Grand Canyon Countdown

Photo: Headed Up, 2018 Lif Strand

In just under seven weeks I’ll be leaving for Grand Canyon.   That means one month and seventeen days to prepare.  It means forty-eight days.  Not that I’m counting.

Yesterday my friend Laura — who’ll be doing the Canyon with me  — and I repeated a hike from the week before.  We started out with breakfast in town.  Hiker’s gotta fuel up, don’t you know.  Then we drove up to Hulsey Lake in the Apache National Forest in Arizona.  The lake is at 8,620′ altitude, and we were aiming to go as far as we could in an  hour and a half up the road that goes up the western side of Escudilla Mountain, the peak of which is just shy of 11,000′.

Escudilla Mountain is an old volcano, as are many of the peaks around here.  Part of it is wilderness, most of it was burned in the Wallow Fire in 2011.  It’s kind of depressing to see how much of the forest is gone.  With climate change it’s likely to never grow back.  I try not to dwell on that, but when you’re hiking through it, it’s tough to not get really pissed off that the US Forest Service puts so little into reducing hazardous fuels and thinning the forest to limit the destruction of wildfire.  Of course, it’s worse to the east, in the Gila National Forest… but I digress.

Photo: Dead pines destroyed by fire

Moving on...

Yesterday was the first day of December, and the weather decided it was close enough to winter to hit us with snow and wind and darned cold temperatures.  Around here it’s so dry that snow sublimates, that is, it goes from solid directly to gas.  In other words, it doesn’t bother to melt, it just disappears.  So while we started out at Hulsey Lake in the snow in late morning, by mid-afternoon when we returned it was mostly gone.

Both of us had been disappointed the week before with our performances going up the mountain on this same route.  We were huffing and puffing and had to stop several times to catch our breath.  During this past week I figured out that we were just going too fast for the steepness of the road.  So we agreed this week we would walk for the same amount of time — 1 1/2 hours — but we would maintain a slower, evenly cadenced pace.

It worked like a charm!  I had expected better results but not nearly so much better.  In the same amount of time we were able to go nearly a mile further up the mountain, and we did it without gasping for breath like we had done last week.

I gotta tell you, we both felt pretty darned good.  Not only had we just cruised up the mountain, we were at 9500′ altitude when we turned around, at that point about four miles from the lake.  True, we were still three miles from the fire tower, but that’s a hike for another day.

Photo: High country -- 9500 ft, 2018 Lif Strand photo

Equipment report: Cruel boots

Starting from the ground up, my boots.  These are the ones I’ve described before.  Last week I wore Skechers hiking shoes… or maybe they’re just athletic type shoes.  No matter, I’ve done a lot of hiking in them since I got them a few weeks back and they’re really comfy.  Not meant for cold weather, but so nice to my feet that I was hoping I could use them for the Canyon.

But no.  My feet slide forward in them going downhill no matter how tightly I lace them and my poor toes suffer for that.  Maybe somebody can give me a hint how to lace them a different way to help out with the problem.  Anyway, this week I wore the Vasque boots, which I’ve been wearing on and off around here so my feet would get used to them.

I like the boots, but ever since my hip replacements a couple years back my IT bands have been bothering me.  The iliotibial band is “a thick bunch of fibers that runs from the outside of your hips to the outside of your thigh and knee down to the top of your shinbone. If your IT band gets too tight, it can lead to swelling and pain around your knee.”  (WebMD)  In my case the pain’s not at my knee, it’s halfway up my outer thigh starting at the knee.

It hurts.

The boots are heavy and they aggravate my IT band issue.  The specific muscle is the one that lifts the upper leg, so every time I wear the boots I’m lifting more weight than I’m used to and by the end of the walk I’m in pain, especially the right leg for some reason.

Sure, I’ll build up to the boot weight after a while but meantime… ow!  Smashed toes vs. IT band syndrome.  Sheesh.

But enter the marvelous invention of KT Tape!  It’s an elastic therapeutic tape (KT is just one brand I happen to use, though I’m auditioning another, Physix Gear) and following a YouTube instructional video I learned how to apply it to my Vastus Lateralis, which is the largest of the four quads that form the IT group.

(Note:  I’m no doctor, so don’t take any of this as gospel.)

Yesterday morning I applied the tape as directed to my right side IT, did not put any on my left.  This morning my right doesn’t hurt, my left does.  So let that be a lesson.

But wait!  There’s more!

Double socks.  When I first came across them I thought they were weird.  I mean, I see the point of wearing two pairs of socks, but I never can get them on so that the first socks don’t end up feeling like they’re choking my toes.  I was given a couple pairs of double socks and yeah, I’ve worn them — but mostly because two socks are warmer than one.

But now I have seen the light.  Or I will.  Yesterday when we turned around to go back down the mountain I was paying attention to my feet to see if they’d slide forward in the boots.  No, they didn’t — but I discovered a blister on my left heel instead.

Pro tip: I would have noticed the blister sooner but the pain was masked by a sticker in my sock that I just refused to take my boot off one more time to look for.  So take note that if you want to avoid blister pain, a judiciously placed sticker in your sock will do a fantastic job for you!  Recommended: Genuine New Mexico high-country stickers, needles, and/or spines, though twigs will do.  Just contact me and I’ll send you a selection for your very own.

Yesterday I wore a pair of SmartWool socks.  If it ain’t SmartWool it ain’t no wool at all for me.  Well, that’s not true.  I’ve discovered (very pricey) alpaca wool doesn’t itch either, so I’m thinking my problem has something to do with sheep, which basically I have no use for in any which way.  Sorry, sheep lovers, but that’s my truth.

Anyway, I wore the (one layered) socks, which are multi-colored stripes and I love them.  I’ve worn them many times before, and yet:  blister.  I know this would not have happened if I’d been wearing the double socks, which are a boring gray.  Not like my multi-colored SmartWool.

Oh well, I’m not one to choose fashion over comfort, so I’ll be ordering more of the double socks soon.  And you know I’ll be wearing a pair next hike.

More equipment:  The name of thy clothing shall be Layers

I have hiking pants that I’ve used in the past — lots of pockets, and they unzipper to become shorts.  However, since comfort is the name of my game, I find jeans with some stretch in them work even better.  The jeans don’t have cargo pockets, which I would like, but I don’t like that the hiking pants aren’t stretchy.  After a bunch of miles things like that become one more irritation.  Plus no way am I going to be wearing shorts at the Grand Canyon in January.

My jeans are loose enough that I can wear silk bottoms under them, but on the other hand the windy 32° or so up at the top of our hike didn’t make me fell I needed them.  Maybe if I spent my time sitting in a hunting blind I’d feel differently, but I’m not.  (PS — there were lots of hunters up there.  Elk beware!)

And then, over my torso, we have the layers.  I’m a believer in layers.  My inner thermostat is finicky so it seems I’m always just a bit too cold or warm.  Starting out from my skin I was wearing a long-sleeved silk top, cotton turtleneck over that.  One Polartec vest and a lined fleece jacket that my sister bought uswhen she and I and my other sister hiked the Canyon in 2009.  The vest was for warmth (I was carrying a second one in my backpack) and the jacket was to cut the wind plus provide another layer.

Note that the vests and jacket have zipper-closure pockets.  Highly recommended!  If you put stuff in your pockets and remember to zip them shut, then you won’t have your cell phone fall in a pond like mine did the week before.  But that’s another story (cell phone was fine).  Also while waiting at on the Safeway cashier line yesterday afternoon I discovered four M&Ms in my jacket pocket.  Who knows how long they were in there, but see?  They didn’t fall out even though partway up the mountain I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist.

Yes, I ate the M&Ms.

I had a fleece watchcap for my head as well as an alpaca (yes!  I splurged!) headband.  Most of the time I was too warm to need them, but coming back down and walking into the wind they were absolutely perfect.

And let’s not forget the fleece gloves!

Loves my fleece, unless it has spent any part of its formative time in close association with a sheep.

Even more equipment: Sticks, pack, electronics, etc.

Let’s start with the phone.  It was fully charged when I left the house in the morning and yet its battery was sucked dry by the time we were done with the hike.  I think this was because there was no WiFi on the mountain (gee whiz, go figure) and probably my phone was wasting battery power searching for what wasn’t there.  Or maybe it was the nifty altimeter app I was using.  Or maybe…

No, it was not the dunk in the pond the week before.

Who knows why about the battery.  I have one of those portable phone battery chargers somewhere.  I’m sure I could find it if I looked.  But in the meantime, Airplane Mode is my friend!  It is too sad to want to take a photo and have zero battery left.

Backpack:  I was using a small day pack that is meant, to be frank, for couch potato hikers.  Sorry spuds, but if you plan to be out all day and don’t want to be burdened with a huge camping pack, then the day pack you want isn’t basically a pouch with a few pockets.  None of which is accessible without taking the pack off.  No rings, no extra straps, no nada.

I’m going to either use my Osprey external frame that has gone down to the Colorado River with me twice or I’m going to find a better day pack.  This year Laura and I have agreed to put our overnight stuff for Phantom Ranch in a duffel that goes down on a mule’s back, not ours, so day pack is all I need.  Just not the one I have.

In the day pack:
First aid kit
Toilet paper + plastic bag for used paper
Garmin GPS (technically not in the pack but attached to the outside)
Compass/whistle/thermometer combo
Visor (why didn’t I use it when I needed it?  Because it was such a PITA to get stuff out of the day pack)
Wrist wallets (for ID, money, car key, etc.)
Throat lozenges
Water

Shoulda been in the pack:
Cell phone charger battery thingie
USB charging cable
Chocolate (little did I know there were M&Ms in my pocket but four?  No way that’s enough chocolate)
Prescription sunglasses (the glare off the snow was wicked!)
Pencil/pad (I meant to put them in, just forgot)

Under consideration to bring:
Second cell phone (why not — it’s not activated for cell but it’s got a camera)

Hiking sticks:
I don’t know how I lived all my life (till the first Canyon in 2008) without using hiking sticks.  Mine are Komperdell trekking poles, the kind that extend rather than fold.  I bought rubber tips for them, but I don’t know why — I like the carbide tips on mine.  Not only do the tips stay put, but I could use them as spears if I had to.  Girl Scouts always gotta be prepared.  By the way, when I first got the poles I didn’t know how to use them — height adjustment is important!

That’s all, folks

What I can get away with on a day hike isn’t, of course, the same as when I’ll need to do on the Canyon hike.  All the trails from the Rim to the River are longer, steeper, tougher, more intimidating, and so outrageously breathtakingly beautiful that a conditioning hike is never going to be that quite a challenge.  Between now and then, though — and right up to the last second — I’ll be making adjustments.

I leave in just under seven weeks — have I mentioned that?

Photo: Laura's shadow, 2018 Lif Strand

April Snow

Snow at dusk in April

It had been a brutal day, a hard edged wind coming from the north and cutting through the many layers she wore.  Even when the sun broke through the heavy clouds it was cold, cold for late April.  But here in the mountains of New Mexico weather was like that.  Nothing unusual at all.

For a brief moment at sunset a rosy golden light limned the mesa top, gone as quickly as it had come.  She smelled rain, but there was nothing yet to moisten the dust and the struggling grass that was already turning gray with thirst.  It would come, though, she knew it.  If she could smell it, it would come.

She built a fire in the wood stove, smiling at the fancy she’d had that she was done building fires till next fall.  She settled into the evening, waiting.

The wind stopped.  The world held its breath.  Silently fluffy white flakes drifted down into the dusk, covering the branches of the apple trees that were only this morning braving the first bright green leaves of spring.