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trip report! part five: permafrost is way uncool

December 15, 2009

Damn, I’d really better hurry up and post the rest of our epic tale…in five days, I’m leaving for yet further travels, and will have another trip report to post.  Won’t be as long, I imagine, because (hopefully) not as much will happen.  I like some vacations to be pleasant and uneventful.

At last update, we were just about to set out on the trail after our first night camping.  The real trail, that is.

But first, some of us had to tape up our feet, as river-crossing sandals aren't the best support for the second-worst feet my old PT guy had ever seen.

What ensued was a very pleasant hike, in near-sixty degree weather, under perfectly clear skies.  The Gila West Fork canyon narrowed in around us within a mile or so, making the scenery most excellent.

Cool rocks on the canyon walls above us.

We were quite impressed at the time, especially with the spires at our trail intersection, where we left the West Fork and headed up the Big Bear trail to cross between the West and Middle Forks.  We didn’t know what lay ahead in terms of scenery, though.  Things got much, much prettier in another day or so.

That said, there ain't nothin' ugly about these spires.

Our progress on the Big Bear trail was almost entirely uneventful.  It’s a long, hard climb out of the canyon, and it got pretty hot and uncomfortable at times.  What made it interesting, however, was the constantly changing scenery, and the changes in plant life that accompanied it.  Climbing up the south-facing ridge, we could definitely tell that we were in the desert southwest.  Lots of scrubby trees, cacti, and things generally of that nature.

A look back at the West Fork Canyon, from whence we came. The requisite cactus is in the foreground, if you look closely.

Getting a break (and some water) on the climb under pretty much the least scrubby tree around at that point. We're hoping to make the Meadows by nightfall.

After we topped out on our ascent, however, we entered a beautiful open ponderosa savanna.  It looked like there’d been a fire within the last several years, as there was some cool scarring on the trees, and not much in the way of underbrush.  As the partner is an ecologist, we talked a lot about climax communities through this portion of the hike.

A different world than we had hiked through earlier in the day. And the river-crossing shoes are off! Hooray!

This savanna continued for a few miles, and we dawdled a good bit, since it was so pleasant.

He looks goofy as hell in those shades.

The mutt enjoyed it quite a bit, since it was open enough to safely let her run wild for a bit, and the partner ecologist was enjoying the cool trees.

Cool tree.

But, all good things must come to an end, and we soon realized it was getting dark.  Dark is not cool when your partner forgot his headlamp in the car.  Three LEDs between two people = broken ankles.  So, we made haste to the rim of the Middle Fork Canyon, which turned out to be gorgeous.

Yes, gorgeous. Picture is crooked, alas, due to the necessary use (because of low light) of a "rock tripod" to stabilize the camera.

Partner and mutt overlook the awesome.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to snap more than these two pictures, and even that got me fussed at a bit.  The descent into the canyon — yes, the canyon we’re looking down on there, way way down — happens over only a mile, and had to be done in great haste.  Harrowing?  Yes.  Especially for someone as clumsy as me.  Even the mutt was worried I was going to trip and go hurtling down onto the canyon floor.

Even we get lucky sometimes, though, and the descent went as well as we could have hoped under the circumstances.  No injuries, just aching feet on my part (which is really just a part of hiking now, as busted as they are).  We made it down to the canyon floor, and as soon as the trail flattened out, we ran into a campsite.  At the time, it looked like a great campsite.  Nice fire pit setup, sheltered, everything you might want…we thought.

As darkness fell for real, we pitched camp and started fixing dinner in a hurry.  It got mightily cold mightily fast, and this time, the miscreant mutt couldn’t handle it as well — she starts going crazy hyperactive when she’s cold, which is extremely unhelpful when you need to get things done with one flashlight between the two of you.  We discovered a solution.

The mutt did not think highly of our solution. She refuses to look at me so I can snap this picture.

Another amusing save-me-from-the-cold moment happened upon arrival, when the partner started donning extra layers.  I, on the other hand, had to remove my sweaty layers before I could put on more (safer that way in terms of body heat), but hurried to get my hat and warm socks on.  This led to a ridiculous moment where I stood naked save for my wool socks and hat, hunting for the rest of my dry clothes in my bag.  No, there is no photographic evidence.  Pervert.

Anyhow, by the time we reached The Point of No Return in terms of campsite setup, the partner made an unfortunate discovery.  Exceedingly unfortunate, one might say.

We had pitched camp on soil that was frozen at least six inches down.

Now, after titling this installment “permafrost is way uncool,” I did a little wikipedia check, and to qualify as permafrost, something has to be frozen for at least two years continuously, and so this soil was unlikely to qualify, properly speaking.  I don’t care.  Permafrost is the best way to describe it.  Solid as a rock.  Bent the tent spikes hammering them in.  Can’t dig holes for, well, necessities.

Not to mention, it takes “mightily” cold directly into “dear Jesus I want to cry” cold, not even bothering to pause at “ungodly” cold or “holy shit” cold along the way.

But, hey.  We had passed the Point of No Return.  Not a whole lot we can do, except gulp down our lentil chili and get inside that tent as fast as possible.  So that’s what we did.

I don't know why I'm smiling. I'm huddled that way to stay warm while taking my foot tape off.

The dog was glad to be wrapped up in a fleecy burrito.

That was one damn cold night.  I have never been more grateful to have a zero-degree bag, as it was probably completely necessary.  I was, however, sad that I had not packed my thicker thermarest, because I could feel the very cold ground through the one I had.

In the morning, we “woke up” (right, like we slept all that well freezing our asses off) and basically, got the hell out as soon as we could.

That, turns out, is an interesting story in itself.

Continue to trip report!  part six: frozen rivers and thanksgiving stew

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