Saturday, October 1, 2016

Hiking the John Muir Trail - 2016

Ritter (left) and Banner (right) Peaks - Mammoth Lakes Area

“I am losing precious days.
I am degenerating into a machine for making money.
I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men.
I must break away and get out into the mountains
to learn the news.”    – John Muir

Hiking the John Muir Trail - 2016

Full picture album is posted on my Flikr page:
Background – The John Muir Trail
John Muir is widely considered the father of the National Parks System. His early work to protect wild lands was fundamental to the creation of the public green spaces we now know and love. No area was more impacted by his work than the Sierra mountain range in California. It is through this “range of light” that a trail has been established in his name. The 220 mile track extends from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney traveling through no less than five jurisdictions. The JMT is America’s most popular hiking trail and has a place on every long-distance hiker’s bucket list. 

Genesis – Opportunity Knocks
I had been hoping to attempt a solo hike on the JMT in 2017 so I had been planning, prepping gear lists and reading about the trail all spring and summer of 2016. I also knew my friend Michal K. had secured a permit for September 2016 and we traded emails about the hike regularly. I got an email from Michal about 3 weeks before his trip saying his hiking partner couldn’t make the trip and could I swing the trip on such short notice. The conversation with my wife ended with her saying “I don’t know how you can say no.” Thanks honey!

Everything on Your Back – Gear and Food I Carried
The original plan called for no re-supply along the route, meaning we would be carrying all of our food for our trip from the start. My gear list is at the end of the post for those that are interested. Pretty simple: about 16 pounds of base weight (that’s stuff you carry all the way like the tent, clothes, hygiene stuff, stove, etc.) and 19 pounds of consumables (food and fuel). Including water, my pack weighed around 35 pounds at its heaviest and got about 2 lbs. lighter each day as I ate my way through the food bag. I often describe hiking and any ultra-distance human-powered travel as “a roving eating contest.”

Trip Log – Thoughts and Recollections

Day 0 – Getting to the Trail Head
Michal and I decided that this was the hardest day of the trip. During the hiking season, there are lots of mass transit options, but we were hiking in the shoulder season (the time right before or after the peak season) so transit options were limited. Ultimately our plan was this:
         a. Fly into LAX in the evening and drive TWO rental cars to Lone Pine, CA.
         b. Leave car 1 in Lone Pine and drive car 2 to Yosemite Valley about 4 hours.
         c. Drop Michal off in Yosemite Valley to secure our permit while I drove car 2 to Merced Airport.
         d. Take the mass transit YARTS bus from Merced back to Yosemite where Michal was camped.
The end result of this plan was 600 miles and 11 hours of driving in less than 24 hours. The good news is we were driving through the beautiful landscape of the eastern Sierra.

Yosemite Valley From Tioga Road

El Capitan from the Valley Floor
 Day 1 – Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows – 33 miles; +14,500/-6,500 vertical feet
Once we were on the trail the stress of getting to the trail head melted away. Michal had secured a permit to summit Half-Dome so Day 1 include a few bonus miles. On the hike up Happy Isles we met a guy coming down and inquired if he had summited Half-Dome. He replied that he had, in fact he had spent 9 DAYS climbing the front face! After we parted ways, Michal and I joked that he was probably a famous climber putting up a new route and we should have had him sign something.
Half Dome Viewed From Happy Isles Trail

At the turn off to Half-Dome we had to check-in with a NPS ranger. She asked us a few questions and immediately informed us “that we were 100% in violation of our permit.” We, of course, knew that we were o.k. but she wasn’t convinced. Apparently we had confused her. We described our itinerary and told her we had cleared this with the ranger in Yosemite valley when we secured the permit, to which she replied “That’s great, but I’M the ranger now.” After a tense 15 minute conversation, she completely reverses her initial ruling and decides we are, in fact, legal and within out permit limitations. She sends us on our way with a shot of adrenaline coursing through our veins, but no worse off. The crisis averted, we hiked up and discussed the incident. We decided that the Yosemite rangers probably see every kind of unprepared hiker on a daily basis so perhaps “guilty-until-proven-innocent” as a default policy may not be unreasonable. The whole impasse stemmed for her disbelief that we could hike 30 miles in a day.
Half Dome the approach trail (the faint line up the middle are the cables)
The last 1,000 feet of Half-Dome is legendary: cables are strung up the final approach and hikers pull themselves up hand-over-hand to the summit. I have to admit I felt quite intimidated standing at the foot of the last pitch. I arrived a minute before Michal and I looked back at him at the foot of the climb. He gave me a thumbs up which I took to mean, “go now before we talk about it and both loose our nerve” so up I went. The face of the rock has been polished smooth by the feet of all the hikers who’ve gone before us. I was quite surprised by how much upper body effort was required to make forward progress. By the time I got to the top my forearms where pumped and cramping. 
Viewed from just below the cables
Coming down the approach trail Michal and I bumped into the ranger who had hassled us at the trail head. She stopped us and asked if we were the hikers who's permit she had questioned. We replied that we were. She admitted that she had misjudged us and clearly we could hike the itinerary we proposed. The whole episode made for good laughs for the rest of the hike.  
The valley viewed from Half Dome summit

Day 2 – Tuolumne Meadows to Island Pass – 19 miles; +3,295/-1,691 vertical feet
We got a late start on our second day due to post office not opening until 10 a.m. The good news is we got to have hot breakfast at the Tulolumne Meadows grill. The first day took us up the Lyell Creek valley and over Donahue Pass. I was surprised by how difficult Donahue proved to be. This was our first trip into the alpine zone and at 11,000 feet I probably should have expected it. In the evening we crossed over Island pass and camped at a pair of lakes just south of pass.
Alpenglow on mountains east of Island Pass - Mammoth Lakes area

Day 3 – Island Pass to Deer Creek – 26 miles; +4,023/-5,143 vertical feet
Day 3 took us through the lake region near Mammoth. This area was crawling with hikers and we shared trail with a lot of folks. This area is very accessible from paved roads and with its stunning beauty its easy to see why its teaming with people.

Thousand Island Lake with Banner peak in background
Garnet Lake
This is the day we met a hiker we dubbed “huge pack girl.” She was carrying a 60+ pound pack and carrying enough food for a 30 day hike! Due to her pack weight, she was limited to about 6 miles per day. But man did she have a good spirit! And one heck of a strong spirit and a strong body despite her slight frame. Very impressive!!!
It was about this time that I realized I had made a pretty big error in my planning. Hikers and climbers have a saying: “you pack your fears.” Meaning the stuff that goes in your pack reflects the risks you think you may encounter. And the stuff you pack TOO much of reflects what you are afraid of. I have to admit that during the prep period before the trip I was most concerned about being hungry on the trail. This is the longest trip I’ve ever been on without re-supply. We would carry all our food from the first day. By the third day it was apparent I had packed TOO MUCH FOOD.

Day 4 – Deer Creek to Bear Creek Trail - 31 miles; +6,480/-6,496 vertical feet
On our fourth day we finally found our trail groove. We established a routine that we would use the rest of hike: break camp early and be on the trail by 6:30 a.m, hike 6 miles before breakfast, stop for lunch around 1 p.m.,  and then hike until around sunset.  That morning at our breakfast stop we bumped into a trio of hikers doing a section of the JMT NOBO (hiker speak for north bound). They complimented our efficiency at whipping up breakfast. One person in their group lamented that he had broken his Kindle on the first day and other two in the group mentioned how grumpy he had been without reading material. We parted ways, but not before Michal traded the first half of book he was carrying for an extra summer sausage the other group was carrying! I’m always amazed at the generosity of the trail.
Marie Lake from Seldon Pass approach trail
Day 5 – Bear Creek Trail to Evolution Lake - 28 miles; +4,910/-4,117 vertical feet
On Day 5 we passed into what I considered to be the most breathtaking section of the trail. We descended into the San Juaquin River valley. This brought us into Kings Canyon National Park. The trail following the river offered incredible views of aspen in fall yellow and tall stands of lodgepole pine. The walls of the canyon towered overhead and I felt quite small and insignificant in their shadow. Reaching Evolution creek, we continued up the Evolution valley. Yosemite Valley gets all the attention in the Sierra but Kings Canyon is 100 times more spectacular . It's only unknown because you can’t drive a car to this spot and, therefore 99% of the populous never sets eyes on it.

Heart Lake looking from Seldon Pass

Sequoia on the slopes above San Juaquin River 
About a mile from where we intended to camp for the night we met a trio of hikers who were spending a month hiking the JMT. We chatted with them for a few minutes when I asked, “are you guys interested in come Kind bars?” I had been building up a stock of uneaten food each day and I was desperate to dump some of what I was carrying. They said they were and I spilled out about a pound of bars on a rock. In about 30 seconds all of the bars were gone. The trail had generously reduced my pack weight.

Sallie Keys Lake

Day 6 – Evolution Lake to Palisade Lakes - 28 miles; +5,388/-4,853 vertical feet
If the hike up Evolution Valley was the most spectacular day of the trip, the hike over Muir pass was a very close second. Day 6 dawned bright and we got an early start taking in sunrise views of The Hermit and Evolution Lakes on our way up to Muir Pass and the John Muir hut. The night before we had camped a thousand feet below our originally planned stopping point because of threatening weather we had seen from the valley below. Now on our approach to the pass, we meet a couple of hikers coming down from the pass. They looked a bit beaten down and worse for wear. They recounted their story from the afternoon before getting pinned down in hail and snow storm and spending a night in the Muir hut. We departed feeling glad we didn't press on to the basin the night before.

Wanda Lake in Evolution Basin

The Muir hut was exactly what I had visualized when I read the descriptions: a homely little hut in a stark landscape. Built in 1931 by the Sierra Club, the hut looks like something out of a Tolkien novel. We snapped a few pictures and proceeded down the very technical decent into Kings Canyon.
John Muir Hut on Muir Pass
Helen Lake south of Muir Pass
Michal on Helen Lake
The afternoon of Day 6 was the first time we experienced any bad weather. A cold steady rain started to fall as we climbed Palisade Creek Valley toward the Golden Staircase which leads to Palisade Lakes. We stopped below the steps to evaluate our options. We really wanted to get up the steps before camping to cut a 3,000’ climb in half. We decided to cook dinner and wait and see. That night we pitched the tent in a strong wind and added some additional guy-lines to prepare for an exposed and windy night. Just as we climbed into the tent the wind picked up and sleet and freezing rain started in. The tent was buffeted for hours and sleep came in fits and starts. It would be our longest night on the trail.
Bundled up on Mather Pass
Day 7 – Palisade Lake to Taboose Creek campground - 26 miles; +3,303/-9,991 vertical feet
Morning dawned bitterly cold with fast moving clouds giving way to bright sunshine in the south, our direction of travel. We broke camp as fast as we could and proceeded up the last 1,200 feet of the climb to Mather Pass. It was cold. I wore all but one layer of clothing from my pack. With the clothing and the body heat generated from climbing, my body was warm, though my hands were very cold. I wore my dirty hiking socks on my hands to shield my skin from the bitterly cold wind. As we neared Mather pass, I reached back for my water bottle and noticed something odd. The combined cold temperatures and wind chill was enough to partially freeze the water in bottle.
Looking toward Pinchot Pass
We hiked in the shadow of the mountain and as we made the pass we emerged into the sunshine. The cold wind was still gusting, but the warm sun felt great. We dropped into the valley and stopped for breakfast and to gather more water.

Trail to Taboose Pass looking north
View from Taboose Pass looking west
At breakfast, we discussed the progress of our trip thus far.  Looking at the map we had a fairly easy 10 mile hike to the parking lot from the Taboose pass trail and another few miles on a dirt road would get us to a camp ground and access to a shuttle to our car in Lone Pine. We were at a point where we had to decide how our trip would end. Continuing on would take us a bit deeper into wilderness which would pressure us greatly to get off trail in time to catch our flight home. We hadn’t had any contact with our families since we stepped on the trail. Michal carried a SPOT satellite locator and we had transmitted our position and status several times each day. They knew we were o.k. and moving well. However, we didn’t know how we would deal with the fallout of a missed flight. We agreed that we had experienced what we came to do. We could have pushed on to try to make the terminus, but in the end we wisely decided to take the exit trail and save the last 50 miles of the JMT for another day. The trail will be waiting for us.

Trail from Taboose Pass to the desert floor descends 6000' in 7 miles 
We made it to the car-camp ground around sunset. We chatted with some guys who were setting up camp and were planning to enter the John Muir Wilderness the following day via the path we took out. We asked where we paid for camping. They informed us that you pay $15 per car but since we didn’t have a car we were welcome to share their spot. The trail is generous. The wind picked up to a gale as we set up our tent blowing across the desert floor. We felt like we were in a sand blaster. Seeking shelter to light our stove, we retreated to the only available wind break: the latrine. We set up our stove in the privy, with the door propped open to prevent an accidental methane ignition and camped out on the leeward side of the building to eat. A few car campers gave us the stink eye. One fella escorted his wife to use the facilities. He kept a watchful eye on the two obvious deviants. We made a way to our car the next morning and spent the day doing some touristy stuff in Lone Pine and the Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is as different from the High Sierra as any two climates could be. Breezy cool passes and luscious meadows give way to dry hot windless desert. In 48 hours we see the extremes.
The Taboose Creek Campground Diner

All in all this hike was the biggest and best adventure I have ever undertaken. I’m extremely humbled and in awe by the incredible natural asset we hiked through. I’m extremely grateful to my wife for her good spirit and support during the run-up to this adventure. I appreciate the latitude in vacation notification policy afforded by my employer and also their sincere support. Lastly, I’m extraordinarily thankful to Michal for inviting me to share in his trip and for sharing the trail with me. It was one heck of an adventure and I’m looking forward to the next adventure we share.

We live in interesting times. It’s not hard to look around and see a lot of ugliness. There is ugliness in the way we treat one another. Ugliness in how we speak about others. Ugliness in the way we use and abuse the great inheritance we steward in the natural world.

But for all the ugliness, we ARE capable of choosing beauty, both in nature and in ourselves, at an individual level. And we have unprecedented access to share, spread and protect that beauty like no other society in history. So I’ll move forward, a little different than I was before this experience and I will try to choose beauty more often than I did before.

“Everybody needs beauty…places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.” – John Muir

My 2016 JMT Hike Gear List:
Sleeping/Shelter: 20deg down bag
(5.6 lbs)Half of Northface 2 person tent
Big Agnes torso length inflatable mat + 1/4” yoga mat
Clothing (worn/carried):1 pair running shorts, 1 pair hiking pants, 1 pair compression shorts
(2 lbs/2 lbs)1 Long sleeve shirt, 1 Short sleeve shirt, 1 pair sun sleeves 
Fleece cap, balaclava, visor, bandana, gaiters, eyeglasses, sunglasses
Dryducks rain jacket and rain pants, Altra Olympus trail runners
Packing:ULA Olm 2.0 Backpack, 2 pack liner bags, 1 stuff sack, Garcia Bear Canister
 (5 lbs)
Cooking/Hydration: Aluminum cookpot w/ lid and stuff sack, fuel canister
(1.2 lbs)Cup & spoon, Reused MH envelope (food bowl), 1L bottle, 1L Platypus
Sawyer Squeeze filter + Camelback hose and bite-valve
Essential Gear:Hygiene kit, SA Vitrox knife, first-aid/foot-care/repair kit, compass, map set
(1.5 lbs) Fenix L01 flashlight w/ 1 spare battery, IPhone 5, external battery
Food/Water:Breakfast: Steel cut oats w/ dried cherries and powdered milk
(19 lbs/2 lbs)Lunch: Tortillas, Almond butter or tuna on 2 day rotation, beef jerky
Dinner: Couscous, powdered potatoes or cheesy grits on 3 day rotation
Snacks: Kind bars and homemade trail mix eaten on the move
Other: Sbucks Via instant coffee, cocoa powder, powdered milk, brown sugar

Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 Reverse Ring

Many thanks to my friends Bur and Quatro and there hardy volunteers who came out on Saturday to support us. Special recognition to Triple-Bur who pulled a half-dozen cars out of snow drifts, including me, who couldn't even get out of the Signal Knob parking lot. Good times.
The write up below is longer than I expect. Pictures to follow after I steal some. 
2015 Reverse Ring Report
It’s always nice to see an old friend who doesn’t always get a win at an ultra, step up and take the top spot. Such was the case with the 2015 Reverse Ring.
Race day began cold and crisp with the dashboard stat saying 5 and a promise of some flurries during the day and a possibility of warming temps. After a reluctant start, we found the trail from Signal Knob to Woodstock gap had a few inches of fresh snow but was still runnable. A little group of three, Jim, Heath and I, got together and made good time to Woodstock. There we warmed ourselves by the hearth of the good nature of the hardy volunteers, who served delicious breakfast burritos from the grill faster than the runners could eat them.

The snow started falling mid-morning and this slowed us down a bit going up and over Powells Mountain. The famous Powell’s mountain wind was like a punch in the eye as we came over the ridge. The wind was going to be a feature of the next several hours, though at this point we didn’t know it.

We caught up with Gavin and our little throng dropped into Edinburg together to enjoy some more of that famous VHTRC hospitality. A nice little shelter had been erected by the volunteers with a warming fire close by. We all snuggled under the tarp and poured steaming vittles down our gullets.

Out again we went, Jim Heath and I, now breaking trail in snow that was getting deeper by the minute. Climbing the trail in the wind shadow of Short Mountain, things seemed pretty calm but making the ridge, now alone, the wind showed up again.

The wind swirled and gusted and seemed to come from every direction. The snow kept falling and now began to hide those infamous boulders of Short Mountain so that finding footing was becoming a challenge. By now, the snow was about mid-calf height with drifts about knee deep. The trouble was knowing when you stepped in, which you would find (more on that later).

Despite increasingly difficult conditions, I got over the mountain and into Moreland in a respectable 3 hours and change. Whilst enjoying some hot food and good laughs about the conditions with Bur and Tom, I estimated the time to get to Camp Roosevelt, figured my calorie needs and made the guess that I’d arrive with about an hour to spare on the cutoff.

Pushing off from Milford, I was very optimistic about finishing. It’s hard to believe in retrospect, how much my mindset would change and indeed, how naive I was at that point. The snow continued to fall. From trail to Jawbone gap, I could hear the wind on the ridge above. It sounded like freight train, and as I made the right onto Kerns Mountain, it hit me in the face like sucker punch.

The trip across Kerns took a lot out of me. More than once I stepped into a drift and lost my footing. Falling forward, my hands would catch terra-ferma but not before my arm length ran out. The end result was me in plank position with a clean imprint of my face in the drift in front of me. This made me laugh because there isn’t much else you can do in that situation.

I crossed Crissman Hollow road 2.5hrs after leaving Moreland, which was slower than I had hoped. But now the wheels were about to come off. I half skied-half slid down waterfall with an avalanche of powder preceding me down the slope.

Hiking through the valley, I did an inventory and came to the unfortunate conclusion. My supply of Twinkies and honey buns was going to come up short. In cold temperatures, trudging through deep fresh snow, the last thing you want to do is ration calories. Now things became unpleasant as I doled out my supply of food, bonk-to-bonk.

As I ate the last of my food on Dry Run and continued the climb, I could again hear howl of the wind above. The decent down to Camp Roosevelt was slow. Legs that were both leaden and wobbly enhanced the suffering.

It had taken more than 9 hours to cover the 13 miles to Camp Roosevelt. As I walked up I was greeted by Bur who asked if I was going on. I said I was way over the cut-off to which he replied that he wasn’t enforcing the cut-off. I was depleted and lethargic and generally washed out. I did not have the wherewithal to will my body onward.

I love the MT loop run counter-clockwise direction and while sitting enjoying some soup at Camp Roosie, I told Bur it was apropos that the Reverse Ring should deal me my first DNF. It is my favorite stretch of trail. But this year, with the help of the weather, my love refused to allow me to close the deal. It’s ironic how much being denied enhances desire.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

C&O Trail to GAP Trail Bike Ride

We’re really blessed here in Western PA to have a lot of outdoor assets right in our backyard. The county parks system, the Laurel Highlands and numerous state parks are right out our backdoor. Pittsburgh also hosts the western terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) which extends to Cumberland where it meets the C&O Canal Tow Path.  This past summer the final segment of the trail was completed making it possible to ride or hike from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC on a dedicated biking/hiking trail. Seemed like a great time to take advantage of some great fall weather and see the trail.

Getting There
Of course, in a point to point ride one of the big challenges is getting to the remote start or back from the remote finish. This is where mass transit comes in. Conveniently Amtrak runs passenger service from Chicago to Washington with stops along the way, including Pittsburgh. For $59 for a coach seat and a $10 charge to check the bike, it’s a very cost effective option. Packing the bike is easy. The bike boxes provided by Amtrak are huge. I only had to remove my pedals and turn my handlebar to fit in the box. (Note: New bike boxes are $15 unless you are ok with a used box which they will give you for free.)

The trip was set weeks in advance and tickets purchased. No adventure is complete without some wrinkles and a few days before the trip the first adjustment in my plans came into view. The federal government shut-down meant that officially the C&O Trail was closed. However, my understanding was they could not stop people from entering the trail. With tickets purchased and time set aside, I decided to take a chance and go.

Just Left Union Station

Day 1
I arrived at train station at 4:30am and after boxing the bike I was told the train was running about an hour late. Nearly two hours later we were on the train and heading south. This was my first passenger train ride and it was very pleasant; much more pleasant than a trip by plane, however much slower also. By the time I got started in DC it was 4:30pm and about 4 hours later than I had expected . But I was well rested and ready to put in some miles before bedtime.

Getting on the C&O Near Georgetown

Great Falls Area North of Georgetown
After getting a few miles from Georgetown the crowds of walkers and bikers dissipated and the hot day cooled to a pleasant evening. I stopped to refill my bottles and noted that there were no handles on the water pumps at the C&O camping areas, a result of the government shutdown. Also steel straps were installed around the porta-pottie doors to prohibit their use. Given the number of Johns and pumps, I figure the FS personnel put in a couple of hard workdays shuttering the trail.

No NPS Means No Water and No Porta-Potties.
This sign and steel strapping were attached to each latrine.

I rode on into the night stopping at Whites  Ferry for water and dinner and eventually set up camp at Killiansbug Cave camping area with about 80 miles on the odometer. I was treated to a serenade by a couple of owls nearby hooting back and forth to one another.

Day 2
A bright clear morning dawned and fueled by Sheetz’s finest vittles I pedaled north. I was truly surprised by the geology of the area and the dramatic cliffs that flank the northern side of the Potomac. I was also awed by the effort of man to tame the river to make it navigable by canal boat. Huge reservoirs and lock systems were continuously in view and the Paw Paw tunnel was fantastic if not eerie. I hit the 176 mile marker at the 24hour point of the trip, which was my longest effort to on a bike to date.
Concrete Boardwalk North of Williamsport
Lots of Dams and Spillways Along the Potomac

I had first dinner in Cumberland and started the long climb to the Eastern Continental Divide as dusk fell. This section of trail requires a 20 mile uphill effort and crosses the Maryland/Pennsylvania state line in route to the divide. Following the summit a long cruise to Meyersdale lead to second dinner and more night riding and finally camp in Ohiopyle State Park.

Elevation Profile at the Eastern Continental Divide Crossing

Day 3
Again pleasant temperatures, albeit foggy and damp, greeted the morning’s effort and after a nice 25 mile morning warm-up, breakfast was ready at the Connellsville Sheetz. The morning dampness burned off in the late morning sun and a good headwind started up for the 60 mile run into Pittsburgh. I made it to Point State Park around 3:30 for a 47 hour total time to complete the point to point course.
Ohiopyle Station

View from Bridge North of Ohiopyle
Approaching the City
Requisite Bike Lift at Journeys End

Requisite Picture with The Duck
DAY 1 DISTANCE: 80MI (4:30pm start)
DAY 3 DISTANCE: 80MI (3:30pm finish)
TOTAL TIME: 47 hours

Post-Mortem (What I’d do differently)
There isn’t much I’d do differently. Overall my gear choices were solid and appropriate for the conditions. There were two items I’ll add to my gear list the next time I go: a bell and a map case. It’s really hard to say “On your left” over and over in pleasant tone. I tried many variations to make it sing-songy and upbeat but in the end I think a loud ding-a-ding of a bell would be far superior. You don’t need a map to navigate the trail, but some side trails to towns are not well marked or marked at all. So having the reference up all the time would have been helpful. I did miss one crucial water stop and had to go 30 miles with no water. Luckily my blunder happened in the cool of the day so I just got a little depleted.

Full set of pictures from the ride can be seen here:

Gear List

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail Double Crossing - May 2013

Laurel Out and Back Report – May

Trail Overview

The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) located in southwestern Pennsylvania is a 70-mile, point-to-point foot path that connects Ohiopyle at the south terminus to Seward (near Johnstown) at the northern terminus. It is a 100% single-track trail except for a short section of less than a mile that follows a gravel gas line access road.

The trail is a local backpacking favorite with three-sided shelters sites spread out at day-hike distances along the trail and reliable water sources along at known locations. The trail is also the backdrop to the Laurel Highlands Ultra, an annual point-to-point foot-race held each June.

The Challenge

Lacking a race or event on my calendar, I started looking for something to train for this past winter. I’ve found myself gravitating away from “races” recently and toward less formal fun-runs and challenges. After lots of brain storming, I finally settled on an unsupported long-distance foot-travel journey. Several venues were considered, but the eventual best contestant became the LHHT. Several different formats and dates were also tossed around in my mind and for various reasons dismissed until only one option was left standing: a self-sufficient double traverse of the LHHT.


I wasn’t the first person to take on this challenge. The original double direction LHHT traverse was completed by Art Moore on Memorial Day weekend in 1986. Art started and finished in Ohiopyle and his family provided aid at the road crossings and paced him through the night sections to a smoking fast 35:58:30 finish. Art’s monumental accomplishment was chronicled in an article in the September edition of Ultrarunning Magazine that year. I surmise that a thru-hiker or two have done a double traverse in a traditional backpacking format, but I have not found any documented accounts other than Art’s. (If anyone is aware of other successful attempts, please contact me or add a comment to this blog so I can get in touch. I’d like to include other pertinent historic information on this page.)


My approach to the challenge would be quite a bit different than that of Art’s in 1986. My attempt would be an unsupported effort whereas Arts’ was fully-supported effort. These terms have specific meaning in the long-distance foot travel community. (source:


An unsupported effort (sometimes called “alpine style”) calls for carrying all supplies on your person from the start of the event, except for water which may be obtained from native sources along the route. Self-sufficiency requires that the selected gear be adequate for the expected conditions (plus a safety factor). Here’s what I took:
Always Worn
Sleeveless tech shirt
4 Packs of Ramen noodles
Running shorts
MYOG 2.5Apex quilt
6 Packs of Oatmeal
Sleeping pad
4 cups of instant potatoes
Space blanket drop cloth
12 Cliff/Mojo bars
Shoes w/ gaiters
Wool socks (sleeping)
0.5lb Polish beef sticks
Flash 20 Basic Rucksack
2 Large Bagels
Rx glasses
Waterproof Pack Liner
20 Oreos/Sugar Wafers
15 Reece cups/York PPs
Kitchen and Bath
2 Sleeves of Poptarts
Small  Bubble Compass
3 Waterbottles: 2L Capacity
2x 1oz Jiff "Nutella" clone
Cooking kit (including stove)
12oz Crushed Frittos
Sometimes Worn
Hygeine kit
4 Coffee "tea-bags"
Water Treatment Tablets
Stove fuel for hot meals
Rain Jacket
Flashlight w/ spare battery
Med Weight LS Tech Shirt
Backup flashlight
Weight Totals
Balaclava and Watch Cap
Maps w/ notes
Worn: 4 lbs
1 pair Spare Socks
Vitriox knife
Carried: 5 lbs ("Base weight")
Light tech pants
First aid kit/Repair kit
Consumables: 5.5 lbs
Cell phone
Water (full capacity): 4.5 lbs

My gear kit was much more substantial for this effort than I would carry for a traditional ultra-event. The philosophy in an ultra-event is to carry just what is required to cover the distance between the aid stations and nothing more. I often describe the feeling of getting to aid at an ultra as “coasting in on fumes.” But this effort would be different. Instead of just getting by I wanted to take on this challenge with a self-sufficient style. In short, I wanted to thrive not just survive. Hence my gear looks like a “10-Essentials” type list and the items were specifically and deliberately selected to meet all the requirements of a long distance hike.
While this kit would adequate for an overnight trip or hike of up to a week long (with proper adjustments in the consumable category) in the warmer months and milder portions of the shoulder seasons, I wouldn’t consider this a true 3-season list. Notably missing from the list is a true shelter. For my double, I would use shelters located along the trail in the event of severe inclement weather. Otherwise, my sleeping system is designed for dry-weather, rough-camping on the forest duff under the stars.

The Effort

My hike started in Ohiopyle. After a hamburger at the Falls City Pub, I shoved off at 5:40p.m. hoping to get to mile 8 by sun down. On the climb out of OP I noted the flowering trees were in full bloom, but the leaves on the hardwood trees had not yet opened and the looked like little green tubes just poking out of their buds. The first evening’s effort went by very uneventfully. Water is easily located in the southern half of the trail. I carried 2L of water capacity, but due to the relative abundance in the southern section I was able to match the amount I had to carry in my pack to the distance to the next known source. In my research for this trip I located this list from a fall 2012 thru hike on Dane’s place (


At the "Brown Gate" the first time

After the sun when down a crystal clear and cloudless sky coupled with the still leafless trees made for a great star show as I hiked through the night. At about 4:30 a.m. I passed the 35 mile, mid-point and found a good place to bed down for the night just north of the trail mid-point. I found a nice rock to lay beside and spread out my bed roll and put on some warm clothes and sacked out. I woke at 6:00 a.m. as the sun poked up from the horizon still warm in my quilt, but knowing I needed to get moving. A breakfast of hot coffee and cold instant mashed potatoes jump started my engine. I also had a serving of Jiff Silk peanut butter and chocolate spread, which is my new favorite trail food, to eat with a bagel.


Stealth Campsite on the First Night
I made good time through the morning and focused on keeping my head up to see as much as I could. The LHHT has enough rocks and roots that at a jogging pace you have to keep your eyes on the trail, but moving at a steady hiking pace is much easier to keep your eyes on the scenery and the lack of leaves meant that the trail was less of a “green tunnel” than usual. As the day wore on the temps went up and I entered the driest part of the trail. North of route 30 there are no streams that cross the trail and the only water is from hand pumps located at the route 30 shelter area and route 211 parking area. Here I filled up on as much water as I could carry.

I made it to the northern terminus just before 6 p.m. A husband and wife were just packing up to hike out to the Decker Road shelter to spend the night. We chatted for a few minutes and I gave them info on the water situation on the trail. Their packs looked much heavier than mine and I was very happy that I did not have to climb to the ridge with that much gear. Just before sunset I stopped and topped off on calories for the night. Hot ramen noodles, instant spuds and Fritos made up my smorgasbord.

The second night was much harder than the first as I had a major fight with the sleep monster. It started with a groggy head started at about 10:30 p.m. and got progressively worse as the night rolled on. My pace slowed to a glacial trudge by 2 a.m., but I was determined not to stop till 4 a.m. I’d much rather hike in the cool of the night than the heat of the next day. Time seemed to slow down I as walked on through the dark and I deeply wished I had packed a 5-Hour Energy in my food bag. I did get to see two porcupines overnight which cool. I had heard that they are not frightful animals and this turns out to be true. The first one was ambling through some fern shoots. I shined my light on him he looked at me with a “I’m not afraid of you” over his shoulder and then turned and slowly walked off into the night. At 4 a.m. I found a nice place to nap near the Route 30 crossing and woke at 7 a.m feeling much better.

The hike from Route 30 south the next morning went well. With the cobwebs of sleep lifted, I resumed my power hiking pace making it to the well in Seven Springs by about 12:30 p.m. Just a marathon separated me from Ohiopyle and this section is the one I’ve spent the most time on over the years. I know this section of the trail well and it’s one of my favorites with lots of picturesque stream crossings and interesting rock formations that the trail snakes through.

By late afternoon I had only the 8-mile stretch just north of Ohiopyle (I call them the “Gate 2-8”) to go but they are the toughest 8 miles of trail in Western PA. The section features three really tough climbs the toughest of which is about 1,200 ft. My ears usually will pop when I go up or down it. As I was making the first decent I noticed something. The trees looked different than they had two days ago. The leaves that were tightly curled green nubs two days ago had partially unfurled and a tiny leaf was taking shape. The same overlook view that had looked barren two nights ago looked green and lush. It was a drastic change I had not expected. I watched my third sunset from the rock outcropping between mile marker 3 and 2. I checked my watch and noted that with a little hustle I’d make it in under 51 hours.

I strolled past the brown gate at the end of Garrett Street in the waning dusk and down to the Falls City Pub where I stopped. A guy sitting at a table with a beverage told me I looked lost. I told him I was looking for someone to take my picture and he offered to help. It was the perfect end to a great hike. It was not an epic an adventure. It was not dramatic but it was full of drama; a subtle drama that you can only perceive while moving down a trail in the spring at a walking pace.
Back at the Falls City Pub

I’ve posted all the pictures I took from the hike here and with some narrative and captions as appropriate. Enjoy:
I tried to keep this report short and sweet. If I missed a aspect of the trip you're interested in post a comment below or shoot me a message.

EDIT May 7, 2013: I'm adding the table with the numbers from the outing: