Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Backpacking Overnight - June 19/20, 2010

I spent Father's Day Weekend attending a Leave No Trace Trainer Course sponsored by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  My thanks go to my wife and son for letting me get away to attend!  Although I have often hiked with the Charlottesville Chapter of the PATC dating back to 1993 and have occasionally volunteered to help maintain trails with the subgroup, I have never before attended an activity put on by the Washington DC-based main group.

Alex and Hal instruct the group at the start of the trip.
As part of the training, we backpacked in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park and practiced the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.  Leave No Trace is a program designed to assist people using the outdoors "with their decisions about how to reduce their impacts when they hike, camp, picnic, snowshoe, run, bike, hunt, paddle, ride horses, fish, ski or climb." It is focused on teaching the user the ethical framework and skills to determine the appropriate activities and the consequences of one's actions on the land.  The program I attended seeks to help us train others about the nature of recreational impacts as well as techniques to prevent and minimize such impacts. 

Finding room in our packs for the group gear.

LNT consists of 7 principles:
  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
There were 10 of us including two instructors, which is the maximum group number for the Shenandoah NP backcountry. We started at Skyland on the northern edge of Shenandoah National Park's Central District, at 8AM on Saturday.  

Lee presents on "Dispose of Waste Properly" on the hike.
After presentations by the leaders and by Lisa on "Plan Ahead and Prepare" that I helped assess (she did a great job and I'm not just saying that because she gave us all Jolly Rancher candies!), we drove a few miles south to the trailhead at the Meadow Spring Overlook. Our leaders, Alex and Hal, made sure that we knew to stop at every concrete marker announcing a trail intersection before letting us descend off of the Skyline Drive into the backcountry.

Over the next two days, each of the eight participants presented on one of the seven LNT principles.  We had two presentations addressing durable surfaces by the mother/daughter pair of Mary and Margo, with Margo presenting on travel on durable surfaces and Mary presenting later on camping on durable surfaces.  Some of these presentations were along the trail, and some were at our camp for the night.

Indy tells folks not to take stuff, even if it looks cool.
I was charged with explaining "Leave What You Find," and used the opportunity to make use of my son's Indiana Jones Hat and Sound Effect Whip while engaging the group (playacting as Cub Scouts) why it isn't good practice to take artifacts to put in your drawer at home.  

Hal and Alex brought a ton of LNT experience and history to the table and I feel lucky to have been guided by two people who have been practicing and teaching these principles for such a long time.

Our elevation profile of both days' hikes.
The hike to the campsite was 3.7 miles long the first day, and 4.4 miles the second day as we returned by a less direct route.  The steepest incline was near the start of the second day's hike and it was a 16% grade for 1/5 of a mile as we ascended near the summit of Catlett Mountain.  The climb at the end of the hike (back up to the Skyline Drive) was longer at .6 mile, but was only a 7% grade.  Nonetheless we all felt that climb, as it was at the end of the event and I really felt the heat and humidity for the first time on this climb.  The highest point on our hike was the trailhead on the Skyline Drive north of Stony Man.

I have been on a brief section of the Hazel Mountain Trail near our campsite once before, back in 2004 when I climbed up from a trailhead off of Route 231.  But since there are no real landmarks along the way in this part of the park, I didn't realize at the time that I had passed through before.  This is actually a pretty confusing area of the park.  You have the Hazel Mountain Trail and the Hazel River Trail.  And you have the Catlett Spur Trail and the Catlett Mountain Trail.  You pass by the Buck Hollow Trail and the Buck Ridge Trail.  We seemed to be passing by those concrete posts every ten minutes announcing new trail name variations!

But the area has some good backcountry camping spots, and that was the real reason we were back there.  (I think that was probably the reason the eight or so others we came across were also in this part of the park.)  We camped on a relatively level spot near the intersection of the Hazel Mountain Trail and the Catlett Mountain Trail.  It was out of sight of the trails, as is recommended to leave no trace of your activity - camping in a spot visible from the trail encourages others to camp in the same spot, which quickly degrades the area.  
Lisa borrowed my camera and took the greatest photo.  Here is Lee showing how to not harass wildlife.
Note he has his LNT card in his hand in case he forgets anything!
In my BSA Scouter training sessions, I've learned that some of the best takeaways are the tidbits you learn from other outdoors lovers that may have little to do with the course content.  Here is a collection of tidbits I took home with me: 

I learned what a Hennessy Hammock is like and how to get in one from Bruce.  I have always been curious about what these are like and would love to try one overnight. 

I learned about the PATC Trail Patrol from Murry.  It sounds like a great way to volunteer!

I learned from Alex that real strict LNT would mean that everyone leaves their packs next to the kitchen area so they walk back to their tents less frequently, though thankfully our group did not practice this.

Margo checks her feet for insect bites.
In back, Alex, Murry and Lisa
assesses a recent presentation.

Lee taught me that cigarette butts degrade relatively more quickly than many trash items careless hikers toss away.

Did you know there is a KOA on the Vegas Strip next to Circus Circus? Neither did I! Margo related her camping experience there.  (The map on the website indicates they even have special "player's sites" that are close to the bathrooms.  Do you suppose Nora would be willing to trade out our 2 night room reservation at the Treasure Island Casino?)

Jay told us about the history of Philmont Scout Reservation which he first visited in 1961, and Lee was once a ranger there.

Alex reminded me that my decision in high school not to join my Explorer post on its journey to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior might not have been the best one I have made in my life. 

I learned that I should quit wearing my day glow green perforated wicking tee shirt from Target in the backcountry if I really want to be serious about LNT, but am not sure I am that serious yet because it is darn comfortable on a hot hike and I don't seriously believe the animals really care.  (Fortunately I got a couple of sharp new wicking tees for Father's Day when I returned home!)
Dayglow hiker with son (in hat) and friend on a May PATC hike to South River Falls.
Note the absence of any wildlife in the photo!

Mary taught me that some kinds of sleep aids really do help in the backcountry, even if Margo thinks her mom is a "pusher."  And Mary also taught me that Ambien is best taken just before going to bed and not if you plan to stay up in your tent giggling with Margo and Lisa (as she did).
And because Ambien has been linked to bizzare sleepwalking behavior, if anybody needs to talk to me about late night incoherent tent visits or wildlife harassment, I am blaming Mary!

Jay discusses
I learned that the Steripen water purifier with included batteries that I bought on special at Amazon before Christmas and used for the first time this weekend must be a real battery hog, because it worked exactly once before telling me there was insufficient battery power. I need to get that working before hiking up Half Dome later this summer and stock up on the Double A's.

Lisa taught me about the subject of her master's pursuit: Eco-Psychology, which seems like a pretty interesting profession.

From Hal I learned that digging a cathole too deep means that there will be no organic matter and what you leave in the hole will stay there forever.  Ugh!

Our water hunting
and Croc finding run.
From unknown hikers I learned that sometimes people leave perfectly good Crocs by the side of a stream, to the delight of someone camping in the backcountry who has been wanting a new pair and whose mother found them on a water run.  (Lee needs to get back to us on how long Crocs take to break down in the wild.)

Hal informed us that the Boy Scouts hated the official leave no trace logo so much that they only agreed to be a part of the system if they could design their own logo, because "boys wouldn't want that patch."  I like the official logo better even though it reminds me of the logo for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team.  

All on my own I learned what chiggers feel like, as I have their handiwork all around both ankles right at the sock level.  Itchy and scratchy.

I learned that a backpacking stool might be worth the added ounces on your back.

I learned it can be very comfortable in the Shenandoah backcountry in the summer even though temperatures back home are in the mid-90's with high humidity.

And I learned that I can have a blast backpacking with a group of people I had never met before!

Our group.  Thanks to all for a great weekend!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Technical Issues in Hiking

I often think back to when I first started hiking in Virginia the winter of 1992-93. Three of my now "critical" hiking accessories really did not exist.  Back then, nobody used hiking sticks - something I consider critical to my hikes today.  I remember one fellow on the PATC trips having a cell phone that came in a small suitcase.  Otherwise, nothing.  And GPS receivers did not become common until after the Clinton administration declassified use of the U.S. satellites allowing for such use.  This occurred ten years ago on May 1st.  Being an arrogant map guy myself, I didn't bother purchasing a GPS until 2007.  I bought a handheld GPS then to introduce Will to geocaching and try to get him more enthusiastic about traipsing through the woods.

The "GPS vs. compass" debate is always kind of humorous, with self-righteous old school outdoorsmen expressing horror that the GPS might somehow replace map and compass.  I don't see it happening.  But I also would never go on a hike without my GPS.  I say that not because I depend on it to tell me where to go, but because it records where I have been.  At the end of my hike, I have a record of each minute of the hike, the exact location, the distance traveled (by minute) and the elevation at each data point.  This is what allows me to state distance, elevation gains and difficulty of each hike.  And I can put this data onto Google Earth and see a representation of where I went from the sky.

Difficulty is computed using something I call the "PATC Difficulty Factor."  This is a calculation I first saw on hikes reported in the Potomac Appalachian Trail's newsletter.  It is the square root of ((2 x elevation change) x distance).  The final number is the square root of the sum of those numbers.

This number isn't perfect.  It doesn't, for example, differentiate between two relatively flat trails where one is on dirt and the other is over a rock field.  Traversing over rocks that sometimes move and constantly threaten a twisted ankle is much tougher than an equally long and flat section of trail over dirt.  But it provides a start.

I use a Garmin 60CSx.  Not sure it is what I would buy today, but it has provided me with great reliability for the past three years.  Garmin charges extra for such seemingly basic items as detailed maps and topographic data.  I have never been willing to fork over the extra $100 for this software because, as I have said, I use the GPS to record my movements, not direct me where to go.  But it also means that only main routes like interstates and U.S. Highways show up on the screen.

Garmin is also not real good with the owner's manual information.  I have figured out a lot of what I do through trial-and-error.  Even three years after owning this unit, I feel that there is a lot I could learn if someone came out with a good "idiot's guide" for the unit.  Such a guide should include information on how analyze the data and would give an explanation for the parts of the unit that I never use.  There is nothing like that out there.  I am glad that I decided, after about 6 months of using the receiver, to save the data on each hike to a flash drive.  This has allowed me to go back and work on data after I have increased my knowledge, such as analyzing my last Grand Canyon trip a year after taking the hike.

Using Wikiloc.com, I can sometimes get GPS data in advance of a trip to get a sense of what is in store for me.  There aren't a lot of trails on this site, however, so it is hit and miss.  And even when there is a trail loaded, sometimes the quality of the data is not that great.  For example, note the statement accompanying the Half Dome ascent on the website: "Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad data from Happy Isles to the top of Nevada Fall and beyond due to surrounding terrain. You get the general idea though :)"  (Note to hiker: "general idea" doesn't cut it, dude!)  These hikes can be accessed through Google Earth though they aren't as fancy as the other G.E. feature for hikes, called Everytrail.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Meeting the Priest: June 8, 2010

In earlier posts I have written about preparing to hike Half Dome in Yosemite later this year. I've bought a book that is about only this hike. I've hiked progressively tougher trails.  Two months are left, and I am running out of options in Virginia that provide a greater challenge than my previous hikes.  I asked the experts on the PATC Trails Forum for ideas of hikes that approximate the Half Dome Hike.  None of the suggestions seemed better than the one I had come up with: hike from the Tye River to the top of The Priest on the Appalachian Trail.  Twice.

Elevation Profile: First half of The Priest Hike on the A.T.
This hike took me back to the same parking lot where I started my Three Ridges hike a couple of weeks previous, on Virginia Route 56 a couple of miles east of Crabtree Falls.  The lot is on the A.T. where it meets the Tye River, at an elevation of about 950 feet.  From there, the A.T. southbound climbs for about 3.5 miles to the top of The Priest, which is just over 4000 feet.  Climbing it twice would give me a 6000 foot gain over about 14 miles, which is actually steeper than the Half Dome hike.  A day hike to the top of Half Dome is 14.2 miles long (via the Mist Trail) and requires an elevation gain of 4800 feet, according to this site.

The 14 miles up and back from Half Dome are no doubt much more spectacular than my trip up and down and up and down The Priest.  But there are a couple of nice overlooks along the way up The Priest, and I had the privilege of speaking with 4 northbound thru hikers each individually on their way to Maine.  One told me that a bear had been grunting around her tent the night before, and she was afraid it would come in and get all the food at her feet (she should check out this video!).  Another asked me what I was hiking today and when I told him he responded, "What would you ever want to do that for?"

A big thrill was getting to see my first ever examples of a small plant known as Beartongue or Eastern Turkeybeard, Xerophyllum asphodeloides.  Can I say it was a thrill to see a plant?  I've seen photos of Beartongue (I like that name much better than "Turkeybeard," though the latter is used more commonly), and it reminded me a lot of its close relative, Beargrass, which is a plant I saw near Glacier National Park back in high school.  Each plant had striking white groups of flowers that seemed to glow like lightbulbs.  The genus name, from the Greek xeros (dry) and phyllon (leaf), refers to the dry, wiry, basal leaves of this showy plant. It is said to be difficult to cultivate and seldom blooms in gardens.

One source states that Eastern Turkeybeard is "only found in the pine barrens of Ocean County, New Jersey, and mid- to high-elevation (2000-3000 feet) quartzite or granite ridges with xeric [dry] oak-pine glades along the Appalachian mountains of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama."  I found it higher on The Priest, with one plant at 3100 feet, and the rest between 3900 and 4000 feet in elevation.  Another source reports that the plant is reported in only 41 counties across its range, though a Virginia Tech site claims that it is found in 23 counties of Virginia alone.

This plant is a mini version of its western cousin.  I was surprised at how small it is.  And interestingly, it only seemed to grow within 3 feet of the trail; I could not find it deeper into the woods.   One source states that the plant "may be aided in its establishment by fire, as it appears to be most common in areas that have a history of burning and increases flowering following controlled burns."  From the same source: "The strikingly tall inflorescence of this species produces white, nectar-producing flowers, making it unique among the flora typical of this dry habitat. The flowers may attract moths and other flying pollinators; however, no literature has been published to date on pollination."  

The plant appears to be threatened in the central appalachians, as shown on this site.  Another source lists the following threats to the plant:

• Trampling and collection by hikers
• Damage by off-road vehicles
• Possible collecting (the species is advertised on the internet as a homeopathic remedy)
• Erosion of shallow-to-bedrock soils due to water diversion or road-building
• Conversion of habitat for residential development (especially pine barrens)
• Fire suppression leading to succession of woody canopy

To that list they can add "well meaning but ineffective landscapers," as I tried to do my part to help a set of plants by clearing out some dead branches that were competing with some of the plants.   This backfired, as I managed to sheer off one of the flower heads in the process.  I took a photo of that flower in my hand, so you can get a sense of the flower's size.

As for the hike, I did manage to climb The Priest twice.  The second ascent felt like it was three times harder than the first one.  At one point, I turned my GPS off and back on - I was convinced it must have locked up because it had read that I'd hiked 10 miles for so long.  I doubt that I will ever take another day hike that is quite this hard, though I ended the day certainly feeling better than after other hikes I"ve taken - most notably climbing Katahdin via the Knife Edge Trail in Maine.  Nothing beat me up like that hike.  Maybe it is time to go back, since I am in better shape!
The A.T. at about 4000 feet elevation with Turkeybeard at left.

Hike Details.
PATC Difficulty Factor 407.9
Distance:  13.5 miles
Total Time: 7 hours 52 minutes.
Average Uphill: 17% grade
Lowest point: 970 ft.
Highest point: 4049 ft.
Total uphill: 6157 ft.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Three Ridges Wilderness - May 25, 2010

I forgot my camera on this hike, so no photos this time!

In trying to get in shape for a strenuous hike in California this summer, I've continued my search for the hardest hikes in Virginia.  On a cool and drizzly Tuesday morning I headed out to the Three Ridges Wilderness, which is near Crabtree Falls and Wintergreen Ski Area in Nelson County.

Three Ridges is a relatively new wilderness area.  I had hiked it before over a decade ago, before the wilderness designation.  I remember the climb to the top of Three Ridges to be very hard - harder than the climb up the Priest, which is on the other side of the Tye River.  A decade ago, I only hiked to the top of Three Ridges and returned on the same route.  This time I hoped to take the longer, harder version of this hike, which involves returning via the Mau-Har Trail which connects two points on the A.T. and avoids the peaks of Three Ridges.  So I would go over the top of Three Ridges, then down the back way via the Mau-Har Trail.

Most descriptions of this hike start out from a parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Reed's Gap where the road to Wintergreen reaches the ridgeline. (Here is an example.) I chose a harder route, from the point where the Appalachian Trail crosses Route 56 along the Tye River.  This trailhead is at 950 feet in elevation, and the AT climbs to 3,955 feet inside the wilderness.

Parking at the lot on Route 56 is always a little nerve-wracking.  I've heard tales of folks who parked there for an overnight backpacking trip only to come back the next day to find their car battery gone.  When the sheriff gets called, he tells you, "You are in luck, because a guy just up the road sells used car batteries!"  Then you get the privilege of buying back your own battery.  A sign at the lot says that break-ins have occurred and instructs you to take all valuables with you.  But a car battery is pretty heavy to haul up a mountain!  I'd never park there overnight, but will take the chance on a day hike.

I intentionally picked a cloudy day with a threat of rain through mid-afternoon.  This worked out well as I was able to hike the uphill portion of the route without too much discomfort from the heat.  The trail works steadily upward from the great suspension bridge over the Tye River to its first meeting with the Mau-Har Trail after 1.7 miles.  At 2.6 miles on the A.T. is the Harper's Creek Shelter.  Since I had last been through here the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club has done much work upgrading the area around Harper's Creek Shelter.  I do not remember the several campsites or the signs in the area, though the additions made it more confusing to follow the A.T.  Otherwise, the area looks very nice.

After passing the Harper's Creek Shelter it is a steady climb to the top of Three Ridges.  I had remembered this to be a brutal hike, and expressed my belief to other hikers through the years that Three Ridges is really a tougher climb than The Priest.  The Priest is widely talked about as the toughest hike on the A.T. in Virginia.  The Three Ridges climb, however, is only 100 feet less.  Now that I have looked over GPS data for each ascent, though, I can see that the A.T. climbs The Priest in 4.0 miles, compared with 5.3 miles  for Three Ridges.

That is one reason why GPS data is such a great resource.  I got data off of Wikiloc.com giving GPS data for the A.T. to both peaks.  The Vertical Profile is shown to the right, with The Priest on the left and Three Ridges on the right.  Even though I remember Three Ridges to be a tougher hike, it is clear that The Priest is steeper with a much more unrelenting ascent.  I don't even need to hike the Priest before having data that can be used to compare the difficulty of this hike compared with other hikes.

From an "experience" standpoint, I was surprised that the ascent of Three Ridges was not tougher.  I remember it being brutal, but it didn't seem too bad when I ascended this time.  The ascent never left me out of breath, though the entire hike was long and left my legs pretty sore.  After reaching the top the trail leveled out before coming to the Maupin Field Shelter and the northern terminus of the Mau-Har Trail.  There weren't any real views at the top because I was hiking in the clouds, but there are beautiful vistas when it is clear out.

I stopped at the Maupin Field Shelter and had lunch.  A couple was setting up a tent in one of the nearby campsites, and a couple of backpackers showed up a little confused about where the Mau-Har Trail was and where the A.T. was.  When one of them pulled out a cigarette, I took off down the Mau-Har.

I had never done the complete loop before, thinking I was not in shape for the long trip required to complete this.  The northern section of the Mau-Har Trail was the section I had not completed.   The trail was constructed back in the 1970s as a connector to two parts of the A.T. and so folks could see several small waterfalls on Campbell Creek.  The trail is still pretty rough in sections, but it is clear that the AT Club maintaining this trail has worked hard on it.  It is steeper than the A.T. because of the way it follows the creek.

After several creek crossings, the Mau-Har climbs steeply out from the Campbell Creek valley, over a ridge, and connects again with the A.T.  From here it is 1.7 downhill miles to the trailhead and parking lot.  This was the toughest hike yet, as reflected in the PATC Difficulty Factor, listed below.   That number is calculated by multiplying elevation twice, then multiplying that sum by the distance, then taking the square root of the resulting sum.  This hike has the highest number yet.

Hike Details.
PATC Difficulty Factor 330.3
Distance:  13.0 miles
Total Time: 5 hours 12 minutes.
Average Uphill: 11% grade
Lowest point: 936 ft.
Highest point: 3955 ft.
Total uphill: 4205 ft.