Saturday, 22 May 2010

Cycling day 1 or my good samaritian

Page turned out to be a very expensive place. The cheapest hotel was Motel 6 with 70$ per night - no hostel or couchsurfing hosts. I had wanted to have a thorough rest there, but it was just too expensive. And I did not want to start cycling either....The weather forecast did not really help either: Hazardous wind warning for the next 2 days and of, course it would be a head wing for me. Not a good start for a cycling trip. John, my former cycling partner called me and eventually managed to cheer me up a bit. Hey, I had been cycling for 7 months with him and really enjoyed it, so why wouldn't I like it now? So eventually I repacked my gear from hiking mode into cycling mode and left Page yesterday noon.

Zion NP
The wind was bad, really bad. I was cycling at 7 km/h (normal is something around 15 km/h) and the wind was scary. There was no shelter whatsoever on the mesa and the wind gusts nearly blew me off my bike, especially when big semi-trucks were passing. I was getting worried about camping, too. With 2 hours of daylight left I became worried with another problem: There was a discomforting sound coming from my bike! First I thought it is the bottom bracket again, but when I stopped to check it out I had to realize that one of the pedals had come off! The metal cone was still standing out, but I could pull off the pedal. All the bearings had gone, too. I had no clue how to fix that and wondered whether I could risk cycling on with it. It would probably work for some more miles, but the wind AND a broken pedal was a bit much.

At this moment of distress a pick-up truck stopped beside me. A very nice lady, Cyndie asked whether I needed help. First I thought I could cycle on and told her I am ok, but she came out nevertheless. "I am here with my mother and my daughter, so don't worry, I am not a dangerous person.", she said. They were going to Kanab where I was going, too and considering the wind and the bike problem I thought it might be a good idea to accept their offer. We loaded my bike onto their pick-up truck and off we went to Kanab. The 1 hour drive was extremely interesting. I learned a lot about the Mormon religion and life. Interestingly, one of my fellow hikers on the AZT (John, the Gentleman hiker) is Mormon as well and had given me the Book of Mormon as reading material. I must say that from my personal experience Mormons are extremely friendly and helpful people.

Ancient rock art
Cyndie not only drove me and my bike to Kanab, she also spotted a bike shop in town and would not leave me before I had found a hotel. And the latter task turned out to be very difficult on a Friday night: We stopped at about 7 place and they were all full. Eventually I found a room at a very funky and cheap motel with a Sikh owner who could double as a TV entertainer if he had his teeth done first. I was very sad to see my good samaritians leave. I felt like I had made some good friends in just one hour and wish them all the best. When Cyndie left, she said: "I will see you in heaven.." I don't know whether I will go there, but I am pretty sure she will go.

Next morning my good luck continued: After a hearty breakfast in the totally messy motel office including a free nose harmonium concert by one of the other guests (as I have mentioned before: The motel and its guests are sort of colorful) I went to the bike shop and even found it open.  They had new pedals for me and within  10 minutes my bike problem was completely solved! I was very relieved.

Still I decided to stay another day in Kanab. It is going to be even windier today than yesterday and I need some rest after all this hiking. Also my funky motel is only 40$ - so if you are looking for a cheap and colorful place in Kanab: Sun 'n Sand Motel!

Friday, 21 May 2010

AZT gear recommendations

I was very much surprised how could the AZT was: So bring warm clothes!!!! Bring a balaclava, warm long underwear and even gloves. Do not bring new clothes as the AZT will "kill" them. You will need a sleeping bag with a rating of at least 20F. I had at least 10 nights below freezing.

I used my Tarptent Contrail and like on the FT, this was not the ideal tent. In the desert it was so difficult to get the tent stakes in. Very often you have to camp in exposed areas with a lot of wind. Ideally, I would have had a freestanding tent.

You will need a lot of water capacity. I carried up to 7 liters!!!! Bring enough containers and lots of purifier, as some water can be pretty nasty.

And again: Bring a GPS! It is great for your peace of mind....Use the water report, data book, town guide and the GPS waypoints provided on the ATA website. If you know Li, contact him to get his maps as they are 10 times better than the ATA maps or the guidebook.

I bought a National Park pass for Saguaro and Grand Canyon NP, but nobody checked it...

But most importantly: Bring a lot of physical and mental endurance for all this overgrown stuff...

AZT conclusion

So what is my verdict now on the AZT?

First of all, I really enjoyed the hike. And these are the pros for the AZT:

It is very pretty and often even spectacular. There was no roadwalks (except on detours because of too much snow), most of it is on single trail and you can camp almost anywhere without having to worry about traffic and its noises. This is a real wilderness hike! If you love arid country and can deal with its problems, this is your hike. The hike through Grand Canyon is gorgeous!!!

Resupply options are very good. Most places with shops and/or post offices are on trail or only a short ways away; there is even a special resupply route to Flagstaff. And all these resupply towns are nice or even great. I loved Flagstaff, for example.

There is also a fair amount of people hiking the AZT and so I even had some company. There is no hiker family around like on the AT or PCT, but you are not as lonely as on the FT.

For me the pros were definitely outweighing the cons. Still, I cannot unconditionally recommend that trail. Li coined a great expression for trails like the AZT: It is an abusive trail! What does that mean? To put it bluntly:  There are long sections of trail that have not received any maintenance for more than 7 years - and as a hiker you suffer through that. The whole Mazatzal section was so badly overgrown that I was averaging 1 mph - not much fun for almost a week. The last stretch after the North Rim suffered from a forest fire in 2006 - and again: No maintenance has been done ever since. But the biggest outrage is Saguaro NP: There is no official trail and therefore you have to trespass on X9 Ranch Road (where I was denied access and other hikers have been even physically threatened by outraged land owners) or bushwhack through 6 miles of cactus land. Supposedly there is some trail, but the ATA is "hiding" it because of God knows what problems with the NPS. Bottom line: Do not bring new gear to this trail! The AZT destroys everything!

Next problem is navigation: The ATA produced maps are pretty useless. Don't bother getting them. The official guidebook is hopelessly outdated and therefore only of use for about 50% of the trail. The only useful thing ATA has produced is the GPS waypoints you can download from their website. And of course there is the water report, the data book and the new townguide. All the later documents are prepared by a single volunteer and I was really grateful for them, but they could use some improvements. Definitely bring a GPS when hiking the trail as the waymarking is anything from sort of ok to non-existent. If you are not a navigational wizzard you will be grateful for a GPS.

Water is also a big issue: This year was very good because of all the snow, but water is definitely an issue on the AZT. Now when I compare two "dry" trails like the AZT and the Australian Bibbulmun Track.... On the Bibb Track there are water tanks for the hikers, but on the AZT you are on your own with really nasty dirt tanks - or you have to cache water.

Unfortunately there are also no official trail angels. So nobody maintains water caches or shuttles hikers. Like on the FT it is a big problem getting to the trail head. You can easily hitch to and from the Northern Terminus, but getting to the Mexican border is a problem. Luckily there are official shuttle services (albeit expensive) and trail volunteers, so the situation is not as bad as on the FT.

Bottomline: The AZT is definitely not a trail for beginners. You must know how to deal with the water situation, have good navigational skills (or a GPS) and have a high tolerance for overgrown trails. Then you will love the AZT. Other than that: Try another trail.... For me personally: Yes, I would rehike this trail (if they clear the Mazatzals....)

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The last days on the AZT

After my rest day at the Grand Canyon where I basically did nothing else but get a permit and sit and read I eventually started the last leg of the AZT: The hike through the Grand Canyon and up to the Utah border. Luckily I got a permit for me and 2 hiking buddies which is not all that easy on a weekend. We all had a great breakfast (I actually felt sick afterwards from all the food and was not able to finish my portion....) and around lunch time started hiking. Just an easy 14 mile day and all downhill. But this turned out to be one of the most spectacular hikes I have done in all my life.

I had seen a lot of pictures of the Grand Canyon but I was still overwhelmed. The views, the temperature and the climate changed continously. The elevation difference between the rims and the canyon bottom is almost 2,000 meters... And it was also one of the most crowded trails I have ever seen in the US. Hundreds of hikers where out there and I could see loads of "casualties" limping along. The hike is really easy with lots of switchbacks and tap water everywhere but I spent a lot of time taking in the view.

Luckily I had a permit and could camp at Cottonwood campground at the valley bottom to enjoy the day. The next day it was an easy 2,000 meters up - right into the snow. I know you must be all tired of all that talk about snow, but there it was again. Snow, snow and more snow. The first 6 miles of trail where still sort of ok, but then I had to give in. I camped right in the middle of it and spent one of the coldest nights on the trail at 3,000 meters. The next day I could not find the trail in all that snow and had to roadwalk around it for 5 miles. I then tried again and was lucky - still snow, but manageable. The last days were pretty easy: All downhill to Utah and John, the Gentleman hiker had even cached water for me.

I got a bit sad on my last day - I did not want to stop hiking and start cycling. Also my hiking buddies Kimberlie and Colin who wanted to give me a ride to Page from the terminus had disappeared behind me. Sort of sad I hiked into the Stateline campground which is the Northern Terminus of the AZT at 7 pm on May 18th. And whom did I meet there? A mountain biker who had cycled the AZT! And guess where he was from? Germany! Like me he is more or less travelling constantly and his trail name is rather fittingly "Alpenzorro". He is blogging live from his trips and carries an impressive lightweight equipment for that. We chatted away half of the night and after all his stories I eventually came to the conclusion that cycling might not be that bad after all.

Buckskin gulch
Not knowing what had happened to Kimberlie and Colin I left early next morning to visit Buckskin Gulch, a Slot canyon on the way out. Very spectacular indeed. But then it was a 10 mile walk out to the highway. There were about 50 cars coming in, but none out. Half of the cars stopped for me, but they were all going the wrong way... Bad luck - but eventually the first car going out stopped: It was Kimberlie and Colin! So all went right in the end: I got a ride into Page, found a hotel, got my bicycle and received all my packages from the post office. Now I am off to cycling tomorrow....

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Why did I not bring gloves?

I had a wonderful time in Flagstaff - after getting my tooth fixed! I stayed at the DuBeau hostel, a very nicely renovated 50's hotel. Free local calls, nice library, free breakfast and a very nice atmosphere. And a big coincidence happened there. I was sitting in the internet and coincidently started talking to another guest - and it turned out the he is a triple crowner as well! I am on the AZT, whereas he (Pinball Wizzard) is hiking the Hayduke trail. I could hardly believe this coincidence and after this meeting all my sightseeing plans went overboard. We spent the rest of the day eating and chatting.

But alas, next day I had to leave and go hiking again. Although I had become extremely paranoid about my teeth and all my electronic equipment now on this stretch nothing broke. Well, almost nothing, as my pants ripped and I had to do an emergency surgery on this dying patient.

I realise that you will find this hard to believe but it snowed on me again in mid-May! First I had to hike through tons of snow through the San Francisco peaks. Snow, snow, snow everywhere and people where even still skiing. Very slow going and to be honest - by now I am fed up with all that snow! Once out of the snow (and the trees) there was no more water and a horrible wind. Every day - wind in the morning, wind at noon, wind in the evening and wind at night. Plus on top it dumped snow on me at night. I am so happy I brought my 20 F bag! Still it is a pain in the butt to wake up every morning with frost on the tent and pack up at freezing temperatures. I am usually dragging my trekking poles along for 2 hours in the morning because it is so cold and I did not bring gloves. Hey, did you expect snow in Arizona in May? It was so windy and cold that I even cooked lunch once in a USFS restroom....

But I made it to Grand Canyon and what an overwhelming view! I am staying with Li here in Grand Canyon and have a rest day today. Just not doing anything but read and eat (and maybe repair some stuff...) And then I will hike through the Canyon and finish my thruhike in 5 days. Of course there will be more snow....

Saturday, 8 May 2010

How to get your ass kicked on the AZT - Pine to Flagstaff

After a day in Phoenix with resupply and exchanging broken Platypus bottles and abused shoes Li brought me back to the trail. The next stretch would be easy, said Li. Just a short climb up the Mogollon Rim and then flat hiking for 5 days. Piece of cake really....

But again: What could go wrong did go wrong. It started on day 1. I was happily hiking up the Mogollon Rim looking at my GPS every once in a while. It worked fine one moment - but when I tried to switch it on 5 minutes later, nothing happened. Absolutely nothing! It was dead. Surely that would be the batteries.... Still I was not happy: 4 more days of hiking with no GPS on the AZT is not an ideal situation. Doable, but not ideal.

I hiked on less happily, but still in relatively good spirits. This is when it started snowing - on MAY 2nd in Arizona. Not just snowing, it was rather dumping. I could hardly see a thing. And it was damned cold on MAY 2nd.... I pitched my tent and hoped for the best. Well, it stopped snowing, but it froze. I was bitterly cold at 22 degrees Fahrenheit and started to really get pissed with the trail, the weather and everything.

I woke up at 5 am and had breakfast. It surely could not get worse now - but it did. I bit on my granola - and something did not feel like granola. It was a gold inlay that had come off my tooth that very moment...I was about to cry. Here I was with no GPS, freezing my ass off and on top of that having a dental problem. Great! Did I mention that the batteries on my watch were dying as well? (I have to mention for the non-hikers that you need a watch for navigation - you time your progress to find out how far you hike.) The only thing that still worked was my cell phone.

I met some Forest Service employees later that day who gave me extra batteries for my GPS! I was very happy - but just for a moment, because even with new batteries the GPS would not work. It was dead.... Later that day Colin, a British AZT hiker and aerospace engineer showed up. He disassembled the whole thing, but it still would not work. His verdict: Ditch it!!!! Hey, just ditch a 300 EUR GPS! But he was right. Warranty period was over and it would be more expensive to repair it than to buy a new one.

Colin and Kimberlie
I  hiked on getting lost only once without my GPS, chewing only on the left side of my mouth and with no sense of time due to lack of watch, but somehow I made it into Flagstaff. I got an appointment at a dentist immediately, paid 250 $ and got my tooth fixed. Then I bought a new battery for my watch. Half of my problems where solved now, but what about the GPS? Flagstaff outdoor shops did not really have a great selection of GPS and especially not the ones I wanted. But I did not want to hike on without one either, because of - (hey, you might have guessed it), the next stretch was still snow covered. In fact people are still skiing now here!

Then another miracle happened. I met Colin and his hiking partner Kimberlie in an outdoor shop. Kimberley was getting off trail for the next stretch and I just asked her about her GPS - and she lent it to me! So I will leave tomorrow with a working watch, good teeth and a GPS, hurray! Life is good!

How to get your ass kicked on the AZT - Superior to Pine

Li and I
I left Superior with very good news: Li, a CDT hiking friend had sent me an email wanting to join me for a couple of days on the AZT. Li is known to hike 30 mile days and he hiked the entire AT and CDT in ONE season - I definitely cannot keep up with that pace. But we talked on the phone and he promised to "regulate" himself. I had been doing 20 - 22 mile days recently and that was ok with him. We agreed to meet in Roosevelt. What he had not mentioned is that the stretch between Roosevelt and Pine is the hardest on the whole AZT. What we both did not know is that there would be some aggravating factors.... So we met with 6 days worth of food and good spirits.

Li had even brought me a breakfast burrito from civilization and showed me new highlights of outdoor cuisine: He made "grasshopper pie" for us for dessert three times. That recipe includes lots of mint oreos, jello and even more alcohol which he carried in a mini platypus. That is culinary dedication! This dessert looks kind of disgusting, but tastes wonderful. The more alcohol, the better. And we needed a lot of that...

It all started already on day 1 of hiking together. After a 3,000 ft elevation gain (which was not too bad) we came across new trail. The trail had been built in 2004 - and NEVER ever been maintained after that. To say that it was overgrown is an understatement. We were crawling through catclaws and manzanita at a pace of less than 1 mile per hour. It soon became apparent that we would never make it to our planned camp spot.

Unfortunately, we did not have enough water to dry camp - not to mention that there just was no place whatsoever where to camp. We were traversing a steep slope. When it got dark we came to a saddle with some pitiful campsites, but no water. We decided to hike on in the dark to the next creek. The trail got a bit better and we made it to water when it had just gotten pitch dark. But where to camp? There was a fire ring, but no flat spots. And therefore for the first time in my entire life and after even completing the whole triple crown I had to do something I had never done before: I slept right on the trail!!!!
The wind was blowing so hard that we could hardly cook our late dinner. Li made his famous grasshopper pie for the first time and we really needed it! I fell asleep amid manzanita and tremendous gusts of wind.

Surely this bad trail would not continue - but we were wrong. Because the next day we entered the area of the huge 2004 wildfire. And apparently there had been no trail maintenance after that. And that meant we were climbing over blow down trees for the next 4 days. To make it more interesting the whole trail was also overgrown with raspberry bushes on steroids. No raspberries though, just the thorns. We were both in long-sleeved shirts and pants. You can stand this situation for 1 day and think of the great achievement afterwards. You might even be able to stand it for 2 days and still be proud of it. But after 3 days you just hate it!!! We ended up camping right on trail for a second time, because we were never able to hike 20 miles in that crap! Li learnt a lot of German swear words as I was trying to limbo under blow downs. By the way: I learnt some new English expressions from Li as well! For example: ""It is time for a morning constitutional when the turtle is poking its head out.."". Now you Germans: What could that mean?....

Snow in AZ in May!
On day 5 we realised that we would never make it in our planned 6 days. Well, Li would have made it - but not me. Luckily I had an extra day's worth of food  I could share with him. On our last day we were eventually out of the forest fire area and the only problem was a very rocky road. I felt like being drunk balancing on football sized rocks for a whole day - but hey, that was nothing compared to the days before. But then it got colder and colder. I was teasing Li when he put on all his warm clothes and mentioned something about snowing. Surely it would not snow in Arizona end of April. But it did!!! We ended up in a snow storm -  no kidding. In Germany it hardly ever snows that hard. We sought shelter among pine trees and I expected to wake up in a foot of snow... but luckily it stopped snowing overnight, but it got bitter cold. Our water bottles froze - but hey, I am used to that from Southern Florida. I love hiking in an El Nino year... So eventually on day 7 we made it back into civilization - frozen and completely out of food, but alive and healthy.