I said lifting up my arms and looking myself over, “medically speaking, I’m fine.” I was actually surprised that I didn’t see any bruises on my arms and legs after all of that!

“So what happened?” he asked again. “It looks like it must have been pretty epic! When we spotted you, you were already down passed our photographer at Ambejack’s second drop…”

“Well, considering my kayak doesn’t have a skirt and I was only expecting class II’s I did ok, but there’s no way I should have ever ended up there…” I began, and regaled them with my tale of kayaking and then swimming through what I learned was Ambejackmackamus Falls. “You’re photographer probably got some crazy photos of me as I went by!”

“Our photographer didn’t even see you,” the guide replied rather solemnly. “Really?” I was surprised, I’d gone through the falls right in front of her… How could she have missed me?

“When we first saw you we thought you were a bag of trash,” one of the guys at the front of the boat said, joining the conversation. “Yeah,” interjected another, “we were wondering what kind of jerk would throw their trash into the river!”

“Well, I guess I am hiker trash,” I laughed, thinking that it was kind of fitting and realizing I should get brighter and more obviously colored gear…”What DO you have in your backpack?” the guide asked. I’d forgotten that I was even wearing a backpack, but clearly the green and black backpack was what they say and thought was trash. “My camera, a first aid kit, and a towel,” I replied… “Do y’all have any water? I took mine out of my pack before hitting those rapids and now its long gone.”

“No, we don’t, but you can have this beer we found floating in the river,” suggested one of the rafters. “Really?” I asked… Somehow beer wasn’t what I was expecting to be offered. “Yeah, A whole, unopened beer!” a different rafter chimed in, holding up a pristine looking can of PBR… “It’s been in the river though, you probably don’t want to drink it.”

“I’ve swallowed plenty of river water already today, I’m not worried about what might be on the edge of the can!” I laughed, looking at the beer… “Sure, I’ll take it… rafting down a river with a PBR in hand… I might as well embrace my hiker trash roots!”

As we continued floating down the river the barrage of questions continued, “Who dropped you off?”… “A friend”… “What kind of friend would do that? Were they trying to get rid of you?”… “No,” I replied, “but come to think of it, they were hoping to restore my faith in God!” As I reflected on it some more, the morning bible study (psalm 147) my new friends had had around the campfire that morning and the conversation surrounding it was eerily relevant to my day… “What is the lesson that you learned from this morning’s bible study?” the father had asked his son Noah at the end of the lesson. “To be humble,” he had replied. To be humble… My experience on the river that morning had definitely reinforced that lession! Humbling… that was definitely the word of the day!

Afterward: Nesowadnehunk

At the base of the Horserace rapids the raft that I was on finally caught up with the raft that had my kayak. They were all going to skip the Nesowadnehunk Deadwater. It was too calm to be of interest to them, but sounded perfect to me. It was still early in the day, and a nice relaxing paddle along the river still sounded nice. I checked my kayak, it was still river worthy. It had survived the class IV rapids and was still watertight!!!

“What’s the river like between here and Abol Bridge?” I quizzed the 6 rafting guides as they herded their rafters onto buses to skip the boring part of the river. “Well, there’s two miles of this Nesowadnehunk Deadwater, which is an easy paddle, and then there’s Nesowadnehunk Falls, a class IV waterfall with a big drop, but there’s a portage around that. Then, after that there’s maybe half a mile of class II shallows before you get to the Abol Deadwater, which will bring you the last 3 miles down to Abol bridge.”

“All of that sounds good, but I sure as heck don’t want to go anywhere near the falls!” I replied. “How do I know when I’m getting close to it? How do I make absolutely sure that I avoid it? Where exactly is the portage?” I must have sounded like a broken record as I quizzed them over and over and over again about avoiding the falls… They were going to stop for lunch at the other end of the deadwater, and that would be my first clue… the portage would be on the left after that, and it would allow me to carry my kayak around the falls and put in down below in the gentler waters.

“Ok,” I replied when I felt like I had a good mental picture of the river and its major hazard… Since the portage was on the left side of the river, so I figured I would paddle the rest of the way hugging the left shore, and the minute I saw anything that looked like a portage or whitewater I’d be outta the water and onshore faster than you could say, ‘rapid.’

After a gently, uneventful paddle, I got to the end of the deadwater where my new rafting friends were stopped for lunch. I wasn’t in a hurry, and I was still a little nervous about the falls ahead, so I stopped to chat with the river guides again.

“So, can you tell me more about the portage around this next falls?” I asked, still unable to remember or pronounce the names of any of the landmarks along the river. “It’s coming up on the left side of the river. It’ll have a sign for it, just like the last one up at Ambejack.” I gave him a worried looked… “Uh-oh, there was a sign for the last one? I definitely missed it… How do I make sure I don’t miss this one?”

“The sign has a canoe on it, and it’s about this big,” the guide made a small square with his hands, indicating that the sign was about 6 inches by 8 inches, “and it’s tucked back into the brush on shore.” It didn’t sound encouraging… no wonder I’d missed the last one.

“You could do that,” one of the other guides interrupted, “but I’ve done it… the trail is overgrown, and the put-in sucks.. it’s full of brush… If I were you, I’d take-out over at the other rafting groups lunch spot, which is right before the falls. Then all you have to do is carry your kayak up to the Golden Road, walk a couple hundred yards along it, and then follow the trail back down to the falls… It’s shorter than the official portage and the put-in is right at the base of the falls and is way better!”

“Where’s their lunch spot, and how will I know when I’m getting close to the falls?” I asked, trying to get as much information as possible before deciding to get back on the river. “They’re the second take-out down on the right, on the side of the river that we’re on now, and they’re right before the falls. You’ll know the falls are coming because you’ll hear them!” I asked a few more questions, but was eventually convinced that the ‘golden road portage’ was the best option for me.

“Good luck!” my new friends cheered me on as I nervously got back onto the river, paddling so close enough to the bank that I could reach out and touch it… I carefully studied the river and its shoreline as I carefully proceeded… Everything was still gentle and quiet. As I rounded the next bend I saw first one, and then two small sandy spits on the right side of the river… They were obscured by brush and looked about 3 feet wide, certainly not as big as the last rafting groups lunch spot, but as I got closer I could definitely hear the distant roar of waterfalls. I didn’t see any signs of whitewater, and wasn’t sure that this was the rafter’s lunch spot, but I was definitely pulling myself, and my boat, out of the water there!!

As I pulled my kayak onto the bank, I still wasn’t sure that I was in the right place… All I could see were the encroaching laurel bushes, and a steep jeep road rising into the pines… “I guess I’ll find out!” I thought as I lifted my kayak up onto my shoulder and started hiking up the road… By the time I’d taken five or ten steps the brush fell away, and was looking at a picnic area in where someone was busily preparing paella for about 100 people. This was definitely the right spot! I paused briefly to say hi, and continued up the steep slope of the jeep road.

“What are you doing on this side of the river!” a guy stuck his head out of his van, and yelled at me as I approached the Golden Road. “The portage is on the other side of the river,” he continued condescendingly.

“I know,” I replied setting my kayak down for a second, “but I heard that the portage on that side was brushy and that going this way was better.”

“No, it’s not… It’s really long to go this way,” he said pointing to where I was headed. “You should really go back and portage on the other side of the river.” I stared at him blankly… Was I going to trust the dude in the van, or the river guides? I picked up my kayak, turned away from him, and continued towards the Golden Road.

“Suit yourself!” he yelled after me… I didn’t even pause… So what if he was right? Long walks I could handle… Accidentally missing a portage spot and going through more class IV rapids, no way… Let me tell you how many miles I would walk to avoid that… All of them!!!

I probably walked less than 100 yards along the golden road before I spotted a parking area on the right and a large trail on the left. I set the kayak down and asked two people that were crossing the road if this trail led to the falls. “Yup,” they replied.

As I picked my kayak up, the kayakers that helped me out earlier pulled up and started to unload, “You found it!” they exclaimed gleefully as I headed down the steep trail to the sandy put-in at the base of the falls… “Yeah,” I thought as I got to the river and looked back at the falls, “I found it, and I portaged the fu** out it!”

The waterfall looked insane… I was really glad not to be kayaking over it, but I have to admit, when the rafters got there and started to play on it, I was jealous… I wanted to borrow a helmet, jump into one of the rafts, and play on the class IV rapids the right way!

THE END

P.S. From there to Abol Bridge is the 3-mile section of stillwater (nothing worse than Class II) that runs along the Appalachian Trail that I had scouted before, and thought that I was getting myself into! The AT runs so close to the river that at one point I saw some long-distance hikers, and they helped me take a picture of my kayak on the trail that I call home… I was definitely looking forward to getting off of the river and back into the mountains… The mountains may be scary, but they’re my kind of scary…

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Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 3: Taking the Plunge)

Nesowadnehunk Falls (class IV) rapids on the Penobscot River

“And finally, there’s the Penobscot – lovingly referred to as the Nob by many. What it lacks in repetitive quantity, it makes up for in terrifying quality. The bigger rapids are heart racing and undeniable Class V… or stronger. This is a river you don’t want to swim.” -Review: U.S. Rafting – Penobscot River

Here’s Part 3 of the story of my accidental whitewater kayaking trip through Class IV rapids (Big Amberjackmockamus Falls) on the Pebobscot River… It’s continued from: “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm” and “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 2: In Over My Head.” If you are afraid of water or have had a near-drowning experience etc, you may want to skip this post. Otherwise, let’s pick up from where we left of…

I knew that as soon as I paddled through the crest of the wave in front of me, water would spill into my kayak, and it would capsize… but the only hope I had was in embracing my fate… besides… maybe I was wrong…

“Whoosh” the sound of roaring water filled my ears, and surrounded my body as the water pulled me out of my kayak and into its depths. I wasn’t afraid… I was too busy fighting for my life to be afraid… I was being tumbled just below the surface of the water in what felt like a giant washing machine… I worked with the downstream current to kick my way towards the surface. Succeeding briefly, I took a giant gulp of air before getting pulled back down under the surface and into the spin cycle again.

“Resistance is futile,” I reminded myself not to struggle against the current, but to try to guide my body through them instead…I bobbed to the surface briefly and won a second gulp of air… I was still in the spin cycle, but I was moving downstream, away from the original thing, the original trap, and into something new.

The third time my head bobbed to the surface I was able to keep it there. “I love my life jacket,” I thought as I took in a real breath of air. My life jacket was saving my life, and I knew it! With my head above water I was finally able to look around for my kayak… It was less than 10 feet away, upside down, with about a quarter of the bow visible above the water… My kayak was sinking.

I swam to it, grabbed the neoprene loop attached to the bow, and rested for a second enjoying the buoyancy that the kayak had retained. I looked at the river ahead of me… it looked like there was some really big whitewater and another big drop coming up… “I love my life jacket, but I sure wish I had a helmet,” I thought as I realized I wasn’t out of the danger zone yet.

I tried to pull the kayak towards the rocks on the left side of the river where I could see the kayaker stopped, and still taking pictures, but I couldn’t get the kayak to budge… at all… It was half-sunk, it was heavy, and it was completely under the river’s control.

A split second later the kayak started to pull me forcibly as the front end of it went over the next drop… I pulled back on it, desperately trying to save it, trying to keep the kayak from completely disappearing into the rapids and under the water forever. “It’s so expensive, I can’t afford to loose it!” was the first thought that ran through my mind.

“I don’t want to let go, I don’t want to,” I pleaded with the water, still reluctant to let it go even though I knew that I had to… The boat was going down, perhaps to the bottom, perhaps to stay there, and that was not where I wanted to go!

“Just let it go…” I calmly released the kayak to its fate as I said the words, and came to peace with it… All of life seemed distilled into that moment… On the river, in a fight for my life, and I had to pause to make the conscious decision to just ‘let go’…

It seemed so apropos to my life… Needing to let go in order to find my way through troubled waters… Recognizing that holding on isn’t always the right choice… Realizing that there’s no sense worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow, when you’re drowning today… First things first, you have to figure out how to keep your head above water!

The tip of the kayak disappeared over the edge, and my moment of clarity was gone… I had just enough time to take a deep breath of air before the water carried me over the edge of the second drop and pulled me under.

I couldn’t breath… all I could see was foamy white, all I could hear was “ROOAAAARRRR.” The water churned me and tumbled me… I would go where the water took me, and I didn’t have much choice in the matter… It took me to the surface briefly and I drew in as much air as I could, knowing it wouldn’t last long… I got pulled under again before I had any sense of where I was or what was coming next…

Control was an illusion… I had none… I was at the mercy of an unmerciful river… As I bobbed to the surface again, and again… each time gasping for air… I thought of apples bobbing in the water and was slightly jealous of them… The apples got to stay near the surface of the water most of the time… I didn’t seem to be that lucky…

I suddenly felt like I was 9 years old again… Caught in the undertow at Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island… I loved Misquamicut Beach because it had gigantic waves, but every once in a while one of the waves would hit me wrong, and instead of riding on top of it, I’d end up riding inside of it… Getting caught inside one of those massive waves meant getting caught in a nasty cycle where the surf would crash me against the shore, the undertow and rip current would then drag me back into the surf, and if I was lucky there would be a brief window where I could gasp for air before the next wave came, tossing me back towards the shore and sending me through the ringer all over again in what felt like an endless cycle…

I laughed a little to myself as the whitewater swirled me around below the surface of the river and thought, “When most people talk about the outdoors making them feel young again, I’m sure that this isn’t what they envision!” … But honestly, I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of any other experience where I have so thoroughly felt like I was a kid again…

My head bobbed up to the surface, and this time I was able to get a full breath of air, the giddiness of hypoxia still clinging to me, I once again thought, “I love my life jacket!” My life jacket was saving my life and making my experience less harrowing than my nine year old experience… It made it so that I always knew which way was up, and that made a world of difference!

For the first time since I let go of the kayak I was able keep my head above the surface long enough to see where I was… I was right in front of the kayaker taking pictures of the rafters… I had no idea where my kayak was, but I was almost out of this crazy whitewater… There was just one last massive drop in front of me… Before I could try to communicate with the nearby kayaker, or do anything else, I got pulled back under the water and over the edge of the third, and final drop…

I went down, then bobbed up through the whitewater, gasping for air at the surface… My lungs were starting to get tired of this sh**… I got pulled back under again… when the upward current finally grabbed me and started pulling me upwards again, I tried to use it to swim both upwards and outwards… When I surfaced, gasping for breath, I was noticeably further from the drop this time… I got pulled under one last time before finally making it up to the surface and being able to stay there…

Still gasping, I looked downstream for the closest place that I could safely swim to shore, and immediately started making my way towards it. Each breath seemed to hurt, which annoyed the heck out of me… I finally had all this good clean air to breath, but my lungs were revolting, they just weren’t ready for it yet… they were still mad at me for the ordeal I’d just forced them through.

“Are you ok?” Shouted the rafters downstream. I was still out of breath, so I lifted my hand out of the water, smiled, and gave them a thumbs-up… I couldn’t tell if they saw it, or not… I was ok, but my mission was to make it to shore… I needed to focus on that, and couldn’t afford to waste time reassuring them.

I crawled out of the water, onto a rock, stood up, and started to catch my breath… I was exhausted and I knew it… I needed to take a few minutes to rest… “Well, I survived it,” I thought, “and I love my life jacket!” I’d worn a lifejackets religiously, every single time I’d gotten into a boat for all of my life, hundred if not thousands of times, and until today they’d always just been bulky annoyances… but today… today I loved my life jacket more than anything else in the world!

After a couple more breaths I began to wonder about my kayak… Had it survived? If it had, how was I going to get it back? I was pretty confident that the paddle would be long gone. I looked downrivier… nothing… I looked upriver… It had survived! It hadn’t sunk to the bottom of the river and disappeared forever… at least not yet… and even more amazingly? The paddle was floating right beside it!

The kayak, was full of water, and standing almost vertically at the base of the falls… Just the tip of it visible above the surface and as I watched, both the kayak and paddle slowly began to rotate in a large circle around the pool at the base of the waterfall… they were caught in a whirlpool… How in the world was I going to get them out? Especially the kayak, which filled with that much water was going to be really, really heavy?

I turned my back on them and looked downriver… It didn’t matter… I wasn’t going to try to get them now, because that would be completely and utterly stupid… I needed to give my body a few minutes to recover before I considered doing anything else! One thing at a time!

TO BE CONTINUED in “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 4: Gently Down the Stream?”

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An article about the first know passage through Ambejackmockamus Falls