TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Archive for hiking

Plunging Into Solitude–Exploring Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park

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.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Exploring_Capitol_Reef.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

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Walking Familiar Ground: Resurrecting Old Memories on the Teton Crest Trail

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.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Backpacking_the_Tetons.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast

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

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Southern_Olympic_Coast.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Super Volcanoes: Hiking New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park

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.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Tongariro_Volcanoes.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

A Secret New Zealand Paradise: Trekking the Rees-Dart Track

We’ve hiked just thirty minutes from the trailhead when we hit the kind of view that frequently makes you stop and take a deep breath when trekking in New Zealand.

The Rees River Valley sprawls out before us, golden grasslands dissected by a braided, meandering, emerald-green river. In the middle distance, a fat and foaming Lennox Falls plunges over a cliff. Farther off and thousands of feet above us, glaciers pour off a row of sharp peaks in the Forbes Range angling into the sky.

My hiking partner, Gary Kuehn, an American who has lived here on New Zealand’s South Island working as a mountain guide for several years—long enough, apparently, to pick up that semi-intelligible Kiwi accent—looks around, grins, and mutters, “Pritty noice.”

Gary has seen a fair bit of these Southern Alps, where vistas like this are so common that they inspire an odd sort of déjà vu that you have stumbled into paradise for something like the fourth time today. And yet, he jumped at the invitation to join me here on the Rees-Dart Track because he’s actually never done this trek.

That fact affirms my impression of the Rees-Dart, most of which falls within Mt. Aspiring National Park: Although just spitting distance from the world-famous and enormously popular Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the armies of international trekkers that invade New Zealand every austral summer. Other than the expected busy atmosphere at the huts, we will spend most of every day out here seeing no one else.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Rees-Dart__New_Zealand.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

2011: A Year of Adventure in Pictures

From cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and paddling in the Everglades (the final two trips for my upcoming book) to backcountry skiing from a yurt in Oregon’s Wallowas (watch for a story soon), an ultra-dayhike across Zion National Park, rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks, rafting Oregon’s Grand Ronde River, dayhiking in the Columbia Gorge and New Hampshire’s Franconia Ridge, a six-day mountaineering trip on the Ptarmigan Traverse in Washington’s North Cascades, and backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and in Idaho’s Sawtooths (twice), 2011 was a pretty good year.
I’ve already written about some of those trips at this site, and will write about others in coming months. Check out this photo gallery of highlights from all of those 2011 adventures.

At this time of year, I’m poring over maps, guidebook descriptions, and websites, planning adventures for 2012. I hope you are, too. Looking for ideas or inspiration? Try this gallery of pictures from outdoor adventures I’ve taken in the U.S. and around the world—all of which you can read about (and get advice on planning) at TheBigOutside.com.

Make it a happy new year.

Completely Alone on Mt. Rainier’s Northern Loop

Contemplating big views and deep solitude on an October hike that turns very, very wet

By Michael Lanza

“There’s absolutely no one out here.”

I was just a few hours into a solo backpacking trip around Mt. Rainier National Park’s 32.8-mile Northern Loop when that realization hit me. It was a cool, clear day in October 2003. None of my usual hiking partners had been available to join me. So I decided to do the trip solo, something I’ve done more times than I could count and felt comfortable with. I had no inkling that this time I’d face circumstances that shrink the safety margins for someone alone in the wilderness down to nothing.

When I picked up my backcountry permit that morning, a ranger told me a snowstorm had hit the park just two days earlier. “You’ll probably run into at least a foot of snow on the ground at higher elevations,” he said. That didn’t dissuade me; I was prepared for snow. Neither of us, however, knew about the much bigger storm brewing out over the Pacific Ocean as we spoke, collecting moisture as it barreled toward the Cascade Range.

That conversation came back to me as I walked past the rippling water of a tiny tarn in a meadow on my way to Windy Gap. Just a few tiny patches of white remained on the ground at 5,600 feet. Sun and mild temperatures had evaporated the recent snow. But apparently no one had been out there since the storm, because even the rangers had no idea what trail conditions were like.

That’s when it hit me: With backcountry rangers warning anyone considering a trip that they would encounter deep snow, I would probably not see another person out there.

Autumn can be the finest time to head into the backcountry. The foliage changes color, brightening the landscape. There are no bugs. The weather often achieves something close to meteorological perfection: skies clear and dry, affording hundred-mile views, and temperatures not too hot during the day, not too cold at night. I’ve enjoyed some of my best days in the mountains in the fall.

But autumn exhibits a bipolar personality. And in October, you are as close to the mountain winter as you are to its summer. In some respects, it is more dangerous than winter because in fall it’s easy to get lulled into trusting the weather. But really good can turn really bad, really fast.

Looking back, I think that most if not all of my hardest, most wretched experiences in the backcountry have occurred between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. On Mt. Rainier National Park’s Northern Loop, I was about to add another to my list.

Read the full story and see a photo gallery from this trip, as well as other stories about outdoor adventures, at TheBigOutside.com.