Monday, November 28, 2005

Anything for fresh tracks

Snowmobiling and tele turns in Bend's backcountry

I don't think I would ever have gone snowmobiling. If it wasn't for my good friend Josh Harvey's obsession with the fuel munching, high powered beasts, it'd still be skinning my way into Central Oregon's remote backcountry ski terrain. Now instead, and most likely to the dismay of my more holistic friends, I giggle all the way to the summit while sucking the somehow comforting fumes of the 'ol two-stroke. But before any of you send me any hate mail with long attachments outlining the percolation rate of oil-based lubricants in sub-alpine meadows let me first say: slednecking (from now I will use this term and snowmobiling interchangeably) is sooooo fun!

It all started just a year (or two) ago when, during my coincidental pass through Bend, Josh hosted a family-day of slednecking. Buzzing around the trails on sleds like the Ghetto Rocket and ol ' El Tigre confirmed my suspicions that slednecking was a day full of petroleum fumes and generally ear-piercing in nature. On a second trip last winter my doubts in the safety in the sport were confirmed after witnessing Josh and his new sled roll down about 1000 feet of steep mountain terrain all the while losing parts and nearly lighting on fire (I wish I had video to share that spectacular memory with you all). But by those last trips last winter I had gotten on a few more of the newer sleds and realized what kind of machines these boys were riding. Lets just say: to have a car that has the same handling, suspension, and acceleration of of a snowmobile you'd have to give your grandma's inheritance away, and then you couldn't even drive it 'cause there are laws to protect people from that sort of thing. I can't say whether it was my boyish love of machines or the fact that you feel like you're getting away with something that held my attention.

This winter season started out strong when I rolled into Bend from Cali just in time to eat turkey dinner for an entire week. I left snow hungry Tahoe after a beautiful alpine bike ride and got to Bend just a day before early storms would bring Alta-style fluff to the Southern Cascades. After just a day back in town I had a blast sledding with the Harvey brothers and getting back on the Ghetto Rocket. That day finished with Eric Harvey getting air for the camera and a bit of snow beginning to fall. We had know idea what we were in store for. Two days later Josh reported up to two feet of ultra-fluff at Moon Mountain. I went to my mom's house and got my skis.

Sunday morning was patchy in Bend but driving up to the mountain brought the patches of blue closer to us. Before I get going on the beauty of the day, I must extends my thanks for the folks that make these time-consuming and spendy sledneck trips happen. Joey and Josh were generously hookin' everyone up with their sleds, trucks, trailers, and gear. Eric Harvey was kind enough to let me strap my tele boards on his nearly new Ski-doo for the day. No one really understands what it takes to keep so many machines running and Harvey is in the garage every evening keeping the fleet in shape so we can all get out there with him. Don't worry for him much though, the Harvey family garage is a pretty fun pace to hang out.

So back to Sunday – great folks, five sleds, fresh snow on the ground and blue ski above. The highest parking lot is full so we head to lightly used Edison Sno-park on the Sunriver Road and we set our sights on Quall Butte. The small butte just off the SE flank of Mount Bachelor has always caught my eye with its crater-edged, convex summit pitch that dumps into what had always looked liked nicely spaced pines. A long but super fun and fluffy trail ride ended us at the small haggard Quall Butte shelter. The warm fire and log seats were all we needed for a quick break before making a push with the mountain sleds (Ghetto Rocket can't come on this trip) up the backside and into the summit crater. My novice slednecking skill paired with Josh and Joey's expert riding got all three sleds up the the crater rim. Josh shuttled me most of the way up to the far away rim before I had to hope off and boot the last little bit while Josh rallied around the bowl sans passenger to meet me. Deep snow and universally steep terrain made this approach pretty eventful and reminded me of how technical maneuvering a huge machine in deep snow can be, but it all fell away when I unlashed my skis and remembered what those plates extending from my toes were for. Supported by sledneck friends above and below I made three windblown turns and then blissfully entered some of the lightest snow I've ever skied in the Cascades. I stopped once at the trees edge to snap two photos and continued my turns into the perfectly spaced forest dropping my knee and sucking fluff. I tumble stopped at the bottom – ecstatic. Powder turns before November in Bend and the next closest skier on top of Mt. B. Now this is backcountry! Josh met me on the sled track that functioned as a getback, tossed a rope, and pulled me back to the shelter.

So, admittedly yesterday was just a few turns just to tease me and all the trail-riding on that intense mountain sled made me more sore than the skiing. But of course there is more in store and more efficient ways to get some tele turns in on pitches I've been scoping for years. When there are snowmobiles around things start to open up – important for Bend since it doesn't offer much in terms of one-day skin and ski adventures (I might eat that statement someday). Quall Butte is multiple-use Forest Service land with access roads criss-crossing all over it in the summer, these roads offer quick access with a snowmachine. The next slednecking trip might just be a drop-off at the wilderness boundary. Because while the sleds are awesome for the approach, when I dream of steep snow fields I still dream myself making drop-knee turns down their entirety. Josh says it changed for him and it could change for me too. Not anytime soon I tell him.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Winter Bouldering in Tuolumne: A Rare Treat

Unseasonably warm

No snow in the Sierras yet

Who says global warming is all bad

When we now get Tuolumne Meadows all to ourselves in November

Granite knobs, soaring domes, bathed in crisp winter air

The perfect bouldering partner

Riding and driving along the alpine roads of mountains wanting winter

A day to remember

Photo credit: Sarah Durney

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Las Vegas Sample Platter
Red Rocks and a Blue River

I had to get up into the ancient Bristlecone Pine forests of the White Mountains to find enough time to sit down and recall the last few days. But now, warmed by the sun and thinking clearly at 10,000 ft, I can go back over the smattering of outdoor adventures I've been able to eek out of the wildlands around Las Vegas. The orb of metropolitan Las Vegas only extends so far into the desert and in places like Red Rocks and the Colorado River canyon it is easy to forget the monster of Vegas is just over the hill. Even though stucco colored sprawl continues to chomp away at the wild desert and the tentacles of water and power delivery reach around and divide protected areas, there are places I have found that feel like pure wilderness. These places are often not reached in the conventional ways. 'Going on a hike' will not get you to these places. 'In wilderness is my preservation' and so, to get the more full experience I want from the natural world, I go to the cliffs with a rope and onto the river by boat.

Red Rocks National Recreation Area has always been on my list of favorite climbing areas. Every time I return I am reminded of the endless list of long and incredible moderate climbs and am again struck by the grandeur of the canyons and their soaring walls. Without gear and still trying to be tender with my finger I climbed only two days on the sandstone cracks in perfect temperatures. Handfuls of staff from NAL were sharing a group site at edge of the park and evenings were filled with catching up with folks and enjoying spending time with the good people of NAL without having work bothering us. From this base camp some other adventures were launch. While I escaped any adventure into the heart of Sin City I was lucky to fill a vacated spot of a short river trip that Sequoia had put together earlier in the week.

The short stretch of the Colorado River from just below the Hoover dam to the riverside gas and bar spot known as Willow Beach can't be longer than 10 miles. Yet we weren't in it for the distance, floating down the river is only an added bonus to making this float. The magic of the place is found in the geothermally active side canyons - in colorful seeps in cave, roots and vines hanging amongst super heated waterfalls, meandering slot canyons filled with bath water, and of course crystal clear, and of perfect temperature, soaking pools.

I may have said this before but primitive and natural hot spring fed soaking pools are basically the holy grail of outdoor adventurers. Indy was looking for archaeological treasure, I'm looking for deep, red, S carved slot canyons with steamy waterfall slides and another part of Eden around each corner. When I luckily hopped on the last minute trip that I had no hand in organizing little did I realize it would be such a successful dig.

It had to be an early morning wakeup to get from Red Rocks (west) to the shuttle spot (east), yet Las Vegas was a short lived obstacle. There was a lot of prep by Sequoia dealing with permits, rentals, and shuttles – all I did was buy beer and drive to the Hacienda where we were met by two separate guide companies. This section of river (and all of the Colorado for that matter) is a cluster#@*! ff government security permits and use permits and vehicle shuttle paperwork. What it comes down to is that one guys rents us the boats and one guy (a government contractor) shows up to check our ID's and escort us to the foot of the Hoover Dam and watch us intently until we are surely downriver and away from the boom that divided the open river from the massive concrete wall above. Of course I'll be logged on some federal computer somewhere as having used two days of my river permit. We got on the river, whatever the case, we left those worries behind as soon as the dam began to disappear around the corner.

Before we turned the first corner the first slot appeared on river right. The first person on shore confirmed the shimmering outflow was warm. Two rough canyon miles later, using old ropes to ascend slippery boulders our small team trickled into pools. Three nearly flawless soaking pools of varying temperatures, the canyon wider and sunny, boulders strewn about, holding in the water here, letting it flow down into the next there. The tranquil vibe of the canyons of the Colorado were only so often ruffled by the regular scenic helicopter overflights – but the whoap of rotors always drifted off as quickly as the day drifted by. Just a few river miles and many springs and canyons later we made camp at the spring that would bookend our trip. Accessible by trail and closer to the river we had to share this little spot with a few others but as night brought the full moon to bask the canyon the place was all ours.

The whole trip was relaxed and we visited some amazing country. Floating the river was nearly as fun as all the soaking we did. There is so much water moving in the canyon its easy to feel connected to the lands that the drainages of the Colorado bring together. Even filtered and cool, emerging from an unnatural place deep inside a generating shaft one can still tune into the lands that the waters have touched. If I recall correctly, nearly 12 dams have changed the Colorado River into something that it never was before. New plants and animals now live in the water that no longer resembles the pink, murky, and tepid pre-dam river. And while the human hand is strong in using the resource that the Colorado is, we have not erased the natural connection it has with the lands of the West. It is in this river where everything that has changed in the West and everything that remains the same can both be weighed.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Baja Road-tripA provocative vacation across the border

I honestly don't know what I was taking a vacation from (I can only pretend that the American School in Switzerland and Naturalists-At-Large are hard jobs), but where better to get away from the bustle of Ventura and SoCal than Baja California. It must have been the tedious, brain-rotting Internet surfing from the NAL warehouse that pushed me to make a break for the border. The hardest thing about taking a trip to Baja is all the research and subsequent travelogues that scare you about making the simple trip down south. When it came down to it, I needed to get just a handful of things done to ensure a great trip: fetch my passport and snorkel from Joshua Tree, acquire a car (easier than it sounds), insure it, get a good map and a campground guide, get some extra gas and water storage (it's true-I did go to Wal-Mart for that), and point the newly acquired Subaru south.

The day to day story of my adventure is really the least exciting part of the trip. It's true that lounging around Loreto and roaming the Bay of Conception was ridiculously comfortable and the rewards many: the incredible food, fun backroad driving, 70 degree water, cheap margaritas, and easy, fun snorkeling. Though those classic vacation activities were great and memorable, the recompense for the time spent was the enjoyment and change of perspective afforded to me by experiencing the Mexican culture on the home front. In other words, the people were great! from the kindest women at the taco stands to the bar tender with a silly grin and a easy hand; the flirtatious, yet good-hearted and goofy, AK-47 wielding, 18 year old military boys and the talkative and jovial retired ex-pats that have undoubtedly had some Mexican friendliness wear off on them. For every one highway bandit and cranky military official that we at first were always on the lookout for we instead encountered a hundred kind, helpful people. Since neither the bandits or shady military officers actually ever presented themselves to us, I don't know what the ratio would be.

Turns out getting into Mexico is easier than crossing from state to state. I literally turned to Jenna with a quizzical look and asked if we went over the border. The hours long lines for US incoming customs on the other side of the highway were the the answer. I would guess if you weren't committed to reaching the salty sea you'd turn the car around immediately in Tijuana vindicated that Mexico was a hopeless ghetto of broken down buildings and smelling of sewage. I'm still pondering the reason the street fronting the huge concrete and wire wall the separates the US from Mexico is the roughest part of Baja we saw – I'm guessing its the combination of the peso with awful American TV and radio stations leaking over the border. Whatever the case, as soon as you reach the coast you see the honest influences of the American dollar – high-rise condos and cute second-home communities complete with English billboards announcing incomparable prices. After the high quality toll roads along the Pacific, Hwy 1 leaves the cooler ocean coasts and makes a reasonably direct southeastern line for the Bay of Conception and the Sea of Cortez. I will not lie, this is a long leg of the drive (maybe 300 miles), but the roads, while shoulderless and frequented by pushy truck drivers, were in better shape than the Internet logs and AAA would have you imagine. Mexican drivers were no more erratic than Italians and their cars generally don't go as fast. Nearly 50% of the license plates are from the US western States, with a surprisingly large group of British Colombians.

The Baja peninsula is a desert. Fresh water is amazingly scarce, the interior deserts are dry and endless, yet maintain a diversity of desert fauna far exceeding any place I've visited in the Southwest. Diverse forests of saguaro, cerios, yucca, chollas, ocotillo, joshua trees, cresote, smoke bush, and others were often tucked into Joshua Tree NP-esque granite boulders (No climbing, but seemingly lots of bouldering waiting for development in the 100 degree heat). While I'm on the subject once we reached the sea the fauna of the salty waters rivaled the diversity of the desert forests. We saw pelicans, Mexican eagles, osprey, frigate birds, dolphins, and amazing array of reef fish including colorful angles bigger than my head, and what I think was a desert fox. The whole peninsula had no shortage of wild lands and consequently wild life.

Solar-powered and depending on water deliveries the smallest villages string themselves along the desert highway, sometimes just one family's house and taqueria. Pulling off to get coffee or soda was always something of an adventure, some places were clean and we'd decide to stay for fish tacos or a yummy bean and egg breakfast, some just brick and tarp shacks against the side of a windowless house said 'stick to coffee and Coke.' Our own inspection of the eateries must have held some weight as both mine and Jenna's stomach was fine the whole trip (of course our other postulation was the regular supply of tequila the offered a daily purification of our gastrointestinal tracts). Whatever the case, if you went to Mexico with a car-load of Costco snacks you'd be missing my favorite part of Baja: myriad fish tacos and fresh prawns out of a cooler on the street (to later be marinated in tequila and skewered over a driftwood fire).

The front wheel drive Subaru I somehow luckily procured grew up in San Diego – it was yearning for a little off-road adventure. We drove for miles along the shores of the Sea, over salt flats, through sandy washes, down narrow and rutted tracks ending in palm oasis, around headlands with two tires in the sea, with no goal except that perfect swimming spot or shady campsite. Now's my time to brag: free camping 5 out of 6 nights, never used the extra gas or water, never got stuck in the sand, never got a flat tire! I know how much everyone dreams of their perfect Baja-mobile: 4WD super van with a winch, gas cans dangling from the side, sand tracks on the roof – and don't get me wrong surfing Baja Sur on the Pacific side or getting lost for days in the desert interior would diffidently warrant a sand worthy rig but the truth of it is months of adventure could be had along the Sea of Cortez in a 2WD with a couple sea kayaks on top (oh, look at me planning my next trip already). Mulege' and Loreto were undoubtedly our favorites towns and with both we were able to find amazing cooked food and cheap market food and purified ice. They had a feel that American money had spruced up the place, while the locals had both jumped on the band wagon and retained some of their culture (someone with a more intimate experience with these places may argue otherwise). Snorkeling and camping at the Sea beaches above, below, and in-between these towns came easy.

We waited over a hour getting back over the border. I was excited about taking a shower and rinsing the days of salt out of my hair, which I could have easily done in Baja if I paid for camping. We pulled into a shining AM/PM to get gas and pee. SUV's were glistening, a kid with bleach blonde hair was coming out the front door with a half-rack of Bud. I thought, 'I'm back in California.' I immediately recognized the same feeling I have every time I return for Switzerland. How is it that America (ns) can think that 10-lane freeways, cookie-cutter strip malls neighboring cookie-cutter sub-developments, an Applebee's and a Starbucks just a short drive, a TV and Internet browser in every home, and a brand-new car in every paved driveway is something that needs to be exported to every other country in the world? If we continue to blindly pursue the American dream I'm gonna guess the first two things that'll be lost before we can put our finger on it: cuisine and community.

Photos: 1) Forest fire in the palms, 2) Highway 1 through the interior, 3) Amazing beaches below Loreto

Even on the lonliest strech of Mexican highway: the dude abides.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Finally... embarking on a new adventure

Yesterday I bought a Subaru for $1200 in the parking of a Marie Calendar's in Chula Vista, San Diego. Tomorrow morning I am going across the border for a little road trip in Baja. What better way to break in a new car. I promise lots of photos and a full report when I return on the 10th.