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Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. Stuck in a dangerous situation.

Park Visit: August 10-12, 2016.

 

After saying goodbye to my new friends following a successful climb of Granite Peak, I started making my way towards Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I stopped at a truck stop near Billings for a quick shower. By this point it had been three and a half days since I was last clean. Dang that shower felt good. I continued east into the night, through the open prairies of Eastern Montana. It was pretty country, but there was very empty. My radio options were classical, Christian, or hit the scan button and watch the radio go through every frequency over and over looking for something... anything.  

I eventually made it to TRNP just before midnight. I got to my campsite and put up my tent as quietly as I could, since it quiet hours and late. You don’t realize how much noise you make putting up camp until you have to be quiet doing it. I made dinner with a camp stove that sounded like a jet engine in the still night air of the campground. I was so ready for bed. Just that morning I was still at high camp on Granite Peak. With a nine mile hike out from there and a six hour drive to TRNP, it had definitely been a very long day. But adventure awaited, and I needed my beauty rest.

The view from my campsite at sunrise, looking across the Little Missouri River.

The view from my campsite at sunrise, looking across the Little Missouri River.

The next morning I woke up and was able to actually see the landscape around me. My campsite was at the end of a loop in the campground. My tent was just practically on the banks of the Little Missouri River, just a short stroll away. The river meandered lazily through the park. Not very deep, not very fast. On the other side of the river lay the signature badlands of the Dakotas. While not an exact copy of Badlands National Park, five hours away to the south, it’s obvious the two parks are related, with the hillsides eroding into the plateaus above. The plateaus aren’t very high, maybe around 200’ above the river plain below, but the rippled, exposed slopes were quite dramatic.

The plan for the day was to hike across Big Plateau out to the petrified forest, the third largest in the country. It was 5.3 miles one way with only a few hundred feet of gain. Simple. I got my gear packed and started driving up the road toward the trailhead. It didn’t take long before I started seeing the park’s native wildlife. Many spots along the road there could be seen prairie dog towns. And much like in Yellowstone, the bison are everywhere. If you go to either of these parks and don’t see bison, you’re doing it wrong. They tend to be such a common sight that, while always being cool to see, they do lose a little of that awe inspiring feeling. Oh hey, more bison. More on them in a bit. The other animal that I had heard about but wasn’t sure I’d see were the wild horses. I saw a few of them mixed in with one group of bison I saw. So I already got to see three of the major animals the park is known for and I had barely even started the day yet.

PHOTO GALLERY: the drive to the trail head

About two miles from the campground I arrived at the trail head. I went through my ritual of putting on sunscreen and sun protection. On Granite I had the luxury of it always being cool, even cold, and usually cloudy. Here it was quite warm with not a cloud in the sky. There would also be no shade along the trail, since there were no trees. There were some trees along the river, but once away from its banks they rapidly thin out until it is just grasses and shrubs.

One of the many prairie dogs on Big Plateau.

One of the many prairie dogs on Big Plateau.

About a half mile into the hike I came to the river. There are no bridges over the river inside the park, so I would have to walk through the water. I took off my shoes and socks went gently waded across. It’s slow moving and never more than shin deep. And it did feel nice and cool in the heat. From there the trail went up the biggest elevation gain of the day, 200’ to the plateau above. This part of the trail went through craggy, arid, beige hillsides. Once I got up on the edge of the plateau I was almost immediately greeted by chirping of prairie dogs. Dozens of them. Hundreds? A lot. The trail went right through the middle of a town. There were mounds everywhere with dogs on them, standing tall and chirping their heads off to alert the others of my presence.

As cool as it was to see the prairie dogs up close like that, my attention was quickly diverted to some other critters up ahead: bison. Big Plateau was a little less than a mile across, and on the far side of the plateau was a herd of bison. The trail went directly through the middle of the herd. Most of them were laying down and not moving much, but I still didn’t want to take any chances. I moved a little closer, maybe within half a mile, to see if maybe they would move on. They weren’t. I was trying to decide how long I should wait until I turned back to try another route, because I really didn’t want to mess with any bison. That’s when I heard it.

There was a rumbling from behind me. I turned to see a second herd of bison running up onto the plateau from where I had just come from. They were blocking my way back. Son of a bitch. I was now stuck between the two herds with no easy way out. The herd in front of me wasn’t moving and the herd behind me was creeping closer and closer. They were now milling about and grazing, seemingly oblivious to me, but still inching closer. I got my map out to weigh my options. I had two. Risk going off trail and over the side of plateau, or risk staying on the trail and going directly through the herd in front of me. I wasn’t too fond of either option, but I had to make a decision soon. I chose the latter.

I started making my way down the trail. There weren’t any individual bison closer than a few dozen yards to the trail on either side. That was good, but still too close. Soon after I started walking, a herd of pronghorns went sprinting across the plateau between me and the bison. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about them as well. After some time I started getting pretty closing in on the herd. I decided my best course of action would be calmly but quickly keep walking with no sudden movements and no eye contact. I wouldn’t even stop to take pictures. There was no escape plan. There were no trees to climb and I would never be able to out run one if it charged (top speed of 35 mph).

I entered the herd. I put my head down and just kept moving. For the most part they seemed fairly chill. Most of them had been laying down since I first saw them. I was calm, but on high alert. Off to my right one of them that had been laying down decided to stand up. I was hoping it had nothing to do with me, but then he turned to directly face me. Shit. He wasn’t moving, but he was staring me down. Just keep moving calmly, I told myself. Soon enough, although it didn’t feel soon enough at the time, I was through the herd and nearing the edge of the plateau. Now I had places to go if I had to. Fortunately none of them followed me.

Looking back at the two bison herds on Big Plateau.

Looking back at the two bison herds on Big Plateau.

From here the trail followed a ridge line for about a quarter mile up to Petrified Forest Plateau (PFP), which was around 200’ higher than Big Plateau. From here I could look out over Big Plateau. The resting herd I just came through still hadn’t moved an inch, and the herd that came up behind me had worked it’s way up to where I had been hanging out and waiting. Glad I got out of there. On to the petrified forest! I turned to start heading across this new plateau… and crap here comes another one.

A lone bison was heading in my direction. He was coming off PFP and heading in the direction of Big Plateau. The plateau kind of came to a bottle neck where it met the ridge line, so there wasn’t a lot of space for us to get away from one another. He lumbered past me, only about 20’ away. He seemed on a mission and didn’t really pay me attention. I just stood still and snapped off a couple frames. Once he had passed, I moved fully up onto the plateau where I could see clear across it. I saw absolutely nothing. No bison, no pronghorn, no prairie dogs, no trees, not even a cloud in the sky. Nothing but grass. It looked like the coast was finally clear, I think, so I started walking.

A map of my situation on Big Plateau.

A map of my situation on Big Plateau.

PHOTO GALLERY: the hike across Big Plateau and Petrified Forest Plateau

PFP was actually bigger than Big Plateau. A little over two miles on the trail to get to the other side. And there was nothing but nothing the whole way. It was actually rather beautiful in its vast emptiness. The park is a short distance from the Montana border, and this section definitely felt like it fit the description of “big sky country”. And with no clouds and no shade anywhere in sight, that midday sun was really starting to heat up. I was taking all the precautions but was still feeling pretty toasty. Sunblock and lots of water.

Sitting next to a large chunk of petrified wood.

Sitting next to a large chunk of petrified wood.

Turns out there were signs of life on PFP after all. Sort of. Somewhere around half way across there was a pile of bones next to the trail. I’m assumed they were bison bones, as they looked too large to be anything else. And they had been there a while. There were only about a dozen bones and they were stripped clean and very sun bleached. It was one of those settings where you expect to see a vulture looming nearby, but nope, just me.

I soon came to the edge of the plateau where it looked out over the petrified forest. The trail came down the slope and into an area the size of a football field that was filled with dozens of large chunks of petrified wood and countless chips and fragments. I took my pack off and wandered around for a bit. Considering they haven’t contained any organic matter in millions of years, the sizable pieces still look like wood. many were quite large, up to several feet in diameter. The colors ranged from grey to a coppery brown. Sometimes the ground around the large pieces wood be discolored from the all the tiny fragments of when the rest of the tree eroded away.

PHOTO GALLERY: the petrified forest

By this point it was pretty hot and the sun had been beating down on me for hours. While the petrified forest was awesome, I didn’t stay too long since I still had to hike at least five miles to get back to the car. I still had plenty of water and sun screen, so after some lunch I geared up and started heading back the way I came. The trip back across PFP was uneventful with no sign of bison. When I got back to the spot where I had encountered the lone bison, however, I was looked out over Big Plateau to see what the situation was. The herd that I had walked through was still exactly where they were when I left them, straddling the trail. Luckily, at this point the Maah Daah Hey Trail split off from the trail I was on and I could take that to go around the south side of Big Plateau. It would add another mile onto the trip back to the car, but I really didn’t want to push my luck with the bison again. The first time was tense enough.

The trail descended off the plateaus to a shallow valley. A creek ran through the valley which made it much greener than the plateaus just a short distance away. The trail went right through the middle of a prairie dog town. This one was much smaller than the one from earlier, but they seemed just as agitated by my presence. At one point on the trail there was even trees! Shade! I had been out in the blazing sun all day and this was the first bit of shade I had come across. I took a much needed break. As I carried on, I passed remnants of the area’s past life as a ranch. There was a watering trough that looked ancient and was half filled with caked mud.

I eventually made it back to the Little Missouri River. The wade across felt so good as the river’s cool waters flowed over my bare feet. From here it was a short quarter mile to the car. Crank that sweet A/C. My first stop was the visitor center at the park entrance where I bought my traditional fridge magnets and told the ranger about my run-in with the bison on Big Plateau. Then I headed into town for lunch to take a well deserved break.

A short video of my roundtrip hike to the petrified forest:

I’d be taking it easy the rest of the day. Between the Granite Peak hike over the last few days and the 12.5 miles I did going out to the petrified forest and back, I was feeling like I had reached my weekly limit. For the rest of the day I would be checking out the scenic drive that loops through the center of the park. I mostly stopped at pull outs with scenic overlooks. This part of the park was much more rugged than what I had experienced earlier in the day, with none of the flat-as-a-board plateaus. This was classic badlands. My two big stops were on the east side of the loop drive, both with short dirt roads leading two them.

The first was Coal Vein Trail. This was an area where a coal vein had burned unchecked for 26 years, from 1951 to 1977. It was less than a mile total and went through some interesting landscape where remnants of the fire could still be seen. The part that struck me was the trees. they were all gnarled and twisted, like somebody wringing out a wet sock. The next stop was Buck Hill, the second highest point in the park. This is where I decided I’d truly had enough hiking for the day. It was a short walk from the parking lot to the summit, maybe 50 yards, and I was feeling every step of it. And I still had a hike planned the next day of White Butte, the highpoint of North Dakota, so this was officially my last bit of walking for the day. Once at the top though, I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the surrounding badlands. Plus it was almost sunset, so that golden, magic hour light swept across the landscape, painting it with a soft amber glow.

The light faded quickly as the sun dipped below the horizon. I wouldn’t be making anymore stops, although I was only half around the loop, but the park wasn’t quite done with me yet. First, I would have one more encounter with bison. Heading back along the north part of the loop I encountered a herd that was in the road. This time I at least had the car for protection. I had to wait several minutes until there was an opening I felt comfortable going through. This is a common occurrence in Yellowstone, where the bison are just part of traffic. A little farther down I would have to stop again for the wildlife, this time it was horses. I had seen a couple earlier in the day when I was driving to the trail head, but this was a sizable herd with dozens of animals. They were all staying in a loose line while they slowly trotted off the road in front of the car and into the wilds of the park.

Once back at the campground, I was treated to one final display of nature’s glory. It just happened to be the date of the annual Perseid meteor shower. I sat at one of the picnic tables near my tent and watched for about an hour while the meteors streaked through the sky over the park, leaving long orange trails. It was pretty awesome. A nice end to a long, tiring, but satisfying day of exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

One last stop to pose with the entrance sign.

One last stop to pose with the entrance sign.



 

Great Basin National Park, Nevada. An Unexpected Journey.

Park Visit: August 23 - 25, 2017

Summit Date Of Park Highpoint: August 24, 2017

A SLIGHT CHANGE OF PLANS

This post should’ve been about Kings Peak, the highpoint of Utah, but sometimes travel plans go out the window and you have to improvise. A few days prior, I had the incredible fortune to see The Great American Eclipse of 2017 from the summit of Borah Peak, the highpoint of Idaho. It was a spectacular day, which you can read about in my other post here. That hike took more out of me than I was expecting and the next day I was feeling it. I had some sore spots on my toes, and while they never blistered they were still a little tender from the hotspots I developed on the way down. The day after Borah was supposed to be my travel day to get to Kings Peak, but between my physical condition and the forecast for the Kings Peak area I finally opted to not do it. With a roundtrip distance of 28 miles and 5,300 feet of elevation gain, Kings peak has the third longest approach hike out of the 50 highpoints, behind only Wyoming's Gannett Peak and Denali in Alaska, and seventh highest amount of gain. So if you're not 100% confident about the situation, it might be wise to rethink it. Which is where I found myself.

I really hadn't made a back up plan, but alternate adventures aren't hard to find in this part of the world. I immediately started thinking about the national parks in southern Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. Stupidly I forgot to bring my national park guide book (what self respecting travel nerd doesn't carry one at all times?). So I stopped by the Barnes & Noble in Salt Lake City to look up what I needed. As I was flipping through the pages I looked at one of the maps and there it was: Great Basin National Park. It's always been one of those parks that seemed so out of the way that I'd never get to it. But it really wasn't THAT far out of the way. I figured this was the perfect opportunity to visit it. My destination was set! I would visit GBNP for a couple of nights and then drive over to Bryce Canyon National Park. Both parks were a reasonably close drive to Route 15, which leads north to Salt Lake City, where I was flying out of at the end of the week.

Route 50. The loneliest road in America. Heading toward Great Basin NP.

Route 50. The loneliest road in America. Heading toward Great Basin NP.

On my drive to the park I got off of US Route 15, and after a bit, onto Route 50. As darkness fell I passed the towns of Delta and Hinckley, then saw a sign that read "Next Services 90 Miles". This was some desolate country. I started to get drowsy so I pulled over into a dirt pull-out to sleep for the night. I stepped out of the car to stretch. When I looked up at the sky my jaw just dropped. It was one of the most amazing night skies I'd ever seen. The band of the Milky Way was clearly visible and the sky was full of stars. It was stunningly breath-taking. I definitely needed to do some night photography in the park. The campground I was hoping to get into was at 10,000 feet, so I knew the night sky would be even more spectacular. Just had to cross my fingers they had some open spots.

DAY ONE: ARRIVAL, LEHMAN CAVE TOUR, AND THAT NIGHT SKY

The next morning I hit the road to finish the last hour or two to the park. Route 50 through Nevada is often called the loneliest road in America. I was still in Utah and it was already feeling pretty lonely. There was nothing but nothing. No towns, no houses, the occasional dirt road heading off to parts unknown. I rarely even saw another car. Eventually I got to the state border, where there was a gas station/casino. The gas station was on the Utah side, the casino was on the Nevada side, because of course it was. From here it was just a short 15 minutes to the park's visitor center.

I stopped in at the visitor center to check on campsites at Wheeler Peak campground. It's a first come/first served site, so I wouldn't know until I actually got up there. While at the visitor center I learned of a ranger led tour through Lehman Caves, one of the park’s main attractions, later in the afternoon. The entrance was right behind the visitor center. As luck would have it I got the last spot on the tour. I had some time before that started so I headed up the mountain to see if my luck would hold out again and I could get a campsite. 

As I drove up the mountain it was easy to see why this was a national park. It was an oasis in the middle of the desert. It reminded me of an island, except instead of being surrounded by water, Great Basin was surrounded by the arid desert floor. The park was very lush and green, especially as I ascended from the visitor center. The road to Wheeler Peak campground rises 3,000 feet from the visitor center. The views from the road were amazing. Being close to the state line I could see the mountains over in Utah. I didn't stop at any of the pull outs because I was anxious to claim a spot in the campground. I'd have plenty of time for stopping later.

View from my campsite at Wheeler peak campground. Jeff Davis Peak is on the left and Wheeler Peak is on the right behind the tree.

View from my campsite at Wheeler peak campground. Jeff Davis Peak is on the left and Wheeler Peak is on the right behind the tree.

I arrived at Wheeler Peak campground and started looking for a spot. Despite being the middle of the week (Wednesday), the grounds were almost full. Almost. On the farthest loop in the back of the grounds there was a spot. Not only was it in a low traffic area with a neighbor on only one side, but it had one of the best views in the whole campground. Oh lucky day! I went to the check in and paid for two nights. Now I could relax and enjoy the park. On my walk back to my site I passed a flock of wild turkeys roaming around the grounds.

As I started setting up camp, I got talking to my neighbors, a lovely young couple who were just packing up to head out. They were traveling around the Southwest checking off national parks. I shared my story of seeing the eclipse a few days before and showed them a few pics from it. I told them all about highpointing and they seemed really interested in that. More converts to this crazy hobby!

After I got settled in I cooked up some breakfast (dehydrated eggs and tea) while taking in the view of Jeff Davis and Wheeler Peaks and planning out my time in the park. The weather was quite pleasant. Despite being August in Nevada, it was actually on the cool side since the campground was just shy of 10,000 feet. And there was a crispness to the air that you only find when visiting wild places like this. It feels like you can breathe a little deeper. 

With the cave tour coming up I started making my way back down the mountain. This time I stopped at some of the pullouts and overlooks. There were some breathtaking views, both out toward the desert and back up toward the mountain. The island metaphor kept coming back to me. From so high up I could see the miles and miles of beige desert below, while all around me was vivid green forests. With such an elevation change I actually went through several environmental zones. As I got farther down the mountain, the trees became a little smaller and more sparse. 

I still had a little time left before the tour so I checked out the interesting interpretive nature trail behind the visitor center. It's only about a quarter mile long and shows off some of the plant life in the more arid lower elevations of the park along with some historical relics. The entrance to the caves was directly behind the visitor center, behind a locked door. They only allow ranger led tours, as they need to keep out the riff raff. There was about 20 of us, and our ranger was a kindly older fella who had worked for the NPS and at Great Basin for years.

He unlocked the door and we filtered into a long corridor that sloped down. At he other end of the hallway was a door leading into the first room of the cave. It was pleasantly cool inside, as most caves are. There were all the common formations that you'd expect to see in a cave; stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, columns, etc. While Lehman Caves doesn't have the huge rooms or expansive system like at Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, or Wind Cave National Parks, they are known for one particular thing; cave shields. While not unique to Lehman Caves, they are generally pretty rare. In Lehman Caves however, they are found in unusually high concentrations with over 300 shield formations. As the name would imply they are shield shaped and can reach up to a couple of feet in diameter, usually sit at an angle, and have ribbon like formations forming on the underside of them.

Two of the many shield formation in Lehman Caves

Two of the many shield formation in Lehman Caves

We were brought into one of the bigger rooms that had a flat ceiling. This room contained something that was at once kind of cool but also disheartening; graffiti. This particular graffiti was all over the ceiling and was put there by the early settlers to the area. Apparently Mr. Lehman would have parties in the cave back in the late 1800s and visitors would write their names and other messages in soot from torches. Luckily the graffiti was contained to one room. As much as I would like to go back in time and ask them not to do it, I also appreciate that it's a relic from the past and should be preserved as such.

As we continued on the tour, we saw other interesting formations. Soda straws were everywhere. They are hollow, cylindrical stalactites. They vary in length and form in clusters on the ceiling. Another interesting feature that the ranger pointed out to us was 'cave bacon'. It forms in a thin sheet with stripes in the brown/brownish yellow/reddish brown range of colors. And when you shine a light through it, it does indeed look like a giant strip of bacon.

 

Lehman Cave Photo Gallery:

After the tour, I bought a book on night photography from the gift shop and flipped through it as I had lunch in the cafe. I knew the basics, but it had been a while and I just wanted to brush up. As I headed back up the mountain the cloud situation wasn’t looking so great. By the time I got back to my camp clouds were completely obscuring any view of the sky. There was a short nature trail at the campground, so I walked around for a while. Clouds were still there afterwards. After seeing the brilliant night sky the just 24 hours previously in Utah, I was really hoping to get in some astrophotography while in the park. I made some dinner and decided to pack it in for the night as the clouds were completely covering everything so there wasn’t much I could do. Also, I was getting up really early the next morning to tackle Wheeler Peak, so I wanted to get some rest.

About an hour later I had to go to the bathroom. As I crawled out of my tent I looked up, just to see what I could see, and... sweet Christmas. The clouds had completely gone and the sky had filled with a million points of light. The dense band of the Milky Way was shooting up from between the summits of Jeff Davis and Wheeler Peaks. It was spectacular. Even growing up in the country I had never experienced night skies like this. I knew I immediately had to... go to the bathroom. Hey, when you gotta go you gotta go.

But then, I immediately got my tripod and camera out and started shooting. There was way more sky than I had lens, so I decided to do a vertical panorama. I shot five overlapping frames, starting with the summits of Davis and Wheeler, and then tilting to the sky almost directly above me. The exposure was about 4 seconds at f2.8. Afterwards, when I was able to stitch them together in Photoshop, I ended up with an incredible poster image of the night sky over Great Basin...

The Milky Way over Great Basin National Park. Taken from Wheeler Peak Campground at about 10,000 feet. The mountain at the lower right is Wheeler Peak.

The Milky Way over Great Basin National Park. Taken from Wheeler Peak Campground at about 10,000 feet. The mountain at the lower right is Wheeler Peak.

I spent some time shooting the scene, and also just staring at it. It was one of those sights that was a little hard to wrap my head around. I’ve had a long time interest in astronomy, and seeing it on full display like this was truly awe inspiring. I could've sat there all night watching it, but I was starting to get pretty chilled and I did have to get up early. So I packed up my gear and crawled back into my tent to get warm, satisfied that I had captured one of Great Basin's most stellar attractions.

DAY TWO: WHEELER PEAK AND STAR GAZING PROGRAM

Morning came and I got ready to hit the mountain. It had been a few days since Mount Borah and I was feeling much better. Wheeler would be a relatively quick hike; on the trail before sunrise, back for an afternoon lunch. With my headlamp as my only light, I made some breakfast (more dehydrated eggs and tea), put on my pack and was off. The summit trailhead was at the other end of the campground, so I didn't even have to drive anywhere. The trail for people not staying at the campground was a bit longer. I was a good half hour into it before it got bright enough to turn off my headlamp. 

The environment at that elevation is in such stark contrast to the desert surrounding the park. There were tall pine tree forests. Running streams with marshy ground on either side. The air was cool. At this hour I was the only person on the trail. I got to a small clearing and heard some rustling in the woods. It sounded to large for rodents. A ranger I talked to said there were no bears in the park. I heard there were goats in the park, and I had already seen turkeys, so I hoped it was one of those and kept moving.

Before long I came upon Stella Lake, a large pond along the trail with an excellent view of the summit. The pond's mirror-like surface reflected the mountain behind it. This was about the point where the environmental zone started changing yet again. The pine trees rapidly started getting smaller and more sparse. The grasses thinner and drier. I wouldn't have much shade for the rest of the hike.

Stella Lake with my destination, Wheeler Peak in the background.

Stella Lake with my destination, Wheeler Peak in the background.

Wild turkeys on the trail to Wheeler Peak.

Wild turkeys on the trail to Wheeler Peak.

Just above Stella Lake I saw a small flock of turkeys. I still wasn't too far from the campground so I wondered if they were the same group I had seen the day before. They came pretty close to the trail and almost seemed to be following me. I stopped for a moment to see just how close they would come. About 20-30 feet before they changed course into the dwindling tree cover.

 A couple hundred yards after Stella Lake was a major switchback, turning the trail from the western and northern directions it had been following to a southern one toward the summit. This would be the last major reference point along the trail. I like having references to gauge how far I've gone and how far I have yet to go. From here on out I would be making my best guess, using the park brochure map, to tell how far along I was. And I still had the bulk of the elevation gain yet to come. One foot in front of the other...

The trail above tree line. The scree goes all the way up.

The trail above tree line. The scree goes all the way up.

The next stretch was an almost flat section that traversed the side of a slope for about a quarter mile. Not a big distance, but a chance to quickly cover some ground before the major uphill started. The flora continued thinning. The trees had shrunk down to glorified shrubs. Grasses gave way completely to loose rock, or scree, which would continue all the way to the summit. Eventually, even the shrubs stopped and there was nothing except the scree. It was like a different kind of desert up there. Luckily the trail was well trodden, so the scree had mostly settled. It was better than some of the stretches on Mount Borah from earlier in the week. 

As I got onto the main ridge leading to the summit, I started getting views to the west of the park. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, the arid desert floor showed signs of life. There was a huge windmill farm. Just down the road from that were crop fields with their signature circular patterns. They didn't seem that far away, but the windmills were ten miles from where I stood. The views, however, went much farther than that.

I eventually saw other people on the trail behind me. I don't move too fast going uphill, so they were slowly gaining on me. I just kept plodding along. From the campground the slope didn't look quite that steep. It's always a different story once your on the mountain. A mountain like this, even if it is fairly straightforward, still takes a lot of work. The rest of the hike was fairly uneventful. Just working my way up the slope, dealing with the not terrible scree, taking in the scenery, watching for weather. 

On the summit of Wheeler Peak. Notice the rain in the background.

On the summit of Wheeler Peak. Notice the rain in the background.

At long last I came upon the summit. The summit area had a long ridge that was mostly flat and about 100 yards long. It was visible from the campground as a distinctive feature. There was a small wind break at the western end of the ridge that had been built out of rocks where I took off my pack and took a break. The eastern end of the ridge looked like it might be slightly higher so I walked over to that end. Once I got there, the end I had just come from looked higher. Well, I stood at both ends just to cover my bases, but I believe the western end of the summit ridge was the highpoint. The eastern end, however, had spectacular views of Jeff Davis Peak, the huge saddle between the summits, and the rock glacier and moraine down below (where I would be hiking to the next day). 

I went back to the wind break to have a snack, relax, and take some pictures. A few more people started reaching the summit. After a while I noticed some dark clouds coming from the south. They seemed to be slowly making their way toward the summit. Plus they were starting to rain. Several of us noticed this and decided to start making our way back down. They looked like isolated cells, as opposed to entire storm fronts, but still, better to be safe. This is why I always try to get a really early start when heading for a summit; to avoid the afternoon storms.

360 view from the summit of Wheeler Peak

360 view from the summit of Wheeler Peak

So I packed up and began to make my way back down. Contrary to popular belief, going down is not necessarily easier. At least for me. The scree in particular makes it difficult to get any speed going. You're too busy watching every single foot placement, which can be mentally exhausting. It took me about as long to get down as it did to get up. As I was going down I started getting a headache. I figured it was the altitude.

I've been trying to figure out what my altitude tolerance is but it doesn't seem to be very consistent. Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet, was triggering some mild altitude symptoms (headache) after only about an hour on the summit. Just a few days prior, however, I had spent six hours on the summit of Mount Borah which has a summit elevation of 12,662 feet with no ill effects. I was sore from that hike, but showed no altitude symptoms. Could that extra 400 feet have made the difference? But then, when I was in Montana doing Granite Peak the previous year, I was showing mild symptoms at around 10,000 feet. Would be really nice if I knew what to expect.

The headache was making me feel kind of miserable. After passing Stella Lake and getting back in to some wooded areas, I stopped to just sit down for a while in the shade and close my eyes. I was really close to the campgrounds, but I just needed to stop. After a while I got back up and finished the short distance to my camp site. It was only early afternoon and the only other thing I had on my agenda for the day was the astronomy program that night at the visitor center which didn't start until near sunset. So I crawled into my tent and collapsed onto my air pad and sleeping bag and slept off my headache for a few hours.

Hike to Wheeler Peak Photo Gallery:

Stargazing program at the visitor’s center. The clouds are not a good sign.

Stargazing program at the visitor’s center. The clouds are not a good sign.

After a much needed nap and a bite to eat down at the visitor center I got ready for the evening's ranger program. They had closed off the upper parking lot of the visitor center and set up two large telescopes. Once it was dark enough we would be checking out various objects, with the big one being Saturn and it’s rings. 

It was the same ranger that had lead the cave tour. A Jack of all trades apparently. While it was still dusky he did his presentation about what we would be seeing. As night fell we split into two groups to line up for the telescopes. Unfortunately this would prove not to be the best night for it. One of the telescopes was having alignment issues, and the increasing cloud cover obscured the night’s guest of honor, Saturn.

A secondary target was selected, which wound up being a nebula. I’ve seen Saturn through a telescope before, so that wasn’t such a huge loss. A nebula on the other hand I had never seen so that was pretty cool.

Though it wasn’t the best night for star gazing, it was still interesting, and I still had the experience of the previous night seeing those amazing, star-filled Great Basin skies.


DAY THREE: BRISTLECONE PINE GROVE AND ROCK GLACIER

One of the ancient bristlecone pines.

One of the ancient bristlecone pines.

The next morning I woke up and packed up camp, but I wasn’t leaving quite yet. I had one more adventure in Great Basin. I would be hiking a relatively short and not too steep trail (2-miles one way and less than a 1,000 feet of gain) up to the the glacial cirque below Wheeler and Jeff Davis, which is home to Nevada’s only glacier. The cirque makes the mountain look something like a blown out volcano, like Mount St. Helens, although it isn’t a volcano. Along the way the trail goes through a grove of bristlecone pines, some of the oldest living organisms on the planet. The trail is creatively called the Glacier & Bristlecone Trail.

The hike up to the bristlecone grove was pretty straight forward and easy. I even glimpsed some Downy woodpeckers. After a short while, I came upon the interpretive trail through the bristlecone grove. I was excited to see them, as I had heard about bristlecones for years but had never actually seen one. The trail was only about a tenth of a mile, but passed many trees.

Bristlecones are a truly amazing organism. From an aesthetic point of view their twisted, gnarled limbs look like something out of a Tim Burton fever dream. They often seem to be mostly or completely without bark, yet still alive. They’re fibrous, resin filled structures makes them particularly resilient to the elements, even forest fires. This resilience means that they can grow to be very, very old. One of the oldest trees along the trail is over 3,000 years old. It was just sprouting when Ramses VII was pharaoh of the Egyptian empire. And that tree isn’t even close to being a record holder for the species (over 5,000 years!).

Another specimen in the grove was sadly dead, but it wasn’t due to disrespectful park visitors damaging it. There was no established park when it died. There was no United States when it died. In fact, there were no Europeans in North America when it died. It is estimated to have died a century before Columbus. Aside from a total lack of needles, it really doesn’t look all that different from the living trees in the grove. Their physical properties mean they don’t really rot, they instead erode very slowly. This particular tree was not just still in tact, but still standing tall after having died 600 years ago.

The glacial cirque below Wheeler Peak.

The glacial cirque below Wheeler Peak.

Next stop was the glacier at the end of the trail, less than a mile from the grove. Along the way I met a gentleman named Tim, and we chatted as we hiked up to the glacier. Being Nevada’s only glacier, it’s kind of a big deal. However, as far as glaciers go it is pretty small. The upper sections looks more like large snow banks, and apparently most of it is buried under rock. The setting though is spectacular. Nestled in the back of the cirque, it is surrounded on three sides by the steep cliffs leading up to Wheeler and Jeff Davis Peaks. The open side of the cirque, which faces north-east, looks over to the neighboring mountain range to the north and the horizon beyond. Near the look out for the glacier Tim and I met a couple from Australia. We all visited for a while, exchanging travel adventures. I always enjoy meeting other travelers on my journeys. After a time, Tim and I started heading back to the trail head. 



Bristlecone Pine Grove/Rock Glacier Photo Gallery:

My car was closer, so when we got back to my car I gave him a ride to his car and said goodbye. It was time to start heading to my next destination, Bryce Canyon National Park. They also had a first come first served campground and I wanted to make sure I got a spot that night, and I still had about a four hour drive ahead of me. Always adventuring…

Epilogue: As I was driving away from Great Basin on Rt. 21, I entered more of that desolate country like I had seen on Rt 50. For a 75 mile stretch between Garrison and Milford, there was no other traffic, no towns, no houses (save for one lone ranch), no signs of human activity at all. And with no trees I could see for miles. The topography in this area has a series of small ranges running north-south at regular intervals with valleys in between and Rt. 21 runs east-west perpendicular across these ranges. Hills really, with not a lot of elevation gain but noticeable none the less. When I crested one range I could see the crest of the next range in the distance. I wanted to know how far away the next crest was so I took note of my odometer on one crest then picked a spot on the next crest where I would look at my odometer again. It was 14 miles away. The vast emptiness in this part of the country is almost mind numbing. I did eventually get back to civilization and on to Bryce Canyon.

 

White Butte, Highpoint of North Dakota. Really? More goats?

White Butte, highpoint of North Dakota.

White Butte, highpoint of North Dakota.

Summit date: August 12, 2016

To get the full context of the title of this blog, first read my post about my climb on Granite Peak and keep in mind I finished that hike only two days before doing this one. The whole thing is quite comical. So yeah, after leaving Granite Peak, I spent the next two nights in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, then swung by White Butte to bag it before heading back to Montana for the highpointer's convention. It's an easy one and can be done in about two hours if you take your time.

The terrain in this area is very weird. It's mostly flat, but then there will be these randomly placed hills, or buttes. While the surrounding land is lush with all kinds of crops, the buttes have an almost badlands feel to them, their slopes eroding to expose the nearly white innards of the butte, leaving their grass covered tops isolated and unusable as farmland. The buttes rise like islands in a vast green sea. 

Abandoned farm house and windmill

Abandoned farm house and windmill

The trailhead starts right next to the farmer's driveway. This is private property, so every respect should be given. A janky old mailbox is there to collect donations. About two thirds of the route is following a tractor path through farmland. Most of the research I did on White Butte warned of rattlesnakes, so proceed with caution. Luckily I never saw any, but I didn't take any chances. I always hike with my trek poles, only this time I wasn't using them for stability. As I walked through the short grass on the path I waved my poles from side to side in front of me. I figured if there were any snakes my poles would take the hit instead of me. I also tried to walk on grass free sections of the path as much as possible. This was my last big adventure of the week. I didn't want it ruined by a stupid snake bite. I had already had some potentially bad encounters with wildlife at Theodore Roosevelt NP, and I didn't want to add to it. About 50 feet off the trail is an abandoned farm house with a windmill next to it. I would gone over to explore it but I was a little paranoid about the rattlesnakes in the grass so I just checked it out from afar.

About a mile from the trailhead I came to a gate. The butte appears to be fenced off from the surrounding farm land and you have to go through this gate to proceed on the trail to the highpoint. Make sure to close it. It's only a couple hundred yards from this point that you start leaving the farmland and get into the exposed brownish gray rock of the butte. I sort of lost the trail at the base of the butte and had to do some route finding. Once you get past the exposed slopes around the base the vegetation comes back. Some of the shrubs can be thick and ornery, so try not to lose the trail like I did.

Off trail in the twisted gullies and strange formations at the base of the butte.

Off trail in the twisted gullies and strange formations at the base of the butte.

Eventually I met up with the trail again and finished the short distance to the summit. Total time from trailhead; about 45 minutes. The elevation gain is only about 400 feet, but it's enough for some really nice views. It was a really clear day so the views went for miles and miles. From the summit there is a better sense of what I was describing earlier, how the buttes seem to randomly appear in an otherwise flat-as-a-board landscape.

I played around taking my pictures for a little bit. I didn't spend a lot of time since I wanted to get back to Montana for the convention social that was going on that night. So I packed up and started heading back. This time sticking to the trail. It went through a small grove of trees that I had missed on the way up. I was back down on the flats and through the gate in short order.

I was walking down the tractor path through the fields back to my car when I heard it. It was subtle at first. I couldn't quite place it. I started looking around trying to figure out what I was hearing. I turned around and that's when I saw them. A small herd of domestic dairy goats came up and over a small rise in a field. They came out of nowhere and were coming right for me! I didn't have time to take a video of their approach but I did manage to take enough stills to make a gif, which can be viewed in the gallery below. I think it's actually funnier than a video would've been. 

Just days ago I was living amongst the ever present mountain goats, and now here I was in another state, climbing another highpoint, and interacting with another herd of goats. While the Montana goats didn't shy away from humans (especially if pee was involved), these goats were down right friendly. As a tight group, they came running up to me like I was an old friend. They almost surrounded me. They were curious and checking me out. Maybe they expecting to get fed? I don't know. The whole thing was kind of surreal.

Some of the locals, with White Butte in the background.

Some of the locals, with White Butte in the background.

After mingling with them for a few minutes I wanted to get moving again. So I started slowly walking away from them. They stood there in a group watching me walk away, not moving. Until they did. I got about thirty feet away when they all came running up to me again. They were very cute, but I wanted to get going. I took my trek poles and started banging them together, hoping it would scare them off. It sort of worked. I started moving away again and this time they didn't follow me. They wandered back into the field and disappeared over the same rise they came from. Like that, they were gone. 

A few minutes later I was back at the car. I had to laugh. I seemed to be the goat whisperer that week. At the convention social back in Montana that night I saw some of the guys from the Granite Peak climb and I told them about my second encounter with highpoint goats that week. They thought it was funny as well. Goats; they do make a highpoint more interesting.

Here is a short clip of my encounter with the goats

 

Mount Katahdin, Highpoint of Maine. If At First You Don't Succeed...

Mount Katahdin, highpoint of Maine. The man on the sign is 'Sniffles', an AT section hiker finishing almost 800 miles of the AT.

Mount Katahdin, highpoint of Maine. The man on the sign is 'Sniffles', an AT section hiker finishing almost 800 miles of the AT.

Failed attempt: July 17, 2013

Successful Summit Date: July 18, 2017

This was a highpoint that ate at the back of my head for four years. The first highpoint convention I attended was in Maine in 2013. I had my hike all scheduled and headed out with some new friends from the convention. We planned on taking the route that would take us over the (in)famous Knife Edge, a nearly mile long ridge with steep drop off the whole way. Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans.

The big thing that killed this attempt was the late start. Baxter State Park runs a tight ship and they control how many people are in the park and when they can be there. Since we were all staying in Millinocket, almost an hour from the trail head, we would have to wait for the rangers to open the main gate, which wouldn't happen until 6:00 a.m. That sounds early, but we were hoping to be on the trail well before that. With the late start we got to Pamola Peak just in time for the midday storms to roll in. When we got to Pamola Peak (at the east end of the ridge) we saw some nasty looking clouds coming in from the west over the summit. Despite being able to see the summit cairn, we made the decision to turn back. I didn't have another chance to attempt it that week, so I returned home having failed to summit Katahdin. For four years I thought about getting back there. It was a bit of a sore spot every time I looked at my map. When the decision was made to hold the 2017 convention in Massachusetts, I knew this was my opportunity. I shall return.

I would take a much different tack this time. Instead of trying to do an eight mile round trip route in one day like before, I would break it up and hike in to Chimney Pond campground for two nights. This would put me just 1.8 miles from the summit. And since I would already be in the park I could start as early as I wanted, with two days to make an attempt. The plan was set. There was only one thing left to do before I hit the trail; drive to New York City to see one of my favorite bands, The Naked And Famous, live in concert. What can I say, I pack a lot in to a vacation.

The route for my hike in to Chimney Pond campground

The route for my hike in to Chimney Pond campground

So anyway, after arriving at the park I checked in at the gate with the rangers and made my way up to Roaring Brook trail head. This was the end of the road and trail head for several trails leading into the park. One of these is the Helon Taylor Trail, which leads up to the Knife Edge. That's the one our doomed expedition took back in 2013. This time I would be taking the Chimney Pond Trail and not coming back for two days. Once I quadruple checked that I had everything I got on my way. It was getting close to noon and weather was actually nice so far. Either way I wasn't worried about it, I wouldn't be going for the summit until the next day. My pack felt really heavy. I was bringing my tripod and panorama head but other than that I didn't really have any excessive gear. It always takes me a good half mile or so to get settled in to a hike anyway, I guess it was just taking a bit longer this time. Not long after I started I heard the first rumble of distant thunder. It was sunny where I was, so hopefully it would hold off until after I arrived at the campground. 

The trail was somewhat wooded and rocky (though not as rocky as a typical Adirondack trail). There are several landmarks along the way that help break up the hike, such as a stream crossing, trail junctions, and passing a few small ponds. I always find it makes the hike go by faster if there are checkpoints you can use to keep track of distance covered and distance left. One of these checkpoints was Lower Basin Pond. From here I could get my first real view of Katahdin since hitting the trail. It can be seen from outside the park, but the thick canopy prevents any views once you get closer to it. And still with the distant thunder.

View of Katahdin from Lower Basin Pond

View of Katahdin from Lower Basin Pond

Just up the trail from from Lower Basin Pond is Dry Pond. As the name would imply, it was indeed dry. It looked like a several acre depression full of rocks. I believe it is seasonally filled with water. After passing another trail junction it was just a few more minutes before reaching the campground. Overall the hike in was pretty easy. Not a huge amount of gain and what little there is is mostly toward the end. From Roaring Brook trail head to Chimney Pond campground is about 3.25 miles and it took me about two hours. I wasn't in a hurry and I made a few stops along the way. 

Lean-to #3 at Chimney Pond, home sweet home for two nights

Lean-to #3 at Chimney Pond, home sweet home for two nights

I stopped by the ranger station to check in, but the ranger was out. I decided to find my lean-to and get set up. No sooner had I found my lean-to and it started to rain. It rained so hard that the trail in front of my lean-to turned into a small stream. It really rained hard for a good 10 to 15 minutes. I was hoping it would hold off until I got to my site, I guess someone was listening. While the rain came down, I got set up. The lean-to was big enough for my two man tent with room to fit another one. This was my first time camping in a lean-to. The obvious advantage is that you are out of the elements a little. I put the tent up but didn't need to put the rain fly over the top of it, though I had it with me just in case. There was an outhouse and a community line to hang food from nearby(because bears).

If you plan on staying at Chimney Pond, or anywhere in Baxter State Park, make reservations as soon as possible. I made mine within days of being able to, which was four months ahead of expected arrival. Baxter SP is notorious for being tight with reservations and access to the park. Maine residents get priority and spaces fill quickly. The fact that I was there from Monday to Wednesday helped avoid the more popular weekend. Don't rely on just showing up whenever and hope to get in, you might be disappointed. Secure a reservation if possible. Visit the park's website here to start planning. 

Once I was settled in I stopped in at the ranger station to let them know I was there. The station is just a dozen yards from the campground's namesake, Chimney Pond which is about 3 to 4 acres in size. The whole of Mount Katahdin, from Pamola Peak to Baxter Peak and over to Hamlin Peak, forms a giant horseshoe shape. It sort of looks like a blown out volcano, not unlike Mount St. Helens, except it isn't a volcano. Chimney pond lies in the center of this horseshoe with stunning views of the eastern slopes of Katahdin. You truly feel surrounded by the mountain.

Back at the lean-to I made some dinner and started getting ready for the next morning's summit attempt. I had been iffy about bringing my tripod. It's not heavy as far as tripods go, but it's still extra weight. And the panorama head is just a small piece of diamond plate steel. Yep, I'm bringing a piece of steel plate with me to hike up a mountain. Katahdin is probably the hardest hike I would consider doing and still bring this stuff. Anything harder and I would just hand hold everything, which I have plenty of practice at.

One set back about my summit plan was the closing of the Dudley Trail, which connects Pamola Peak with Chimney Pond. My original plan was to hike a circuit from Chimney Pond up the Saddle Trail to the high point, across the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak, and then down the Dudley Trail back to Chimney Pond. Unfortunately the Dudley Trail was closed due to damage which meant the circuit was not an option and I would be doing a round trip. I missed out on doing the Knife Edge last time and would most likely not be able to do it this time either. As of this writing (April 2018) the Dudley Trail is listed as closed until further notice. Plan accordingly.

As night set in I tried to get some writing done. I still had an article to write for the Fuze about the Nickelback concert I covered (they were actually pretty good). So I was typing away on my phone's notepad. Not as convenient as my desktop computer back home, but it was working. Surrounded by all this nature and I'm still staring at a screen. Such is modern life. Eventually I laid down to sleep so I could get an early start.

SUMMIT DAY

My summit route from Chimney Pond. Short but challenging.

My summit route from Chimney Pond. Short but challenging.

I got up at the wee hour of 3:30 in the morning. I wanted to get going before sunrise, which was at 5:00 a.m., and it usually takes me a while to get my stuff together and eat. Once I put my food stuff away and double checked my gear I threw on my headlamp and hit the trail. I would be taking the Saddle Trail from the campground up to the saddle between Baxter and Hamlin, where it hangs a hard left and heads up to the highpoint, Baxter Peak. That was all I planned on, I would assess other options once I was up there. I was determined to make it this time. Getting a much earlier start from a much closer starting point was a huge advantage. I just wanted to beat any afternoon storms. Compared to my 2013 attempt I already had about a five hour head start. 

The first section of trail wasn't too bad. Rockier than the Chimney Pond trail and a little steeper. Where it starts to hit the main slope of the mountain is when it gets interesting. As the big trees start to thin out the brush and shrubs get thicker. And the bugs were coming out as well. I put the head net on for a bit. The steepest section, the slide, is short at only about a quarter mile long but it is almost aggressively steep. Plus it is full of loose rock and poor footing, so take care when climbing it, especially if you're not in front. I was by myself so I didn't have to worry about knocking rocks down on anybody, though I still tried to be careful. 

The good thing about the slide section is that it's above tree line and mostly above the shrubs as well as being nice and wide, which gives you options for picking out a route as you go. In fact, the slide is wide enough that it is visible from at least four miles away. If you take the short nature trail from Roaring Brook trail head up to Sandy Stream Pond you can clearly make out the slide section. The slide also offers you you're first real view of the amazing landscape. I addition to the thick overcast sky, the valleys down below were filled in with fog, and I was in the clear layer in between. The campground wasn't fogged in so it was a nice surprise to see that view. It was pretty surreal.

View from the slide on the Saddle Trail, with the overcast sky and fog filled valleys set against the rising sun

View from the slide on the Saddle Trail, with the overcast sky and fog filled valleys set against the rising sun

Eventually I made it up the slide to the saddle between Baxter and Hamlin. Up until this point I had no views at all of the western skies. Now that I was up on the table land I had sweeping panoramas to the west, and I didn't like what I saw. Black clouds. Dammit. It's times like this when you have to do some risk assessment and make some decisions. To paraphrase Deadpool, let's pro/con this highpointing thing. Pro: I was only about 3/4 of a mile from the summit with much gentler gain to deal with. I could make it fairly quickly. Con: Getting caught in rain sucks. I've never liked being out in the rain, much less on mountain tops. Pro: Unlike last time, I wasn't dealing with the Knife Edge this time so I would have a fairly safe way off the mountain even if it did start raining and storming. Con: I say fairly safe because that slide section was sketchy enough when it was dry, I'd hate to tackle it when it's raining. As I stood there debating I was also watching the clouds. They seemed to be drifting northeast around the mountain instead of east towards it. That was the decider. I was going for it. 

I didn't waste any time. I got my hustle on and boogied up toward the peak. I barely even stopped for pictures. The whole time I kept an eye on those black clouds. They never seemed to get any closer and continued drifting around the mountain. This was good, but I still didn't trust it. I kept motoring up the mountain. This section is broken up into smaller chunks by two trail junctions that act as those checkpoints I like so much. I could eventually see the summit sign 100 yards ahead. Almost there. And those clouds were holding their course. 

Me with the summit sign on Baxter Peak

Me with the summit sign on Baxter Peak

Finally made it. I walked up to the sign and breathed a sigh of relief. After worrying about just getting up there all morning, I could now just relax for a bit and take it in. A few yards away was the large summit cairn. In 2013, from Pamola Peak, that cairn seemed tantalizingly close. Almost taunting us to go for it. And now, there I was finally standing next to it. The long wait for redemption was over. 

I got to work setting up my camera and tripod to shoot the panorama. The clouds above and fog below made for some really dramatic views and I wanted to capture them before anything changed. Snacks and rest break would have to wait. As I was shooting I noticed another hiker making his way up the western slope on the Hunt Trail from Katahdin Stream trail head. That section of trail also happens to be the final section of the storied Appalachian Trail, which starts in Georgia and terminates right where I was standing. I wondered if he was a north bound through hiker about to take his final steps after a very long journey. As he made it to the summit sign he hugged it like a long lost lover. I think I had my answer... almost.

I struck up a conversation with him. He went by the name "Sniffles". AT hikers always take on nicknames which become their functioning name while they're on the trail. I found out that Sniffles had started his hike on the New York section of the AT. So a section hiker, not a through hiker. But still, at around 800 miles that's a hell of a section. I took his picture as part of the panorama, viewable at the top of this post. He told me of a couple other guys that were about two hours behind him. I was tempted to wait for them to take their pics as well, but I just didn't trust the weather and wanted to start down sooner rather than later. Sniffles seemed like a cool guy. We chatted for a bit and then he started making his way back toward Katahdin Stream. It was an experience to actually witness an AT hiker takes his final steps on one the most famous trails in the world.

View from the summit. Chimney Pond is in the bottom middle, the Basin Ponds a little farther back, and then the fog filled lowlands.

View from the summit. Chimney Pond is in the bottom middle, the Basin Ponds a little farther back, and then the fog filled lowlands.

After I took a rest and had something to eat I packed up my gear and got ready to head back down. Had it been a nice day I might have attempted to go out and back across the Knife Edge, but with my paranoia about the weather I quickly took that off the table as an option. The one feature I really wanted to do, other than the summit itself, was the Knife Edge but it just never quite seems to happen. perhaps I'll make it back someday to give it another go. Down I went back to camp.

The slide section was just as sketchy on the way down as it was on the way up. It's steep enough that you have to really control your speed and take measured steps. You can't just go on auto pilot. I met my neighbor from the campground as he was on his way up. The slide feels about four times longer than it actually is. One of my checkpoints was a stream crossing that seemed to mark the bottom of the slide, where the slope really tapered off. Once I was back in the trees it was relatively smooth sailing back to camp. It never did rain, thankfully.

Sun shining through as clouds roll over the summit. From Chimney Pond.

Sun shining through as clouds roll over the summit. From Chimney Pond.

When I got back to my lean-to I checked the time. It was only 10:00 a.m., not even lunch time yet. I still had one more night in the lean-to and since my objective was complete I had the rest of the day to just hang out at camp and relax. I took a midday siesta, did some more writing, went rock hopping around the shore of Chimney Pond, talked with neighbors. It was just a nice quiet day in the woods.

The weather finally broke a little and became partly cloudy. Nature put on quite a show as clouds started rolling the edge of the mountain, obscuring the view of the summit, with occasional rays of sun poking through. I just sat on the shore of Chimney Pond and watched the spectacle, which was changing by the second. These are the moments us outdoorsy people live for.

It was a good thing I summited when I did. Had I done it later in the day the summit would've been covered in clouds and I wouldn't have seen a thing. It was an awesome show from the campground, but it would've been a white out up top.

My only encounter with the wildlife was with the small furries that can be a nuisance. I had seen rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks within yards of my lean-to at various times. The last thing you want to do is feed them or encourage them in anyway, so I would pick up small stones and throw them near the critters to try and scare them away. They didn't scare easy. As I was trying to scare this one chipmunk, I accidentally got a little too close with my throw and beaned him right in the head. He fell off the back side of the rock he was standing on and all I could see were his four little feet up in the air. Crap! I didn't mean to actually hit him. Now I felt awful. After a minute though, he started to twitch. Suddenly he righted himself and scurried off. Conscience clear.

As night fell the sky cleared up and the stars came out. I got talking with some other people from the campground about space, music, life, that sort of thing. It was a nice end to a rewarding day. The next morning I packed up my lean-to and made my way back toward Roaring Brook.

My 2013 visit taught me a lot of lessons. I wasn't as prepared back then. For one I didn't even have any rain gear with me then. When it started raining I had to borrow a trash bag and make a rain poncho out of it. This time I had a rain coat, rain pants, pack cover, the whole deal. I also wasn't quite prepared for the disappointment of not getting a highpoint. I just assumed I'd get it. It doesn't always work out that way. Now I always have it in my head that just because I try for a highpoint doesn't mean I'll get it. Luckily since then I've gotten Granite Peak and Borah Peak on my first tries, but I also planned for success as much as I could ahead of time. All lessons learned on Katahdin. 

 

Hawkeye Point, highpoint of Iowa. So... much... corn......

The sunset, and sunrise, at Hawkeye Point, captured over several days.

The sunset, and sunrise, at Hawkeye Point, captured over several days.

Summit Date: July 22 through July 25, 2015

"Iowa has a highpoint?"

That is the normal reaction when I tell people I've done the highpoint of Iowa. To paraphrase Bette Midler; Iowa has a highpoint, it's low but it has one. That's the thing about highpointing that most people don't understand; it's doesn't necessarily mean strenuous hikes and mountain climbing. Sometimes it's about finding that flat spot that's not quite as flat as the other flatness around it. That's a good description of Hawkeye Point. 

The day I took the bandages off from my collar bone surgery, right before I left for Iowa. No kayaking for me.

The day I took the bandages off from my collar bone surgery, right before I left for Iowa. No kayaking for me.

This was, however, the trip that almost wasn't. My original plan was to leave on July 17th and see the sights on my way to the Iowa highpointers convention which started on the 23rd. This included a two night kayaking trip to Voyageurs National Park and hitting the highpoints of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This came into jeopardy when on July 4th I had a bicycle accident and broke my right collar bone. The first thing I thought of when I broke it was "son of a bitch, I guess I won't be kayaking now." On the 14th, three days before my trip was originally to start, I had surgery to repair it. A metal plate with eight screws was installed onto the collar bone. While the surgery was a complete success, I still had to let it heal. It would be a couple months before I was back to 100%, so I had to rework the itinerary, since kayaking was out of the question. While I had some use of my arm again, I still couldn't even put on a t-shirt. I now planned on leaving on the 21st, the day I took the bandages off. And I decided to scrap the trip to Voyageurs and the Minnesota highpoint all together, and I would be hitting the Wisconsin and Michigan highpoints on the way home instead. I could shift my car at least, so I was good for a road trip. 

So on the 21st I set out for the convention. The good thing was it was super easy to get to. Although the convention was all about the highpoint of Iowa, the host hotel was actually just over the border in Worthington, Minnesota. Both Worthington and my hometown of Syracuse are serviced by US Route 90. All I had to do was hop on the thurway and drive west for a day, and the hotel was just off the exit. I saw a bunch of familiar faces at the hotel. This was my third convention so I was starting to make some acquaintances. Plus, being the third year in a row of showing my panorama photographs, I've made a bit of a name for myself. I'm the 'picture guy'. 

I got checked in, said hello to a few friends, and grabbed a bite to eat. I was only at the hotel for the night before moving down to the campground across from the highpoint for the rest of the convention. I headed out for my first visit to Hawkeye Point. It is only about 15 minutes south of Worthington. As I approached from the north, I recognized the silo from the pictures I had seen. It stood atop a subtly sloped mound off the side of Route 60. To call it a hill would be very generous. Like I said, its a flat spot that's not quite as flat as the other flatness around it. I parked at the campground across the street (where I would be spending the rest of the week) and walked over to the highpoint. From the end of the driveway (the de facto trailhead) to the marker was only about 50 yards. The summit consists of a small concrete platform covered in mosaic, a bench, and mileage marker signs for all the other highpoints. The view from the summit is surprisingly not corn. It's mostly soy fields, although corn can be seen in the distance. I guess they didn't want to block what view there was by seven-foot corn stalks. I took the shots I needed for a panorama, and started formulating what I wanted to show with this highpoint, photographically speaking.  

Hawkeye Point, the highpoint of Iowa. Just to the left of the silo in case it wasn't obvious.

Hawkeye Point, the highpoint of Iowa. Just to the left of the silo in case it wasn't obvious.

The view from my campsite across the street from the highpoint because of course it's corn.

The view from my campsite across the street from the highpoint because of course it's corn.

Normally when I shoot a highpoint, it's kind of an in-and-out operation. I don't normally plan for the time of day that I'm going to be there, and I don't usually have the luxury of being able to hang around for days on end to shoot it at different times of day. I have revisited some highpoints, but it was years in between visits. Hawkeye Point was different though; I was going to be literally camped out across the street from it for three and a half days. From my campsite to the summit was about a two minute walk. I would have unfettered access to it whenever I wanted. so my plan was to shoot it at different times of day and create one panorama that transitions between the different times of day as you move from left to right through the image. Not an original idea, but not a common one either and one that I've always wanted to try. The resulting image is at the top of this post. I wound up using only two of the pans that I shot, one sunrise and one sunset. I never know how these things will turn out until I get them on the computer. I also had one other idea...  

At one of the club socials I approached the convention organizer Jim Sutton about doing a special group portrait. At every convention there is a tradition called the watermelon social, dating back to the first convention. Everyone in attendance gathers at, or near, the highpoint and they carve up dozens of watermelons. It's a delicious, sticky feast. So while everyone was there I wanted to get them all lined up in a circle surrounding the highpoint marker. It was flat and open and easily accessible. Of the highpoints that I've been to, Hawkeye Point is one of the few that could actually accommodate such a photo with so many people. Jim thought it would be interesting. Excellent. In a few days I would be taking the largest group portrait I'd ever shot. For being such a non-dramatic highpoint, Hawkeye Point was certainly presenting some creative opportunities that many other highpoints couldn't offer.

Some video during a Hawkeye Point sunrise...

So while I waited for the watermelon social on Saturday to roll around I continued shooting the highpoint. I would end up taking six panoramas of the highpoint at different times of day over the course of a few days. As my plan was to blend these together into one image, I needed to make sure my tripod was in the exact same spot every time, facing the same direction, and that I turned the camera by the same number of degrees from the same starting point every time. Any deviation would just make the photoshop work that much harder. I took photos of the set up with my cell phone so I could get it back in the same spot every time. 

At the tri-point of Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota.

At the tri-point of Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota.

I also explored the area a little bit. On the Friday morning I headed west. Hawkeye Point is located in close proximity to two tri-state points. The first one I went to was the tri-point of Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. As I've mentioned, this area is very flat. Since there are no geographic features to go around, the roads here are straight as an arrow for miles and miles. A map of the area just looks like somebody made a reference grid and forgot to put roads on it. But those grids ARE the roads. It was a 43 mile drive and I only turned my steering wheel three times. The tri-state marker was on the corner of an intersection of some rural roads. A simple marker surrounded by farmland. 

The next tri-point was Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota near Sioux City. The drive to this one was a little more interesting as the route followed the Big Sioux River and was a little more scenic and curvy in spots. The tri-point was located at the confluence of the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers and was part of a housing development called Dakota Dunes. I actually have a separate blog post about this tri-point that you can read about here. After experiencing one of the hottest locations I've ever visited (and I lived in Texas for five years), I headed back to Hawkeye Point. I stopped at a Subway for lunch and a much needed air conditioned break. Holy crap was it hot that day.

Saturday morning came and as I was getting cleaned up for the day at the campground, I decided to see how my shoulder was doing. I hadn't worn a t-shirt in about a month and I now had a crisp, new, bright yellow convention t-shirt that I wanted to wear since there was a bunch of convention stuff happening all day, including the pancake breakfast, watermelon feast, and the banquet. I managed to wriggle into it without too much discomfort. Two days earlier, on Thursday morning, when I was installing my photo exhibit at the convention headquarters, I was heavily favoring my left arm while putting the display panels together. My range of motion still had a ways to go before it was normal again, but I was definitely seeing rapid improvement.

With my ability to wear t-shirts restored, I headed over to the traditional Saturday morning pancake breakfast. This year it was held at Central Park in Sibley, just down the road from Hawkeye Point. The griddle they used was actually kind of interesting. It was circular, about four feet across, and slowly turned. The person cooking could just stand in one spot and eventually everything would come around to the front. I sat with my friend Rick and some others. As we sat around enjoying breakfast and swapping stories, a gentleman involved with the county fair told us about an exhibit at the fair grounds across town. It was a model train display. It was in the basement of one of the buildings there. He asked if we would be interested in a private tour of it. Having had a model train as a kid I was definitely interested. A small group of about 6 or 8 of us finished up breakfast and headed across town.

A small fraction of the model train display at the county fair grounds.

A small fraction of the model train display at the county fair grounds.

This model train display was amazing.  I've always been fascinated by models and miniatures, and this was one of the biggest model train displays I'd ever seen. It took up pretty much the entire foot print of the building and took some time to really take it all in. So many trains. The little kid in me was definitely geeking out. There were multiple towns, industrial areas, mountains, canyons, forests, tunnels, bridges. The detail on everything was incredible. It was obvious that many years of collecting, curating, designing, and construction had gone into this. 

Later in the afternoon it was time for the festivities at the highpoint. Most of the attendees, over 100 people, started gathering at the highpoint for the watermelon social. Dozens of the juicy melons were carved up and eaten. Because the highpoint is essentially flat and used to be a farm, there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out. There were also lots of activities. A rock climbing wall was erected with two auto belays. Wagon rides for families. A mini train pulled by a four wheeler for the kiddies. A local tv news crew even showed to cover the event.

Once the watermelon feast had subsided, I started to think about my panorama. I tend to be very soft spoken, so Nikki Hemphill, who isn't afraid to motivate people, was enlisted to help round up people for the photo. I got my camera gear set up on the marker in the same spot as all the others I had been shooting, just in case. Once everyone had gathered at the marker I started directing them into a loose circle around me. Then I started shooting. I made two passes just to be sure. And with that, I finished taking the single biggest group portrait of my career! As people were dispersing, however, I suddenly realized I hadn't taken one with me in it. I figured it would have been too much bother to get everyone back, so I just used the timer on my camera to take one of myself next to one of the mileage marker signs. I'd just photoshop myself into the shot later. All my panoramas are heavily photoshopped anyway to get all the individual shots together.

Convention attendees at Hawkeye Point, Iowa. The panorama makes it seem like they are standing in a straight line, when they are in fact encircling me.

Convention attendees at Hawkeye Point, Iowa. The panorama makes it seem like they are standing in a straight line, when they are in fact encircling me.

This would also be the last of the panoramas on this trip that I would shoot of Hawkeye Point as I would be heading back up to Worthington for the rest of the day for the banquet and then making my way east toward home after that. Once the crowd had left, I went back to my campsite and got everything squared away. It was very calm and relaxing at that campground and I almost hated to leave, but it was time to move on.

I had some time to kill in the afternoon before the banquet and decided to check out Worthington. It’s a decent sized town (big enough to host our convention). It sits on the lovely Okebena Lake. The business district has a fair amount of little boutique shops. The thing that surprised me though was the food. The banquet was still several hours away and I wanted to get something to eat. I came across a little Mexican restaurant. I lived in Houston, Texas for almost five years, which is flush with amazing Mexican food so I was somewhat skeptical. Mexican food in rural Minnesota? We’ll see about that. I walked into the place and immediately noticed I was the only white person in there and a soccer game on a Spanish language channel was on the TV. Good signs. The menu was fairly extensive, with every variation on traditional Mexican dishes. I got the enchiladas with beans and rice. It was really good! I would’ve held it up to anything I had in Houston. So there it was, authentic Mexican food in middle America.

Eventually the banquet got under way at the Comfort Suites conference center, with all of us highpoint nerds getting together to celebrate our admittedly weird hobby. I sat with my friend Kenny, who I had met at the Maine convention two years prior. Being the third convention I'd been to, the banquets had a familiar cadence to them. After the delicious buffet dinner, our attention turned to the head table where various speakers addressed the crowd, including host Jim Sutton who thanked everyone for coming and recapped the week's highlights. One of my favorite parts of the evening is the superlatives. Responding by standing at their table, the MC asks who has been to all 50 highpoints, then 45, 40, 35, etc, the oldest attendee, the youngest, who came the farthest, and so on. Then the podium gets turned over to the host of next convention to give everyone an update on what to expect. In this case it was John Mitchler talking about the Montana 2016 convention (read about my Granite Peak adventure here). We all voted on where the convention will be in 2017 (we picked Massachusetts, to be hosted by Mick Dunn). Finally, the evening ended with the premiere of the documentary "American Highpoints" which featured several club members and chronicled a hike up Wyoming's Gannett Peak. 

I said farewell to my friends and acquaintances, dismantled my display panels, packed up the car and hit the road. The goal was to get as far northeast as I could before getting too tired. My next stops the following day were a quick trip to Minneapolis to see the Mall of America an then the highpoints of Wisconsin and Michigan. Then home to Syracuse. It certainly didn't go as planned, but my trip to the highpoint of Iowa was definitely eventful and I got to experience a little corner of America that I wouldn't have gone out of my way for otherwise. And of course, that's one of the best thongs about highpointing.

 

Granite Peak, highpoint of Montana. I have seen the top of the mountain, and it is good.

Granite Peak, highpoint of Montana. 2016.

Granite Peak, highpoint of Montana. 2016.

Summit Date: August, 9, 2016

On Tuesday, August 9th 2016 I summited my first big western highpoint: Granite Peak, Montana. It is one of a dozen states in the western U.S. whose highpoint has one or more of the following: remote access, long approach hike, high altitude, and lots of elevation gain. Granite happens to have all those features, along with technical rock climbing just for good measure. It is generally considered the second hardest highpoint after Denali (depending on who you ask). 

I first started thinking about Granite Peak at the 2014 Tennessee highpointers convention. That was when it was voted as the sight of the 2016 convention. I knew I would have to get in shape and do some training for this one. Starting in the winter of 2015-2016 I made a point to start training.  I got out hiking and snowshoeing when I could, regardless of how cold it got. In January of 2016 I joined an indoor rock climbing gym to get prepared for the technical rock climbing portion of the hike. 

 

PRE-TRIP - TEST CLIMBING AND GEAR CHECK

After spending Friday night in Yellowstone National Park, I drove to Sunlight Sports on the main street in Cody, Wyoming. Here, I met the Kenny, the manager of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and the other climbers that I would be spending the next few days with. Nadav would be our lead guide and my fellow climbers were Roger, Laurence, Marc, Al, and Chris. Today's main objectives were to do a gear check and to do some climbing outside of town to test everyone's ability. 

Once we had all been introduced and gotten an overview of the next couple of days we headed west of town a little bit where there was a popular rock climbing spot just off the road. Since the last section of the hike was technical, the guides wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable with the ropes, harnesses, and techniques we would be using. While I was use to the climbing part, and had a handful of experiences with top roping, one technique that was new to me was short roping. This is where a guide is at one end of a rope while two climbers are at the other end with only about six or seven feet of rope between them. The idea is that the guide climbs a pitch first, secures the rope at the top, then belays the two climbers as they make their way up. I passed this part with flying colors. I've always loved climbing stuff and going to the rock wall really refined that skill set. 

Back in town we met up at Sunlight Sport for our gear check. The guides want to make sure we had everything we would need to stay safe and warm over the next couple of days. Unfortunately my gear was a little lacking. Nadav suggested three things; an extra top layer such as a fleece jacket, a warmer sleeping bag, and a different head lamp. My sleeping bag was only a 40 degree bag and Nadav said I would need at least a 20 degree bag. The headlamp I brought with me was designed to clip onto the brim of a baseball cap, not a climbing helmet. I needed one with an elastic band. And the fleece was just for added warmth in addition to the layers I already brought. I would also need a pair of warm gloves.

So between Sunlight Sport and the Sierra Trading Post down the street I found everything I needed. I was hoping to get a down bag since it would be lighter and more compact, but they are a lot more expensive. I went with a synthetic bag, which just barely fit in the bottom of my pack. It was weird to be preparing for such cold temperatures since Cody, WY in the middle of August was absolutely sweltering hot, but I trusted the advice that Nadav had given me. That's why I hired a guide. I had never done anything like this before.

With everything all set I headed up to Red Lodge, MT to the hostel I would be staying at for the night. I would be meeting up with the other climbers in the morning to drive up to the trailhead.

 

DAY ONE - TRAILHEAD TO FIRST CAMP

After joining Roger, Al, and Chris for breakfast in town, we met up with Laurence and Marc to start the drive to the trailhead, over an hour away. Half the drive was on dirt roads, but the scenery was amazing. We soon arrived at the trailhead. There was a fair amount of cars parked. Due to the convention, the amount of highpointers heading to the summit was much higher than usual, plus Mystic Lake is a popular day hike in general. Luckily we all found spots. We met Cat, the other guide who would be leading us along with Nadav. We all got our gear together and were given our share of the group gear and food. My pack was a reasonable 33 lbs. I had trained for up to 50 lbs, so this was already a good start. Some gear was already up at the camps, which saved us a few pounds here and there. We made use of the last restroom we would see for several days and finally hit the trail.

It had so far been a nice day. Partly cloudy to start, but those clouds became increasingly more gray the further we went. We made our way up the valley leading to Mystic Lake. Even surrounded by all that rugged nature, there were still signs of civilization, mostly in the form of the pipeline coming from the dam at Mystic Lake, which ran along the valley wall opposite us, and the odd pump house. Eventually we came up and over the dam at Mystic Lake. The view form the dam overlooking the lake is spectacular. Nestled in valley, the long narrow lake stretched out before us. A lot of day hikers were already there, hanging out on the dam and beaches on the south shore. We had no time for lounging about however, as we wanted to get up to first camp and get settled in before sunset. 

Taking a break on the switchbacks, with Mystic Lake in the background.

Taking a break on the switchbacks, with Mystic Lake in the background.

Once past Mystic Lake, we approached a well known part of the trail simply called the Switchbacks. There are over two dozen switchbacks from bottom to top. This section was the part I was most concerned about heading into the trip because it was so steep. It gains several thousand feet in less than a mile. As it turns out though, it was one of the easier parts of the hike precisely because there were so many switchbacks. The switchbacks add a lot of distance, but they also make it feel like a pleasant hike instead of a grueling climb. Not long after starting the switchbacks those gray clouds that had been gathering finally started raining. It wasn't bad, but everyone stopped to put on their rain gear. Inclement weather was to be expected, especially in the afternoons. Half way up the switchbacks we stopped for a break and to take off our rain gear as it had stopped. Shortly before we reached the top of the switchbacks the rain gear was back out and it was raining again. It was also starting to cool off considerably, so the layers were mostly staying on the the rest of the day.

Eventually we made it to the top of the switchbacks and onto the ominously named Froze-to-Death Plateau. Thankfully it never lived up to it's name. From here it was still over a mile to the campsite. It was a relatively easy mile as the terrain was easy hiking with no trees and few rocks, and what little elevation gain there was was gentle and gradual. Once we reached the campsite everyone dropped their packs and took a well appreciated break.

Once camp had had been set and all our stuff put away, we were free to just hang out and take in the beauty of the mountains. The camp site was only a couple hundred yards from the edge of the plateau so the views across the valley were spectacular. The overcast sky had started to break and the sun came back out just in time for evening magic hour. Clouds still hung over the plateau but the sun was shining brightly above the horizon which made for a stunning display as the clouds above us and the barren terrain around us was bathed in warm, orange light.

Dinner time at first camp.

Dinner time at first camp.

With nature putting on a show, we gathered around the "kitchen" (a small windless depression near the tents) as the guides cooked up a delicious one pot meal that we all scarfed down while we talked about the day's hike and what to expect tomorrow. Once the sun set it started getting dark and cold quickly. I was glad for that extra layer! We cleaned up from dinner and got into our tents for the night. I was paired with Roger as a tent mate. He would also be my climbing partner on summit day.

 

DAY ONE VIDEO: Mystic Lake, the Switchbacks, Froze-to-Death Plateau

DAY ONE PHOTO GALLERY: Luckily, Laurence was also a photographer, so I had plenty of images of myself that weren't selfies. He was nice enough to let me use the images, so they're mixed in with mine (his contain his copyright stamp, and also have me in them).

 

DAY TWO - FIRST CAMP TO HIGH CAMP

I was up with sun, as I usually am on vacation. Before breakfast I was wondering around camp when I noticed down by the edge of the plateau a pair of mountain goats. This was the first I'd seen them on the hike so far. I wanted to get a closer look, as seeing mega fauna like this in the wild can be rare and so I wanted to take advantage of the situation. I let the guides know where I was going and headed down to the edge.

Up close and personal with some mountain goats. Aren't they adorable?

Up close and personal with some mountain goats. Aren't they adorable?

In contrast to the dry, rocky terrain that covered most of the plateau, the stretch from camp to where the goats were was soft and grassy, dotted with small streams and deep puddles. All the water was from snow melt from the snowfields uphill from our camp. After a while of zigging, zagging, and hopping around water features, I got down near the edge of the plateau and in close proximity to the goats. They didn't seem too bothered by my presence. For a while we just stood there, maybe a dozen yards apart, checking each other out. They seemed just as curious as I was. 

After spending some quality time with them I let them get back to the business of grazing, and I made my way back to camp, happy knowing that I got in my mountain goat sighting for the trip. When I got back to camp I told Nadav about my lucky encounter. He told me that the goats aren't all that rare and that we'd probably see more of them. He also told us that they have a taste for... human urine. Sure Nadav, whatever. I bet you tell that to all the newbies.

Once breakfast was finished we packed up camp and off across the plateau. Today would be the "easiest" day of the trip. It was only about 2.5 miles to the next campsite with not much in the way of any major elevation gain. There really aren't any defined trails on the plateau, and the Granite Peak summit can't really be seen from the northern half of the plateau or used as a landmark until later, so orienteering is a very good skill to have up there. Of course we had guides who already knew where they were going so that made it a lot easier. 

After leaving camp and getting onto the higher parts of the plateau the terrain became much more rocky, with seemingly never ending scree and talus fields. While not difficult per se, every step does take concentration and becomes mentally tiring after a while. There would occasionally be patches of grassy, relatively rock free ground which made for a welcome respite from the talus fields.

Endless fields of talus of the way to high camp. The summit of Granite Peak can now be seen in the distance.

Endless fields of talus of the way to high camp. The summit of Granite Peak can now be seen in the distance.

About three quarters of the way through the day's hike we took a break. Nadav addressed the group about a few items. We needed to decide where we wanted to make camp. There was a choice of two designated areas. One would make for a longer summit day hike, but a shorter hike out on the last day. The other would be less distance to the summit but longer hike out. We opted for the closer site which had the shorter hike out on the last day.

The other item was Nadav wanted to see how we were all doing and how we felt about the next day's summit bid. I was feeling great and was super confident about the technical climbing at the summit. I was a go. Most everyone else was also feeling good. Chris said he was opting not to go with us to the summit. He had some issues with the climbing session back in Cody and wasn't feeling really confident about how much technical stuff was going to be involved. He would be staying at camp while the rest of us attempted the summit. It's very important to know your limits, what you're comfortable with, and to know when not to risk something that you aren't sure about. 

We reached the high camp and set up the tents. This would be home for the next two nights. Not long after we set up camp, the goats showed up just like Nadav had predicted. This time there was about a half dozen of them. Never being intrusive, just kind of hanging out on the outskirts of camp. And when one of us would go outside of camp to take a piss, the goats would follow. When we were done and walked away, the goats moved in and started licking the pee off the rocks. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes. They do in fact have a taste for human urine. We figured it is probably due to the salt content, but still. Isn't nature amazing?

View from high camp on the plateau.

View from high camp on the plateau.

As entertaining as the goats were, I couldn't help but notice as the evening wore on that I was starting to feel not right. I had a mild headache and my stomach was slightly uneasy. It wasn't enough to put me down or anything, but I was worried about it being signs of altitude sickness. This was the highest I'd ever been for a sustained period and so wasn't sure how I would react. It was mild, but with the climb the next day I didn't want it getting any worse. I let Nadav and Cat know how I was feeling. They said to make sure I stay hydrated and make sure I ate dinner, since I would need the energy whether I climbed the next day or not. 

I was able to eat dinner, if not quite as much as I normally would've, and took it easy for the rest of the night. It was a bit cooler at high camp than it was the night before. Middle of August and I was wearing four layers. It actually was better than that oppressive heat from two days prior in Cody. We had a very early start the next day so we started packing it in to try to get a decent night's sleep. The amazing mountain view, and the ever present goats, would have to wait 'til tomorrow. There was climbing to get ready for.

 

DAY TWO VIDEO: Froze-to-Death Plateau, mountain goats

DAY TWO PHOTO GALLERY:

DAY THREE - SUMMIT DAY

To say we got up at the crack of dawn would be misleading; it was way before that. It was still dark out when we all started spilling out of our tents. Once our summit bags were packed, it was a simple breakfast of bagels, tea, and oatmeal. Then we all geared up and set off across the plateau toward Granite Peak, which with any luck, we would be summiting by lunch time. Thankfully, I was feeling much better than the night before. The headache and queasiness were gone. I was feeling good and ready to get going. Chris saw us off and wished us luck. We headed off into the darkness with only our headlamps lighting the way.

This first part of the hike from high camp to the saddle was fairly mundane. Since it was dark, there was nothing to look at except the person in front of you. It was simply one foot in front of the other, navigating the ever present scree fields. At the edge of the plateau we stopped for a short break. Al had fallen quite far behind, and even after our break he was still out of sight. It was decided to continue on. Al was with one of the porters who was trained and equipped to lead him up the technical part, so at least he wasn't alone. We later found out that he aborted his summit attempt before hitting the saddle.

The hike from the edge of the plateau down to the saddle was a drop of about 700 feet. The slope wasn't to bad, but we would have no idea of how exposed this slope was until later when it was light out and we could actually see it.

Checking out Granite Peak in the first light of morning from the saddle.

Checking out Granite Peak in the first light of morning from the saddle.

When we reached the saddle we took another break. The saddle was the low point of a knife edged ridge connecting the plateau with the summit area. The first wisps of dawn were finally starting to break up the darkness and we were getting our first glimpses of the summit. It was still fairly dark, but we could see the summit looming ahead of us. Even with my camera, which is excellent in low light, it was still hard to get a decent picture of it. It honestly didn't look that far away (they never do).  We were also starting to get a look at the slope we had just come off of. It looked way crazier now that we could see it than when we were on it.

Our break at the saddle was long enough where once we started hiking again we no longer needed our headlamps, as the orange and red hues of sunrise were appearing over Tempest Peak. This portion of the hike, from the saddle to the summit preparation stop, was one of the sketchiest parts of not just summit day but of the entire trip. We had been dealing with scree and talus for much of the trip, but this section really brought it to a new level. The entire side of the slope was covered in loose rocks often two feet or more in diameter. There was no hiking on autopilot here. Every step had to be carefully measured. Those of us using trek poles not only had to worry about our feet, but we also had to consider where to place our poles with every step. There was almost no exposed solid ground anywhere on this section.

Shortly after my rock surfing incident. You can still see the terror on my face.

Shortly after my rock surfing incident. You can still see the terror on my face.

About halfway between the saddle and summit prep stop, I had the scariest moment of the whole trip. As I was moving from rock to rock, the next rock in front of me was large (about four feet in diameter), flat on top, and level. It looked stable, or at least I didn't have reason to think it was any more or less stable than any other rock I had stepped on thus far. I made the short hop to it and landed on it with both feet. As soon as I landed the entire rock started tilting and sliding downhill. The motion of it knocked me off my feet and I fell on top of it as it was sliding. My hands went behind me off the trailing edge of the rock. All I could do was look ahead of me at the 1,000 foot slope down to a small lake below. My immediate concern was that my hands would get crushed by smaller rocks following me. Luckily, the rock stopped sliding after only about six or eight feet, and the whole ride only lasted a few seconds, but it was honestly rather terrifying. Once it came to a stop I just sat there for a moment, trying not to think of how truly awful this could have turned out.

Cat was behind me. She didn't witness the slide, but had heard it and saw me still lying on the rock. She made sure I was ok. I could see by the look on her face that what just happened was almost really bad. My heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, I got back up on my feet. I was physically shaking. After a while the adrenaline flushed out of my system and I started feeling normal again. Despite being one of the scarier moments of my life, it actually wan't the worst part of summit day, but more on that later.

After my rock surfing incident, we kept drudging up the talus slope until we finally made it to the summit prep stop. This is the start of the technical climbing section and where the rock becomes nice and stable and doesn't move at all! We would take a break, have some food and water, and relax a little before getting into our harnesses and getting roped up. It was a nice little area; out of the wind, amazing views of the summit and surrounding mountains.

Taking a break before the final climb to the summit. (photo by Roger)

Taking a break before the final climb to the summit. (photo by Roger)

I found a natural chaise lounge in the rock and vegged out for a bit. No hiking, no backpack, just soaking in the sun and munching on trail mix. Meanwhile, Cat and Nadav were going over their plan of attack for the summit climb. Weather was also a concern. There were some clouds in the distance that had the potential for not being good, but Nadav was confident that we would have plenty of time before any afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.

With that, we started getting ready. We got into our harnesses and split into two rope teams. I was to be short roped to Roger with Nadav as the lead climber/belayer. The other team was Lawrence and Mark with Cat in the lead. Once we were all tied in we headed for the summit. The difference between what we had done up to this point and the relatively short distance we had left was stark. We had a quick descent from the prep area and then a short walk over a small saddle. This trail was on a shelf and plummeted down a very steep slope for thousands of feet. This is where the exposure really started to kick in and the importance of being roped in for protection was evident.

Across the mini saddle, we finally started the technical climbing portion of the trip. This was what I had been training eight months for at the indoor wall and the rock crusher back in Syracuse. I wanted this climbing section to be easy so I could concentrate on just enjoying it. The training paid off since all the climbing felt fairly easy. This was good, since there were plenty of variables I hadn't trained for, such as climbing with a pack, in hiking boots, in the cold, at altitude, with exposure. Even with all those variables it was still fairly straightforward and an amazing experience. 

It took several pitches to get to the top. Each pitch followed the same basic procedure; Nadav would lead climb to the top of the pitch and set the belay, then Roger and I would climb up once Nadav had us securely on belay. Some of the pitches required using anchors, but most were short and easy enough where we didn't need them. Since this was a fairly popular route many of the pitches had webbing in place to set the belay to.

 

SUMMIT CLIMB VIDEO: The following is from my helmet mounted GoPro of the final ascent up the technical portion of the summit climb.

Climbing up a pitch. I'm in the brown and blue.

Climbing up a pitch. I'm in the brown and blue.

We could usually see Cat's team behind us, although we would loose view of them occasionally. We would wait sometimes so the two teams wouldn't get separated. Since I was the last one on the rope, it was my job to take out the anchors that Nadav had set on a few pitches. We were working quite well together. And my helmet came in handy once. I had stood up into an overhanging rock and hit my head. Because of the helmet I didn't even feel it. I had trained for this at the indoor wall back home and had even recognized a few moves I had done there as i did them on this climb. None of the climbing seemed too difficult. If I had to rate it I'd say most of the pitches were between 5.5 and maybe 5.7. I won't get too detailed about this section, I'll let my video above do the talking. I think it could be easily climbed without ropes, but I wouldn't take the chance. We would later find out that some guy fell a few days prior and died from his injuries. While I am a strong climber, it's not worth the risk. 

After climbing for while, we finally made it to the top! This was it. All the planning, training, expense, effort, it all lead up to this moment. We were at the summit. The view was of course breathtaking. On the side of the summit facing the plateau was a vertigo inducing drop of at least 1,000 to 2,000 feet. We were all still roped in to Nadav and Cat as we made our way over to the summit rock. I was able to get my pictures for my panorama (you can view that at the top of the this post). We took a picture with the four of us posing on the summit.

It really was a great feeling of accomplishment, but we couldn't dwell on it. As Laurence pointed out, we were only half way done. We still had to get back to camp. Big mountains like this are notorious for afternoon thunderstorms, and you don't want to be on an exposed summit when they hit. So after a short break to rest and get some food and drink, we geared up and started the process of down climbing.

On the way up from high camp we had had the whole mountain to ourselves. We didn't see a single other person until we got to the summit, when we met some guys that had come from a different direction. On the way back we started seeing more and more groups heading up. Nadav and Cat commented on how many people there were. Because of the convention a lot of club members (including me and my climbing partners) had scheduled climbs for early in the week. 

We made it! Roger, myself, Laurence, and Mark on top of Montana.

We made it! Roger, myself, Laurence, and Mark on top of Montana.

One group in particular stood out because they were a prime example of what not to do. Sometimes we would have to wait to go down a pitch because another group was coming up. No biggie, you just wait your turn. Well, we waited for the lead climber of one group to get to the top of the pitch so he could set his belay and start hauling up the rest of his team. We waited while he fumbled around with it. Eventually he asked Nadav if he could help. He obliged the man and helped him sort everything out. When he finished, Nadav turned to us and his expression said it all. That guy didn't know what he was doing. And he was the lead climber. This can be so dangerous. That top rope is a literal life line to everyone climbing up. It's sole purpose is to catch you if you slip and fall. If you don't know what your doing with it, someone could get seriously hurt or worse. This isn't the time or place to learn how to do it. What if Nadav hadn't been right there? If you don't know what you're doing, do what I did and hire someone that does.

We eventually made it back to the summit prep area. We took another quick break to rest and get out of our climbing gear. Summit day was divided into two parts; the first part where I felt awesome, and the second part where I felt like crap. Thus began the second part of the day. Once we were packed up and ready to go, we started the hike back across the saddle and over to the plateau. This would again involve a down climb of about 700 feet before going 700 feet back up the other side. As we were heading down to the saddle I started to feel that same feelings as the night before, starting with the dull headache. I tried staying hydrated. I tried ignoring it. But it was always there, slightly distracting at first and gradually getting worse as the day wore on. As I've mentioned, hiking across talus takes all your concentration, and doing it with a nagging headache and a little jolt every time I stepped down to the next rock meant I couldn't rest my brain or get into a flow.

By the time we got down to the saddle I was starting to feel fairly miserable, but I had to keep marching. The comfort of camp wasn't going to get any closer on it's own. It was a 700 foot rise to get back on the plateau, but it felt like 7,000 as we traversed an angle on the talus covered slope. The one cool part about this section of the hike was that we now had a full daylight view of both the summit and the slope we came down from the plateau. It was pitch dark when we did it earlier, but now we could see the full magnitude of it. The slope looks pretty nuts when you can see it. 

I'm sure every experienced hiker is familiar with the idea of false summits, where you spot what looks like a summit but when you reach it you realize there was still a lot more mountain hiding behind it that you still have to go up. Well, the hike back up to the plateau was no different. I spotted a point that I thought was surely the edge of the plateau. Throwing one foot in front of the other, I drudged my way up the slope. My headache was really distracting now. I was taking frequent breaks, which felt good, but only prolonged the climb. I finally reached that point I had been eyeing and found that I was just a little over half way up. The plateau had taken a slight bend here and the rest of the trail had been hidden from view because of it. I just wanted off that damn slope!

Working our way up the relentless, talus covered slope back up to the Froze-to-Death Plateau.

Working our way up the relentless, talus covered slope back up to the Froze-to-Death Plateau.

Gritting my teeth, I kept on, finally making it up onto the plateau. We had been spread out quite a bit by this point, so everyone regathered for a moment before making the last leg back to camp. I made Nadav aware of my condition. Not that there was a lot to be done, I just needed to stay hydrated and get back to camp so I could rest. It was still about 3/4 of a mile back to camp with a lot of talus still in front of us. At least it was fairly flat now that the damn saddle was behind us. One foot in front of the other...

As I got closer to camp the headache got worse and now the queasiness was kicking in big time. Even though I was now close enough to see the tents clearly, maybe a 1/3 of a mile away, I had to stop. My stomach was not feeling good at all. I bent over, leaning on my trek poles, and closed my eyes, trying to concentrate on making all this crap stop. It finally released and I threw up. It was mostly fluids. So much for staying hydrated. Mark was nearby and checked on me to make sure I was alright. Throwing up did make me feel a little better. The queasiness subsided, but I still had the headache. I mustered up the energy to finish the last little bit back to camp. 

Al, Chris, and the goats were there to welcome back the conquering heroes. Even though camp was only a couple tents surrounded by short rock walls in a barren landscape, it may as well have been a Club Med. Just knowing I was done for the day made me feel better. I checked in again with Nadav and Cat to let them know what had happened. They wanted me to try to get some dinner down so I had some energy, and of course to (re)hydrate. I managed dinner, took some meds, and took it easy. As afternoon turned into evening I felt much better.

Nature's light show after a long summit day.

Nature's light show after a long summit day.

While we never got hit by the bad weather that was threatening in the distance when we got to the summit prep area, some very gray clouds were now rolling in. Instead of a cold rain, however, we were treated to one the most amazing light shows I've ever seen in nature. The sun, which was now getting low in the sky, was shining through gaps in the clouds and throwing splotches of light on the mountains across from us. The patterns were always shifting and it just kept going for what seemed like an hour, until the sun finally set. And we even got a few snowflakes. We all just stood there watching in awe the whole time. It was really something special.

The goats, however,  didn't seem too fazed by it.

DAY THREE PHOTO GALLERY:

DAY FOUR - HIGH CAMP BACK TO TRAILHEAD

A leisurely hike down the switchbacks.

A leisurely hike down the switchbacks.

Waking up the next morning I felt so much better. Felt like I had energy again. And it was all literally down hill from here, so any adverse altitude effects should be behind me at this point. We broke down camp, packed up, had breakfast and got ready to hit the trail (or head in the general direction of where a trail would take us had there actually been one). I went to take one last pee before we got going, and of course I wasn't alone. Several goats had followed me and were quite anxious for a little sip. In fact, I had to re-aim in order to avoid peeing on the ringleader's head. Just a few days before I was thinking how lucky I was to have had an encounter with a pair of actual mountain goats. Now I was literally yelling at them to get away from me so I didn't pee on their heads. Certainly makes for interesting stories afterward.

What we had done over two days on the way up we were now going to go down and be back in civilization in time for lunch. As we headed across the plateau we became spread out again. This was par for the course at this point. As long as we could see each other we were good, and on this flat, treeless landscape that wasn't hard to do. We got to the site of first camp, and it seemed a lot longer than two days ago we were there. It was still vacant. It also marked the end of the major talus fields and was much more grassy now. When we got to the edge of the plateau, at the top of the switchbacks, we all stopped and took a break to rest and get a bite. I took my shoes and socks off as I was starting to get a hot spot (pre-blister) on one of my toes. It wasn't bad and luckily it never developed into a blister. 

The switchbacks once again proved to be way easier than I had imagined. Going downhill isn't necessarily easier than going up, but the switchbacks were at just the right angle so I could really motor down them without my speed getting away from me. Laurence and I hiked together for a little while, stopping to take photos of each other as we came down the trail. That's what happens when two trained photographers get together. 

Once at the bottom of the switchbacks, we took another break near the shore of Mystic Lake. It was a really beautiful spot and I can see why so many people make the day hike up there. At this point, Al was starting to have some issues with his pack weight and asked if we would mind each taking a little bit of his stuff. So I took a few items to help out. Then we started the final march from Mystic Lake back to the trailhead. 

One last group shot at Mystic lake. Al, Nadav, Chris, Mark, Roger, myself, Cat, and Laurence

One last group shot at Mystic lake. Al, Nadav, Chris, Mark, Roger, myself, Cat, and Laurence

As great as hikes like this are, it always feels good to get back to the car. And actual restrooms. With no goats! It was just a pit toilet with no running water, but still. I weighed my backpack with my luggage scale and it turns out that with the camp gear and Al's stuff it came in at 34 lbs, one pound heavier than when I started. Figures. The adventure wasn't quite over yet, though. We all set off from the trailhead and were headed to a restaurant called the Grizzly Bar, in Roscoe, for one last group meal. 

Besides the post office, I think the Grizzly Bar was pretty much the only business in town. And it was amazing. I couldn't help but smile when I used the restroom and washed my hands in warm running water. And I ordered a big greasy burger and fries. While Nadav and Cat were excellent camp cooks, that burger was a little slice of heaven. We sat around the table trading stories of our adventures for a while. I could've stayed there all day, but I had to hit the road, as I had camping reservations at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota that night, a five hour drive away. 

As I said goodbye to my fellow climbers (some of whom I would see in a few days at the convention) and our amazing guide team, I started to feel it. That little lump in my throat. The thought of what I had just accomplished was starting to set it. Even when we summited there wasn't really a lot of time to think about it, as we still had the long march back to the trailhead. So I got in my car, and set the GPS for Theodore Roosevelt NP. As I pulled away from the Grizzly Bar it really started to hit me; I did it. All those months of training and preparation had paid off. I made it to the top! By myself in the car I started saying it out loud, "I did it!", over and over again. I started crying. I pulled over so I could compose myself for a minute. While everyone else in the party had several big peaks under their belt, this was my first real mountaineering trip. I felt a little silly, sitting there crying over climbing a mountain, but they were tears of joy for sure. After a few minutes I had calmed down, put the car back in drive, and continued on to my next adventure.

 

DAY FOUR PHOTO GALLERY:

 

Mount Borah, Highpoint of Idaho. The Great American Eclipse of 2017.

360 degree panorama from the summit of Mount Borah, Idaho during the total solar eclipse of 2017.

360 degree panorama from the summit of Mount Borah, Idaho during the total solar eclipse of 2017.

Summit date: August 21, 2017

CONCEPTION AND PLANNING

It was about eight years ago that I first had the notion of photographing an eclipse from a state highpoint for my panorama series. I was thinking about what I could do that would be different, unique. I thought shooting an eclipse from a highpoint would fit the bill. I got on NASA’s website and started researching when the next appropriate eclipse would be. The U.S. wasn’t scheduled for an eclipse until 2017, almost eight years away.

The eclipse would be at least partially visible from all of the lower 48 states. The path of totality, where the moon completely blocks out the sun, however, was only visible from just over a dozen states. And of those states, only five would have the path of totality passing directly over their highpoint: Idaho, Wyoming, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.

At the time I had not yet done any of the five potential highpoints, but one of them in particular stood out; Idaho’s Mount Borah. The three eastern highpoints are all easily reached and I figured would be crowded. Tennessee’s highpoint for example, Clingman’s Dome, is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the nation’s most visited national park even on a slow day. They would also be more prone to low lying cloud cover. Wyoming’s highpoint, Gannett Peak, is notoriously difficult to get to involving a multi day trek, hiring guides, and permits for passing through native lands. Targeting a two and a half minute window to be on summit would be tough to say the least. With Borah standing at 12,662 feet it would certainly be an excellent vantage point to watch it. It was also doable as a day hike but was still daunting enough to keep away the huge crowds, and it was the first state highpoint in the path of totality. My sights were set. Idaho it was.

Over the years I would revisit my plans and tweak them, planning for not only the eclipse, but for other points of interest while I was out there. Kings Peak, the Utah highpoint, looked like a viable option for another highpoint to climb while I would be in the area.

Five years ago, while I was working on my bachelor’s degree from Empire State University, one of my professors suggested I apply for a big art fellowship grant that was to be awarded to a SUNY arts student. It was open to all art disciplines and degree levels. I submitted a portfolio of my highpoint and tri-point panorama photography. I made it through the early selection process. The next stage was to actually show my work and interview with the judges. I put up an exhibit of my work exclusively for the judges. During the interview one of the judges asked where I saw myself in five years. I responded that on August 21st of 2017 at 11:31 a.m. I would be on top of the highest mountain in Idaho to photograph a total solar eclipse. He laughed and said that was the most specific answer he had ever been given to that question. Two days later I got the call that I had won the grant.

In 2016, while climbing the Montana highpoint Granite Peak, I brought up the idea to one of the fellow hikers in my group. He was already well aware of the Borah eclipse and was planning on it himself. We tentatively agreed to meet up for it. This was my first indication that I was not, in fact, the only person planning on doing this. I would later meet a guy at my local rock climbing gym that was also planning on it. And here I thought I would have the mountain all to myself. I started adjusting my vision for the image I wanted to shoot and planned to incorporate the other people who would inevitably be on summit with me.

It wasn’t until I made my plane, rental car, and camping reservations in early 2017 that I finally had the feeling of “this is really happening”. The one thing that was worrying me about the whole thing was the weather. Weather was the one thing that could totally ruin the whole trip. My experience on Mount Katahdin in 2013 showed me that bad weather can indeed keep you from reaching the top. As I really had no back up plan for viewing the eclipse, I was keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best. Worse case scenario is that I would still be able to see everything get dark, even if I couldn’t see the eclipse itself.

 

ARRIVAL: GOOD FORTUNE AT TRAILHEAD

On August 19th, 2017, I was dropped off at the airport in Syracuse for my flight to Salt Lake City. A plan years in the making was finally getting under way. I tried to stop worrying about the weather. I couldn’t do anything about. If it was good then I’d go for it. If it was bad then I wouldn’t. Simple as that.

On August, 20th, the day before the eclipse, I made my way from Salt Lake City north to the Borah trailhead. The northbound traffic on Route 15 out of Salt Lake City was fairly heavy with all the people heading for the path of totality. I was happy to see far less traffic once I got off of Route 15 in Blackfoot, Idaho.

Although I had a campsite reserved in Challis, a 45 minute drive north of Mount Borah, I stopped by the trailhead to see if maybe there were any spots. The official campground was packed full, of course, but the BLM was allowing people to park and camp along the approach road just below the campground. This was excellent news! I had fully expected to have to make the drive from Challis, but now I was just a ten minute walk from the trailhead. This meant I could get a nice early start the next morning. I claimed my spot and spent the rest of the day walking around the area and talking to fellow eclipse watchers. There was a father and son parked behind me from California that I chatted with for a while.

Mount Borah from my campsite on the approach road a day before the eclipse. The summit can be seen along with a little sliver of the snow couloir in the upper right.

Mount Borah from my campsite on the approach road a day before the eclipse. The summit can be seen along with a little sliver of the snow couloir in the upper right.

ASCENT: SIX DARK HOURS OF NOTHING BUT UP

That nice early start came at 12:30 a.m. when I woke up to start getting ready. The stars were out so I knew the sky was clear. An excellent sign and quite a relief. I made a hot breakfast and psyched myself up for the long day ahead.

The following video is me sitting in my car getting ready for the long day ahead.

 

Around 2:00 a.m. I stood at the wooden gate at the trailhead with a fresh set of batteries in my headlamp and my day pack all packed. I paused for a moment, staring into the darkness ahead of me. After eight years of thinking about it and planning it and worrying about every detail and hoping the weather cooperated, here it was, the day had arrived. Under a crystal clear sky full of stars, I took that first step onto the trail. I was finally doing it.

The early solo start meant I could go at my own pace, with plenty of time to get to the top. Totality was around 11:30 a.m., so I was giving myself nine and a half hours for the one way hike to the summit. I can really motor on flats and light hills, but steep inclines really slow me down, and Borah is nothing but up. 5,250 feet of elevation gain in just 3.5 miles to be exact. Average round trip times are listed as seven to twelve hours, so I felt I had plenty of time. I took it one step at a time, resting as needed.

One interesting thing I saw on the way up were ants. Normally I wouldn’t think twice about them, but these ones seemed to be… frozen. I would see lines of ants every couple dozen yards that just weren’t moving. I thought they were dead at first, but I touched one and it moved away from me, only to freeze in place again. It was the oddest thing. I’m guessing the cold overnight temperatures makes them super sluggish and they’ll start moving again once the sun comes up.

The following video shows the ants on the trail not moving

 

The early start also meant I’d be doing more than three quarters of the hike in the dark. In a way this was good since I had no sense of the scale of the mountain and I could just concentrate on the trail directly in front of me. Sometimes I could see the headlamps of hikers ahead of me in the distance and I could tell I still had a ways to go. And if I looked behind me I could see the headlights of cars coming up the approach road with more hikers arriving to get their 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. starts. Other than that I really had no idea what was around me. I knew I had hiked through trees for a while. On the ridgeline above the trees I looked over to my left and my headlamp caught the edge of the ridge which plummeted down quite a ways, farther than my headlamp could illuminate. The infamous Chicken-Out-Ridge, which turns many hikers back, seemed like no big deal in the dark.

It wasn’t until the snow couloir at three miles and about four hours into the hike that I finally turned off my headlamp and I could start to see what I had just climbed and what I still had left. I wouldn’t make it in time for sun rise from the summit, but I stopped on the saddle below the summit for some amazing views of the rising sun over the Sawtooth Mountains. 

After four hours in the dark, this was my first glimpse of what I had just hiked up. The trail follows the top of that ridge, and the forest isn't visible from here.

After four hours in the dark, this was my first glimpse of what I had just hiked up. The trail follows the top of that ridge, and the forest isn't visible from here.

Sunrise from the saddle below the summit

Sunrise from the saddle below the summit

By 8:00 a.m., after six hours of dragging myself up one of the steepest climbs in my life, I had reached the top. I was tired and sore, but I had made it! There was plenty of time to spare with over two hours until the eclipse hit first contact. And I wasn’t alone.

"There is nothing more to see, you can go home now." A little summit humor.

"There is nothing more to see, you can go home now." A little summit humor.

SUMMIT: PARTY AT 12,600'

There was already a crowd gathering when I got there, and they just kept coming. There was a small group of hikers that were bundled up in their sleeping bags right on top of the summit. I had heard of people leaving for the summit as early as midnight. And there had been people camped out along the way, which I didn’t even realize was an option.

Conditions when I got to the summit were absolutely perfect. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was cool, but not as cold as I was expecting. There was hardly even a breeze. The views were stunning. While the air at the higher elevations was clear, forest fires far to the west had sent a layer of haze which filled in the valleys far below, giving everything an otherworldly feel.

I met and talked with several people while waiting for the eclipse to start. There were people from all over the place. There was a man from Eastern Canada, another from Florida. There was even a family from Austria. I ran into my neighbors from base camp, the father and son. One man that definitely stood out was Jeff Zausch. He summited shortly after I did, wearing a bright red, white, and blue jacket. He then promptly stripped down to just his boots and a jockstrap with a big furry ‘coon tail on it. I found out that he was on an episode of the TV show “Naked and Afraid” and is the current star of Discovery Channel’s “Dual Survival”. I know I tend to have good luck running into celebrities, but I certainly wasn’t expected to see any here.

The following gallery show the crowd that gathered on summit.

 

I would estimate there were between 100 and 150 people on the immediate summit area by the time first contact occurred around 10:30. While the summit area isn’t huge, there was plenty of room for all that showed up, with many setting up along the ridge that ran south of the summit for about 100 feet. I had settled on a spot on the eastern slope of the summit, just above the cliffs.

Check out the video below from YouTube user montagnadilombardia for some breathtaking drone footage of the crowd on the summit of Mount Borah gathering for the eclipse. I'm in there somewhere! It also has shots showing the hike down. Watch on a really big screen if possible.

 

At one point after the eclipse had started (but well before totality) I decided to shoot some selfie video, just some travelogue stuff. As I'm shooting, I start to hear people getting excited behind me. I turn around and see a man near the summit marker addressing the crowd. Turns out it was his speech before proposing to his girlfriend. She said yes! And here I had been feeling a little anxious hoping it was a good day just so I could take some pictures, this guy was making a life changing decision! Congratulations to the happy couple!

The following video is from the first half of the eclipse (pre-totality) and includes the proposal!

 

Everyone was in a festive mood, anticipating totality. Unless special eclipse glasses were being worn it was hard to tell that anything was happening at all for most of the eclipse. It wasn't until the eclipse was at about 80-90% that things started getting interesting. The light began to look... weird. Everything took on an erie grayness, not quite daylight, not quite shade. And it started cooling down. Everyone, almost in unison, began reaching for another layer to put on.

 

ECLIPSE: YEARS OF PLANNING FOR TWO AND A HALF MINUTES OF GLORY

The total eclipse was now moments away. Those on the summit ridge and western slopes of the summit were able to watch as the moon’s shadow come into view on the horizon and swept across the hazy Idaho landscape thousands of feet below us. As the leading edge raced across the valley floor the energy in the crowd became palpable. The “oohs”, “aahs”, and “oh my gods!” built to a crescendo until finally the totality engulfed the mountain and the crowd burst into thunderous cheers and applause.

Check out the video below from YouTube user Spencer Ball for an amazing view of the totality approaching Mount Borah.

 

And there it was. An absolutely perfect total solar eclipse. A pitch black moon radiating milky white tendrils across a deep blue sky. There was no need for the special glasses anymore, you could look at it now with the naked eye. The darkness that consumed the region was sudden and dramatic. It was like someone just shut the lights out. At its height the darkness extended for three dozen miles all around us. Where the darkness ended on the horizon there were the yellow hues of a fading sunset, except it looked like a sunset in every direction.

The eclipse from the summit of Mount Borah

The eclipse from the summit of Mount Borah

I had no time for gawking though. Seconds after totality started, I began shooting for my panorama. Years of planning came down to a two minute window of time in which I had to get all the shots that I needed. As far as shooting it, I really didn’t know what to expect until I was in the situation. I knew how many degrees above the horizon it would be, but didn’t know what that would actually look like. I normally shoot one pass of wide angle, horizontal images all around me for a panorama, maybe a dozen frames. However, the eclipse was just high enough where I couldn’t get it and the ground in the same shot at the same time. So I had to go vertical, which I had never done before. I ended up making three passes of vertical shots to make sure I had the coverage. About 80 shots in total, all in two minutes and all hand held. I opted not to bring my tripod since I didn’t want to carry the extra weight. As I was frantically pivoting and shooting away, I had one big balance check as I stumbled slightly, enough to alarm an onlooker near me. I recovered quickly and kept shooting.

As far as the exposure goes, I didn’t know what to expect from that either. As the eclipse passed the 80% mark I had to start adjusting my exposure to compensate for the darkness. It still took me by surprise just how dark it got when totality hit. Luckily the light was even in all directions so once I saw my histograms were good I could just concentrate on shooting. I ended up shooting everything at f7, 1/100, and ISO 4000.

Once I felt I got what I needed, I had a few short moments to just stand there and watch it. It was truly amazing. Such a simple thing, yet so extraordinarily beautiful. At the last second I picked up my camera and got my only close up of it. I was able to capture the “diamond ring” effect which is visible at the beginning and end of totality.