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Round the Bend in 14 Days

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Round the Bend in 14 Days
« on: December 16, 2016, 02:01:08 PM »
Round the Bend in 14 Days
(Or how the Deadhorse Mountains nearly became the Deadhouse Mountains)

I became a parent late in life - about 15 years ago. Being both a procrastinator and a stubborn man, a late start was probably inevitable. The years before parenthood were filled with seemingly endless wilderness experiences: hiking, backpacking, climbing, boating of various kinds. Some for fun, some for professional reasons, but always interesting and challenging. After parenthood, those experiences dwindled to a trickle. What trips there were, were built around my kids, each of whom I started taking out at the age of three. My last solo backpacking trip of any length, my last peak climbed, my last interesting one-man float trip – just me alone in the wild - were all a decade or more in the past when my wife turned to me during a long drive home from another tame family vacation and said, “you need some time to yourself in the wilderness…if we could make it possible, what would you do?” I thought for a few moments, contemplating the options both fanciful and realistic, and replied, “a solo hike across Big Bend National Park.” “Then do it,” she said. And that’s how, almost two years later, a two-week backpacking trip across the Chihuahuan desert and mountains of Big Bend became an extraordinarily gracious 60th birthday present from my family, friends, and co-workers. Kids, gardens, laying hens, meat chickens, work, home, and school were entirely taken care of for two weeks so I could go off alone into the wild.

I started backpacking forty years ago, in 1976, as a young man, under the virtual guidance of the great Colin Fletcher. But long before then, the seeds had been planted by a rough-and-tumble farm childhood in the Eastern Cross Timbers of North Central Texas and the dry, rocky Wichita Mountains of Southwestern Oklahoma. The seeds were nurtured by youthful readings of the works of Jean Craighead George (“My Side of the Mountain”) and – as I would only come to realize years later - the works of JRR Tolkien. Is there any greater, more inspiring tale of long-distance hiking than The Lord of the Rings? Over the years I would add Fletcher, Thoreau, Muir, Abbey, Newby, Zwinger, Graves and others to my list of heroes, but I suspect it was my rural childhood, as well as Tolkien’s epic tale, and George’s hymn to self-reliance in nature, that laid the foundations for my lifelong obsession with wilderness and challenge. I’ve done one-, two-, three-, even four-week solo trips in places as far flung as the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado, the jungles of Central America, the Andes of South America, or the Pyrenees, Alps, and Taurus Mountains of Asia. But those were decades ago, and now I was a tired, paunchy parent about to turn 60 years old, and rusty from a decade’s pause. Could I still handle the rigors of a long walk?

Big Bend is like an old friend. I started coming to the area in the mid-90’s, and since then I’ve hiked or backpacked virtually all of the developed trails and several of the off-trail areas of both BIBE and BBRSP. I’ve even done some scientific work there. And in the last decade, I’ve brought my family here on various adventures. What this taught me was that, weatherwise, a cross-hike park was only feasible between the months of November and March. Workwise, for me, such a hike would only be feasible in December. So December, it was, and the word went out to family and friends. By summer of 2016, I was in full planning mode, and by September I had joined Big Bend Chat to take advantage of its amazing resources. Friends of mine had hiked across the park in 2005 with the writer Joe Nick Patoski and the photographer Laurence Parent. They had begun in Rio Grande Village, hiked to the Dodson Trail and then down to and across the Mesa de Anguilla, with supplies delivered along the way by vehicle. My plans were somewhat more ambitious: I planned to begin at the eastern end of Telephone Canyon and hike down the Ernst Basin, across to Glenn Springs, up Elephant Tusk to Fresno Creek, across the Dodson and Chimney trails, down to Bruja Canyon, and from there up and across the Mesa de Anguilla and out. I would do the hike solo, carrying all my food and finding all my water. But the Mexican industrial giant CEMEX unexpectedly bought the Adams Ranch bordering the eastern end of Telephone Canyon and all my attempts to secure access through there failed. So it was back to the drawing board.

My basic parameters remained: travel solo, border-to-border, east-to-west, carry all my food and find all my water. I was fortunate to come across trip reports on Big Bend Chat by hikers like Jeff Blaylock, Benthegrate, Badkness, Robert, Elhombre, Okiehiker, Lance, and above all, Mule Ears, and these reports vastly increased my sense of what was possible in Big Bend. I began to focus on exploring areas of the park I didn’t know well: the Mesa de Anguilla, the Sierra Quemadas, and the Deadhorse Mountains. My plans coalesced around a start at the Persimmon Gap entrance, a run along the ridge of the Deadhorse Mountains, a crossing of the Quemadas with time set aside for exploring the area’s springs, a run through the Chimneys, and then a few days’ finish up on the Mesa. In total, a 14-day itinerary, the maximum allowed within BIBE’s backcountry. Initially, I didn’t even consider using caches, but the more I looked at the hike, the more I worried about the early section in the Deadhorse Mountains on the eastern side of the park. They were steep, rugged, and waterless. There would be no water available during the 3-4 day run between Devil’s Den and Ernst Tinaja, and the elevation gains and losses would be daunting. I thought I could carry a great deal of water or a great deal of food through the Deadhorse, but not both. A cache might be required. I considered two possibilities: 1) water cached at the end of the Dagger Flat road or, 2) food cached near the crossing of the main park road (Hwy 118) between Ernst Tinaja and Chillicotal Mountain.  Water won the argument: I would take it with me, because water was the one thing I didn’t want to run out of.  I would fill up in Devil’s Den and run the ridge into Ernst Basin and out across Hwy 118 to a food cache in the desert west of the road.  I could use my BV500 bear canister to cache 10 days’ food and start my trip with only 4-5 days’ food in my backpack and a single gallon of water. Pulling 3.5 gallons of water from Devil’s Den on the morning of Day 2 should keep me just sufficiently watered until I reached Ernst Tinaja on Day 4 or 5. Soon after that, I would be into the Quemadas with springs aplenty in this freakishly wet year. A solid plan was taking shape. With friends and family confirmed to help on the home front, I made my motel reservations in the Basin and in Study Butte, and I booked a non-refundable shuttle from Desert Sports in Terlingua to follow my RAV4 to the Lajitas trailhead and then ferry me to the Persimmon Gap park entrance on Monday November 28, with an estimated drop-off time of 2pm. I was now committed.

The weather forecast for the weeks of November 28 - December 11 looked outstanding. Warm and sunny days and clear nights (70/45), with just a hint of rain developing in the middle of my first week on the trail. My wife and 14-year-old daughter left Dallas for a family wedding in New Orleans over the Thanksgiving holiday. They would return to Dallas, with my mother-in-law, on the evening of Saturday November 26. I would leave for Big Bend the next morning at 7am. Meanwhile, my 11-year-old son and I spent the holiday binge-watching Peter Jackson’s 12-hour-long director’s cut of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, finishing just minutes before the gals' plane landed in Dallas. A few hours later, at 6:45am in the pitch-black morning of November 27, I quietly walked out my front door while the rest of the house was fast asleep, turned over the ignition in my RAV4, and eased onto I-30 for the 9-hour drive to Big Bend. I pulled up to the Persimmon Gap entrance station around 4:30pm, paid my fee, and headed south toward Panther Junction. Partway along, I took a detour east to the end of the rough Dagger Flat road, against the base of the Deadhorse Mountains, and contemplated the possibility of placing a 10 liter water cache there, but decided against it.  Nope, I'd stick to the challenge: draw all my water from the landscape. By the time I emerged back onto 385, the sun was sinking behind the Chisos and I accelerated toward the Basin where a hot dinner and a room were waiting for me at the Chisos Lodge. As I drove the park road, I peered back over my left shoulder to watch the sunset’s red light fading on the Deadhorse Mountains. It occurred to me that that was one long, high, intimidating ridge – 14 miles at least – and that I may have made the mistake of planning in basso profundo when I would actually be executing in falsetto. Or, to put it another way, Darth Vader in Dallas might turn out to be C3P0 in Big Bend. Shake it off, man. Shake it off.

DAY 1

6:30am the next morning, Monday November 28, I rose before the sun did. Dressing quickly, I slipped out of the room and into my RAV4, and headed down and east toward Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village. I had about two hours to find a suitable spot near the highway to place my bear canister with its 10-day food cache wrapped up inside an inner nylobarrier bag. My goal was to place it at a well-hidden point less than a hundred yards off the road, on a more-or-less direct line between Ernst Tinaja and Point 2417 east of Chillicotal Mountain. I found a spot near mile marker 12. I wrapped up my well-labeled canister in a black stuff sack and worked it into the narrow space between a large Opuntia Prickly Pear cactus and an even larger Catclaw Acacia. With one last laser look to burn the location into my mind, I turned the RAV4 back northward and westward and gunned it toward the Panther Junction ranger station. I wanted to be first in line when the permit office opened at 9am. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and I did not anticipate a crowd, but I had an appointment to meet the Desert Sports shuttle at their offices in Terlingua at 11:30am sharp. I had a lot of little things to take care of before they whisked me away from my vehicle and on to my grand adventure.

I was, indeed, the very first person into the ranger station. I walked up to the door just as a young female ranger was unlocking the door. She couldn’t have been more professional or efficient in processing my permit request. Truth is, I’ve never, over 20 years, had a single difficult encounter with a Big Bend ranger. “How can I help you,” she asked. “Well....Fifteen years ago, Raymond Skiles, your park wildlife biologist, completed the first recorded solo hike across the entire park, going from east to west. I’ve been picking his brain for awhile now, and I intend to do the same thing. I know you’re thinking 'here's a SAR waiting to happen', as well you should, but first let me tell you I’ve been backpacking for 40 years, and backpacking Big Bend for the last 20, mostly solo. I’ve done research here, I’m comfortable on my own, and I carry a full complement of navigational and emergency gear, as well as a PLB – which, by the way, I’ve never had to use. My route involves only zone-camping and here is my day-by-day itinerary to help you with the permitting process.” She took a deep breath, a long look at the map on the counter, and began to complete the permit, which she then double-, triple-, and quadruple-checked with me, along with a little helpful beta from her own Big Bend off-trail experience. She pointed to the backcountry rules, saying, “I won’t read them to you because that would simply be insulting” and I replied, “thanks, but I don’t mind”. Then she asked if I wanted to register as a solo hiker and I said yes. I know there’s been a lot of discussion about the merits of solo registration lately. I always choose to do so. Emphasis on “choose.” It’s totally optional and at the discretion of the hiker. I've never felt the least pressure to fill one out. I view it as a voluntary contract between me and the NPS. Given that I carry a PLB and other signaling devices (including two very small but very powerful red smoke signals), if I run into trouble and am conscious and need to be found, I can make myself very find-able. But if I run into trouble and am unconscious, or dead from a fall or some physical pathology , then solo registration makes it significantly easier for a search party to find and positively identify me, and in my view, that’s an important courtesy to the living. Granted, solo registration might also put a little more pressure on me to complete the hike by my specified date in order to keep the park staff from initiating a search, but truth is, if I don’t call my wife at the expected time, all hell is going to break loose anyway.  Gone are the days when I could tell her, “I’m going to go do some hiking, I’ll be back in a few weeks.” Parenthood has changed all that.

I was done at PJ by 9:40am, partly because the ranger and I had a good, friendly, productive conversation. I could have gotten away a bit sooner if I’d wanted to but I took my time and enjoyed the conversation. I drove back to my room at the Chisos Lodge in the Basin for a quick shower and shave, checked out by 10:50am, drove to Study Butte, gassed up, tidied up my vehicle and its contents, and made it to the Desert Sports office by 11:20am, ten minutes early.  A quick drive to the Lajitas trailhead, with me following in my RAV4, park and lock my vehicle, and we were off to Persimmon Gap. The driver was excellent, very knowledgeable about Big Bend, including the backcountry. I mentioned the forecast and he guaranteed it wouldn’t rain, “you wanna know when I believe a rain forecast in Big Bend? When I stick my hand out the window and it comes back wet.” With a double honk and a thumbs-up, he pulled away from Persimmon Gap at 1:45pm and headed quickly south and west back to Terlingua, leaving me adjusting my pack straps at the entrance monument.  His parting words were, “if you survive your hike, stop by the office on your way out and I’ll buy you a beer!”

It was a bright sunny day under a cloudless sky. The small thermometer on my backpack’s hipbelt read 76 degrees. The wind was blowing strongly from the south. Irritatingly, it blew the soft brim of my sunhat straight up against my forehead so that my eyes had no protection from the blinding glare directly before me. This was going to be a long squinty 7-mile hike south to the entrance of Dog Canyon where I intended to make my first camp in about three hours. I tightened my straps, gripped my trekking poles and crossed the start line into the park. 14 days to Lajitas...

[to be continued]
« Last Edit: August 03, 2017, 05:51:45 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #1 on: December 16, 2016, 02:12:26 PM »
Having trouble attaching photos. My file sizes seem to be about 5MB and the limit seems to be about 5KB. Any advice?
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline Txlj

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #2 on: December 16, 2016, 02:18:24 PM »
None on the photos, but keep typing. This is gonna be a nice tale. 14 days across the Bend, nice!

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #3 on: December 16, 2016, 02:23:59 PM »
Persimmon Gap entrance (had to reduce file size, so quality is lousy, still working on it).
« Last Edit: December 16, 2016, 11:26:13 PM by RichardM »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #4 on: December 16, 2016, 03:23:47 PM »
Haha, thanks, Txlj. It may take me longer to finish this trip report than it did to make the trip. But I'll keep working on it!
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #5 on: December 16, 2016, 03:58:21 PM »
I'm getting the popcorn ready and some bourbon 😉

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Offline dprather

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #6 on: December 16, 2016, 04:00:54 PM »
Awesome
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline RichardM

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #7 on: December 16, 2016, 04:26:15 PM »
Having trouble attaching photos. My file sizes seem to be about 5MB and the limit seems to be about 5KB. Any advice?
Skip using the attachment feature and put them online somewhere, then embed them. If you want the lazy approach, use http://www.bigbendgallery.com/uploads/ (just be sure to use unique filenames, as they can be overwritten by anybody).

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #8 on: December 16, 2016, 04:31:33 PM »
Thanks, Richard. Turns out it was the GPS tagging feature that was ballooning the file sizes. I fixed it. Maybe  :eusa_shifty:
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #9 on: December 16, 2016, 04:35:54 PM »
DAY 1 (continued):

"They say he died, but the dog survived."

The last thing I wanted to do at this point was engage in a long explanatory conversation with the ranger in the Persimmon Gap entrance booth. My permit was buried deep in my pack as my immediate goal was to get as far as away from civilization as fast as my legs would take me. I headed southeast through the desert scrub toward Little Persimmon Gap Mountain and then up to the summit, where I had a beautiful view of what lay ahead, as well as the PG ranger station and visitor center a few hundred feet below me. I felt good. The wind was a bit strong, but it was so nice to finally be underway. My palms had been a bit sweaty when I first headed out, but now my stride had evened and the rhythm of my sticks hitting the ground was reassuring. I dropped down Persimmon Gap Draw which neatly carried me south of the entrance station and then hooked a quick leftward turn south around the edge of Persimmon Gap Peak, taking me out of sight of the entrance station altogether. The next 2 hours took me up and down hills and through washes draining the Santiago Mountains.  In order to stay away from 385, I stayed as close to the mountains as possible, though that occasionally made for some uncomfortably rough walking.  The headwind was extraordinary, I would guess a steady 10-15mph with occasional stronger gusts than nearly stopped me in my tracks. The sun beat down hard, gradually swinging westward so that I was able to tilt my head slightly to the left and up, letting the wind blow my hat down across my eyes for shade. No sunglasses, you ask? Nope. I wear prescription glasses and my clip-ons were broken.  Despite a couple days’ search, I’d not found any replacements that fit well onto my regular glasses. But that was small ball compared to finally being on foot in the Bend.

Soon, The Rockslide came into view, with the small dark gash of Dog Canyon beyond. I was eating ground as the miles rolled by. Rounding a small hill, I surprised a huge 10-point buck and his harem of Sierra Carmen Whitetail. The ground at my feet was damp. I suspect there’s a seep somewhere around there. A bit later, negotiating a ravine, I spied a remote rain sensor embedded in the ground in the middle of nowhere. If you want to know where the Persimmon Gap precipitation reports come from, it’s here.

By 5pm, I crossed the “trail” to the mouth of Dog Canyon and was just a couple hundred yards from my intended camping area. I shrugged off my backpack, laid down my trekking poles, grabbed my binos and started scouting for a suitable campsite. It was still warm and windy, and the idea of camping within close sight of the entrance to Dog Canyon pleased me no end.  Tonight, or maybe tomorrow morning, I’d take some time to explore it again. I hadn’t been there for almost 20 years. Tomorrow morning, if I got moving early enough, I could watch the sun rise through the canyon. Meanwhile, I found a soft spot of ground above two intersecting washes, laid out my two Ridgerest pads on top of each other and spread out my Mountain Hardwear bag on top of those, pulled out what remained of the gallon of water I left Persimmon Gap with, screwed open my Vargo TiBot cookset, removed the Snowpeak Gigapower stove already attached to a 110g canister, poured in 900ml of water into the Bot, fired up the stove, and slid my custom made aluminum windscreen over the whole thing. Dinner in twenty.

Sunset and dusk came fast, with a beautiful lightshow on the western horizon. As I ate a dinner of soup and entrée, the stars came out, one by one. First Venus in the west, then Mars in the north, then too many to name too fast to keep track of until the Pleiades came into focus. Then, slowly, beautifully, majestically, the Milky Way wrapped its arm around the middle of the sky, and I settled down into the cavity of my sleeping bag. I established my routine that would hold for the rest of the trip. Pads out, bag spread, dinner started, top pocket detached and laid by my shoulder with knife, airhorn, glasses, Petzl E-lite, and Sawyer 16oz soft bottle laid on top, and my toilet kit in its Opsack Ziploc slipped underneath. Main pack body at my head, with the stuffsack of my spare clothes and layers slid into the sleeping bag compartment to form a semi-soft pillow for my head. Trash was in another Opsack and it, along with my remaining food and anything scented, went into the nylobarrier odor-proof bag which went inside my tied Ursack which went deep inside my main pack. And lastly, my boots off and at my other shoulder. I knew that nighttime and early morning temps would be at least as low as the low 40’s, so (as is almost always my custom outside of summer) before getting into my bag I slipped on my fleece pants and sweater and a microfleece balaclava. My down jacket would form part of my pillow, close at hand if I needed to put it on during the night or first thing in the morning. I would be ready to leap out in the morning, pack up and get going within 15 minutes. Once inside my bag, the wind died down to nothing, and I warmed up. Pulling the bag down to my waist, I laid my head down on my makeshift pillow, and enjoyed the Milky Way lightshow. Not long afterwards, the International Space Station passed overhead, chased by a couple of meteorites.  Everything was beautiful and perfect.

The next thing I remember is looking at a fierce and angry woman in a tight-fitting black leather bodysuit, vaguely reminiscent of The Matrix films. We were apparently in the middle of a heated argument. I, in a floor length black leather overcoat with the collar turned up, grabbed her by the shoulder as she turned to stalk off. “You know what they call you behind your back,” I angrily demanded, “inefficient hellion!” “Yeah,” she spat back at me, “you know what they call YOU behind your back……….sideways hypothermia!!!!!!!” And then I jerked awake. It was a dream. Curled into a fetal position, I was shivering uncontrollably with the sleeping bag still down by my waist and my glasses still on my face. Cold air was snaking down canyon under crystalline stars, over my head and into my open bag. It felt like it was no more than 20 degrees outside. I WAS on the verge of hypothermia. I pulled the down jacket onto my torso, first taking a windstopper beanie and microfleece gloves from its pockets and slipping them on. Then I buried myself deep into my bag and zipped it entirely up to my nose. Some minutes later I finally stopped shivering and fell back into a deep sleep unburdened by dreams of The Matrix.
« Last Edit: August 03, 2017, 05:53:54 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #10 on: December 16, 2016, 04:50:19 PM »
Persimmon Gap rain gauge.
« Last Edit: December 16, 2016, 11:27:46 PM by RichardM »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #11 on: December 16, 2016, 04:51:54 PM »
Approaching Dog Canyon with The Rockslide on the left.
« Last Edit: December 16, 2016, 11:28:38 PM by RichardM »
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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #12 on: December 16, 2016, 04:53:33 PM »
Sunset above Camp 1 near the mouth of Dog Canyon.
« Last Edit: December 16, 2016, 11:29:27 PM by RichardM »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline jasonmerlo

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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #13 on: December 16, 2016, 05:01:53 PM »
House, that was me you met on Old Maverick Road in the silver truck. I knew after we drove away that you had to be a member here. Glad you made it back okay.


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Re: Round the Bend in 14 Days
« Reply #14 on: December 16, 2016, 05:07:48 PM »
Jason! You're a prince. You're a star in my story. Wait for it.  :icon_wink:
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

 


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