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Short Reflections & Lessons Learned

In no particular order or priority…

Filled with doubt

For the first three days of the trip I battled a considerable amount of doubt about whether I wanted to, or should be, on this trip. After all, it would have been far easier to watch television and eat Doritos for a month than it was to hike 800 miles (without a day off) through rugged and remote terrain. And, while I don’t have a “real” job or “grown-up” responsibilities (e.g. spouse, kids, mortgage), there were definitely things on my To Do that had to be temporarily tabled so that I could leave. On Day 4 some of this doubt finally started to subside—by that point I had hiked enough miles and had invested enough effort (and blood, courtesy of some common desert plants) to feel more committed to the project. With each passing day I became ever more convinced that I absolutely wanted to, and should be, on this hike—a sentiment that was more in line with how I felt while planning for the trip, when was I greatly looking forward to getting out again.

Where’s my appetite?

Normally it takes about a week for my “hiker’s appetite” to kick in, when my body finally recognizes that the caloric deficit it’s been experiencing is not a short-term situation and when the monstrous daily efforts are no longer such shocks to the system that my body temporarily forgets that it needs to be fed calories. On this trip, however, it took about three weeks to feel “ravenous,” for which I can think of two possible explanations. First, I changed my diet to be less bar-based, more diverse, with new menu items like oat bran sticks, wasabi peas, corn nuts, trail mix, and yogurt-covered raisins. Perhaps my body was more satisfied by the greater assortment of food. Second, I may not have been burning as many calories as usual: the Hayduke Trail is not especially physically demanding (see below)—the Sierra High Route, and even the Appalachian Trail, have much more calorie-demanding up-and-down terrain; and I was limited to hiking just 11-13 hours per day due to the limited amount of daylight, not my usual 15-16 hours.

The importance of defining trip objectives

As a meticulous planner I am prone to getting bogged down in the weeds of the planning process, i.e. I forget to occasionally look up from my robust Excel planning spreadsheet and ensure that what I’m planning is actually what I want to eventually execute. The question, “What are my objectives in doing this trip?” is critical, and at least some semblance of a definitive answer should be established early on. (It’s okay to add or modify objectives as you go—that’s part of the process, and it’s better to do it before you leave than after you’re already on the trail.)

I didn’t define my objectives early enough on this trip and I experienced some unnecessary hang-ups as a result. I eventually concluded that I had two objectives: (1) get out a long-ish and fairly challenging trip, and (2) experience the Colorado Plateau.

Knowing exactly what I hoped to get from this trip would have helped in at least two instances. Example #1: I debated about my exact route up until two weeks prior to my departure, with the biggest issue being whether I was going to do the entire Hayduke Trail and the Grand Canyon Traverse, or whether I was going to do most of the Hayduke plus the GC Traverse. I was drawn to the former so that I could “check” the Hayduke off my list. But when I considered my objectives, I decided on the latter: it was a less bulky and more elegant route (completing the entire Hayduke would have required a long, relatively unrewarding trip across the Arizona Strip), and I didn’t really care about completing the entire Hayduke Trail anyway. Example #2; I unwisely decided that I would follow the Hayduke Trail through several snowbound areas (namely the Henry Mountains and Bryce Canyon National Park) and sent snowshoes to myself at Hite Marina so that I could do that. But when I received the snowshoe package at Hite, I realized again that there was very little value in following the exact Hayduke Trail—I really just wanted to see the Colorado Plateau—and that I should have planned a low-elevation route around these snowbound areas so that I could avoid snowshoeing, which I’ve done enough to know that it’s much more arduous than hiking. I carried the 3.5-pound snowshoes for 180 miles from Hite to Escalante, where I sent them home after identifying a low-elevation alternate around Bryce, which I should have just done before I started.

Wildlife

I was expecting to see more wildlife than I did, making the land feel somewhat empty to me. I wonder if my expectations were out of line, if it was just too early in the season (February and March) for the wildlife to be active, if there’s currently a cyclical downturn with certain animal populations (e.g. coyote and rabbit), or if I was just hiking too “fast” (at a dizzying 3 mph). Wildlife that I did see…a skunk in Pariah Canyon, a group of bull elk at the head of Young’s Canyon, Supai horses on the Esplanade in the Grand Canyon west of Great Thumb Mesa, burros in the bottom of Matkatamiba Canyon, a mostly intact skeleton of a big horn sheep on the Esplanade, a few herds of mule deer; very few lizards, no snakes, and no rodents.

Snow

Even though the Colorado Plateau is arid, it’s still amply high to receive snow in the winter, and it’s cold enough for the snow to stick well into the spring. So I knew that I would encounter snow, though I didn’t know exactly how much or exactly where—I had my guesses, but precipitation in the desert is hardly a consistent thing. The snowline was generally at about 7,000 feet, though I’d find snow and ice as low as 5,500 feet on north-facing slopes or heavily shaded canyon bottoms. There was never enough snow to make snowshoes worthwhile (I post-holed up to my knees for short sections in the Henry’s and on the Kaiparowits, but it was faster to post-hole than it was to put on and then take off the snowshoes.), but there was enough to really increase the pucker factor on some of the technical scrambles (e.g. pour-offs in Butler Wash and Young’s Canyon). At the higher elevations, mud may have been more of a nuisance than the snow—it was sticky and slick.

A technically difficult, but not physically difficult, hike

The Hayduke Trail is generally not a difficult trail to hike—the terrain is relatively flat (roads, washes, contours around canyon rims, etc.), and even the biggest climbs (e.g. the Henry Mountains, the Sundance Trail in Dark Canyon) would be standard fare if you came across them on another long-distance trail like the Pacific Crest or Appalachian. True, the lack of frequent water sources and resupply points mean that water and food loads will be greater, but it’s not enough to offset the lack of up-and-down terrain. The reason that only capable and experienced backpackers should attempt the Hayduke Trail is because it is very technically demanding—you need to precisely read a map, since there are no blazes, few trails signs, and several occasions there is only one way to move forward (e.g. one way into or out of Fiddler’s Cove Canyon); you need to efficiently route-find across trail-less terrain; you need to pick your way comfortably through steep rubble fields and to climb/descend Class 3 and 4 terrain; you need to accurately calculate how much water and food you will need to carry between reliable water sources and resupply points; and you need to have a basic understanding of how weather can affect water sources, produce flash floods, or result in extremely different conditions at higher/lower elevations. As is said in the HDT guidebook and on the HDT website, this really is only a route for advanced and/or ambitious/promising intermediate backpackers.

Quietness

I was continually awed by how quiet it was out there, to the point of sometimes stopping me in my tracks. I’m not sure if the Colorado Plateau is especially quiet—it may be, as there is hardly any running water, little airplane traffic overhead, and few rustling leaves—or if I have become accustomed to constant noise: the hum of a refrigerator, the acceleration of the public bus from the stop outside of my house, the newscast coming from my computer speakers, etc. Not every day was quiet—some days were so windy that my trekking poles produced a constant whistle—but many were.

Critical items need to work

For the first 380 miles I wore a pair of Vasque Aether Tech shoes, which I wore to primarily assess the performance of its Boa Lacing System. I wasn’t thrilled about the fit of the shoes—they were looser in the toebox than I would have preferred—but I liked everything else about them: the outsole reached a good balance between stiffness and sensitivity, the all-mesh upper was very breathable, and they were lightweight. Sadly, just 120 miles from the start, the mesh upper began ripping at the top of my big toe, at the lower-inner corner of the lacing system, rendering the lacing system useless—the tighter I cranked on the laces, the more pressure I put on the rip and the bigger I made the hole. When I rolled into Hite (mi 150) I thought there was no way that the shoes would make it another 180 miles to Escalante and I had an emergency pair sent to Hanksville, which was not an original resupply point but which I could get to via a tough 20-mile hitch on low-traffic Highway 95 (mi 195). Between mi 120 and 195 I tried to keep the shoes together with silicone glue, Krazy Glu, and duct tape; and I was successful enough that when I reached Highway 95 and waited unsuccessfully on a hitch for 90 minutes, I said, “They’ll have to make it.” This became an experiment of sorts for me—it was interesting to observe how I responded to dysfunctional gear on which I was very dependent, in terms of how I preserved the remaining functionality and how I mentally coped with the situation. I was forcing myself to be more self-reliant, more resourceful with what I had, and to just make do, even if it was not a perfect system. The prospect that the shoe could fail entirely was stressful, and the loose fit had a similar effect to a chronic injury: it was a bothersome, stressful nuisance.

Shadows of humanity

I saw many signs of past human use of the Colorado Plateau—petroglyphs, mining tracks and tailing piles, pioneer wagon tracks, old corrals and cowboy camps, and even an arrowhead. I was in awe that so many civilizations managed to succeed out there despite how uninhabitable it is—it’s too dry and too hot, and there’s too little shade, to be comfortable, as far as I’m concerned. Modern man only visits these places temporarily before returning to a more plush existence, and I have to wonder whether we’re actually tough enough to cope with these conditions if we were forced to permanently. It seems like we have gotten really soft, really quickly.

Maximum functional efficiency

When I began this trip my pack weighed 11-12 pounds, minus food and water, which was admirably light for a trip such as this. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed sending home another 1-2 pounds of gear from Escalante after concluding that I did not need it—partly because it was 1-2 pounds that I no longer had to carry, but mostly because I was now even closer to achieving “maximum functional efficiency,” which I’ll define as doing what needs to be done using as little as possible. It’s an objective that permeates my backpacking trips and my civilian life—getting rid of “stuff,” focusing on things that really matter.

Dreams of a cattle-less Colorado Plateau

I believe that the situation is better now than it used to be, but the effect of cattle on some areas of the Colorado Plateau is heartbreaking—I walked past dozens of otherwise beautiful canyons, washes, basins, and springs that have been completely despoiled by cow patties, cattle trails, and the rotting carcasses of bovines that didn’t make it through the winter. I’m specifically thinking of canyons like Harris Wash and Hackberry Canyon, which stand in stark contrast to pristine areas like Coyote Wash and Canyonlands National Park. I recognize the historical use of the Colorado Plateau as pasture, as well as the economic importance of cattle to rural areas in the West, and the relatively few hikers who would actually benefit from an unspoiled Colorado Plateau experience, but the situation is nevertheless frustrating.

Timing for a HDT hike

I certainly do not regret doing this hike when I did—it was when I most needed to get out, and when I could most conveniently get out. But I do not think that I experienced optimal trail conditions and I would recommend to other potential hikers that they pick a different time of year. By doing the HDT in late-February and March I benefited from a relative abundance of water, cool temps, little recreational traffic, no bugs, and no fresh cow patties covering my favorite campsites (under pinyon pine or juniper trees). However, lingering winter ice and snow caused access and enjoyment issues that I would happily have done without. For example, I had to bypass Bryce Canyon National Park because I didn’t have snowshoes; I slipped and slid on muddy roads atop the Kaiparowits Plateau; I feared taking a fatal fall in Young’s Canyon while scrambling up Class 3 sandstone cliff bands; and I was approaching the early stages of hypothermia when I exited the snow- and ice-filled Round Valley Draw slot canyon. I believe that the ideal time to hike the HDT is late in the fall, when the temperatures are again cool, when water is again abundant (after the monsoons), and when there are no lingering winter conditions. If one were to go later in the spring (April and May), temps will be warmer, water sources will be drying up, and winter conditions will still be encountered in Bryce, Zion, and the Henry’s.

Expect to get dirty

The Hayduke Trail is a dirty hike. If it’s dry, sand gets everywhere—it gets blown about by the wind, and it magnetically sticks to gear and clothing. If it’s wet, then the sand becomes sticky mud, which coats shoes, legs, shelters, and pack bottoms.

Temporarily abandoning CFP

In order to see some of Bryce National Park without having to swim through snow, I decided to take a 16-mile out-and-back hike up Willis Creek before following Skutumpah Road south at a lower elevation along the park’s eastern boundary. This out-and-back was a major violation of CFP, or “constant forward progress,” which is deeply engrained in my hiking style—I could not remember the last voluntary detour or side trip that I had been on during a major hike. The outcome was positive—I had a great campsite, saw a great sunrise, and didn’t lose too much time or run out of food early—but I don’t think that I am likely to become less dedicated to CFP anytime soon.

Everything went my way

Outside of single pair of shoes that deteriorated prematurely, it seemed that everything went my way on this trip. A few examples…I had just enough time to complete the whole route, between my housemate’s ultra-race in Moab and a former teammate’s wedding in North Carolina. I managed to receive trail magic when I was craving it: from Vincent, Mags, and Chad in Round Valley Draw; from Dean at Nankoweap Trailhead; and from the cowboy in House Rock Valley. All of my supply packages arrived on time and intact. There had been just enough snowmelt in the Henry Mountains to allow a snowshoe-less passage. And it rained during my first night on the Esplanade, filling up many of the potholes that I was depending on to have water.

Long-distance hiking improves mental health

This hike was long enough for me to remove myself from my fixed, day-to-day thinking. I was able to take a step back and gain a new perspective, to debate all of the absolutes and firm convictions, to question everything at its most fundamental level. On this trip, for example, I thought a lot about my profession—what trips I most want to do, how I’m going to keep paying the bills (especially in this economy), and how I can extend myself into non-backpacking outdoor adventures (e.g. ski touring). My profession is frequently on my mind, but rarely am I able to get such a fresh, clear perspective about it.

3 Comments

  1. David on February 15, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Thanks for the information Andrew! This is one of my favorite hikes of yours along with the High Sierra route. I was wondering how your low profile trail running shoes held up on this trip. A lot of things I have read strongly advise having a shoe with ankle support for any hiking in the Grand Canyon. I know that by your nature you would never wear a shoe like that, but I’m heading to the Grand Canyon in a month with a base weight of 13 pounds (for 4 nights) and I’d love to wear my Montrail trail runners. Just wondering if you had any advice from your experiences. Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka on February 16, 2012 at 1:28 am

      Of course a lot of the things you’ve read about the GC advise you to wear boots. I’m sure they also recommend water filter pumps, burly suspension packs, and a 4-season tent. Ultimately you need to determine what gear is appropriate for you, given your comfort requirements and your skills. But I certainly will never be seen hiking in the Grand Canyon in boots, at least not if my goal is to enjoy hiking around down there. I would encourage you to give your Montrail trail runners a shot, especially if you have used them enough to trust them.

      • david on February 22, 2012 at 8:02 am

        Thanks for the reply Andrew. I have decided on the trail runners and couldn’t be more excited. Thanks for all of the helpful information and inspiration!

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