This past weekend Lisa and I got high. And it was good.
Despite having never camped before, and having argued quite passionately that she could never do such a thing, Lisa proposed we hike to the summit of Mt. Charleston this past weekend. After minimal planning, and a trip to REI, we set off on Saturday morning.
On land, the highest I’ve ever been was around 10,000 ft in Leadville, Colorado for George & Erika’s wedding back in 2003. I remember getting mildly winded running from the car to the hotel up there, but I didn’t cough up any blood, so I figured I’d be fine.
There is no drinkable water on the trail, so we carried our own with us. Ditto for food, shelter, etc. There’s also no bathroom facilities up there, so we brought a little plastic sanitary shovel and a roll of paper. In the end my pack was about 30lbs and Lisa’s about 25lbs.
Anyway, we hit the trail around 10:20AM and covered about 1 mile per hour for the first few hours. That sounds slow, but it was some heavy duty hiking. I was getting headaches, nausea, and mild dizzy spells the whole time. Lisa, who exercises regularly, seemed to do a little better. But we were both pretty beat by the time we got lost.
The original plan was to summit on day one, camp overnight on the other side of the mountain, then hike down that other side the next day. When we stumbled off the trail in the afternoon and found ourselves scratching our heads at seemingly impossible cliffs, we decided we might have to camp on day one.
After a good bit of fretting and bumbling around an area that seemed to lead nowhere good, we found our way back to the trail and noticed that we had missed a huge orange arrow that was painted on the rock wall, and additionally climbed over a bunch of rocks and branches that people had piled up to prevent unobservant hikers from going exactly where we had just gone. I suppose it pays to look up from your feet sometimes.
Once back on track we covered a long relatively level stretch that included walking along what I would call extremely narrow and precipitous ledges. The trail seemed to be about 12 inches wide at points, with nearly sheer drop offs just a step away. Lisa is nominally afraid of heights, but she didn’t complain. I think that being oxygen deprived helped us not realize what craziness we were up to.
But it was beautiful. Really, astonishingly beautiful. If you are sure-footed, not too afraid of heights, and in good hiking shape, I highly recommend the North Loop Trail.
We saw our first patches of snow about 7 miles in, I would guess, and it got more common as we kept on. We had passed by several reasonable campsites in an effort to make maximum progress today. This was mostly Lisa’s will, as I had been ready to camp since mile 3.
Pretty soon after coming across the snow patches off to the side, we encountered icy trails. One in particular was a problem. The snow was hard enough that it didn’t give in to our shoes, and was plenty slippery. It also happened to be covering one of the very narrow trails which cut across a very steep ledge. I’m not sure that slipping and falling over the ledge would be fatal, but it might have been. It almost surely would have required calling in a medevac team.
Crossing the icy ledge was slow going. We hacked out little foot and handholds with our sanitation shovel, stones, and our heels as best we could. Still, even for me the crossing was a bit unnerving. Lisa admitted to being pretty damn scared, but she pushed slowly through anyways, on hands and knees where necessary.
But we made it, and luckily a lovely campground was right there on the other side of that icy ledge. We took this as divine providence and quickly set up our tent. The timing was perfect, as things started getting dusky right after we got set up. The air was bitingly cold to me, and I was a bit worried about our comfort, if not our safety, overnight. But we cracked out the little camp stove that Lisa had picked up, and we boiled water and enjoyed macaroni and cheese and then ramen. An Edgar Allen Poe short story in the dark completed the evening and we went to sleep.
I was cold at first, but once my body heat built up in the sleeping bag I was completely comfortable temperature wise, a bit to my surprise. Despite the general discomfort of sleeping out in the wilderness, we managed I think eight hours of actual sleep, spread out over ten or twelve hours of tossing and turning.
Breakfast consisted of a few servings each of oatmeal. A bit of water we had left out over night did not freeze, so the temperature never got that low. In the morning sun it was comfortably warm, still there was snow and ice in the shady areas. Then we took our time packing up and then began our final assent up the mountain.
Pretty soon we were above the tree line, and were hiking across nothing but gravely switchbacks and icy patches. With some surprise on my part, we realized that we were very close to the summit, and could see radio tower on the top less than a mile away by trail, and probably only a few hundred feet in elevation. I was pretty excited as that meant we would soon be going downhill — a much more pleasant propisition, for the most part.
But then we encountered the ice ridge from hell.
Well, I like to make it sound dramatic like that, but basically it was just another narrow path on a steep incline covered with ice. Except the path was a little narrower, the incline a little steeper, and the ice a little thicker. Before we tried crossing, we were already a bit concerned. I mean, part of the worry was just crossing this bit, but another part was that if we crossed it, we might come to an even worse section further along, and if we couldn’t cross that we’d have to come back over this one. So each ice ridge we crossed just makes it harder to turn back.
I took the lead, and again with our little plastic sanitation shovel (the best $1.75 we spent), I tried to hack out little footholds in the ice. The snow was hard and at this altitude I tired quickly. Still, on my hands and knees, I was able to make enough footholds to get about fifteen or so feet out into the icy area. There was probably another twenty or so feet to go on this particular stretch, and then who knows what lay further up the trail.
The footing was still poor… and I admit I was a bit nervous as I moved further out onto the ice. At the 15 foot point there was a little break in the ice where I could see some nice gravel to step onto. However when I finally got there and put a foot down, the little patch of gravel slid right out from underneath me and down the side of the mountain.
So I don’t think this was a deadly dropoff, but it’s hard to tell. I think I’d have just slid and scraped myself up badly before coming to rest on the next trail maybe 80 feet below. But who knows, maybe I’d tumble and break stuff. In any case, I didn’t want to find out. So I lay back against the side of the incline and held my place with the friction of my body and the backpack against the snow. I tried a few times to get some footing in the gravel, but it just slid away and eventually I had to put that foot back on the ice and rest precariously.
I turned back to Lisa and said “what do you think?” She hadn’t ventured out onto this ice patch yet. “How much less would you think of me if we turned back now?” she asked. “Zero,” I said, “zero less”. “Let’s go back,” she said.
I felt this was the right choice. Though I think it was likely we could both have made it across, it was damn scary and at least slightly dangerous. And we didn’t know what lay ahead after that. So I carefully turned myself around, almost slipped again, and crawled back to the part of the trail that worked.
We backed out a bit, found a place to sit, and had candy bars and water. It was a bit disappointing to come so close — surely less than a mile from the summit — and then turn back. But again, I think it was the right thing given the situation, our experience, and our equipment. We were both wearing regular sneakers, for example.
The hike back down was, predictably, much easier. Though the bad section we had crawled across the night before to get to our campsite was very tough going back. Lisa bruised up her knees pretty badly on the hard packed snow. She made it though, and for someone who professes a fear of heights, it was quite an achievement.
After that it was relatively easy, though we encountered more precarious (though non-icy) areas coming back than we remembered crossing on the way up. As we returned, we encountered a few other rugged looking guys approaching the summit, though not one with a full pack like what we were carrying. We were the only people who stayed on the mountain that night, it would seem.
We also bumped into a lady who seemed lost, approaching the more difficult portion of the trail with a Chiuaua under her arm. She said it was only her second time ever hiking, and she was looking for her friend who was dressed all in green, who was supposed to meet her on the trail. We hadn’t seen anyone who matched that description. She told us she planned to turn around at 4:30 if she hadn’t found her friend, which seemed a good idea, since otherwise, by our calculations, her and her pup would be stuck out on the sketchy parts of the trail after the sun went down. We let her hike on, but I was a bit worried about her.
When we were mostly done, we did run into her friend in green, who had taken a totally different trail. We explained to her where her friend with the Chiuaua had gone. This lady seemed much more of a hiker, and she said she’d go out to meet her friend. She thanked us for letting her know.
The last couple miles was beautiful too, all forested and very different from the rocky ledges and sparse pine trees that made up most of the trail. The trail at that point is simple and steeply declining, and we jogged parts of it. When we finally got back to the car, we were pretty much aching all over. Sitting down on cushioned car seats felt wonderful.
We drove back to Henderson, and had dinner at Hank’s at GVR.
For Lisa, it was a first time camping. I’ve been camping a few times, but for me it was still several firsts: certainly the longest (distance and elevation) hike I’ve ever done, first time I’ve hiked over 10,000 ft, or camped that high. (I estimate we got well over 11,000 ft during our summit attempt), first time I’ve camped at such a low temperature, or hiked over ice. Or along such cliffy terrain. First time in a long time I’ve used a shovel as a bathroom appliance.
It was great fun.
I’m not sure I’m up for it again anytime soon, though