Friday, September 01, 2006

The Big Empty

Thursday September 1st, 2006

Did you know that that entire populations of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas could fit in a phone booth? Seriously, these states are simply devoid of humans ... the most numerous occupants are definitely cows or some other hay eating quadraped, judging by the number of haybails scattered across the state. One stray match and we could lose the entire north central US ...

Having said that, there are some great, great reasons to visit these places, and I am not talking about the food (if you like meat, you are in luck, this here is BEEF country) ... These states are among the most picturesque and "american" (meaning amber waves of grain and such) I have seen, plus the people, when you can find them, are incredibly nice.

But our entry into Montana did not fill us with that same lighthearted feeling, because soon after we saw the snow gathering on the US side of the border, we entered Glacier and began listening to the park information on the radio.

"As of this time, there is a Flash Flood warning in effect. This means that a flash flood is immanent or already occurring. Please be advised you may need to evacuate the eastern portion of the park (an area roughly the size of sacramento that was at three to five thousand feet of elevation, in no danger of flooding. Ever.)"

We glibly ignore the warning, pull into the first campsite, and then quickly move on when we are advised that we might be evacuated in the middle of the night. We move in and up, find one of the last campsites and hurredly make camp and eat, afraid of the impending deluge. Cut to morning, no rain has occurred, although it is misting severly, making the ground a tad slippery. Ryan gets a cup of coffee and asks the shop girl about it. She replies that the storm has passed and that, "You never can tell in the mountains."

Glacier is stunning, with foliage up the sides of mountains and down to the ground, encompassing the entire spectrum of green, with plenty of reds, oranges and yellows as well.We pass through the park on the going-to-the-sun road, named for an indian legend about a spirit who came down to earth, created a lake or fought something (I have learned too many indian legendsecently) and climbed up to the sun on a mountain along this road. It is truly one of the most scenic drives on earth. At one viewpoint Jackson glacier spreads out between mountains across the road, and at the start and finish and all along crystal blue glacial lakes spread out beneath you.You pass through numerous types of forest, with a number of viewpoints of glaciers and 9,000 foot peaks, all the while being surrounded by the sound and often the sight of water. There are waterfalls everywhere, to the point that the 50-foot wide fall along the side of the road barely catches my attention. And we are to learn later than this is a dry year.

We make it up to Logan Pass, a visitor center on the continental divide, around 1030, and quickly decide that instead of driving the rest of the road, we are going to hike the continental divide trail down to the loops and shuttle back to the car. Its 11.5 miles, and we optimistically expect to be done in time to catch the 2pm shuttle, with the 525pm shuttle for backup. We get all our gear together and then are unexpectedly delayed as the mens bathroom is shut down because a marmot has gotten into one of the toilets and needs to be rescued (Seriously. The line of men waiting outside and the women laughing and saying, "now you know how we always feel" was almost as priceless as the explanantion for the closure and the sight of the wet marmot being released by the ranger).

The hike turns out to be priceless, one of the top 5 hikes I have ever done, with an almost constant view of the massive, glacier carved valley that follows the continental divide. We hike under a massive granite wall, called the garden wall, for most of the hike, constantly given gorgeous views of the valley, the lakes, the green forest and everywhere, waterfalls. Some of the trail moved along terrain that was shear, with hundreds of feet straight down, while other parts moved along woodlands or meadows. Fantastic flowers, fields full of red, yellow and purple spread up and down the sides of mountains. There was plenty of wildlife also, lots of marmots and squirrels, including an exceptionally large marmot (maybe 20 pounds) that was sitting in the middle of the trail chewing on a rock. I take one picture near it, holding my fingers near my face like the wizard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (big, nasty teeth) and then realize it is not afraid of me,become afraid of it and back away. Drawing on our less that extensive knowledge of mammals, and the large claws and teeth and the lack of fear, Ryan and I proclaim it to be a wolverine.We stomp on the ground and scare it away. We also terrify several New Yorkers about 1/3 of a mile down the trail, when we tell them there is a wolverine in the way (latter that day, after the hike, the ranger looks at my pictures and tells me a) it is simply a huge, fat marmot getting ready to hibernate, b) if I had gotten that close to a wolverine I would be dead and c) asks me why exactly I am holding my finger close to my mouth like upside down rabbit ears).

As incredible as the hike was, it had its downsides, the main one being Ryan spraining his ankle about 1/2 a mile in and hiking on it anyway. He then aggravated it when we foolishly decide to take a short spur up to the Grinnell glacier overlook. Although it was only 0.6 miles and the little lying boy coming down said it was just up right around the corner, it was a brutal climb, going up about 600 feet, and while the views of Lake McDonald and the glacier (which was awesome, not as big as the banff glaciers, but with a glacial pond full of logs and so many different shades of blue water it was like a rainbow in only one color) were great, the climb severly aggravated his ankle so by the time we reach the last 4 miles (the loops, a 4 mile, 1500' downhill) Ryan was just barely gimping along. In fact, the hike was long, and we were afraid we were going to miss the 525pm shuttle, so I ran down the backend of the hike (something that would plague my legs for days afterwards).

We did catch the shuttle, and when we got back to the cars we hooked up with these two girls from Jackson who we had seen hiking several times. We all got to chatting and decided to share a campsite, so we headed out of the park, picked up some Moose Drool (nicely named beer) and a bubble wrap cooler to hold the ice for Ryans ankle, and spent a pleasant evening hanging out with Carey and Shannon, two supercool teachers from Boston and Jackson who had been out hiking around glacier for a couple days. The gave us a lot of great advice about routes and parks and stuff in Wyoming and we just chatted about all sorts of stuff. Always great to meet excellent people.

The next day the girls got up early, we all said goodbye, and Ryan and I drove back into the park, took in more gorgeous views of Lake McDonald and the trail of cedars, then headed out into the wilds of Montana. We stopped at Costco in Kalispell, which Ryan will tell you surprised me because it was so much like Costco in California (don't ask me what I expected to find there) and head off to Missoula.The country side in Montana is almost like a park, huge rolling hills, forests, giant shining blue lakes, and even some bald eagle nests, in one of which we saw an eagle.

Unfortunately for us, the countryside down to Missoula was broken up with the longest stretch of roadwork I have ever encountered, easily 4000 miles. Really, it was long and ridiculous as several times we would finally get back on paved roads, see a sign saying "end of Road Work" and then 20 feet farther see another sign saying, "Road Work next 7 miles." We got through it, got to Missoula for an oil change and cruised down to Bozeman, where we overpaid for a crappy hotel room and ate a satisfying dinner at the Garage. Mmmm, Bison burger. The town, apparently a rocking place when U of Montana is in session, was dead on a Friday night, so after wandering the streets a bit we crashed out and got up early the next morning to head down to Yellowstone.

Now, Yellowstone is huge, about twice as large as Glacier or Banff, but is a very different kind of park, more like a big volcanic amusement park than a nature preserve. Sure, we saw the bison, and man there were lots, 100 or more at one point, including one just meandering downt he road, and we saw a coyote and some mule deer, but most of the park is about the wonders of volcanism. We saw a multitude of geysers,there are more in the Upper Geyser Basin than in the rest of the world combined, including Old Faithful and the Great Fountain geyser, and they were pretty amazing. It is a rare thing to see the earth spray jets of steaming water one hundred feet into the air a dozen times in five minutes, and we got to see the two aforementioned geysers erupt huge, along with a number of other small geysers.

The intense volcanic activity also created a number of mudpots (tiny geysers of bubbling mud that Ryan particularly liked) thermal pools and hot springs (although the pictures of Mammoth Hot Springs you see in the books were taken years ago, now few of the springs are still flowing), which have developed the most amazing colors as the bacteria and minerals associated with thermal vents were deposited along the edges.

One spring, the great prismatic
pool, was particularly striking, as it was
mostly shoruded in sulfuric mist (which
stinks, but since many of the attractions are
covered with it you get used to it) but when
the wind parts the mist you see a 250 foot in
diameter pool shining deep turquoise and
aquamarine in the center, surrounded by
intense reds, oranges and yellows.

Overall, Yellowstone was nice and with the exception of the rude camp hostess Gretchen,
who told us we should be worried about cold and elk-devouring bears close to camp after warning us there were few available campsites (the whole campground was empty), it was a great place to visit. Still, much of the park was dry and somewhat bleak, and I could not help comparing it to Glacier and being a little disappointed, so I was not unhappy to only spend one night there. On the way out we spent half a day taking in Yellowstones wetter areas, seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (why it is THE Yellowstone and not just Yellowstone I don't know) and its fabulous waterfalls (truly impressive, massive, thick white falls cascading 100 and 400 feet down. Basically perfect classic waterfalls)
and Yellowstone Lake, the highest largest lake in the US (not sure what that means either, the descriptive pamphlet for the park was full of fascinating English). Whatever it was, the lake was beautiful and massive, but not too cold as Ryan and I both swam in it comfortably; guess I wanted to swim in the highest largest lake ...

Drying off, we finished lunch and took off for the Grand Tetons, where we were going to meet Neal, who had flown into Jackson to solo climb the Grand Teton. The Grand Tetons are basically connected to Yellowstone, only 8 miles to the south, but are an entirely different type of park. The vegetation is lush and green, with thicker forests and several beautiful lakes in the valley below the peaks. And the Teton range itself is incredible, massive, jagged, snowcapped granite arches soaring as much as 8,000 feet over the valley floor, the whole park is dominated by this tiny range that was formed by a unique fault and was named because it resembled cows tits. Picturesque is a word that might be used to describe the area, but it would not be sufficient ... I would have to go with a revelatory view of natures glory to even come close. Spectacular.

Immediately we were regretful that we did not heed Shannons advice and spend more time in the Tetons, but we sucked it up took a bunch of pictures and went to the ranger station to find out when Neal would be and what we could do in the mean time. It was at this point that we discovered Neal was superhuman, I mean I always suspected, but never knew until this point. Asking a ranger about Neals climb, I had this conversation,

"So my friend left early this morning to climb the Grand Teton and we wanted to meet him at camp this evening. How long does it usually take to climb it?"

"Two to three days."

"But my friend left early this morning, like really early, and I am sure he intended to be back by tonight".

"No it is definitely a multi-day climb. I've done it. I mean we have one or two rangers in the park who could maybe do it in one day, and there was a guy here who used to do it in one day, but he would start at 1 am and he was superhuman. If your friend is trying to do it in one day I would be worried about him, I hope he is still alive."

I have to say, despite her doubts, I was never worried. As it turns out, it took Neal around 13 hours to climbaround 8,000 vertical feet over 16 miles, and during that time he never used the climbing rope he brought, free soloing everything and only taking the rope out once. His comment about the climb, other than that it was awesome, was that he was annoyed at having to say hello to everyone on the mountain, because apparently there were many people roped up climbing up and down and taking 2-3 days to do the climb, and Neal was simply blowing by them.

See, superhuman.

However, for those of you not impressed with this feat, you should know that Neal knew he could do the climb in one day becuase the speed record for the same climb, from base to summit and back, was 3.5 hours. Hmm, maybe Neal is not so super after all ...

Anyway we met Neal at camp around 730, but on the way we stopped in moose flats to check out several moose, incredible animals by the way, simply huge, walk around in the lush, swampy flats, and take in a gorgeous view of Jackson Hole (which turns out to be the name of the valley, not the town) from signal mountain, probably named for the massive cell phone tower on top of it.

The next day, we packed up, organized the car (it was a bit tight squeezing 3 people and all their gear into Matilda) returned Neals car to the airport (which, oddly enough is inside the park - something that sped up our trip but led us to pass up breakfast with Shannon and Carey, which was a bummer) and took a short 5 mile hike around Jenny Lake in the shadow of the Grand Teton. Lots of interesting edible plants showed up, including delicious thimbleberries, which I ate quite a few of. Despite our inablity to find the proper trail, we did manage to get out to hidden falls and back (not quite so hidden, as when we got there there were probably 20 other hikers and a climbing class), and then head out across the vast emptiness of Wyoming to Devils Tower.

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