Friday, February 9, 2007

When Hell('s Canyon) Freezes Over

This account is from my first attempt (failed, but lessons learned) to hikearound the Seven Devils Mountain in Hell's Canyon Wilderness. _____________________________________________________
When Hell('s Canyon) Freezes Over September 8-9, 2003
"If the mountain defeats you....where then will you go?"

Home. We have returned from a Lord of the Rings style adventure of hiking in the Seven Devils Mountains on the Idaho side of Hell's Canyon. We went to the Misty Mountains, met the Riders of Rohan, crossed the Dead Marshes, journeyed through elven woods, and were turned back by Caradhras.
Glen and I left early Monday morning and drove up to Riggins, Idaho along highways 55 and 95, which are an adventure experience unto themselves. Just south of Riggins we turned on 517 which is a one-lane gravel road which climbs about 5000 feet for 17 miles to the Windy Saddle campground. Here also was the northern trailhead for entry into Hell's Canyon wilderness and the Seven Devils Mountains, or as Glen calls them, the Mary Magdalene Mountains (out of whom Jesus had cast seven devils). Upon arriving we learned why this area was named Windy Saddle. The promised front from the Gulf of Alaska arrivedin full force. The wind began to gust and snow began to fall. Within 20 minutes there was about an inch of snow on the car and the snow was still coming. We hauled our packs over to the bathrooms to shelter from the cold wind and stinging snow, and made our final preparations. Glen was using my navy blue Jansport pack with about 60 pounds of gear, the way I used to backpack. The Llamanator pack weighed 31 pounds, but I knew that about 7 of that was consumables so I hoped to see it drop significantly over the next couple of days. This was going to be a first for me, backpacking in the snow. Our plan was to hike the 27 mile loop trail that goes all the way around the Seven Devils, taking 3 days and 2 nights. We had enough gear and food to handle freezing nights and a long march, but we knew that we needed to stay flexible and reserve the option to retreat if the weather got worse. We started off with a "let's see what happens" approach.
The trail descended to the north about 400 feet into the forest, and then bent around to the west. The wind was not as bad now that we were down off the Saddle and in the shelter of the tall pines. The snow was still comingdown, but it was more like rain after it hit you. The ground was warm enough to keep most of it from sticking. This was just a wet walk in the woods so far. We could tell we were in wide open spaces with sweeping views, but the low clouds and mist and snow kept us from seeing more than the next ridge over. The trail wound along the mountainside, passing for a half-mile beneath a massive granite cliff that towered above. We then entered thick forest again as the trail bent around to the north and began to climb over the bulge of the next mountain ahead.
After about 2 miles we stopped for a rest and ate lunch. It was still snowingand some of the snow was beginning to stick in places. The trail was still just wet and muddy. At one point while we were eating, Glen asked me if I heard something. He had heard a noise off in the trees up ahead. No, I didn't hearanything. We loaded our packs again and trudged onward and upward. We came to a turn and I stopped to examine a curious-looking set of tracks in the snow.They looked like a medium-sized child's bare footprint, except wider and slightly rounded, with individual toes. The way it was still snowing, the tracks did not look very old. I'm guessing that it was a bear, and that could have been the noise that Glen heard. I took a picture of the tracks so that I can compare them to known animal tracks. After seeing the tracks, we began to talk louder and make more noise as we went along, just so we wouldn't surprise whatever it was that made those tracks! The trail continued climbing at a gradual rate, as we wound along with the curvature of the mountainside, turning back to the west and then beginning to make a long sweeping turn to the south. Here we began to descend into a large valley. We switch-backed down through the trees until we came out into the open and crossed a long downward stretch along a rock slide area that went for about a mile. Now we began to see through the mist some very big mountains ahead which we assumed were the northern side of the Seven Devils. Snow was still falling intermittently now. We were making very good progress, despite the snow, mud and occasional water puddle on the trail. At the end of the rock slide, the trail again turned to the west as it descended into thick forests. The snow began to fall heavily again. Winding through the forests, we crossed some marshy ground that Glen dubbed "the Dead Marshes." After our first creek crossing, which was quite low and manageable by hiking standards, we met two men hiking with their dogs. The dogs were soaking wet, shivering, whining, and looked miserable. The men said they were coming down from several days of camping near Basin Lake. They said it was snowing like crazy up in the higher elevations, and that they had seen a bear near He Devil Mountain. I mentioned that the dogs looked like they were shivering, and one guy said, "Yeah, they're pretty miserable. Their paws are sore from walking on all the rocks. Last night I had to let my dog crawl in the sleeping bag with me, she was so cold. We'll get them dried off and out of this as soon as we can." We shared trail information with them and then pushed on. After a mile or so in the trees, we came to another rockfall area and began to climb the switchbacks. Up ahead Glen could see a mule train coming down the mountain. There were about 3 people and about 8 mules. These we dubbed "the Riders of Rohan" later on. They said that they were coming down from their summer camp. The mules were loaded with heavy saddlebags, axes, and supplies. The riders were wearing long overcoats against the wet snow and cowboy hats. The lead guy said that it was miserable weather for us to be out backpacking, implying strongly that we shouldn't be out here. I thought, but you don't understand about having to schedule ahead of time and co-ordinatetime off from work to go do this, and besides we can't control the weather,and we've come all this way, and why are you looking down on us for trying to enjoy the wilderness? We stepped off the trail to let the mule train pass. The wind picked up and the snow was coming down heavily as we crossed the exposed rock slide.
We finally reached the top of the saddle and into a thinned-out forest. The ground became more level, but the snow was also sticking up here and there was more water standing in big puddles or running in a trickle down the trail. We came finally to the Iron Phone Junction, where three trails converged. One trail headed west to Dry Diggins Lookout and Bernard Lakes. The second trail headed back to Windy Saddle, the direction that we had come from. The third trail, 124, the one we wanted, headed south along the western edge of the Seven Devils. Somewhere about 10 miles south was Horse Heaven, where we would turn again back to the north on our planned circuit of the Devils. We continued down this trail, hoping to make it to Hibbs Cow Camp within a mile. At this point, the snow and wind were becoming blizzard-like. I was ready for a rest stop, so we went behind some scraggly trees which only partially kept the wind off. I was becoming cold and reached in my pack for a long-sleeve shirt, which I put on over my other shirt, but under the shell jacket. As long as we kept moving, I was generating enough warmth, but now my hands were getting very cold and so were my feet. We ate and talked about the weather and our hike. At the start of the hike, we said a prayer and asked God for His protection, and that He would give us discernment about the weather and if we needed to turn around. Along with being cold, a tendon behind my left knee felt as though it were on fire with every step I took. It seemed wise to us at this point not to push ahead into the unknown. It was now 4 pm. If we got into heavier snow on the western side of the Devils, or if my knee or Glen's bad knee gave out, we would in a very remote area away from the car and away from help. We both were in agreement that we should turn around and head in the direction of the car. We would seek a sheltered place for the night out of the wind in the forest below us. We would later be glad for this decision. .....continued.....

.......and now for our exciting conclusion.......we find our heroes camped high in a forest somewhere in western Idaho......

We went back down the switchbacks across the rockfall, seeing much evidence on the trail of the passing of the mule train....Bleah.....About 20 minutes after turning around, we were at the bottom of the rockfall area and back in the pine trees. We walked a few hundred yards further and stopped to rest and sit down on a big log by the trail. The snow had tapered off, and now the sun started peeking through the clouds above the saddle from which we had just descended.....great....the sun came out and some blue sky started showing through a break in the clouds. We shook our heads and grinned. Just a while before we had been up there in the middle of what seemed to be a blizzard.
While we were sitting, a pair of hikers came down the trail. The couple saidthey were also chased out of the high country by the storm. They asked about camping sites up ahead and we told them about one a ways back where someone had already built a firepit. Stage II burn restrictions were still in effect statewide, but as cold as we felt in the middle of this soggy wet weather, we were ready to light it up. It felt good to stop and rest, but once I stopped moving I began feeling colder by the minute. My boots were soaked and my hands were only about half warmed up. We shouldered our burdens once again and got moving. It wasn't long before we caught up with the couple who had passed us. They had found the campsite we were talking about, which was a clearing under the trees next to the creek we had crossed earlier. We looked enviously at the firepit, but felt we would be rude to invite ourselves to camp with them. They already had their tent and warm sleeping bags almost set up. We wished them a warm and safe night, hop-scotched across the creek, and slogged on up the trail. After another half mile, we found a place that looked like it would be suitable for the night. It had a fire ring of stones and some semi-flat spots for pitching a tent. It was also nicely sheltered from the wind.In my continuing quest to shave weight from my gear, for this trip I had chosen a simple poly tube tent, which was nothing more than an orange piece of 2.5 mil polyethylene thin sheet tubing. Setup was simply a matter of stringing a guy line between two trees after first threading it through the orange sheeting. When set up, the "tent" was a triangle with a base of about 5 feet across, and a height of 3 feet. If you really want to know the dimension of the hypotenuse of the tent's sloping sides, you can do the math.....I have already solved two/thirds of the equation for ya..... : ) Overall, my poly tube tent did okay. It was very light to pack and easy to set up. It's main disadvantage was that the inside ridgeline was covered with condensation in the morning, even though there was ample ventilation. With my vapor barrier ground sheet placed in a suitable flat space and my guyline strung between the two trees, my little orange house was set up for the night. I crawled in and took off all my wet clothes and put on the dry ones that I had in the pack. Glen was over on the other side of the trail peeling off all his damp clothing and getting into dry stuff. Earlier, I had put on my long shirt which I was planning to save until night time. Even though it was made of a quick-drying material, it was soaked and the air was too cold and damp to do much good in drying it out. We had worn rain gear most of the day, but when you're backpacking you're still generating moisture under all the plastic. So you wind up as wet on the inside as you are on the outside. Now I was in dry clothing, but I was quite chilled. I unrolled my fleece liner and the Llama-hyde quilt and unrolled my ThermaRest mattress. While Glen was getting his tent situated and hanging his wet stuff from a tree, I got under the covers to try to warm up. My covers were warm, but my body was really chilled, especially my feet. Glen made several attempts to get a fire going in the fire ring, but the available wood was soaked along with everything else. We really could have used a warm fire to dry our wet stuff and get warmed up. All he could get was a lot of smoke and a few quick flaring flames from dried pine needles. Oh well, we will have to do without a fire. I stayed covered up for a while, which helped as long as I stayed there. But I had gear strewn all over the rocks outside my tent, and we needed to go filter some water, and go eat, and stow the food for the night. When I got up I started shivering, and I stumbled over my words. Uh oh, I know what that leads to.....the big H....Hypothermia......Glen said he felt it too. It was only the minor beginnings of hypothermia, but you have to act to reverse the process or it can go downhill fast. He handed me one of his extra thermal underwear shirts which he had hanging on a tree. It was only slightly damp. Within a minute of putting it on, I could feel a difference. Then he handed me his down coat, which although wet on the outside was still dry inside. Almost immediately I began to feel it starting to warm me up.
We hiked back down to the creek running beside the trail and filtered some water with my Pur filter. Then we went back to camp and gathered up all the food and trash from our packs and hiked 200 yards up the trail in the other direction. Glen offered me some of his Spaghetti O's and I scarfed down a can. I had been feeling nauseated and none of my food sounded appealing, but those cold Spaghetti O's somehow hit the spot. Then I had some slices of his Cracked Wheat Hazelnut bread....mmm......after Glen ate, we stowed our food bag under a large boulder. We were just too wiped out and cold to try to hang it. We simply ate in a different location than our camp, and put our food out away from the camp. While we were eating, the clouds rolled back in and it began to lightly snow. It was time to get back under the covers. After hiking back down to camp, I gave Glen his down coat back and thanked him. He had really ministered comfort to me in the last hour or so, and I was grateful for the help. With the food in my belly and feeling a lot warmer, I crawled in my tent for the night. To keep the edges of the poly tube tent stretched out, I used a combination of my wet clothes, rocks, the semi-empty pack, and my wet Nike hiking boots.
How terrible all this sounds, the reader might be thinking about now. Why put up with all this yucky weather, cold, wet misery and suffering? My viewpoint is, the going IS the adventure; that is to say, the things that happen along the way are just part of the deal, and they make it interesting to tell the tale of the journey later on. As long as you survive the experience, I suppose.....It's worth the experience, good, bad, and indifferent, for the telling of a true story and for having the memories of going. I can close my eyes and see awesome scenery and remember.....I went there. At some point in the night, the clouds went away and a bright full moon shone down on our little clearing from the jagged peaks above. I slept on and off, seeming to wake about once every hour. I had this kind of rotisserie thing going on, turning one quarter turn every so often, from my back, to my left side, to face down, to my right side, on my back again, and on and on.....but I was warm. I could hear Glen periodically coughing or tossing about over in his tent. He said later that his bag was warm, but he just couldn't get comfortable on his Thermarest mat. I also noticed that his borrowed dome tent looked to be a child's tent. He had no room to stretch out totally except in the diagonal, and even then he still couldn't completely stretch out. He said that he always has trouble getting a good night's sleep while camping. Ron snored, I found out in the morning, though I don't remember it. So I guess I got some sleep after all. There were little sparkles of frost reflecting off the ground when I got up before dawn to visit the third tree on the left (let the reader understand.....) My hiking boots even had some frost on them, as did the rainfly of Glen's tent.
Around 8 am we began to stir and rose to greet the frigid morning. The sun had still not risen enough to clear the cliffs above us, but we were encouraged to see some blue sky this morning. It didn't last for long, though, as the clouds began moving in over the Seven Devils. It took us until about 10 to get everything packed up, and by that time the clouds had begun to turn into darker and darker shades of gray. We knew what was coming. Sure enough, the flurries started to fall as we began hiking. We noticed, though, that the clouds were higher than yesterday. We could see much more of the enormous valley stretching to the north, and the huge mountains to the south. We could also see across the valley to the ridge on the west and our route which we had climbed yesterday. The value of our decision to turn around now became apparent. Everything above 8,000 feet was plastered with white. It was an awesome sight. If we had stayed up there on that high exposed ridge, we would have had to camp right in the snow, and the wind would have been a much greater factor. We were sure glad that we had come down when we did. I may be considered a risk-taker, but I like living also. We were not unhappy at all that we didn't make the 27 mile circuit. We will chalk this one up to experience, and plan for another time to loop the loop.
It snowed on us all the way back to the car, although not as heavily as it had yesterday. It took us about 5 hours to make it back to the Windy Saddle trailhead, retracing our route we had taken. The wind was blowing the snow sideways as we reached the car. It was if we had never started on our hike....a rerun of yesterday. By the way, Glen wants a pack like mine now.

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