Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Avoiding the Crowds: Little Devils Staircase

We were not planning to go hiking this weekend.  After all of the travel, we were a bit tired and the apartment needed to be cleaned.  The forecast for Sunday made us reconsider.  How many more 75 degree days are we going to get this year?  We made good progress on the cleaning front on Saturday, so on Sunday, we got up early and headed to Little Devils Staircase in Shenandoah National Park.  Our goal was to avoid the crowds of people who would be clubbing each other for parking spaces at certain trailheads

We arrived at the parking lot to find just four other vehicles there.  Talk about a good start.  The leaves in the valleys haven't reached peak color yet, so the trail was lined with a mix of yellow and green.  We leap-frogged with a group of five briefly before leaving them behind as we began the steep climb up into the canyon.  The higher we climbed, the better the leaves got, with bright yellows and the occasional bright red filling the narrow valley.

The climb up the staircase is steep, but short and soon, we were at the Keyser Run Fire Road.  We stopped for lunch at a campsite near the junction.  While we were sitting there, we listened to several woodpeckers "calling" back and forth by loudly hammering trees.  After lunch, we continued on the Pole Bridge Link Trail and then the Sugarloaf Mountain Trail.  The latter took us up to the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Skyline Drive.  As we got near the drive, we saw a few more people, but mostly we just heard the traffic.  We stopped at one of the overlooks and were impressed (not in a good way) with the amount of traffic on the drive.  Walking was definitely the better way to get up there.  The view to the west from the overlook was worth it, though.

From there, we continued south on the AT, crossing Skyline Drive twice and passing the trail down to Overall Run Falls.  It was amazing what a difference a few feet made:  The leaves were completely off the trees and the grass completely dormant on the highest points along the AT.  Just a few feet down, the grass was still green and the leaves were still on the trees.  A few more feet down and asters were still blooming. 

We quickly reached the junction with the Piney Branch Trail and headed back down towards the valley below.  Soon the traffic noise died away, except for the occasional motorcycle and even their noise faded eventually.  We hiked for several miles without seeing another person.  At the waterfall a mile or so above the junction with the Hull School Trail, we stopped to take a few pictures.  We climbed the hill on the Hull School Trail, connected with the Keyser Run Fire Road, and made our way back to the car. 

The leaves were spectacular on the hike, and apart from the two overlooks on Skyline Drive that we passed, we probably saw 20 other people over almost 12 miles.  Most of them were on Little Devils Staircase and Sugarloaf Mountain Trails.  That is more people than one would usually see on those trails, but it was also the busiest weekend of the year in the park.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Lower Little Devils Staircase Trail.

 Orange tree on Little Devils Staircase.

 More pretty trees on Little Devils Staircase

Ageratina altissima (White Snakeroot).  Eupatorium rotundifolium (?) (Round Leaved Boneset).  I am not certain I've identified this correctly, so if anyone has any other ideas, I'm open to them.

 Maple leaves.

 Pole Bridge Link Trail.

 Cars at an overlook on Skyline Drive.  It was a bit cloudy when we were up near the drive.

 Looking east from Skyline Drive.

 Looking northeast from Skyline Drive.

 The waterfall on Piney Branch Trail.

Keyser Run Fire Road near the cemetery.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Old Rag Mountain Stewards: Helicopter Rescue

The day started off normally enough for an October weekend.  The leaves have not quite peaked, so nearly everyone in the Mid-Atlantic was out yesterday to hike Old Rag.  The lower parking lot was completely full by 10 a.m. and they were parking people in the neighbor's field (there is an extra charge for that).  At least two large church groups decided to hike yesterday.  The weather was bright, sunny, windy, and a little chilly.  That would mean that it would be really windy and cold on the summit.

Four of us were working with Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) yesterday.  We split up at the closed upper parking lot, three of us going up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road and one up the Ridge Trail.  This is my favorite time of year to hike the fire road.  The leaves are starting to turn in the valley and the road is covered in those that have already dropped.  The poplars are a combination of green and gold.  Other trees have already turned bright red.  The underbrush has died away and it is possible to see into the forest for the first time in six months.  The dry, cool air makes the long uphill more pleasant than just a month ago.  There are a few flowers still blooming, mostly asters and goldenrods.  Further up, on the Saddle Trail, more leaves were changing and the very last wildflower of the season, Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) has begun to bloom.  H. virginiana is the true sign that the growing season is over. 

Things were actually fairly quiet for a busy fall day when we received a call that there was an injured hiker near on the other side of the summit.  The volunteer on the other side of the mountain soon confirmed that the hiker would not be able to walk out.  We hurried up to the first aid cache, gathered equipment, and continued over the summit.  The half mile from Byrd's Nest Shelter to the summit might be the longest half-mile in the world when there is an emergency on the other side of the mountain.  We crossed the summit after what seemed like an eternity and made our way down to the injured hiker.

Once on the scene, we began the long process of preparing the hiker for a carry-out.  We assumed we would be in for a long carry, at least partially in the dark.  The hiker's location on the mountain was about as far from vehicle access as possible and in the middle of some difficult spots to get a litter over.  It was already 3:30, which meant we only had about three hours of daylight left.  Soon, National Park Service (NPS) personnel began arriving.  We were told that a helicopter would not be possible due to the wind, so we continued preparations for a carry out. 

Moving an injured person safely on the mountain, particularly in the boulder scramble, is a delicate operation that requires many people.  One injured person requires a minimum of 12 people for a short carry and 18 for a longer carry.  Six people are needed to lift the litter and each of them will need to be relieved regularly.  Carrying someone any distance at all is a slow, potentially dangerous process.  Given the late hour, we would be doing most of the work after dark, which is that much more difficult.

We were just about ready to begin the process when we got word that the wind had died down enough to attempt a helicopter rescue.  That raised everyone's spirits, especially the hiker's.  We now just had to move the hiker to a more open spot before the helicopter arrived, which would be in about 30 minutes.  We slowly moved the hiker down over several obstacles.  Soon, we could hear the helicopter in the distance.  We helped the hiker out of the litter so they would be ready for the basket the helicopter was going to drop.

Then the helicopter was circling directly overhead.  It was loud and the rotors blew everything around.  Ironically, the wind also picked back up at that point.  They dropped the basket and the hiker was helped into it.  Then, when the signal was given, they lifted the hiker up and took off across the valley, slowly reeling the basket up.  I would guess that they wanted to get far away from Old Rag's cliffs.  The hiker got a great bird's eye view of Weakley Hollow on their way up.  Then they were gone and it was quiet again.  We began the work of packing everything up and returning gear to the first aid cache.

We were so lucky that the helicopter crew felt it was safe to fly.  Had the winds kept up, they would not have been able to fly.  It certainly is not something we count on, even in serious cases, but it was nice that it worked out yesterday.  Next time, we may very well have to do the long carry out.

Yesterday's situation reminded me what great people we work with in ORMS and in the NPS.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Aster sp. on the Weakley Fire Road.

 Changing leaves on the fire road.

 Hay Scented Ferns dying off for the winter.

 Leaves changing on Robertson Mountain.

 Weakley Hollow.

 Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel).  This is the same thing that is used in cosmetics.

 The helicopter circling overhead.

Dropping the basket.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Part Three: Cedros Alpamayo - More High Passes and Snow

Continuing from yesterday:  On the seventh day of the trip, we hiked up to Lake Jancarurish, which is a bright, cloudy turquoise blue lake sitting beneath Alpamayo Mountain.  The hike up the valley from our campsite was easy.  The trail stayed just above the valley floor and was mostly flat until we reached the terminal moraine that formed the lake.  Once there, we climbed steeply up a path to the top of it for a good view of the lake.  We took a break there and speculated on where the loud rockslide had been the night before. 

From there, we hiked up to an overlook with a view of Alpamayo, Santa Cruz Mountain, and the large waterfall on the river below us.  We took another break here for pictures.  There was a large boulder (a glacial erratic) that made a perfect chair on top.  The only sounds were the waterfall and the wind.  The plan was to return down the valley from there and hike to the next campsite.  Our guide asked if we wanted to continue up to another viewpoint and that sounded good to us, so he set off across the flat spot to the river.  He found a safe place to cross and then we continued up the slope on the other side.  There was no trail, so we were just following him.  The slope was steep and fell away a long distance below us, but there were plenty of safe places to step.  We stopped on the nose of a large ridge with a great view of Alpamayo and the lake below.  After a short break, we continued up to another flattish spot and then began working our way back down to the valley.  We finally picked up the trail again near the bottom of the valley, where we took a break for lunch.  While we were sitting there, we noticed two backpackers coming down from the pass we crossed the day before.

The trail from there to Ruinapampas, our next campsite, was gently sloping downhill and easy.  We took a break at the last view of Alpamayo and arrived at the campsite in the early afternoon.  Storm clouds rolled in on Jancarurish campsite, where we had stayed the night before.   It sleeted for a little while in camp, but then it stopped and we were treated to a rainbow up the valley.  Jesus (the burromaster) commented that we must be lucky, because the weather had been so good so far.  Late September and early October is the beginning of the rainy season in Peru in the high country and Jesus said it would not be unusual for it to rain for a little while every day.

Day 8:  All three of our Peruvian counterparts warned us about the passes on day 8.  All of them said it was going to be a long, hard day, since we had two really high passes to cross.  We got up early and ate breakfast.  We started hiking down the valley, which felt unfortunate, since we would only have to climb further to get to the top of the first pass.  After an hour of hiking, SSW Spouse asked Edgar (our guide) if we were about half way to the top of the pass.  Edgar sort of laughed and said, "I think not."  We finally made the top of the pass about an hour later.  We stopped and ate and the donkeys passed us while we were sitting there.  One of the donkeys laid down when he got to the top, while Jesus was adjusting the loads for the others.  As soon as Jesus came to adjust his load, he jumped up.  Apparently, he just likes to lay down when they stop (he was not mistreated or overworked). 

We could see the trail ahead of us across the valley.  We had to descend a long way before switchbacking up to what looked like the next pass.  Edgar quickly dispelled the notion that it was the next pass.  We worked our way down to bottom of a very high valley with a pretty campsite and began the climb up the other side.  At what looked like the top, the trail turned left and continued to climb.  There were three or four more false summits before we finally reached the top of the pass.  Finally, we reached the top and had a brief view of Santa Cruz Mountain.  Since we had eaten lunch after the last false summit, we didn't linger long on top of the pass.  We were also conscious of the looming dark clouds over the mountains near us.  Sure enough, within 100 yards of beginning our descent, it started snowing.  Just a little at first.  By the time we reached the overlook over Lake Cuillacocha, it was snowing pretty hard.  The good thing was, nothing was accumulating where we were.  The bad thing was, it was getting pretty cold and it was very windy.

Lake Cuillacocha was beautiful.  It is a deep cobalt blue in the deep areas and turquoise in the shallow areas.  The water is very clear.  Half of the lake was in the sun since it was only snowing closer to the mountains (and on us).  As we continued down, the snow moved further into the valley and followed us around the lake.  We stopped briefly near the outlet for the lake, but kept moving after a few minutes to stay warm. 

From the outlet, we had to climb high up over the other side of the valley.  All of a sudden, we were in the sun again and had to stop to take off our coats.  As we were climbing along the cliff face, we noticed a condor riding thermals below us.  It made lazy loops in the air, looking for food below.  We stood watching it for a while and it rewarded us by soaring right in front of us on its way out of the canyon.  When we finally reached the top of the hill we were climbing, Edgar pointed out rock art on the cliff face.  Someone, before the Incas, had painted small red human figures on the rocks.  They were about 12 inches tall and scattered about the cliff face. 

At this point, Edgar said we had about 30 minutes left for the day.  I have to say that I was skeptical about that.  He can hike so much faster than we can at that attitude, that I figured we must have about an hour.  We continued around the corner and there was the dining tent on the slope below us at Huishcash.  Twenty-five minutes later, we were taking our boots off outside our tent.  It took us 8 hours to hike 12 km (8 miles).  We took a lot of pictures, but climbing the passes just took us a long time.  The trail up the passes was steep and the altitude slowed us down a lot.

Day 9:  Our last day was all downhill.  We had seven kilometers (about 4.3 miles) to hike to get to the village of Hualcallan, where we would be picked up by the van.  We made it in about two hours.  The trail just zig-zagged back and forth down the mountain before it finally took us into the village.  There must have been 30 switchbacks. About 30 minutes after we arrived, the van arrived and about ten minutes later, the donkeys arrived.  Within ten minutes, everything had been loaded into the van, goodbyes had been said, and we were on the road.  Jesus still had a two day walk back to his village, Colcabamba.  The rest of us went back to Huaraz.

All in all, it was a great trip.  We would definitely do it again (and hope to someday).  The scenery was absolutely spectacular.  The thing that really made the trip great, though, was the professionalism of our guide, cook, and burromaster .  We learned so much about the area from them, were well-fed, and enjoyed their company.  It was a great opportunity for me to practice Spanish and learn a few Quechua words as a bonus. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Alpamayo Mountain

 Climbing up above Lake Jancarurish and the river below.

 Lake Jancarurish.

 Bootshot over Lake Jancarurish.

 Alpamayo from the Jancarurish Valley.

 Castilleja sp.  (Quechua:  Yawar taico, English:  Indian Paintbrush)

 Cactus flower.

 Rainbow from Ruinapampas campsite.

 The second pass on day 8. 

 One of the donkeys.

 Ruins below Ruinapampas. 

 Loasa grandiflora (Spanish:  Ortiga macho, Quechua:  Shinua)

 Muillacohca mountain (in an earlier post, I mentioned that cocha means "lake" in Quechua.  I'm not sure why this mountain has "cocha" in the name).

 Lake Cuillacocha in the snow.

 A large waterfall on the outlet stream from Cuillacohca. 

 Sunset at Huishcash.

 Looking down on the village of Hualcallan on the last day.

Lupinus sp (Lupine).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Part Two: Cedros Alpamayo - High Passes and a Rest Day

Continuing from yesterday: Day four promised a long climb over Llanajanca Pass (4,700 m, 15,400 ft).  After resting the previous afternoon, SSW Spouse felt much better.  The previous evening, Jesus (the burromaster) had expressed a little concern about the rain and the final climb over the pass with the donkeys, but the rain had stopped overnight and we woke up to a good view of the mountains.

We started up the steep slope leading out of Jancapampa Valley by 7 a.m.  We climbed for a while before the trail flattened and we had a good view of the high valley ahead of us.  We were quickly passed by two small boys going up to tend livestock. After a break, we started hearing a flute behind us.   It kept getting closer and finally, Edgar (our guide) said he thought it was our cook playing and that they must be getting close.  It continued to get louder and was pleasant listening.  Pretty soon, we saw a teenage boy on horseback playing to pass the time on his ride up to the highest valley to tend livestock.  He likely saw us ahead of him, but he was clearly just playing for his own interest.  When he got close to us, he stopped playing and then started up again after he was beyond us.

Jesus, Marco, and the pack stock soon passed us.  We took a break for lunch on a large glacial terminal moraine.  A small bull took a strong interest in SSW Spouse's lunch, pacing back and forth in front of him, eyeing his sandwich.  He did not act aggressive, just hungry for salt.  After we left the lunch spot, he sniffed around the area where we sat like a dog sniffing around the kitchen floor after everyone has eaten dinner. 

The pass was amazing, crazy, and beautiful, all at the same time.  No vegetation grows on the final 100 m of the ascent, so it is covered in fine gravel.  That wouldn't be a problem, except the slope falls steeply away from the top of the pass and the "trail" is little more than a goat path barely etched into it.  One wrong step would send a hiker several hundred feet down into the valley below.  I found myself trying to figure out if one can use trekking poles to self-arrest on gravel and I am not afraid of heights.  Fortunately, I did not have to try to find out.

The top was windy and cold, but someone had built a stone wall across part of the pass, which provided the perfect shelter for a break.  All in all, it took us five hours to reach the top.  The way down was more of the same in terms of steep, precarious trail, but it soon leveled out some and we made quick progress towards camp at Huillca.  Along the way, we passed through a small village and saw herds of alpaca (they are really funny runners).

Day 5 was a rest day with an optional day hike to the Safruna Lakes.  SSW Spouse opted for rest since he was feeling a bit unwell again.  Edgar and I hiked up to the lakes.  The first challenge involved crossing the river as there was no bridge at the head of the valley.  Foolishly, I left my sandals at the tent.  I was prepared to cross barefoot, but Edgar did not like any of the crossings.  He eventually found one that was narrow enough for me to jump across, but had I missed, it was very, very deep.  And fast.  I just jumped before I could think too much about it.

Andean Gulls were fishing on the lower lake, so we took a break and watched them for a little bit before continuing on to the upper lake.  Upper Safruna Lake is deep cobalt blue, which means it must be very deep.  It was overcast, so there was a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains and glaciers on the surface of the lake.  We sat up on the terminal moraine that formed the lake, a few hundred feet above the water.  A small avalanche crashed down the mountain across the lake from us.  On the way back, we saw an Andean Condor soaring low across the valley, looking for food.  These birds are huge, with wingspans up to 3 m.  This time, I opted to cross the river barefoot at a really wide spot with no large rocks - a much safer option than trying to jump.  

Back at camp, Edgar broke out a deck of cards and I had the opportunity to learn a whole new set of Spanish vocabulary words.  He taught Jesus, Marco, and I a game called El Presidente.  I taught them Hearts, with Edgar's help translating some of the more complex rules. It was a great way to pass the afternoon and learn more Spanish.  

Day 6 was our first two-pass day.  We had a pass that was not too far above camp and then one of our highest of the entire trip, Cara Cara Pass at 4,830 m (15,850 ft).  The first pass did not take us long to cross and it was not a very dramatic pass.  After crossing it, we dropped into a valley and began gradually ascending to the head of it.  The trail was about as easy as we would find on the whole trip, the ascent was so gradual that it felt like we were hardly climbing at all.  The donkeys passed us while we were having lunch and we watched them make the very steep climb at the end of the valley.  Then they disappeared over an edge that we thought was the top.  We reached that edge after much effort, only to find ourselves on a wide bench with 150 meters of climbing still above us.

We finally reached the top, though, and it was windy and cold.  Unlike the previous high pass, there was no place to really escape the wind, so we did not linger long at the top.  We could see Alpamayo and the Santa  Cruz Mountains ahead of us and, as we descended, we were able to see Lake Jancarurish.  It was one of the more spectacular views of the trip so far. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Sunrise at Jancapampa

Brachyotum rostratum (Quechua:  Chinchi)

 The small bull that wanted SSW Spouse's lunch.

 Climbing up to the top of Llanajanca Pass.

Another view of the trail on the way up.  The faint line extending from the lower right diagonally up toward the middle of the photograph is the trail.

 Sitting on top of a small spine of rock at the top of Llanajanca Pass.

 Folded rocks at from the top of the pass.

 Looking toward Huillca from Llanajanca Pass.

Unidentified white flowers.

The river on day 4 in the rain.  This is the river I crossed on day 5 by jumping over a narrow spot.  I did cross upstream, but it was still a decent sized river.

An alpaca herd in the Huillca area.

 Day 5 - Bootshot over Safruna Alta Lake.

Castilleja sp. (Quechua:  Yawar taico, English:  Indian Paintbrush)

 Day 6 - Santa Cruz Mountain from Cara Cara Pass.

 Gentianella nitida (No common name found)

Day 6 - Sunset over Pucajirca Mountain.