Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Selway the Hard Way

Ever since the River of Return packraft trip last year that I did with Tom McFarlane I've been keen to do another packraft trip, especially since I bought a non-cheap packraft this spring and it's been sitting unused ever since!  My enthusiasm for packrafting had piqued brother Paul's interest, and we had identified mid-August as a good time.  Then we found that experienced packrafter, pro photographer, and all around adventurer/good guy Jim Harris was keen for a trip that he'd had his eye on:  hiking into the Selway.

The Selway is nearly the Holy Grail of river trips; during the spring runoff (the only time it's typically raftable) only 62 private permits are issued to the lucky few of the thousands who sign up for the annual lottery, and invariably every year some of those trips get cancelled because the flow comes up too high during that window (and it's notorious for high water carnage, so canceling is sometimes the wise move).  But the permit season ends July 31, and if you have a craft that floats higher than a raft (ie a ducky, packraft, or small raft) you can sneak onto the river before the flow plunges to near-zero.  This past winter's snowpack was unusually good in those parts, so the river's been flowing about 30% higher than it typically does this time of year, so the window continued to remain open.

This packrafting trip was a little outside the packrafting norm, because it's very well known that one can drive to the Selway put in (in fact, most people probably don't even know that you can hike into the put in!) so on one hand the excellent opportunity that packrafts represent to be able to carry our vessels was somewhat moot, but we felt like it'd be fun to tromp up, over, and through the mountains first before heading down the river.   And if that weren't enough, the trail that was the most logical didn't really get up high enough into the Bitterroots - just up one valley to a pass then down another valley - so we decided to head straight up into the mountains and then stay above alpine, moving cross country for a few miles before dropping down the pass.  Seemed like a good idea at the time, and it turned out to indeed be a good idea.

Thus  Jim, Paul, Jim's friend pro skier/firefighter Kalen Thorien and I found ourselves at a trailhead (with a shuttle driver who thought we were nuts...or maybe stupid.....the line is very thin) ready to grind up nearly 4000 feet to the top of 10,000 foot Trapper Peak with a week's worth of food and our boats....and feeling very far from paddleable water.

But we cheerily marched upwards, and soon enough got the excellent bird's eye view of the mighty Bitterroots:

I realized that adding 40 or 50 pounds to legs that are accustomed to 160 pounds manifested itself in a far slower pace than trail running, but ever-so steadily we made it to the top:
the summit looms
 On top we were a little surprised to see a few other folks who had backpacked in to some nearby lakes and were doing a summit day.  One of our fellow summitteers asked me "Did you see the deer?"  huh?  uh, maybe.  There are tons of deer.  "It was peeing!"  Really, do tell.  "We got a picture of it peeing"  Gosh, that's um, scintillating.  Can't wait to see the pics. And I am definitely outta here, to flee my fellow mankind and head into the wilderness for a week.

The Google had indicated that it was pretty straightforward ridge and basin-running west off Trapper Peak, but what The Google hasn't quite perfected is showing the sizes of the rocks in the talus fields.

It was pretty challenging going, and memories of punching a bone-deep hole in my shin by a rock flipping up in the Sierras on similar terrain some years ago kept me moving pretty carefully.
We are heading for that little col in the upper left corner of the pic
We used our throw bags to ease our way down a steep slab
But the views were great:

we were in no hurry, the weather was fine, and we made it to a beautiful lake well before the sun set.
pretty classic mountain lake

I drank from the stream in the background before taking a few steps and seeing this goat/sheep scat; further testing of my gut!
Paul very pleased with his $6, 3 oz shelter that worked quite well, as long as it wasn't too windy
The next day we kept moving west up high with more talus-hopping up and over small ridges, and finally we met the trail at Boulder Pass, which felt like a veritable freeway, even though it was probably the least-used trail I've been on in a long time with grass growing up in it and tons of downed trees that kept our scrambling legs from getting too monotonous tromping down the trail.
Huckleberries kept us fueled on the fly
this was one big doggie (wolf) in the middle of nowhere!
The energy bar:  the new standard for size referencing
bridge out; should we give it a go?
Jim testing his luck on the damaged bridge.
We were hoping to possibly be able to paddle this "major" trib, but it was a trickle
interesting that nearly 15% of the wilderness designated in the '64 Wilderness Act was contained in this one Wilderness
After a day and a half of trundling down the long valley we finally ended at the river, where we met Earl, the friendly volunteer at the ranger station who not only greeted us with a booming "Welcome to Paradise!" (the put in is called "Paradise") but also was willing to part with four precious backcountry Coors:

We were surprised to see the famously-clear Selway running dark:
The blending of clear White Cap creek and the main stem
and Earl informed us that there had been a ferocious thunderstorm recently that had made the recently-fired hillsides slough down and across the road into the river, so as it turns out our hike in was the only way to access the river after all!  And our night at the put in we got a taste of said thunderstorms:  it poured.  Jim happened to put up his tent right in the low spot of the parking area and got a bit flooded, I took refuge in the doorway of the outhouse:

Kalen got hit by a rock dislodged on the hillside by the rain:
that's a real rock! 
and I won't soon forget the image of Brother Paul abandoning his lean to and being silhouetted by lightning as he sprinted through the deluge for the other shitter's doorway!

But of course the thunderstorm blew itself out and the next morning we were drying out and ready to put on.  Our timing seemed perfect; the local rangers had closed the river due to fires downstream, but had taken down the sign earlier the day that we had arrived:

but Earl did tell us that the fire we knew had been going near the takeout was still in full force and the possibility existed that our shuttle driver would not be able to get in to the takeout.  Ah well, not much to do besides hop in the boats and merrily bob downstream.
ready to belay the 5-pound boat down!  
Last year Tom and I talked about the concept of bringing someone who has little/no experience on whitewater down a class 3-3+ run in a packraft, and thought that someone who had little inherent fear, was a strong athlete, could follow leads well, pay attention and learn quickly, and recognize the value of "when in doubt, Give'er!"  would probably be ok.  Kalen was a good testpiece and she passed with flying colors; she was all of those things and more, to the point where Paul and I thought "geez, here we are with all these years of running rivers and thinking we are all burly, and she just comes in and nails it no problem as a total beginner!"
It was a pleasure watching her paddle her little craft, and after seeing her feet after a few days of hiking without complaint I knew she was tough:
That "toenail polish" on her left foot is sub-nail blood....
So it was nice to get off our feet and kick back in the boats.  My new Alpacka Yak with the bigger-butt stern was not only more forgiving (ie less prone to back-endering) than the original but it was faster as well, and the clever new spray skirt system is - as anticipated  - a huge improvement over the velcro-on-over-the-pfd skirt.

I feel pretty confident now that boat can run class 5 stuff; at least, lower-volume class 5 (driving home along the North Fork Payette it was difficult to imagine the Yak shredding the meat of that).  
A typical awesome Selway beach camp
Our second day on the river was a veritable wildlife bonanza:  we awoke to see a baldy soaring upstream off to another day at work and shortly followed by a golden eagle, a mink blasted through our camp, three elk came down to the river for a drink, an otter bobbed around checking us out, and we saw not one, not two, not even three, but five black bears!  We thought that they typically had a pretty big range, but we saw all of these over the course of an hour or two of floating.
that black dot is the swimming bear blasting out of the river after spotting me 
As expected, we bumped a bit on our way down to Moose Creek, where we met a handful of good ol' boys who had just flown in to the airstrip there for a fishing trip and were a bit distraught because not only was the river muddy enough to blind the fish but the fires were keeping their horse packer from making it in with their extra beer (they only had a few cases).   We met another local volunteer Ranger Rick who informed us that the situation downstream had not improved; the takeout road was still closed.  But as we spoke the rain fell steadily and we hoped that this would help our cause, though it had also rained up higher and the fires were still smoldering:

Moose Creek supplies the infamous "Moose Juice"  that comes in and doubles the flow as the Selway makes an abrupt turn to the west, which not only funnels the Pacific storms coming in creating an even deeper green Northwest feel:
They don't grow cedars like this in Utah! 
 but also the geology seems to change a bit and thus creates some bigger rapids.  Double Drop, Wa Puts, Ladle, and Little Niagra are all the most notoriously-challenging rapids on the river and they come one right after another, which adds to the spring carnage fest.
Jim in the heart of the gorge
Paul with his pack frame "roo bar"
For us, however, it was just bob and weave through fun boulder-hoppy class 3's and the occasional small pourover.

Our last camp was appropriately at "Jim's Creek"; a fitting end to Jim's cool idea.  We moseyed on down the final morning not knowing if the car would be there, sniffing as we went for the smell of smoke.  But sure enough it seemed the rain from two days' prior had snuffed out most of the fire and sure enough our car was ready for us at the Meadow Creek takeout.  After a final dip in the cleansing waters of the mighty Selway we headed for home, dropping Kalen off at her parents' place in McCall, where we were keen to be privy to her showing her dad her tattooed sleeve that he hadn't yet seen!  But alas, he was out, and the remaining three of us headed for home. I had to get back to help Ash feast on the August harvest!

Thanks again to Jim for coming up with a great idea and to him, Paul and Kalen for being most excellent adventure pards on a stellar trip.

here are a slew of pretty remarkably good photos by Jim:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Wild and Crazy at the Vaquero Loco 50k

Though I was aware that the El Vaquero 50k trail race was happening the first week in August and based on all that I had heard indicated that it was a “great” race (what actually constitutes a “great” race?) I didn’t enter early because I thought I might be busy with either work or an adventure, but this past week it became clear that neither impediment was arising so I tried to enter.  Of course, the exploding popularity of trail races means that procrastinators/uncommiters like me don’t typically get into races that fill quickly after registration opens and/or have lotteries, but as luck would have it El Vaquerio himself  - successful ultra runner and Race Director Ty Draney – sent me an email on Wednesday and said he had just had a dropout that opened up a spot and if I was quick I could get in.  I was quick, I got in, and suddenly my Saturday was planned. 

The race traverses a section of the Salt River mountain range that looms high over the Star Valley of Wyoming.  On every trip to Jackson we look up towards those peaks and say something to the effect of “those are good looking mountains; we should get up there sometime!” and then of course keep driving and never give it another thought.  And with the more-notable Tetons, Bighorns, Absorkas, Wind Rivers, Sawtooths, etc not that far away, it’s understandable.  But still they loom,   hence the appeal to head up and check them out in the context of a supported big run. 

Chris Adams was kind enough to drive his camper vanagon so the Friday evening thunderstorms that were rolling through were of no matter to us, and at 6am we were off.  Luke Nelson – a Patagonia-sponsored athlete with a lot of wins and FKT’s to his name, and with whom we designed some nice new trail racing shoes this past winter - has won this race many times and was disappointed in a sluggish Speedgoat that happened too soon after a big Hardrock pacing effort, so I was guessing that he was going to be ready to charge.  And indeed he did, right off the line.  I chugged along behind a few other guys and periodically caught glimpses of Luke up the initial 4 mile climb, but it was clear that the “race” was going to be for the rest of the podium. 

As we milled around at the starting line a guy asked my about my Kuhl cycling jersey (I was the only person geeky enough to wear a bike jersey in lieu of a regular shirt) and he turned out to be Brian Tolbert, the team manager for Kuhl’s bike race team (clearly I’m not a very active member, since we didn’t even know each other!). I guessed that as a strong bike racer he’d also be a strong runner, and sure enough there he was near the front and we started rolling together.  One nice thing about ultras is that the pace generally is slow enough that talking is pretty viable, and chatting can make the time go by pretty fast, so we yapped quite a bit and marveled to each other how amazing both the incredible alpine vistas and the wildflowers were.  
I poached this from the El Vaquero website; didn't take any pics myself, though Irunfar.com's Bryon stopped and took a lot!  
And in the meantime passed the 2nd and 3rd place guys, which was nice.

The course is an out and back with the low point being the turnaround (here’s a course profile):

And I knew that the long climb back out of the turnaround was going to be the crux of the race, so I was very content to cruise the descent.  However, we also knew that the 25k race - which began at the turnaround and went back to our start – was going to be going off right around the time when we would arrive there, so in order to avoid traffic on the singletrack it behooved us to get there sooner rather than later.  There was a small loop in the turnaround zone and I happened to see Luke regaining the main trail, so he wanted to know if there was anyone between us in 2nd, and  I assured him that there was not.  Unfortunately, at that same moment I also saw the entire field of the 25k-ers……right behind Luke.  So Brian and I were just a little late.  But my spirits were buoyed by seeing a pumpkin pie at the aid station, which I quickly identified as a perfect mid-race fuel source!  I was surprised to see Brian take a look at the table of typical aid station food, give sort of an exasperated wave because none of it apparently appealed to him, and then turn around and start running off up the trail, saying “I still have the mentality of a self-contained bike racer”.   Oh my.  We have a long way to go, and I aid stations exist for a reason, so I thought this decision might bite him pretty hard later.  So because it was a race and not a friendly run, I decided to turn up the heat a bit on that long climb to make sure that he would feel the bonk!  I’m such an asshole….

But as I picked up the pace I also had in the back of my mind that Luke might be thinking “Diegel’s in 2nd, he’s old and has never been close to me in skimo races, so I don’t need to worry about him” and could be just cruising towards the win without killing himself, and thus inadvertantly let me pull back some of the 11 minutes he had on me at that point –and I felt good – so the slightly higher effort seemed like a good idea.   But weaving around the slower 25k runners who were going my direction and the 50k runners bombing down the descent towards me made focusing on a solid, steady pace pretty challenging, and I even plowed hard into a woman who not only had her tunes going, she had full headphones on! 

About halfway up that climb that I decided to do a refuel from the gel that the aid station folks had squeezed into my flask.  I took a huge hit of it before I realized that it was coffee-flavored.  Now, there are many reasons why I’m not necessarily a good American, but one of the most salient is that I have a pretty strong aversion to the taste of coffee.  So every time I remembered I had to go for some more calories I did so with dread, knowing it would almost make me gag.  But I remembered that one of the silly reasons we do these events is because they are “hard”, and so I simply had to embrace this new difficulty!  And surprisingly, not only did I stay fueled, I lived, despite having the coffee flavor linger in my mouth for three hours…..

The updates from people along the course indicated to me that my thought of Luke “cruising” was silly because it was clear that he was continuing to pull away, but with my increased effort it seemed that my 2nd place was fairly solid (Brian did indeed bonk pretty hard and got passed by a good handful of folks).  So I kept chugging along back up to the two high passes and finally began the big plunge back to the finish line.  With a mile to go I splashed across a creek and as I did so the inside of my thigh cramped hard.  I felt like my descent was slow anyway and with memories of the video of Andy Dorais’ non-working legs at Leadville last year in my head I realized I had to do something to get me down that last mile or I’d get passed after all that effort.  I was out of water and clearly needing some, so despite the fact that we had passsed a bunch of sheep a few miles further up the drainage, I quickly made the decision slug down the creek water.  After getting that in and doing a bit of walking the cramp subsided and I was able to plug in the last mile. We’ll see if my previously-posted cavalier attitude towards backcountry water purity will still remain as various bugs/protozoas/cysts gather strength in my gut….or not; so far so good. 

And with that I dundered across the line in 5:25, 30 minutes behind Luke’s new course record. 
Not exactly bounding across the line....
Oy, I was tired.....
Luke had the good fortune to run with the guy who won the 25k and was effectively paced by him; apparently the kid is a collegiate all-American, which says a lot about Luke’s strength that he could hang with him despite going twice the distance/vert.  
Luke and I discussing the fierce battle that didn't happen!  
Chris Adams used this race as a good trainer for next month’s Wasatch 100 and finished strong in 17th place:
Chris - take it from someone who knows....your visor days are limited!  
 and Fred Marmsater – in his first ultra – charged hard right along with Chris until the final descent where his stomach inexplicably detonated and increased the sufferage a bit. 
Happy to be done
Thanks again to Ty for having the vision to come up with a great race in an unlikely area and for putting in the considerable work with very little reward to execute a logistically-challenging race, and of course to the volunteers who spent most of 2 days helping out. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Singletrack Stanley

Even though summertime has always a time to get outta town and go on vacation, there's double incentive to do so in Salt Lake, because it's dang hot.  Of course, if you are in Phoenix or Vegas then it's a lot more than double incentive because it's a whole lot dang hotter in those places, but still...it's hot in SLC.  So when a window opens to go recreate in one of the annually-averaged coolest/coldest places in the country that is nestled at the foot of craggy peaks that probably should be a national park (but aren't, therefore there's a fraction of the people there), we will load up and head for lovely Stanley, Idaho for it's lonely trails:

I've spent way too much time pondering this question:  why do the mountain bike trails in Ketchum and Stanley seem so much better than those around here?  It could be because the proverbial grass is always greener 350 miles away so you justify the drive to do what you could do 15 miles away, but I think it's also because the riding up there is mostly on trails that were put in by adventurous motorcyclists in the 70's who wanted ingress to adventure in the mountains, not by trail cutting machines manned by folks who are determined to make the trails as easy as possible and create a contrived network in a ski resort.  For sure, that characteristic is limited to the trails out of Park City, and there's a lot to be said for the efficiency and fun of 6%-grade trails and a vast network that provides a plethora of options and soaks up tons of (mostly) cyclists. But in Sun Valley and Stanley the "network" is much-expanded to the point where you aren't sure if a ride you'd like to do is feasible in a day's-worth of pedaling, the trails are narrower, and you really feel like you are "going somewhere" by going up a drainage, up to a pass, across a ridge, down another drainage, up to another pass, etc.  Add the more-technical (versus "bouncy") nature of the Stanley trails and the fraction of riders up there, and it's a veritable Mountain Bike Mecca.

Despite the fact that our smugness about escaping the heat was somewhat mitigated by the fact that monsoonal rains finally pushed as far north as Salt Lake and have kept the valley temps in the rare and very-pleasant 80's for a week, we managed to have a great time up north.  It wasn't too hard to convince the ever-strengthening Colin to join us, though this did push the limits of the new car that has slightly-less room than our Outback:

and we hit up a few awesome rides:  the Big Boulder/Little Boulder Loop, the Little Casino/Big Casino Loop, and the Potato Mountain loop.  The first two involve a fair bit of hike-a-biking (hike-a-biking don't fly in the bike-friendly environs of Park City!) and barely-rideable climbs:
Colin taking his bike for a walk.  this trail is far steeper than it looks......really!  
and the payoffs were long, sometimes-technical/sometimes-blurry fast descents.  The Potato Mountain ride was just recently re-opened after a fire 2 years ago that decimated the area (I am pretty sure that soon enough there simply won't be any more Idaho woods to burn....) and it's a bit more Ketchum-esque in its mellowness and buffness, but it still has a very backcountry feel to it, which I was psyched to be able to experience by riding it one direction and running it the other.  
Ash slaying an all-new trail up Little Casino with the Sawtooths in the distance
And of course we had to do the venerable Fisher Creek ride; I argued that it's one of the more famous trails in the country - along the lines of Gooseberry and Slickrock - because it's a "must-do" ride if you are in that area that already sports a lot of amazing rides, it's been in all the magazines, everyone loves the concept that it seems like you descend much more than you climb, and the descending is not only wicked fun it's also insanely fast and and is effectively a one way trail, so that stupidly high speeds are of little consequence (and now that it too has burned you can see even farther ahead!).  Colin was a Fisher Creek virgin, and it wasn't hard to talk us into throwing in a couple-hour blast on it. 
Reveling in the hills
And the coup de grace of Stanley riding is of course The Stanley Bakery; I'm not necessarily a big goin-out-to-breakfast guy, but being able to conveniently mow into what I would consider to be the tastiest and biggest breakfast I have had  - with plenty of breakfast desserts - within sight of a lot of awesome craggy peaks, killer ski lines, and shredable singletrack is hard to pass up.  

We were also keen to have our old friend Bruce Rogers join us, despite his best attempts not to:  we thought we saw him a hundred yards from our camp one evening wandering around, but it was too far away to be sure and we thought "well, Bruce knows where we are camping, and that couldn't be him just wandering nearby without coming to our camp".  But it turns out he had taken residence in someone else's camp thinking it was ours, fell asleep, and when he woke up and dundered out of his van to say hello to "us" found that "we" were not who he thought we were!   But his newfound friends were kind enough to say "no problem dude, you can camp here with us, and do you want a bong hit?" So all was well.   

Thanks to Colin for making a long weekend happen right after another long weekend, and to Bruce for coming up to meet us and finally figuring out where we were!