Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Desert hiking - advanced level

I have hiked in the desert before on the PCT and CDT, but Arizona is special....

First of all the water situation is pretty demanding, despite the fact that due to all the snow there is more water than usual. I had to carry up to 7 liters of waters (read: 7 kg weight!!!) for some stretches. And of course, just before the longest waterless stretch my Platypus bottle broke reducing my water capacity from 7 to 4,5 liters. I hate Platypus bottles - I have already changed about 10 of them because they broke in similarly crucial situations. Luckily The on-trail water can be pretty nasty as well. I had to drink out of cattle troughs before, but these ones here are especially nasty. Not only are there floaties in the water but thousands of dead bees! I don't know why, but there are bees everywhere and apparently they are attracted to water - where they drown!

Second, beside the bees the rattle snakes are a real nuisance here. I have seen more rattle snakes here on the AZT in 2 days than I have seen on the whole PCT! And they really do spook me out. I nearly stepped on a couple of them and one was even nesting right on the trail. I have given up listening to my MP3 player while hiking - too dangerous! I want to hear their rattle so I am warned of their presence. Today one rattle snake startled me so badly that I lost my balance while trying to sidestep it and fell down! I did not feel very comfortable lying on the ground with my backpack on like a turtle on its back within striking distance of a rattle snake...

I have also been attacked by a calf! I was just turning around a switchback when I little calf ran INTO me! It scared the shit out of me and for a second I thought it is a bear. The calf panicked and did not seem to know what to do. It wanted to run away and stay with me.... We were both on a very narrow trail and instead of staying behind me it ran after me passing me on the trail trying to get away from me. It was heart breaking to see its efforts when it fell into the the thorn bushes, but I really did not know what to do.... I quickly hiked on to get away from it and nearly stepped onto another rattle snake... Life is dangerous here.

With all the snow here the desert is still in full bloom. There are flowers everywhere - a truly amazing sight. Everything is green and looks like a English country lawn - but only from a distance. As soon as you try to pitch your tent you realise that the ground is rock hard. I am having a hard time getting any tent stakes in. And this ground is not very comfortable to sleep on - hard, lots of little pebbles and prickly things everywhere. I check the ground very carefully every evening before I lie down on my therm-a-rest and so far  - knock on wood - no hole in my sleeping pad.

Mt. Lemmon or the last snow

After my wonderful stay in Tucson with trail angels Dale and Gloria (and their 4 dogs) it was time to tackle the last snow of the trail around Mt. Lemmon. Mt. Lemmon is actually a ski area and there was supposed to be a lot of snow left there. Luckily I had a look at my maps before I left and realised that the actual AZT route over the top of Mt. Lemmon is not recommended anymore due to a devastating forest fire and the damage it has done to the trail. I thought that the snow could not be that bad then... but I was wrong again.

Snow melt
The hike up Mt. Lemmon took forever. The scenery was incredible beautiful and a lot of water, but it took forever. It took that long that I realised I would not make it to my planned camping spot - I decided to camp on the next pass instead. I arrived at the pass at 6 pm only to realise that it was totally exposed. Not that there was a thunderstorm to be expected, but I wanted to be cautious.... My guidebook said that there was a rocky, steep climb ahead that will SOON peak out at a stand of ponderosa pine. That sounded like a wonderful camping spot - ponderosa pine. SOON could not be very long - maybe another 15 minute hike? I ended up hiking another hour doing almost 1,000 ft elevation gain on a climb from hell when I realised that SOON is a relative word. No stand of ponderosa pine in sight and the daylight already fading... but then I found a little flat spot - totally exposed of course but by now I was too tired to care and just pitched my tent. Luckily no wind or storm that night...

Wilderness of Rocks
Early next morning I hit the snow at 7,000 ft - and stayed in it for almost the rest of the day. I was hiking the "Wilderness of Rocks" Trail, the officially recommended detour due to the forest fire. Well, if this trail is recommended because the other one is so bad, I don't want to see the other one. My Wilderness of Rocks trail turned out to be real wilderness (read: no trail built and no trail blazes - you just have to guess where the trail might go.... that is what female intuition is for!). Things got really bad when this trail started climbing and I really hit the snow. I was alternating between knee deep snow, huge blowdowns and a lot of trail guessing. I scratched up my legs pretty badly, ended up with a very wet butt due to unintended glissading and wondered what the Forest Service people are doing the whole day long with American tax money. Apparently they don't do any trail maintenance. But I made it through and will longingly think back of all that snow when I'll hike in the desert.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

AZT: Negative surprise or Saguaro NP

In Saguaro NP there is a bit of trail that is not finished yet. John - the Gentleman hiker - claimed that is has been flagged, but I decided to avoid it anyways. My maps showed a dirt road around it: X9 Ranch Road. After the Florida Trail I love road walks and therefore I decided to hike that ;-)
I made it 1 mile along X9 Ranch Road when I came to a gate house. Law-abiding model hiker that I am (or being made after my FT experiences with prescribed burns and military bases) I stopped and tried to find the gate keeper. Bad idea! The gate keeper turned out to be a not too smart, minimum wage guy afraid to loose his job - and that means that he would not let me through. Private road, private property, no one to ask for permission and no clue about alternatives. Great! This is when I should have left and sneaked around the gate house to continue hiking on that road.

Instead I decided to hike back and try the flagged unfinished AZT trail. Bad idea! The AZT trail petered out, the flagging led to nowhere and I ended up bushwhacking in cactus land for 2 hours in midday heat without finding any trail, flagging or whatsoever. Luckily I had a GPS, so I did not get lost, but I was definitely running out of ideas - and time!!! I made a last bushbash back to the private property, climbed a lot of fences and finally cut through to the famous X9 Ranch road, 1,5 miles past the infamous gate house with the gate keeper. I realise that the guy had just been doing his job, but at that point I was cursing him. What should have been an easy hiking day turned into a bushwhack from hell. Even on the famous X9 Ranch Road I felt horribly and was wondering when I would be caught trespassing by a rancher with a shotgun.

I did not get caught and in fact I did not see any cars on the road, but I was very relieved to make it inside the National Park - 4 hours later than expected.... And then I still had to do a 3,000 ft eleveation gain.... I arrived at the designated camp site just minutes before sunset. Very exhausted and with a lot of foot pain.

Next day should get me over Mica Mountain - another 3,000 ft elevation gain and an unknown amount of snow. I set out early in the morning and hit the snow pretty snow. First things were not too bad. The snow was only knee deep, but soft. It took me a long time, but it was not dangerous. Things got worse when I made it over the top of the mountain and had to descend on the North side (read North = no sun = more snow). And after a forest fire the North Slope was totally exposed. I had to traverse an incredible steep slope in knee deep snow. I don't think I have been in any real danger, but I thought it was better not to look down...After 15 minutes (that seemed to last much longer) the traverse was over and I was out of the snow. And no more negative surprises..... Dale and Gloria picked me up and took me to Tucson (and a shower, laundry, food and a bed).

But talking about bad surprises: All of a sudden I am having foot problems again. Apparently it is so dry here that my feet are chafing. I have raw spots on the soles of my feet and some days I was in so much pain I was limping. In order to remove the problem I took out my insoles to avoid rubbing. It resolved the problem at the soles of my feet, but now I have raw spots on my heel. I hope that my rest day here in Tucson will be enough that everything heals.

Also my clothes are taking a turn to the worse. It is so hot here (in comparison with Florida) and I am sweating so badly that my shirt has a white crust of dried sweat on it every night. My shorts stand up on their own - so dirty are they. My socks are smelling of a mixture of sweat and chemicals (my shoes are new....) - the stink is so bad that I cannot stand having them in my tent at night.

AZT: Positive surprise 2

Kentucky Camp
The AZT passes through a place called Kentucky Camp. This camp had been the headquarter of a mining operation in 1904 and was now being restored as a historical monument. You can even rent a cabin there. I had read about this place in other trail journals and wanted to stay there - especially since this was the last water source for 21 miles. I arrived at Kentucky camp at 6 pm being really curious. I found the rental cabin, the main building, the water tap and the caretaker's RV - but no caretaker!

I started to wonder where I would stay. I could of course camp (it had been freezing the night before) or stay on the porch of the cabin. But inside the main building which was open for visitors I found a very inviting folding couch....There was even electricity and a reading light there. But where was the caretaker? I really did not dare to bed down and run the risk of being thrown out later, especially since the cabin was for rent for 75 $ per night. I decided to have dinner first and wait till it got dark...

Just when the sun went down the caretaker showed up. "There goes my sleeping couch", I thought, but still went to introduce myself to the caretaker. I politely asked him where he wanted me to put up my tent. He did not want me to camp ("I don't want this place to look like a campground"),  he did not want me to sleep on the porch ("People might see you"), but he said: "Well, there is this very comfortable sleeping couch you could use....". I could not believe my luck! He even offered me to use the microwave for breakfast in the morning. I spent a night in luxury and for free: Sleeping in a bed, a bathroom, running water and even a reading light! I was a happy hiker!

AZT: Positive surprise 1

John, the Gentleman hiker
When I was about to leave the Patagonia library where I had written my last post I was stopped by a lady asking me whether I was hiking the AZT. We started talking (although I was really hungry) and it turned out that she was camped out on the trail and doing little day hikes to get in shape for an AZT thruhike. I asked her about other hikers and she told me that she had only seen one other - a Gentleman hiker. She called him that way because he was supported by friends who waited for him at every trail crossing and cooked him meals every night. And I was soon to meet all of them.... but at that time I left the library and went to buy lunch myself.

Trail angels Dale and Gloria
2 days later I saw a man in a jeep coming down an incredibly rocky jeep road. He just said "Only 750 miles to go" and drove by. First I admired his driving skills and second I wondered how he knew about the AZT! 2 days later I would meet him again and when he stopped the mystery was solved. Dale (and his wife Gloria) where the people supporting John Officer, the Gentleman hiker who was always a couple of miles ahead of me. I had been following his foot prints since the Mexican border. Dale cached water for me and when I met him and his wife again the next morning they invited me back to their house in Tucson (where I am staying right now). And I still had not even met the famous Gentleman hiker himself! But even that was to come that day - I eventually caught up with John 6 hours later. And I am proud to say that I gave him his new trail name: Gentleman hiker!

John got off the trail for the weekend whereas I hiked on and was picked up by Dale and Gloria at Redington Road, a dirt road no German driver would want to go on. They drove me around Tucson today so I could do all my errands and I would even meet John again - just in time to give him some advice on the trail situation ahead (see next entry for that). So life is very good in Tucson!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

AZT: The start

Border monument
All my logistics worked out fine in the end. Garlic drove me to Phoenix airport where I had to say good bye to him and his cute dog Daisy. (If I ever have a real dog myself, it will be one like Daisy...). I took a shuttle bus to Tucson (yes, there is some sort of public transportation here in AZ) where I was picked up by John, an AZT member.  John gave me a lot of info on the AZT and brought me all the way to the border.

The closer we got, the more worried I got. I could see that the mountains were really still covered in snow. And John told me that just recently a rancher in this area had been killed by illegal immigrants.  All great news for the start of a new trail at the Mexican border....

We had a great lunch at a Chinese AYCE in Sierra Vista, but at that point it felt more like my last meal before execution... Things got even worse when we stopped at the local visitor centre and the ranger told me that I was not even allowed to camp at the picnic area at Montezuma Pass. Only law enforcement was allowed inside the park after dark. He told me to hike on another 2 miles (and 600 ft elevation gain) to the first 'legal' camp site outside the park. And seeing tons of border patrol on our way to Montezuma pass did not improve my mood either.

John dropped me off at 3 pm and then I was on my own... I hiked the 2 miles to the border and back. Then I had only 1 hour of daylight left and did not want to hike another 2 miles at all. I spotted a border patrol guy at Montezuma pass picnic area and decided to play stupid female German Tourist. It worked! Although the officer mentioned that the the park would be closed he did not have any problem with me staying there over night! In fact, he told me that there would be border patrol there 24/7 and I would be very safe. Happily I pitched my tent there - but did not get much sleep that night. Border patrol kept coming and going and I was very worried about the snow situation.

I got up early next morning and ran into another border patrol guy who gave me the thumps up for my hike. He had done it 2 days ago (for work!) and said the snow would not be much of an issue. And he was right!!! I had a lot of problems with the elevation (no wonder after 3 months at sea level) and it took me forever to get up that mountain, but the snow was not bad. The illegals had beaten a path through it, the snow was very compact and I rarely sunk in. I only made 12 miles that day, but I slept wonderfully that night - and no illegals whatsoever....

Snow melt stream
I have been hiking 3 days now and I am still adjusting - that means I am hiking less than 20 miles per day. The heat and the elevation gain are getting to me. Plus I hurt the bottom of my foot while swimming in an ice cold cattle tank and now every steps hurts. I also seem to have a zipper issue: Both the zippers on my tent and sleeping bag broke and I am trying to find out how to repair that. (Luckily I have some experience in that field from John's tent...)

But I love the AZT: Wonderful scenery, great trail and due to all that snow there is water everywhere (well, everywhere here means according to AZ standards...)

I am in Patagonia right now and already had breakfast. Now I will go for lunch. And I have already done my resupply and a real crappy expensive small town store. Lots of Top Ramen noodle soup for the next days...

Culture Shock

I have hiked the first 53 miles of the AZT now and suffer from severe culture shock!

First of all: There are mountains here - real mountains! The first day took me up to 9,000 ft (almost 3.000 m). I thought I was in good shape, but an elevation gain of 3,000 ft (1.000 m) on my first day was a bit much...

Second, there is no water here! Ok, I had to hike through snow, but it is dry, very dry and no humidity. My nose is very dry and congested, I symptom I know from other dry high-altitude hikes. The dryness even seems to change the perspective: Everything seems to be so close...

Third, I am hiking on real trail here! No wading, no boardwalks, no road walks: Single-file trail!!!! I was almost happy to hike 3 miles on a road into my first trail town, Patagonia....

Friday, 2 April 2010

Arizona Trail -here I come!

Arizona desert
I flew from Pensacola to Phoenix and of course my flight was delayed 1,5 hours. I missed my connection and arrived in Phoenix 3 hours late, but at least together with my luggage.

In Phoenix I am staying with two PCT hiking friends: Garlic and Greasepot. Last time I had met Garlic was on the AT in 2008 - this is a very small hiking world. Garlic has already hiked the AZT and could give me a lot of invaluable advice. He even arranged a shuttle for me to the Southern Terminus.

When I arrived at their house, there were already 4 packages waiting for me. Best of all was a huge package from Gingerbreadman, who had already sent me a wonderful resupply package on the AT. He spoilt me with 8 kg of snacks.... I hardly had to buy anything for the start of the AZT and the 2 resupply packages I had to mail ahead from Phoenix.

Bad weather struck again: I had to delay my start day for one day, because of a snow storm at higher altitudes.... Aren't I lucky again? But the weather forecast for the next 10 days is great and hopefully a lot of the snow will have melted by now.

So tomorrow I will start a new episode: The Arizona Trail!!!! Rattlesnakes instead of alligators and postholing through snow instead of swamp wading....

Florida Trail - the trail

What does the trail look like? Well, don't expect well-manicured single-file trail! Here is a selection of photos to show you what to expect: The first two pictures show Big Cypress, where you are wading through knee-deep water. There are poles every mile, but other than that the trail is marked with orange blazes on trees. I found them easy to spot, but people did get lost in Big Cypress - and a huge swamp is about the last place where you want to get lost in...everything looks the same and there is nothing to orientate yourself on.

The third pictures shows the bike path walk around Orlando. The guidebook describes this area as "culturally stimulting for those interested in the construction of high rise aluminium poles...." Unfortunately, the whole area around Orlando is walking on concrete bike paths. On the fourth photo you see a typical flooded forest road, which can be anything from ankle to thigh-deep water.

On this fifth photo you have to look very closely to see the drama in it. Find the orange blaze and see how high above water level it is. It should be on eye level, but this picture was taken in a ravine of the flooded Suwannee River. As you can see from the height of the blaze, the water is about waist deep here. At least you can judge from the blaze what water level to expect before you wade in and get soaking wet..

The sixth picture shows very well how trail looks like after a 6 hour down pour in the swamp... only the orange blaze proves it is trail. And the last picture shows a culturally stimulating walk through a burnt tree farm. At least camping here is easy.....