Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Bremner Glacier to Iceberg Overlook- Day 4

Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park- Bremner Glacier to Iceberg Overlook

Total Mileage- 9.1 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1928 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 918 feet

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Day 4 in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska would take us from Bremner Glacier to Iceberg Overlook. It is nearly impossible to locate names for areas in Wrangell, so I just made up the Iceberg Overlook, being that our campsite for this night faced the direction we would be heading… Iceberg Lake. I don’t recommend doing nine miles of trail-less backpacking in Alaska. Others may disagree, but I find that one mile per hour on difficult terrain is very taxing. And, I am not getting any younger. This particular day was 8 hours and 37 minutes of hiking time. This did not include breaks or lunch time. It was a long day, but one of the most beautifully stunning days we have had on any trip.

The day started brilliantly with exquisite views of Bremner Glacier and once we packed up we headed eastward from craggy rocks into sandy beaches. It was surreal to be in the middle of Alaska and to be walking in the sand in the middle of the mountains. The sand transitioned into a lush green valley floor that we would follow the rest of the day for about six miles.

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There were a few small creek crossings on this stretch. At one crossing we were searching for rocks to hop across (and looking a bit too myopically) and didn’t notice the brown sow with cubs lingering at the same creek about sixty yards from us. Fortunately the mother was pouncing on the ground for some small rodent to notice us. We cleared out of the area, but it didn’t take us long to see where the bears had been before us.IMG_4139IMG_4183IMG_4178IMG_4164IMG_4145IMG_4153IMG_4173IMG_4175

For the most part, the terrain was really straight forward. It was low scrub and soft, mossy mounds that were a little difficult to maneuver through. There was one creek/waterfall that we had to cross closer to our end destination. That is the way it always is in Alaska. I remember that crossing and the jump that had to be made from the last rock to the other side. It had to be a perfect landing… and we all hit it perfectly. The weather was perfect this entire day with highs in the mid to low 60’s F. IMG_4161IMG_4172IMG_4186IMG_4187IMG_4189IMG_4283

The spots where we camped are likely the best spots I have ever had in my life. The ground was soft and spongy underneath with a view that very few will ever see. As you can see from the evening shot above, it was an amazing location. And it got even more epic the next morning. On day five we will do an early morning day hike up to a hidden lake and then make our way toward Iceberg Lake.

Day 5- Iceberg Overlook to Iceberg Lake

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California: John Muir Trail- Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake- Day 3

John Muir Trail- Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake (Lake Marjorie)

Mileage- 10.8 miles

Elevation Gain- 2787 feet

Elevation Loss- 2472 feet

Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake

Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake Elevation

On our third day hiking half of the John Muir Trail we were traveling from Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake area.  That is the “official” permit location of our end destination, but we technically stayed at Lake Marjorie.  Lake Marjorie, which is beautiful by the way, is about a mile passed an offshoot trail that would take you to Bench Lake.  Our day would consist of an early morning 1300 foot march up to Mather Pass, a six-mile descent, and a late day 1000 foot ascent (which I don’t like at the end of a day!).  The morning, again, started off clear with stunning blue skies.  Starting the day off at 11,000 feet in early September is a gift of cool, crisp temperatures that are AMAZING for backpacking.  AMAZING.  And we were expecting some stunning views from the top of Mather Pass at 12,100 feet.

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As you would expect, the trek up to Mather Pass was really pretty easy. From our campsite at the second of two Palisade Lakes it was only a 1300 foot climb.  We could see it as soon as we started hiking and were really pumped to get up there.  There was a hesitant optimism that we may have traveled south far enough to escape the eastward winds of Rough Fire.  That wouldn’t be the case on this day either.  The terrain leading southward for the first mile is sandy with old broken granite rocks amidst sequoias and pines.  The trail is easily visible and traversed.  On either side of Mather Pass you can see steep granite wall and saw tooth ridge lines, respectively.  As we gradually ascended I continued to look back.  Palisades Lake was something nice to look at up close, it’s real beauty is in how exquistively it surrounds itself with peaks and passes.  In the photo with me in it below you will see Disappointment Peak immediately behind me with Palisade Lake smiling on my side.

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The approach to Mather Pass is wide open with busted and broken granite bits and boulders strewn about.  The series of switchbacks are easily managed and traversed.  We were feeling really strong on this day.  Between the acclimatization and adjusting to the time zone difference, we were in our element.

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Crossing over Mather Pass was significantly disappointing.  The smoke from Rough Fire was the worst it had been up to that point.  While we enjoyed our conversation the rest of the hiking day, we were a bit deflated.  On my mind was whether or not it would get any better or if this is what we could expect all the way to Mt. Whitney.  We crossed some pretty streams but, for the most part, our visibility was limited.  It was obvious during our short breaks that morale had suffered.  Epic views were veiled by a serious irritant and my sinuses agreed.  As we approached Marjorie, she was beautiful.  It was obvious that she would really dazzle once the smoke cleared overnight.

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On Day 4 we would be traveling from Bench Lake area (Lake Marjorie) to Woods Creek Trail area.

 

California: John Muir Trail- LeConte to Palisade Lakes- Day 2

John Muir Trail- LeConte Canyon to Palisade Lakes

Mileage- 11.1 miles

Elevation Gain- 3705 feet

Elevation Loss- 1512 feet

LeConte to Palisade Lake

LeConte to Palisade Lakes Elevation

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but our trek from LeConte to Palisade Lakes was interesting and a bit of a mixed bag. Our morning was absolutely stunning and clear but the afternoon was really pretty brutal (again) because of the smoke from Rough Fire. We had not quite figured out that the smoke typically rolled in early afternoon. So with our 8am start, coupled with breaks/lunch, we inevitably had about 2-3 hours of smoke at the end of our hiking day. Nonetheless, we had over 11 miles to cover and over 3700 feet total elevation gain from LeConte to Palisades Lakes.

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In early September, morning temps are on the cool side and obviously cooler at higher elevations. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have long pants and sleeves (maybe even another layer) from the time we awoke until the time we broke camp.  That is what it was like this first morning.  You can see where the sun is shining, but it’s warmth is just out of reach. From LeConte we began to descend for a little over three miles to Middle Fork Kings River, which by the way is the lowest point (8113 feet) until after Mt. Whitney.  From LeConte, it’s about a six hundred foot gradual descent that will take you through a beautiful (and peaceful) meadow called Grouse Meadows.  I jumped off of the trail to break through some scattered pines to get a few shots.

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The remainder of our day was up.  From Middle Fork Kings the next eight miles would have us climbing over 3500 total feet in elevation.  It’s an eastward trek following Palisade Creek with Mather Pass set in it’s sights.  We would stop just a couple of miles shy of Mather Pass and leave it for the next day.  Our destination for this day was Palisade Lakes.  And the only way of getting to the lakes is by climbing the Golden Staircase.  Being that we would not be stopping to set up camp at the first of the two Palisade Lakes, our climb up the staircase to our final camp was about 2500 feet.  I admit that this day was tiring.  Of course, we were still adjusting to the elevation, but that climb up the Golden Staircase was taxing. But we pressed on another mile to reach the first of two Palisade Lakes.  By the time we reached the first lake I think we were ready to set up camp!  But we still had two miles and another thousand feet to go.  We put our heads down and found a way to grind out those remaining miles.

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We could have camped at the first lake, but there was another guy already there.  We took our chances by going to the second lake for a little more solitude, which worked perfectly.  We had the second lake all to ourselves!  That was great…and there was the added benefit of cutting mileage for our next day… but we were getting a bit grumpy at the end of this day.  The smoke was taking it’s toll for sure.  There were several campsite options at the second lake.  A few of them were southwest of the trail closer to the lake.  We took a couple of spots in a piney area toward the southeast end of the lake.

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Once the sun began to hid behind the razor edge ridge line across the lake, it began to cool quickly.  We set up camp and then started to pump and prepare for our long-anticipated dinner.  One of the funniest moments of the trip was when we were pumping from a side creek that drained into the lake.  While pumping, Ryan (who was on his first backpacking trip) dropped one of his socks into the creek and did not notice.  We shouted at him and told him that he lost his sock.  The sock had dropped into a small pool about three and a half feet deep (in the middle), but in the excitement of the moment Ryan tried to scamper quickly down the wet, slick rocks in his traction-less evening shoes.  Before we could stop him, he slipped and went full body into the small pool.  We sat there completely stunned at what had just happened.  Patrick was like, “Take a picture.”  I did, but I was so perplexed at the situation that I could hardly move or look away from, the now silent, Ryan.  On one hand it was completely hilarious. But on the other hand, it was a dangerous situation because it was really, really, really cold water and the air temperature was very cool.  Fortunately Ryan was able to recover his sock (ha!) and then change into some warm, dry clothes rather quickly.

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Our third day would take us from Palisade Lakes over Mather Pass to the beautiful Bench Lake area.

If you missed Day 1, here it is:

South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon- Day 1.

California: John Muir Trail- South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon- Day 1

John Muir Trail- South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon

Mileage- 11.5 miles

Elevation Gain- 2800 feet

Elevation Loss- 3874 feet

Bishop Pass Trailhead to LeConte

Bishop Pass Trailhead to LeConte 1

We arrived in Lone Pine, California late Thursday/early Friday and stayed at the Whitney Portal Hostel and Hotel, where we got a few hours sleep before dropping our rental vehicle at a Whitney Portal parking lot (our end destination) and meeting our shuttle that would take us to Bishop Pass Trailhead.

We used East Side Sierra Shuttle (Paul Freitheim), who is incredibly knowledgeable of the area and the trail, and who also has a ton of funny stories to share.  He agreed to take us to the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop where we would pick up our backcountry permit.  While two of us took care of the permit, the other guys walked to Eastside Sports to pick up fuel canisters.  Once we secured the permit and fuel we made the short drive to Bishop Pass Trailhead.  We were getting a bit later start than we would have liked.  I think it was after 11am by the time we unloaded our gear and settled up with Paul.  Our estimated mileage for the day from the trailhead to LeConte was 11.5 miles with 2800 total elevation gain.

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Our trek from South Lake began in Inyo National Forest/John Muir Wilderness.  Trail conditions were extremely dry.  Two months before this trip we monitored fire activity in the area.  One of the biggest fires in the area, Rough Fire, began on July 31, 2015 and, despite all efforts to contain it, was still continuing to grow when we began on September 4.  This massive fire was approximately 30 miles west of the John Muir Trail and approximately 80,000 acres, which meant that we would deal with a significant amount of smoke over the seven days on the trail, as you will see in many pictures.

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The great thing about this trail, and then the John Muir Trail, is that there is no guessing where the trail is.  While our Denali trip in 2014 did not have any trails, but was all about route finding and bushwhacking, these trails were incredibly easy to follow.  The greatest challenges for us, even on day one, were acclimating to the elevation and the daily physical demand of distance and elevation gain. At the end of the day, despite all of our exhaustive planning, we are still from Indiana (650 feet above sea level)!  Actually we did just fine.  We trained a ton and I believe everyone took Diamox for a few days to speed up our acclimation to the thin air.  Other than breathing hard on day one, I don’t believe anyone suffered any ill effects.

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Despite the dry conditions, the stunning beauty that we saw was off the chart.  Even when I am surrounded by what looks like a trail among a boulder field I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real.  That is exactly how it was the first 5.5 miles to Bishop Pass, as we crossed into Kings Canyon National Park.  There is certainly a possibility of getting so wrapped up in the mileage and the 2800 foot climb that one doesn’t slow down enough to appreciate where they are or what they are seeing.  People always ask me for advice or perspective on backpacking and the number one thing I always say is, “Don’t forget why you are there in the first place.  Breathe deep and take it all in.”  Pictures are one thing, but remembering how it felt and how it looked with your own eyes is an absolutely priceless experience that a small percentage of the population ever get to realize.  And don’t forget to turn around occasionally to snap a picture of where you came from!

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The biggest drop of the day was around Dusy Basin.  Our eastward view displayed magnificent and hazy views of Isosceles Peak and Columbine Peak.  Further in the eastward distance was a beautiful razor’s edge of 14-ers, including Thunderbolt and North Palisade.  As we continued to drop from Dusy Basin into LeConte Canyon, our views boasted of Langille Peak and the Citadel.  Depending on which direction we were looking we could either see the contrast of marvelous blue skies and ridge lines or mountains fading into the smoky haze.  Unfortunately for us, we were heading into the canyon where the smoky haze rested for the evening.

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From Bishop Pass to the JMT junction at LeConte is 6.0 miles and a descent of 3874 feet.  To be honest, it was some really easy hiking that passed through some really spectacular areas.  The smoke was a real irritant, however.  We realized after a couple of days that the smoke would clear out overnight and then usually reappear around 2 or 3pm the next day.  Being that we got a really late start this first day, we battled the smoke a bit more than would subsequent days.  While I didn’t take any pictures of our campsites or set-up, there are quite a few places to camp that are spread out from one another.  While there were others camping at the other spots, we really never felt as if they were too close or inhibiting our experience.  The camp spots are relatively easy to spot, as they are areas that have had quite a bit of usage over time.  Some areas along the JMT provide metal bear storage boxes to put your bear can in for the night.  In other areas, where there are no metal bear storage boxes, one would need to simply put their bear cans in an area away from tents and the eating/food preparation area.

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The Day 2 would take us from LeConte along the JMT, through Grouse Meadows, up the mighty Golden Staircase, and then to Palisades Lakes.

Awe and Wonder…

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Utah: Canyonlands National Park- Mountain Biking the Colorado River Overlook 4×4 Road

Canyonlands National Park has some of the best terrain for mountain biking.  Our plan was to enter the southeast portion of the park in an area called The Needles.  We heard that there were some amazing areas to mountain bike but we thought the best option would be to ask one of the park rangers upon entering the park.  As we reached the park entrance and shared some details with the ranger, she told us that the best mountain biking was a 4×4 road (marked below in yellow)that leads to an overlook of the Colorado River.  She noted that, while this road was some of the best mountain biking in the park, it was not heavily traveled by bikers.  This really got us excited because we do not prefer fighting crowds of people.  With too many people in an area you lose the serenity and peacefulness of the experience.

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We parked in the Needles Visitors Center parking lot and prepped our bikes for the 16-mile round trip trek.  We were not quite sure what to expect but by just looking at where this dirt road was heading… it looked unreal.

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The first thing I noticed (other than the phenomenal horizon) was that the sand road was packed really well from the 4×4’s.  This made riding on it very easy.  There were definitely areas where it wasn’t packed as well and it made pedaling a bit harder… but there were only small stretches in which this was the case.  In the first quarter mile Patrick thought he forgot to lock the van so he rode back to lock it.  That enabled me to do some climbing around while he was gone.

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The eight mile journey to the Colorado River overlook took us a few hours.  Not because it was a slow ride but that we stopped so many times to look at the views.  To our left at on point in the journey there was an amazing rock area on which to ride around, again with amazing views.

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The immense canyon area was getting closer and it seemed as if we were getting close to the end.  We stopped to take in the view on this 75 degree day and to also have a bite to eat.  We didn’t know that we still had a couple of miles to the end and some of the roughest trail to still cover.  If you ever take this road it would be advised to take a bike with shocks.  Your entire body will thank you.

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The final stretch was primarily rock with cairns leading the way.  It was not a particularly tough stretch to navigate but the rocks were so pock-marked that it felt as if we where riding jack hammers.  A mile of that really takes a toll on wrists and shoulders, even with shocks.  The payoff of the trail was a breath-taking view high above the Colorado River.  The drop off was about 2500 feet and all you could do was stare at it and take it all in.  There were four other bikers at the overlook- two couples (a father and son and their wives).  The father and mother were in their mid-60’s and completely impressed us with their sense of adventure.  This was not an easy eight-mile road by any stretch of the imagination… so they certainly had our admiration.

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The 4×4 road leading to the Colorado River Overlook in The Needles area of Canyonlands National Park is unbelievable.  Of all the trips I have taken and activities of which I have participated, this ranks at the very top of my list in term of how much fun I had.  The views are picturesque.  The road is diverse and challenging.  And the payoff is an awesome stretch of canyon overlooks.  The experience is nothing short of spiritual.  It is just you and creation.  Nothing else.  If you are in Utah… don’t miss this opportunity.

peace…

brandon

Utah: Canyonlands National Park- Grand View Point

We took a somewhat spontaneous trip to Utah at the end of April.  It was meant to be a very quick trip, leaving Indiana on a Wednesday night and driving straight through to Moab, Utah.  We arrived on Thursday afternoon with plans to hike all day Friday, mountain bike all day Saturday, and then drive through Arches National Park on Sunday (leaving for Indiana late Sunday night).

As a side note, I was a bit nervous as we traveled west through Kansas and Colorado because it was, not only in the low 30’s, but snowing.  I packed as if the temps were going to be in the 50-60’s, so needless to say I was a bit cold when we made a stop in western Kansas with the temperature at 28 degrees.  Fortunately as we passed into Utah the temperatures and weather normalized.  The temperature ranged from a high in the 70’s to a low in the mid 40’s, which was very nice.

On Friday morning we decided to hit a very short, and not very taxing, two mile roundtrip hike in Canyonlands called Grand View Point.  On the map below you will notice a large Y in the middle of the park.  This hike is located at the very bottom of the Y.    While this hike is leisurely enough for families it should be noted that there are NOT guard rails.  Caution should be used with small children.

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Grand View Point in Canyonlands National Park

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When hiking Grand View Point you may want to pack a little bit of water.  Granted, it is only a short two mile “in and back” hike from the parking lot, but it will take you longer to finish this hike than you might expect- because you will want to take a million pictures.  Every step of the hike is full of stunning beauty.

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At the end of this trail, there is an amazing payoff (as if the whole hike wasn’t enough).  For those willing to do a bit of climbing up some large boulders… the view is UNBELIEVABLE.  You don’t have to climb the rocks to experience the view, but I recommend it.

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IMG_3687If you are in the Canyonland National Park, do yourself a favor and hit the Grand View Point trail.  You will not regret it!

Next post Upheaval Dome Syncline Trail- Canyonlands National Park

Brandon

Virginia: Blackrock Summit

We awakened on our third and final day in the Shenandoah National Park. The previous two days had taken us along lush ridgelines, atop Furnace Mountain and Trayfoot Mountain for some spectacular views, and stream side for some peaceful and relaxing camping. Everyone was refreshed and ready to tackle the last leg of this 20 mile hike which would involve a 3000 foot ascent…so we promptly broke down camp and geared up.

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In all of the research I had done on this loop trail, I thought the views from atop Furnace and Trayfoot Mountains were what we could expect as the highlights. I mistakenly thought that we had seen “all of the good stuff” the previous two days and that the final leg would be unremarkable. I can’t tell you how wrong I was. As it turned out, we began day three hiking toward the one of the most beautiful panoramic views I have ever seen in my life.

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But it was not going to be an easy hike. The trail continued up and up with one switchback after another. Sure we started with fresh legs and a little less food in our packs…but the trail never seemed to level out. On top of that the sun was now heating up overhead and the cicadas were in their full summer chorus. It would have been a scene to delight in if I had not been sweating so profusely. By this time I had zipped the legs off of my pants in order to cool down a bit. Even though the growth on each side of the trail seemed to get narrower and brushed up against my legs frequently, I decided that at the moment I was willing to risk poison ivy just to cool down.

As you can probably imagine- being that i did not have any idea that such an incredible location and view was waiting ahead of me- the hike became a lot of work without the benefit of any real payoff. I hate to admit something like that because I love hiking even if there isn’t any real “payoff.” But the heat and never ending incline was wearing on me. At one point I looked up and tried to see the end of this upward straight-as-an-arrow trail but I couldn’t see where it ended. That is when I decided to just put my head down and count steps in increments of 10. At least it would take my mind off how much farther I had to go.

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It wasn’t long before the trees began to come together and offer us their shade. To me that seemed like a good spot for some high quality H20. While enjoying the refreshment I couldn’t help but notice that this was the turn-off toward Blackrock. As I walked through the darkness of the cool tree covering I started around a bend that opened up into a magnificent vastness. My mouth just dropped. If I had been tired and sweaty five minutes prior…you couldn’t see it in my face any longer.

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Blackrock is a marvelous pile of broken Hampton quartzite boulders that make up the summit. There isn’t any particular route to the top. Everyone takes their own path to the top. Some of the other guys had already dropped their packs and made their way to the top. I soon followed.

On top of the broken boulders: we ate. we reclined. we took in and absorbed a panoramic view of the entire valley. Whether we turned our heads to the left or to the right…it was just beautiful. All of the work to get to this point was swallowed whole by Blackrock Summit.

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As we left Blackrock and worked our way down trail it felt like we were being greeted after a long trip by the presence of wildflowers and wildlife. Blackrock left me walking on air all the way back to the parking lot. That was a fantastic exclamation point on our Shenandoah Valley excursion. We packed up and made our way back to Loft Mountain for one final night in Virginia.

furnace mountain and trayfoot mountain- day 1

furnace mountain and trayfoot mountain- day 2

helplessness blues by fleet foxes

peace…

brandon

Virginia: Furnace Mountain and Trayfoot Mountain- Day 2

Everyone seemed to be in good spirits at the beginning of day two. Although we were making breakfast, pumping water, taking down the tents, and having fun ribbing each other…it was as if there was something unspoken hovering around and weighing on us.

The beginning of Day 2

The Furnace climb was awaiting us…and this time it was with our heavy packs. Our only consolation was that it was early and cool. We knew the sooner we got started the better off we would be. So after waiting on Kfed and his primping and Chase and his urinating…we were ready to climb.

It was actually very surprising how refreshed I felt after a good night sleep. We didn’t have to worry about bears, as we “bear bagged” our food quite a ways from the tents. Sleeping all night beside a calm and monotonous stream can do wonders. So it was no wonder we seemed to be climbing quickly with relative ease.

The summer trees and mountain laurel in the early morning felt like a gift. As we climbed the ridge toward Trayfoot Mountain, a fresh summer fragrance led us. This was what a morning was meant to be. This is what every human being should get to experience everyday. Were my legs burning? Was I breathing heavy? Was my heart beating rapidly? I have no idea. I was in heaven.

We took a short break on a rocky ledge of Trayfoot Mountain. It was a relatively short break but the view was fantastic. We could see the valley and several other ranges for miles, even a small town with a train passing through. At nightfall we would be back to this area to look at the stars.

We covered about eight miles before reaching the creek at Paine Run. We were all eager to take our socks and shoes off and cool them in the water. After cooling down we scoped out the potential areas to camp. We settled on the ideal location on an embankment just off the trail and close to the creek. We set up the tents, made a fire, pumped water, ate, and made preparations to take a late evening hike back to the rock slab on top of Trayfoot in order to stargaze.

With headlamps in place, we started off for our nighttime show. The evening air was cool and our climb was brisk. It wasn’t long before we arrived and worked our way out onto the weathered rock. We were lost in conversation as the night grew darker and the stars grew brighter. What an immense canopy blanketing us. I felt so small and so overwhelmed. God is good.

As we arrived back at base camp to close out our second day, we sat around the warm embers and talked about our day. A voice that we didn’t recognize called out from the trail, “You guys have any beer?” He kept walking and we just laughed. Where did he come from and where was he going? We may never know. It was time to hit the sack. Our most exciting summit was coming the next day- Blackrock Summit.

Read Blackrock Summit…

peace…

brandon