Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Colorado River to Mt. Peale Traverse

A summer thunderstorm rolls over the San Rafael Swell. I'll never tire of the drive across the Swell on I-70.

I was really hoping to name this post The Whole Enchilada, With Extra Sour Cream and Guac on Top. I didn't quite pull it off, but I still feel at peace placing this adventure squarely in the "success" column.

I hatched this plan a few months ago after a family trip to Moab. There remained two big adventures on my Moab bucket list: (1) a loop-ride of the Whole Enchilada mountain bike trail from town and (2) a climb of Mount Peale of the La Sal Mountains--second highest Utah mountain next to the Uintahs. After some cursory planning, it became obvious that I could knock both off the list at the same time.

With an empty schedule and a favorable weather forecast over the 24th of July weekend, I loaded up the mini-van and headed to Moab. Rolling into town after dark, I pulled into the first available campground along the Colorado River and tried to get some sleep. Surprisingly, it took three or four tries until I found a campground that had an open spot.

Camping along the river was a pretty awful experience. 90-degree heat at 11:00 pm with plague-like swarms of bugs--I just can't figure out why all the river-side campgrounds are so full in the middle of summer.

After sleeping in my sweat all night, I was thrilled to hear my alarm go off at 5 am so I could get moving. I drove a mile or so down the road and parked at the Negro Bill trailhead (elevation 3970'). The early pre-dawn glow from the sun reflected off the Colorado as I started down the bike bath toward town at 6 am.  I knew this was going to be a long day and it was doubtful I'd make it back before nightfall...

A new day dawns over the Colorado River near Moab.

Moab sleeps.

A sun-lit Moab Rim serves as a scenic backdrop as I head up La Sal Loop Road.

Out of the desert and into the mountains.  This is about 24 miles and 3500 feet up from my starting point on the Colorado River. My goal for the day--Mt. Peale--is behind Mt. Tukuhnikivatz (highest peak on right) and just out of view. 

The turn-off for Geyser Pass Road at about 8000 feet. My shoe retention system looks pretty ridiculous, but it performed flawlessly.

Gravel grinder up Geyser Pass Road. Mt Tuk at 12,482 feet looms overhead.

Canyon country bakes in summer heat below.

By 10 am I had completed the 32 mile and 6600-foot climb from the river near Moab up into Gold Basin (elevation 10,100'). After a quick breather and a change of shoes I started the 8 mile (round trip), 3,000-foot climb up to Mt. Peale.  A user-made trail made the first mile or so through the aspen groves a breeze.

My first good look at the north face of Mt. Tuk.

A small herd of Rocky Mountain goats graze in upper Gold Basin. Despite some opposition, the goats, which are not native to Utah,  were transplanted from an established herd in the Tushar Mountains in late 2013. 

Ridge-running high above Gold Basin.

Angle of repose. Carefully picking my way through talus on the south side of peak 12,271.

The cirque just below Mt. Peale. Lingering snow drifts allowed me to keep a constant, cold supply of water in my hydration pack.

View from Mt. Peale to the northeast into Colorado. I shared the peak with one other fellow that came up the opposite side.

Lunch at 12,721 feet. I reached the summit at about 1 pm, completing the 36-mile, 9,500-vertical-foot bike/hike combo from the Colorado River in 7 hours. Part one of the adventure was complete, and I was still feeling good. It's all downhill from here, right?

This friendly marmot was determined to get into my pack. These guys must be pretty tough and resourceful to survive at this altitude.

Whole Enchilada trailhead (elevation 10,542'). After running down Mt. Peale and hopping on my bike, I started grinding up toward the start of the Whole Enchilada trail. I knew I had two more passes to conquer until it truly was all downhill: a 700-foot climb to the Whole Enchilada trailhead at Geyser Pass followed by a solid 1,000-foot climb to Burro Pass.   The climb to geyser pass was OK, but I could feel the altitude and long miles starting to take their toll.

A little BBQ outside the Geyser Pass yurt. 

Flying down the first mile of the Whole Enchilada. Mt. Mellenthin (elevation 12,645') towers in the distance.

Purple lupine fill the Geyser Creek meadow below Mt. Tomasaki (12,239') in the high La Sals.  

Burro Pass broke my heart. The trail climbing up to the pass is not long, but it is very steep. Anything faster than a slow walk, would send my heart rate soaring. Normally, the climb to Burro Pass would take maybe 20-30 minutes tops. Somehow, it took almost 2 hours to crawl up there on this day. Now about 5 pm, and moving slowly, I knew there was no way I was going to beat the sunset.

Mill Creek Crossing. This would be the last photo I took. As I neared Warner Lake campground, I ran into some hikers that mentioned that the water taps were not tuned on. That then made my final water source the clear, fast-moving Mill Creek. I hadn't noticed any signs of livestock, so I went ahead and filled my hydration pack from the creek. Unfortunately, I once again, dunked my stinking camera in the water while filling my bladder.  I did this exact idiotic move a couple of years ago while running in Kauai (with the same camera). 

Totally exhausted, running behind schedule, and now with a broken camera, my spirits were getting down. To add insult to injury, as I came flying around the next corner, I ran into a wall of cows and their crap. I had already chugged a half liter of water, so I just kept drinking (never did get sick). 

After cruising by an amazing scene at Warner Lake, I felt like I'd better just get back to my car the fastest and easiest way possible. As dark clouds began to gather to the west, and the sun sank lower on the horizon, I knew I just didn't have it in me to finish the Whole Enchilada. I decided to at least hit Hazard County, but then just bail on La Sal Loop Road.

Even though I was running on fumes and feeling pretty miserable, the playful twists and turns of Hazard County Trail put some pep in my pedal. As I hit pavement and started the long coast down into Castle Valley, the wind and rain started whipping up and I could see that Porcupine Rim was getting hammered by rain and lightning.  That made my decision to bail much more palatable. 

I finally rolled back to my car at the Negro Bill trailhead at 9 pm feeling somewhat bittersweet. No, I couldn't pull off the Whole Enchilada, but at the end of the day, I'd biked 73 miles and hiked another 8, climbing nearly 12,000 feet along the way to knock off the second highest range in Utah in a way that few (if any??) have before.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Black Crook Peak, Sheeprock Range, Utah

Here are a few photos from a little jaunt to seldom-visited Black Crook Peak near Vernon, Utah, back in June. At 9,274 feet, it's not the tallest peak in Utah's West Desert, but it is nonetheless quite spectacular. The intrepid explorer can still find the Old West out in the Sheeprock and Simpson Mountains. I completed the hike with a couple of my brothers starting at the end of the Jeep road up Sheeprock Mountain's South Pine Canyon (elevation 8,265).

Small pillar of granite dubbed "God's Thumb" at the mouth of South Pole Canyon.

A couple of hundred yards up from our parking spot near an abandoned mine at the head of South Pole Canyon.
Troy scales a meadow of mule ears at the head of South Pole Canyon.

Ruins at the long-abandoned Hilltop Mine near the summit ridge. There's not much info out there on the hundreds of mines scattered throughout the Sheeprock and Simpson Mountains. Best guess is that many of these mines were silver-lead prospects dating back to the 1920s or so. It looked like ore from the Hilltop Mine was transported via rail to the summit and then lowered by aerial tramway into North Pole Canyon where there are additional mines and a road. There is a lot of mineralization in these mountains, but the distance from major transportation corridors likely precluded most mines from being profitable. 

On the summit ridge and heading northwest towards Black Crook (high peak in the left distance).

Matt and Eros carefully pick their way across the class 2-3 rocky summit ridge. The most common rocks we saw were quartzite, schist, argillite (cooked claystone), and metaconglomerate. At about 600 million years old, these rocks have a long history and they predate complex lifeforms. 

We were shocked to see two other hikers making their way toward the summit. You can just make out their white and orange shirts in the upper right of this photo. They made the poor choice to bushwhack through thick mountain mahogany here. We scrambled up and around the mahogany to get ahead of them, although  they eventually caught back up to us before the final climb. The communication facilities are on top of Peak 9267 which is about 1/2 mile north of and just 7 feet lower than Black Crook.

Matt makes the final scramble to the summit.

Success! The Bennion triangulation station was set in 1952 on top of  the tallest pillar of rock on the summit.

Matt, Eros, and Halle on Black Crook Peak.

View from Black Crook Peak south along the summit ridge.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sea 2 Summit: So-Cal's San Gorgonio

Memorial Day on Mount San Gorgonio.

In January I tackled one of the hardest climbs I'd ever attempted. California's Cactus 2 Clouds route to San Jacinto's 11,000-foot summit tested my legs like few other adventures had. Standing on top, I recall looking down at my legs and feeling much gratitude for all the mileage they had given me--all the peaks, meandering canyons, and remote desert spaces I had explored in the Southwest. I then looked over and saw an even higher peak just 20 miles to the north. San Gorgonio or "Old Grayback" at 11,500 feet is the tallest in all of southern California. Little did I know it would be my next victim, and little did I know how improbable and meaningful that climb would be.

On April 11 when my doctor confirmed I had rheumatoid arthritis, it wasn't a surprise to me. In fact, it was a bit of a relief. Just two weeks earlier I had suggested to my doctor that RA would not only explain my painful left knee that caused me to limp, but it could also explain why three of my fingers continually ached, why  I felt so stiff in the morning that getting dressed was a chore, and why I could no longer lift my right arm over my head.  "Oh, I see you consulted Dr. Google" he said with a smile.

I can't blame him too much for brushing off my self-diagnosis--after all, I didn't fit the profile. I'm not a woman. I'm not black, Asian, or Native American. I've never smoked. I'm not obese. I don't know anyone in my family that has RA. These are the risk factors commonly seen in newly-diagnosed RA patients. Apparently, there is something in my genes that made me prone to RA and all it took was some environmental trigger. A certain virus or bacteria, asbestos, Teflon, or simply stress have all been proposed as triggers. The only change in my environment I can think of was a switch from Honey Stinger stroopwaffles to Walmart-brand waffles as my go-to snack during workouts, but I'm not ready to blame Mr. Walton for my woes.

I'm not exactly sure when my own immune system started attacking my joints. In mid January the base of my right thumb began to mysteriously ache. By mid February my left knee would feel stiff in the mornings and at the beginning of runs, but would later loosen up. No big deal I thought. I was now 41 years old and I was expecting little aches and pains like these to flare more often.

By early March my left knee continued to stiffen. After an intense, but relatively short mountain bike race my recovery was uncharacteristically poor. I rarely get sore legs after even 60+ mile rides, but this shorter race left me hobbling. The week after the race I spent some family time in Moab and I managed to do some light hiking and biking, but clearly I was not the same person physically that I was just a month before. And every day--despite no running and just easy biking--I seemed to be getting worse. It was time to call the doctor.

Not impressed with my RA hypothesis (I certainly wasn't impressed with my RA hypothesis), my doctor ordered an MRI to check for a suspected torn meniscus.

With my RA hypothesis initially shot down by the doctor, I figured my bum knee was just one of a long list of sports injuries starting to pile up. A damaged meniscus during a killer hike. A torn rotator cuff from a bike crash. And thrashed fingers from digging a huge hole in my back yard (stupid trampoline). Surely, I was just having a string of bad luck. But, for the life of me, I couldn't recall tweaking my knee during a  hike. Nor could I recall a crash that could have possibly hurt my shoulder. I could clearly remember, however, in excruciating detail, digging a 15 foot hell-hole into a cemented pile of boulders that is my back yard (stupid tramp).

When my MRI report came back negative, showing the menisci and tendons in my knee were all intact, my flustered doctor offered a cortisone shot.  He couldn't understand why I had so much excess fluid in my knee. By this time I was absolutely certain that I was not dealing with unrelated sports injuries. There had to be something systematic, body-wide going on here. I explained to my doctor that in the past week alone conditions had worsened. My jaw started to hurt making eating difficult. All ten of my fingers would now be swollen like sausages every morning. My knee pulsed with pain throughout the night making sleep elusive. I knew I was getting older, but how do you explain going from climbing 11,000-foot mountains to struggling to walk down the porch stairs in a matter of weeks? After an emphatic explanation of all of this to my doctor, he finally decided to put in an order for some blood tests.

These days you can see your lab results quicker than your doctor can. This is not always a good thing. My blood-work results had several parameters listed in bold red meaning things were outside the norm. My blood's neutrophils, lymphocytes, and monocytes were all out of sorts. Some too high, others too low. My CRP was off the charts and I tested positive for the rheumatoid factor protein. But what did it all mean? While I waited for my doctor to call I couldn't help but consult the always-available good ol' Dr. Google.

The general consensus from Dr. G seemed to indicate either rheumatoid arthritis or...cancer. Obviously,  I was really hoping I had RA, because we all know there is not much worse than cancer.

It was a huge relief to have my my real doctor confirm the RA diagnosis so I could finally try to understand and tackle my ailment head-on. But my doctor made it clear: other than prescribing prednisone (a synthetic corticosteroid) to reduce joint inflammation, there was nothing else he could do. RA was well beyond his area of expertise. The next step was to meet with a rheumatologist to assess my condition and begin a treatment program. The somber tone in my doctor's voice hinted that this could be a problem.

Turns out there is a dearth of rheumatologists nationwide. There is exactly one rheumatologist in all of southern Utah and he has not taken on new patients in years. Several medical professionals told me that I'd better expect waiting 6 to 9 months to get into a specialist.

The prednisone made an immediate impact. By the end of April my joints began to feel better and I was able to resume some easy running and hiking.  It was around this time that Susie schemed up a plan to surprise our kids on the last day of school and drive to Carlsbad, California, and stay through Memorial Day weekend for some beach time. We would be very close to the San Bernardino Mountains and San Gorgonio. With a newly-diagnosed debilitating disease, and just a few short weeks to prepare, would it be crazy to take a shot at the summit?

Luckily, I was able to get a rheumatologist appointment in late June. At the time of my diagnosis, this was still more than 2 months out, and it would be a few weeks after our California trip. I was feeling better with the prednisone, but after some more internet research I learned that the prednisone is really just a band-aid for the underlying disease. More aggressive medication called disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) would be necessary to short-circuit the inflammation process and preserve my joints. The earlier you can catch the disease and begin DMARD treatment, the better your chances of getting the disease under control.

I called and pestered my doctor to prescribe me methotrexate, a DMARD that is commonly used as the first line of treatment for RA. It can take up to six weeks for the drug to have an effect. I took my first dose just 3 weeks before the California trip, so I wasn't expecting much improvement from the DMARD in time for my climb.

Regardless, I felt like I had nothing to lose so I continued to train for the climb. I didn't dare ask my family doctor his thoughts on attempting such a hike, but I did ask him about running in general. I liked and accepted his simple answer: if it hurts, stop. This became my mantra while I trained. Biking wasn't a problem  and never really caused any pain. And if my knees started to hurt while running, I would immediately stop or slow to a walk until the pain would dissipate. Slowly but surely I was able to build my fitness back up and I grew increasingly confident that my knees would be okay.

Keeping with tradition, I started my assault of San Gorgonio at the "base" of the mountain. After a two-hour drive from the Carlsbad coast, I parked at the Mill Creek Ranger Station near the mouth of Mill Creek Canyon (elevation 2,665 ft) just outside of Redlands. By 7 AM I was pedaling up the canyon road through the gray coastal mist that would soon burn off.

The climb up Mill Creek is a steady 7% grade for 10.5 miles gaining 3,500 feet. I took the climb super easy, making sure to save my legs for the grueling hike up the Vivian Creek Trail.

Near the end of the canyon road is the tiny mountain town of Forest Falls. The wide shoulder I enjoyed lower in the canyon narrowed to pretty much nothing here. The non-existent shoulder and heavy holiday traffic made for a few tense moments as I spun through town.

Vivian Creek trailhead, elevation 6,020 ft.  It took 1.5 hours to reach to Vivian Creek trailhead. After stashing my bike and changing shoes, I started up the trail at 8:30 AM. The real test had begun with 17 miles and 6,000 feet of climbing ahead of me. 

The first mile or so up and across Mill Creek is the mildest part of the climb and I was able to jog much of this section. Although Mill Creek held just a ribbon of water, it was obvious that this drainage had carried massive floods in the not-too-distant past. 

Once across Mill Creek the trail steepened and never seemed to let up.  

With huge pines towering overhead, an occasional gurgling stream, and lush grass lining the path, the trail along Vivian Creek was a delight and the miles seemed to tick by effortlessly. 

Climbing quickly out of the Vivian Creek drainage toward High Creek.

Meadow below High Creek Camp.

This nice little stream near High Creek Camp was perfectly positioned for topping off my water for the final push to the summit.

Galena Peak ridge from the Vivian Creek Trail.

Near tree line on San Gorgonio Mountain.

A few slushy snow patches made for some fun glissading near the summit.

Trail junction at 11,265 feet.

This summit meant a lot. There were a few dark days a couple of months earlier when I wondered if I had perhaps summitted my final peak. Being on top once again felt incredible, and I think each accomplishment from here on out will have much more significance for me.

Reaching the summit at 12:30 pm, the climb from the trailhead took exactly 4 hours and it was 5.5 hours from Mill Creek Ranger Station.  I had absolutely no issues with my knees or any other joints on the way up. My left knee felt a little tight as I started down the mountain, so as a precaution, I decided to slow down to a hike rather than a run back down the mountain. 

About 30 little notebooks stuffed into a metal box cemented into the rock serve as the summit register on San Gorgonio. Apparently, this is the hike everyone must do to prepare for Mount Whitney (Does this mean I now must climb Mt Whitney?).

San Gorgonio benchmark.

View of San Jacinto from the summit of San Gorgonio. These are the taller two of the "Three Saints" of southern California. The other is Mount San Antonio, or "Baldy", east of Los Angeles which stands at 10,068 feet.

Lunchtime at 11,500 feet. As busy as this summit can be, I was shocked to have the summit to myself for the 30 minutes I spent on top. I passed several hiking groups that day that never made it to the top.

I maintained an easy hiking pace during the decent off of the mountain and I had no pain. I arrived back at the Vivian Creek trailhead at 4:30 pm for an 8-hour hike. I was back at my car at 5 pm for an 8.5 hour total trip time.

Down the road, I don't know how long my legs are going to hold up with RA. I have since met with a rheumatologist and he thought my prognosis looked good. I was able to catch it relatively early in the progression of the disease, and I've responded well to the medication. Many people with RA have not been as lucky as I have been. Eventually, the efficacy of methotrexate will probably wear off. There are other drugs to try, but they too can only do so much for so long. But as long as I'm able, I'll have my sights on the next peak...
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