Wednesday 3 March 2021

Nathan's Dirty Dozen - Top 12 Toughest Days on the Trail

Since I have been cooped up lately due to COVID-19 and the winter season, I have been day dreaming about the good old days out on the trail.  Of the major backpacking trips I have done over the years, there are a few days that were memorably tough for one reason or another, and I thought it would be fun to reminisce about the Top 12 most challenging.  I say challenging/toughest and not 'worst' because I am a sucker for punishment, and in a twisted sort of way, I enjoyed them!  

You may wonder "Nathan, can you really remember every day of all those old trips?" and the answer is YES!  But where necessary, I have referred to earlier blog posts, historical log books, and eye witness accounts from those who walked these paths with me to determine the Dirty Dozen!  I also mapped each of these days as best I was able on GoogleEarth to get rough elevation profiles, distances, and elevation gain/loss to assist in this assessment - these measurements are likely an underestimation of distances since they do not account for every kink in the trail, but you will get a sense for what it was like.  This colossal waste of time was a lot of fun to do, and I am sure will be of much interest to my compadres, and maybe some others who are into this sort of thing.  Without further ado, let the pain begin! 

12) Escalante, Utah - Day 3 (Through the Slime)

Escalante was an interesting trip.  This particular day was on our way out from Twenty-five Mile Wash in the middle of nowhere.  We had spent the previous couple of days exploring the canyons of this wild country and then decided to hike out to head to another area.  This day was not strenuous due to length (only around 12km) or steepness, but rather because the only way back was along the river bed that was bordered on each side by towering cliffs.  The river bed turned to quick sand in many areas that was incredibly difficult to traverse, making each step a challenge in some areas! An added difficulty was that the water, when present was not suitable for drinking along the route out, so we had to carry all we needed for the day to withstand the withering 100+F heat!

Jensen trying not to disappear into the ooze!

Kyle found out the hard way just how brutal the quicksand was to get out of once he got stuck.  If Mike hadn't helped him out (after laughing), he might still be out there!  Kyle was not happy that I was documenting this moment...but rest assured if the shoe was on the other foot he would have been snapping pix like it was a national geographic special.

Mike enters the slime

Eventually the river bed dried out as we got further upstream, making the walking much easier.

11) Sawtooths, Idaho - Day 2 (Switchback Delight)

The Sawtooths was another great trip, and the only one (so far) with the combination of Angi, Caitlyn, Kyle and myself!  Although not terribly strenuous, Day 2 had its moments!  We left Imogene Lake early in the morning and I can still remember everyone's face when they saw the first pass we had to go over.  Usually these passes are somewhat obscured by trees or bends in the trail that make them look less daunting, but not so at this spot! All the glory of this 1000ft climb was naked before us and we could see every jagged switch back that moved back and forth up the spine of the mountain like some sadistic metronome.  The crew was not pleased when they got over this first pass only to reveal that we had to go down just to come back up over the Sand Mountain pass, but everyone handled it like a champ!  This trip was also unusually warm for a mountain trip, making it sweaty work going up those switch backs.  Edna Lake was a welcome relief to all of us after our time on the trail.

Imogene Lake

Looking up at our first pass!

The top of the first pass

Top of the Sand Mountain Pass

Edna Lake

10) Beartooths, Montana - Day 1 (Rainbow Lake climb)

Nothing to see here, just a fairly standard day in the stunning Beartooth Wilderness of Montana.  However, 11.5kms with 3000+ft of elevation gain in the mountains is definitely no joke, especially on the first day of a trip when packs are at their heaviest and people are taking their first breath of mountain air!  The Mosquitoes were particularly fearsome on this trip, but otherwise this day was fairly uneventful and the scenery was spectacular, particularly as we neared our destination of Rainbow Lake!

First glimpse of Rainbow Lake

9) Gila, New Mexico - Day 2 (Water Works)

This was the 2nd day of our first ever backpacking trip and we were carrying WAY too much stuff.  That made a lengthy day (over 15km) feel really long, especially because the trail crisscrossed the Gila River what seemed like dozens of times.  The cobble stones of the river bottom and the water were hard on feet and boots - my Asolo Boot busted wide open at the seam and I was forced to wear water shoes for the rest of the week!!  Fortunately the water shoes had a Vibram sole and were pretty sturdy.  After a long day we finally arrived at the 'Meadows' where we made camp.  This trip was a real eye opener for all of us and we quickly learned how to pack better for the next one!

Entries from the log book for this day include:

"Day 2 - drastically underestimated trail length.  Mutiny imminent. -NGM"

"Blown tire ("Boot") right sole.  Remedied w duct tape. Will update status next stop. Burn candidate. -NGM"

"Blood on heel-caused by blister due to abrasive shoe, right foot.  Recommend amputation. -KAR"

The Meadows as the sun starts to set on our long day

8) Lost Creek, Colorado - Day 3 (Into the Snow)

Note to self, if planning a trip in the rockies during May, expect snow!  The trip started out OK at lower elevations where snow cover was patchy or non-existent, but as we began to climb in elevation the snow started to get deeper and deeper until by the 3rd day it was knee height (and in some places near waist deep!).  On this particular day we were moving from our camp at around 9,000ft up to McCurdy Park nearing 11,000ft.  The entire distance wasn't more than 5km, but in deep snow, steep slopes and high altitude it made it feel like 50!  As we neared McCurdy Park it started to ice rain, and we hastily set up camp in the lee of a large boulder.  We got a fire going with some damp wood we collected and tried to dry out.  Kyle's boot dried out so well that it caught fire, much to our amusement.  We spent a very cold night in our summer tents before packing up the next day and heading down! 

The whole thing was made worse by a grueling hike the day before which sapped our strength and meant we were already spent by the time we started the third day (see later in this post...).

This was our last springtime trip in the mountains...after this we moved such trips to August!  

Kyle 'post-holing' through some snow

McCurdy Park

Camp at McCurdy Park

7) Sierra Nevadas, California -Day 1 (To Ruby Lake)

The Sierra Nevadas trip to Ansel Adams Wilderness Area outside of Mammoth Lakes area in California was one of our best trips.  Overall we really got the balance of work to pleasure right, although the first day was still pretty long (13km).  The elevation gain of over 3,200ft up to a camp at just over 10,000ft made this day pretty tiring!  The trail was in good shape until we got to below Garnett Lake and we momentarily lost it in some trees, forcing us to make our own way scrambling up the steep slope to the lake.  Fortunately we had several funny incidents to add levity to the slog up hill, including Mike throwing his sandals into the river and Jensen almost throwing his hiking boots into the river trying to keep them dry!  Well done boys! 

We were well rewarded for our efforts with some of the best Mountain scenery I have ever found, and we arrived at Ruby Lake in the early evening after a solid day of hiking.

Yes, this is where they lost/almost lost their footwear

The trail got quite steep as we approached Garnett Lake

Ruby Lake

6) Peter Lougheed/Height of the Rockies, Alberta/B.C - Day 1 (The Long Haul)

Mike and I tag-teamed a trip to Height of the Rockies Provincial Park this past August.  The rest of my trail companions dodged a bullet with this one.  As you will see, this trip has a few days in the Dirty Dozen. We started out in Alberta at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and hiked towards the B.C border on the first day of our trip.  This was a long day, and we spent approximately 9hrs hiking, covering nearly 16km and 3300ft of elevation gain.  The trail, however, was in good shape most of the way and we made good timing until we hit our first pass.  As you can see on the graph, it was very steep and our pace slowed to a crawl!  We were very happy to arrive at our camp for the night on the shore of the turquoise waters of Beatty Lake.

about half way up the pass towards Three Isle Lake

Mike rests after setting up camp at Beatty Lake

5) Galiuro Mountains, Arizona - Day 2 (Tortilla Trail)

This trip was probably (definitely) the worst backpacking trip I have ever been on due to many reasons, but mostly the weather.  It is the only backpacking trip I have done on March Break, and the first one with Caitlyn, Paul, and myself teaming up! It rained for most of the trip and we seemed to be cursed with bad luck.  Check out my blog post on this if you want the dirty details.  On this particular day, however, the sun was shining and our challenges were limited to very poor trail conditions and extremely steep slopes.  Our destination was Rattlesnake Canyon, approximately 12km away, with around 2000ft of elevation gain in our way.  Most areas utilize the annoying but merciful switch back to convey hikers up mountains - not so in the Galiuro Wilderness - if you are going up, you are going straight up in a lung-busting direct line.  Add loose gravel, debris and downed trees all over the "trail" and it can make for a challenging time!  Caitlyn's hiking poles (both) snapped on this day and I tripped and impaled my kneecap on a pointy Yucca plant. We were all grateful once we arrived in Rattlesnake Canyon for the night!

Paul expressing his gratitude for bringing him to Rattlesnake Canyon

We ended up staying in this ramshackle cabin, which saved us from days of hypothermic weather.

4) Lost Creek, Colorado - Day 2 (Jensen's Bane)

The second day of our trip to Lost Creek Wilderness was a memorably hard one, and one that we often think about.  As you can see by the elevation profile, it was a ton of up and down which I find can wear me out more than a single long climb.  This day we hiked a respectable 10.5km and did just around 3,000ft in elevation gain and we were all absolutely exhausted by the end of the day.  I remember feeling part way through that I had hit a 'wall', and we didn't make it to our camping location until late in the afternoon.  Jensen vowed that he would do anything to avoid repeating that day, and henceforth it has been named Jensen's Bane.

Jensen dreaming about what he would do to get out of this vacation

3) Galiuros, Arizona - Day 5 (Escape from the Galiuros)

After holing up in that cabin for 3 nights listening to the rain and hail pound on the roof we got a break in the weather and decided to make a dash for it, hiking out the entire length of the trail from Rattlesnake Canyon to the trailhead.  As mentioned earlier, the trails in the Galiuros are rough and very rugged making it slow going at times.  Our first barrier was encountered early when we found that Rattlesnake Creek had turned into Rattlesnake River due to the heavy rain, and only Paul was able to make it across with dry feet!  During the crossing I must have set down my binoculars because I realized I didn't have them when we stopped for a break a couple kms up the trail!  I went back and tried to find them but to no avail!  We made up time climbing the steep hill to Top Out Divide and settled in to the long slog to get out while the weather held.

Rattlesnake Creek

Cait climbing the slope to Top Out Divide

Our troubles were not over upon reaching the trailhead as the access road had turned to mud from the heavy rain.  The precipitation over the past 4 days had also swollen the trickle we had driven across to a fast moving river!  This is much deeper than it looks and the road was mud caked as is.  To make matters worse our truck didn't even have 4-wheel drive.  Paul gunned it and we made it across, but it was nerve racking!

2) Height of the Rockies, B.C - Day 5 (Where'd the Trail go?)

After hiking down a massive steep and unstable slope from Beatty Lake on our way into Height of the Rockies, we decided to try our luck on the North Kananakis Pass on the off chance that it was better.  It may have been, but probably not by much, and it actually turned out to be a longer trek than it would have been had we just gone back the way we came.  We left camp from Back Lake in good time and the first bit wasn't too bad as it was all steeply downhill until we reached the Palliser River junction with Leroy Creek and turned due northeast towards the pass.  The trail started to climb very steeply until it was quite sheer.  The trail disappeared before our very eyes as we were ascending some of the steepest sections and we ended up scrambling up the last few hundred metres wherever we could find a footing (and hand holds!).  We finally crested the pass and were greeted by the beautiful site of a glacier and alpine lake nestled between mountain peaks.  The remainder of the hike was mercifully downhill to our camp spot for the evening.  All told we had travelled 15km and done 3,400ft of elevation gain (and nearly as much loss) before reaching camp.  Fortunately our packs were lighter after removing 5 days worth of food or it may very well have been close to as bad as the #1 on this list.

Back Lake (our starting point)

Mike fills his water at Leroy Creek

From whence we came, looking down the Leroy Creek drainage

1) Height of the Rockies, B.C - Day 2 (Palliser Pass)

The main challenge with the trails in the Height of the Rockies was that they were so steep and rugged that it makes it slow going!  Day 2 of our trip makes the list as the absolute hardest day we have ever done on the trail.  All told we did around 14km, ascended and descended around 3,800ft all while being molested by horse flies and hordes of other biting insects and dodging Grizzly Bears.  The descent down from Beatty Lake was also more challenging since it wasn't really a trail (it is marked as a 'route' on the map) and entailed carefully walking down very steep talus slopes.

The ascent up the Palliser Pass was what killed us as it was right at the very end of an already long day and was incredibly steep, seemingly going on and on forever.  The grades in this section of the trail were at times exceedingly steep, as much as 65%, meaning that for every 100ft we walked forward, the trail would rise 65ft!  At one point I remember hearing Mike murmur between breaths "it never ends, it's never going to end" Hahaha!  Fortunately it did indeed end, and we made it to Back Lake quite exhausted.  

What a terrible day on the trail...what a great day on the trail!  I can't wait until I can update this list with some new contenders!

Route down from Beatty Lake.  Watch your step!

Distant Grizzly

Mike's trail friends

So fellow hikers, what do you say? Did I get the order right? Am I missing some days that you think were bad?

Honourable Mentions:

Escalante, Utah Day 4

Maybe this day in Utah should have been called Jensen's Bane, as his hair started to fall out from the heat as we walked across open slick rock desert in the heat of the day!  The hike was short, only a few kms, but it culminated with a very steep climb down a cliff face that was meant to be traversed by people with ropes and belaying equipment, not buffoons with heavy packs.

Gila, New Mexico Day 3

This was the day following our long hike to the Meadows.  We had a long climb up a very steep mountain and encountered a freak lightning storm that forced us down while we were nearing the top!  Once over the top we had to hike 8km past where I anticipated stopping for the day because the water that was supposed to be present was actually just dirt.  Fortunately it was almost all downhill, or this might have made the list.

Yosemite, California Clouds Rest Trail

This was a day hike before we did out backpacking trip to Ansel Adams Wilderness.  A beautiful and scenic hike, around 25km round trip and very steep in sections.  Fortunately we were just carrying day packs, so it wasn't too bad.  Mike had some sort of strange illness afterwards (elevation sickness?) and was up puking most of the night.  Miraculously he was right as rain the next morning and crushed #7 on this list!

Eiger Ultra Trail, Switzerland

Cait and I did a really long hike in Switzerland along the Eiger Ultra trail that would have been a real doozy with heavy packs.  Fortunately we just had a small day pack and didn't pack much water (we drank directly from the glacier). The distance was a bit over 20km and our starting point was 4000ft below our highest point (the cumulative gain would have been even greater).  Definitely one of the most scenic hikes I have done!

Joshua Tree, California (Lost Palms Oasis)

Not a long hike, but the heat was the primary factor in this being an uncomfortable time.  Cait and I definitely did not bring enough water for the journey and were really hot and thirsty after getting out.  Cait slipped and skinned her knee to make matters worse!

Lake Opeongo, Algonquin Park

Last summer Paul and my nieces went on a canoe trip on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park which was great until the last day when the wind kicked up to near gale force, churning this lake into a real beast to contend with.  We would have been fine if Paul and I had been in the same boat, but instead we had to put our two small nieces in the front which made it exceedingly hard to control even with trying to sit farther forward and weigh down the front.  I remember saying that it was the most physically demanding day I've ever had with the exception of backpacking trips.  It is the only time I have ever had to step out of the canoe and walk it up the shoreline because at times even with 100% effort we could not go forward.