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Never mind that it was the seventh straight bluebird morning of backpacking in mountains that constantly look surreal, like a painted mural backdrop in a movie. It didn’t matter that the trip had been a parade of wildlife. We even forgot about the heaviness in our legs from 15-mile days.
The menacing snarl piercing the silence seized our full attention.
My buddy Jerry Hapgood and I stood in the warm sunshine at 7,050-foot Lincoln Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. We had stopped for a snack after passing yet another mountain goat with a kid—I’d lost track of our goat tally for the week—and had just started ambling down the trail again when the sound stopped us cold. Then we heard it a second time, and followed it with our eyes.
Below us about 200 vertical feet and three switchbacks, the authors of the menacing snarls wrestled in the sparse conifer forest beside a small tarn: two grizzly cubs. Grazing nearby was their mom, whom I’ll politely describe as a big woman. They were about four steps off the trail we needed to descend, a distance I quickly calculated that sow griz could close, at her max speed of 35 mph, in 0.16 seconds.
I felt suddenly very anxious.
We stand on the rim of an unnamed slot canyon in the backcountry of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, in a spot that just a handful of people have seen before us. We’ve arrived here after hiking about two hours uphill on the Navajo Knobs Trail, and then heading off-trail, navigating a circuitous route up steep slickrock and below a sheer-walled fin of white Navajo Sandstone hundreds of feet tall, stabbing into the blue sky. Now I peer down at the narrow, deep, and shadowy crack that we have come to rappel into, and feel a little flush of anxiety.
By making the 100-foot drop into this slot canyon, to be followed by three more rappels, we will commit ourselves to going all the way through it—there will be no option to climb back out the way we’re going in. We know the walls will close in to about two feet or less apart. We also know that one long horizontal traverse through that claustrophobic chasm will require employing the rock climbing technique known as “chimneying,” where you press your feet, hands, and back against opposing rock walls, and meticulously reposition feet and hands one at a time to inch slowly sideways as you would climb up or down a chimney.
My wife, Penny, looks at me and asks gravely, “Are you sure about this?”
Neither of us is worried about ourselves. We are thinking about the two little people in our party who have never done anything quite like this before: our 11-year-old son, Nate, and daughter Alex, who turned nine a week ago.
The moose cow and her calf block the trail, staring back at us with expressions that I swear look like confusion over what to do. So the feeling is mutual. They were coming down, we were going up, and now none of us are moving. With steep, rocky, wooded terrain on either side, we backpack-carrying humans aren’t interested in an off-trail detour. The moose don’t seem enthusiastic about that option at the moment, either.
We appear to be at a standoff.
Mike Baron, one of my oldest friends and first backpacking partners—and one of the friends with whom I first backpacked this very trail to Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park almost 20 years ago—looks at me and says, with a grin, “What do we do?”
I smile, shrug, and tell him, “We wait.”
We’re just a few miles into one of the greatest multi-day treks in America, backpacking for four days from Death Canyon Trailhead to Jenny Lake in the Tetons, a 27.1-mile traverse that takes in some of the most scenic miles of the classic Teton Crest Trail. Our group includes my wife, Penny, our 10-year-old son, Nate, and eight-year-old daughter, Alex, and another longtime friend, Diane Tompkins.
But actually, that’s just a superficial description of our itinerary. On a deeper level, we four adults are retracing old footsteps through mountains as full of memories for us as our packs are full of gear and food. Meanwhile, my kids are making new prints beside ours, embarked on a metaphorical path they will follow far beyond these four days. So in a sense, one long journey continues while a newer, parallel journey is just getting underway.
On a remote, sandy beach on Washington’s Olympic coast, we stop in our tracks and gaze up. A wall of muddy earth rises some 300 feet into jungle-like rainforest. A thick strand of hemp rope dangles down this steep, eroding embankment. A ladder of wooden steps built into the muddy ground rises in tandem with the rope.
We’re going up it.
We’ve reached this spot after an hour of stepping and clambering cautiously over a beach tiled with big boulders, each one coated with wet, slick kelp and barnacles. Our group of six—including my wife, Penny, our school-age son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, my brother-in-law, Tom Beach, and his 15-year-old son, Daniel—crossed that beach while racing the clock against an incoming tide that was rapidly transforming that rocky stretch of coast to ocean. Now, this rope ladder marks the start of a three-mile-long overland trail through the rainforest. This detour off the beach is necessary to get around Hoh Head, an impassable section of coast where cliffs rise straight out of the pounding ocean.
“Oh, there’s a slug! There’s ANOTHER slug!” Nate excitedly calls out every sighting of these slimy creatures that are as long as his hand as I follow Alex and him up the rope ladder—bracing myself to, in theory, catch a tumbling kid.
It’s early on the first afternoon of our three-day, 17.5-mile backpacking trip on the southern stretch of the Olympic coast, from the Hoh River north to La Push Road. On the outer edge of the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park protects the longest strip of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States. You can’t order fried seafood or buy a T-shirt anywhere along these 73 miles of seashore. In fact, it’s one of the few remaining pieces of ocean-view real estate in the Lower 48 that Christopher Columbus or Capt. George Vancouver would recognize.
It’s also one of America’s most stunningly beautiful strips of shoreline. Up and down the coast, scores of stone pinnacles—called sea stacks—rise as much as 200 feet out of the ocean, some of them topped with a copse of a few trees, others just bare rock
The bison swings his massive, battering-ram head in our direction. Steam issues from his nostrils in short bursts. I’m not sure whether bison actually glare, but this 2,000-pound beef bulldozer with horns distinctly appears to be glaring at us. He looks perturbed.
Right behind me, my friends Jerry Hapgood and David Ports peer around me and try to take a measure of the first traffic of any kind, wild or human, that we’ve encountered so far, on the second morning of a seven-day, early March ski traverse in Yellowstone National Park. We are crossing an unnamed geyser basin several miles southwest of Old Faithful. The bison is grazing in grassy patches where the heat from thermal activity has melted away the snow. Then we notice two more bison lurking in the tightly spaced lodgepole pine trees to either side of the narrow trail.
So he’s brought friends. It’s three on three, but they collectively have a good 5,000 pounds on us—not a very fair fight. I silently curse the fact that I randomly happened to be the one skiing out front breaking trail through the snow at this moment.
David, Jerry, and I are each carrying a backpack and towing a sled loaded with winter camping gear, food, and—full disclosure—a survival ration of beer. (Hey, sleds have plenty of space, so why not?) We are not exactly light and nimble. Weaving through the close trees to get around the bison seems as likely as one of these beasts executing a backflip.
Fifteen minutes or more crawl past. The bison don’t move. I don’t feel like challenging them on that. From the back of the line, David suggests, “Mike, why don’t you just ski past him?”
As I’m thinking about how to suggest to David that perhaps he could come show me how to do that, the bison in front of me abruptly turns and ambles toward us.
Stumbling and tripping, struggling to backpedal with our sled cabooses, the three of us look like Moe, Larry, and Curly trying to get out of the way. But before getting close enough to trample us into the snow, the bison detours off the trail toward another patch of grass.
We hurry down the now-clear trail as quickly as we can drag our sleds, not pausing until the bison are long out of sight.
We have just begun our all-day hike over some of the volcanoes of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park when a trailside sign conveniently itemizes the life-threatening hazards awaiting us.
For starters, an eruption could eject large rocks into the air to rain onto us from the sky or release lava flows. Pyroclastic flows, which are clouds of ash, rock, and gas that can cook flesh, could come upon us at 60 mph. Just such a flow in 1975, in fact, formed the black rocks we’re standing on. Even short of a volcanic eruption, deadly volcanic gases can pool in the bottom of craters on calm, sunny days like today. And the rock on these peaks is so unstable that falling rock looms as a constant hazard.
Should we notice any signs of an eruption—an earthquake, for instance, or an ash cloud, or that other telltale indicator, rocks flying incongruously through the air—we should “move as quickly as possible down off the mountain.”
Yea, sound advice. In theory, anyway.
I find the sign rather comforting, actually: Before exploring a new place, I like knowing what could kill me there.
The warnings are not hyperbolic. Tongariro National Park looks like a place recently devastated by a very big bomb—which is, in a sense, what happened. The first volcano we will climb, Mt. Ngauruhoe, erupted 45 times in the 20th century. Red Crater, also on our itinerary today, last erupted about 130 years ago—an eye blink in geologic time. Mt. Ruapehu, dominating the horizon just a few miles to the south of Ngauruhoe, ranks among the world’s most active volcanoes. Blowing its top with a major eruption roughly every 50 years for at least the past 250 millennia—including in 1895, 1945, and 1995-1996—Ruapehu has also experienced at least 60 “minor” eruptions since 1945, some of which produced ash falls and lahars, which are deadly flows of mud and rock.
Sounds like very serious stuff.
I’m spending the day hiking a 12.1-mile loop over three of the main volcanoes and craters of Tongariro, in the center of New Zealand’s North Island. Established in 1887—just five years after Yellowstone became the world’s first national park—Tongariro was New Zealand’s first national park and the world’s fourth. It is also a dual World Heritage area, recognized both for its importance to the culture of the Maori, the original people of these islands, and for its natural values. Besides prolific volcanism and associated natural features, the national park is known for its strikingly stark, colorful landscape.