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Death Hollow

Our backpack would begin near the Boulder Airport in Utah. Airport security failed to confiscate our liquids (water and bourbon) and even more spectacularly failed to keep us off the runway.

I left Paul and our backpacks at a Starbucks near the international terminal (read: in the middle of nowhere) and drove a dozen miles down the highway to the Escalante River where I dumped his Jeep in the reeds and started to walk and hitchhike back up the road. A lovely lady from Holland traveling with two toddlers picked me up and cut my walking dramatically. My own country men couldn’t be counted on today to help a fellow out.

By noon we were clear for departure and started down the Boulder Mail Trail. Early pinion and juniper forest gave way to slick rock hiking as we neared the Sweetwater/Sand Creek drainage.

Somewhere around here we crossed paths with an old telegraph line which became fodder for many jokes at the expense of AOL forums.

Before diving down into Death Hollow itself, we took a side trip up a stone knob for an amazing view into the upper canyon.

Back on the Boulder Mail Trail we followed it to a cairn placed on the edge of the earth, before following the carved out ledge that we carefully followed down into the canyon.

On the way down we passed two hikers, they’d be the last people to see us enter Death Hollow. We decided to skip the first campsite we saw and hunt for something better. The first of numerous creek crossings quickly came up so we switched to sandals and survived our Death Hollow initiation.

Luckily for us we located camp right at happy hour. Which meant the bourbon load would weigh less on our shoulders tomorrow. Which meant we could hike faster and eventually get back to civilization about the time the bourbon ran out. I love it when a plan comes together.

Normally I might sleep lightly in a canyon where flash flooding can be a major concern. However, our forecast looked clear and Paul assured me that his tent was rated for debris flow.

The next morning we woke looking forward to the highlight of the 3 day trip – our passage down Death Hollow through some narrows and beautiful scenery.

The temperatures were warm enough that we quickly stopped trying to rock hop across every bend in the stream, and took to wading liberally in the creek in our sandals and neoprene socks. A few long wading sections we discovered were due to beaver dams.

After quite a few creek crossings and much dodging of poison ivy we came to our deepest crossing of the day. I volunteered to scout it out sans-pack, and found the muddy water to be only mid-thigh deep. All our other crossings had been knee-deep or less so far.

Around noon we stopped for a lunch break somewhere – neither one of us had really been paying enough attention to the map to know exactly where we were at this point. Our navigation was pretty easy, just head downstream.

Shortly after lunch we did cross a big side stream which I figured was Mamie Creek. Below this point Death Hollow would get narrower and the rains from 2 weeks ago would decide just how hard our passage would be.

We’d already found a couple trash bags, tossed around in the recent flooding but surprisingly intact and filled with sand. We’d dug those out and packed them out like good LNT hikers. But when I came across two blue external frame packs that was a bit much to pack out. We could have helped our selves to a sierra cup and spork, but left those items with the pack thinking that scounging anything from this bounty would be bad juju.

The first real waterfall in the canyon soon presented itself, so I broke out the tripod and 10-stop filter for a long exposure.

Half wading, half balancing on a narrow shelf we passed through the following narrows section.

We managed to get through without slipping into the deep pool of water and testing our dry bags.

Hiking the rest of the canyon was a little more enjoyable knowing we’d passed through the one area that could give us the most trouble already. And there was certainly plenty of Neature left in the canyon, including water snakes and water ouzels.

We hit the junction with the main Escalante perfectly for happy hour (this is becoming a habit). We found a perfectly flat campsite on a sandy bench surrounded by cottonwoods and investigated a nearby set of pictographs. We also madea point of pulling our drinking water from Death Hollow as it was much clearer than the muddy Escalante.

We may have been two days out and hadn’t seen another soul for more than 24 hours, but don’t let that fool you. There was certainly an element of glamping, after all, we had two fine bourbons to taste and Paul whipped up some salmon croquets for our dinner.

However, the glamping theme was a little put out by the wind and cold that came in as we cooked our croquets. And next morning’s cold wade across the Escalante for more of that Death Hollow water was bracing. But by 9am we were off and headed down canyon. Before too long we heard a chainsaw and came across a volunteer crew out removing invasive tamarisk trees from the canyon. The Escalante had also seen a lot of flooding two weeks ago and many debris piles had be to dodged as we bushwhacked between the creek and the higher banks.

We ran into some day hikers just as we reached the significant landmarks of this stretch of the Escalante – the Escalante Natural Arch and Bridge and some Anasazi ruins.

After this trip and our spring visit to Grand Gulch we were starting to formulate our own theories of the Anasazi’s defensive cliff dwellings and sudden disappearance. I’ll share just two words with this readership while we wait for our peer-reviewed article to find a home in the appropriate scholarly journal: zombie apocalypse.

The last two miles were fraught with dangers as we had nearly emptied the last of our flasks and wondered if we could make the town of Escalante before going dry. Fortunately, Paul’s Jeep remained where I’d left it 2 days before and crisis was adverted.

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Little Matterhorn

It had been too long since I’d done a proper scramble in the high peaks, but both Pete and I were getting over a week of sickness and we needed something not too long. Looking through Cooper’s “Colorado Scrambles” guide we decided on a hike and scramble to the “summit” of Little Matterhorn.

Bear Lake is a perennially crowded parking lot in Rocky Mountain National Park, but at 7:30am there were still plenty of spaces. The hike towards Odessa Lake allowed us to warm up and catch up on the last month. Before long we were headed off on an unmarked trail to Grace Falls, passing a group of 3 also bound for Little Matterhorn. From the falls we started the ugly part of the climb, a traversing ascent up a slope of unstable talus. The route we took definitely wasn’t optimal and required us to drop some hard won elevation as we tried to contour closer to our goal.

The climb up to the ridge from the point of the photo above was much more pleasant. The blocks where more stable and easier to scramble upon. Finally we hit the ridge and started in on the real joy.

Our initial attempt to stay on the ridge crest was quickly quashed and we detoured to the north side of the ridge to find a less extreme passage.

At the next notch we got back on the crest and mostly stayed there to the end.

The “summit” of this un-ranked peak is a step down from the ridge and involves the trickiest climbing of the day. To get down we squeezed through a chimney without packs. On the return trip we followed a crack system with great handholds but plenty of exposure.

A little worried about what the weather could bring, we hurried back along the ridge and then down the more stable blocks. Scouting the terrain from above we picked a lower line that had us traverse through the worst of the loose slopes to the grassy edges for an easier descent.

Once back at the falls it was an easy walk downhill to end a great hike and scramble.

Tara and I volunteered to help crew and pace Chris at his first 100 mile ultramarathon, the Leadville 100. The race started at 4am from the town of Leadville, an event we missed as we were still sleeping in another mountain town over the divide then. We easily found the Pipeline crew access point (2 miles north of the Half Pipe aid station – no crew allowed there) and met Brad and others crewing for Chris and soon our runner showed up.

He was in and out pretty quickly and our group packed up to head to the 40 mile point of the race at the town of Twin Lakes. There we setup on the edge of town with the gear we could haul to the site from a mile or so out of town, which was the closest we could park.

Chris came in looking good prior to the big climb up and over Hope Pass to the halfway point of the race.

He was a little disappointed that we didn’t have any of his pre-cooked tortellini for him saying “But I always eat tortellini when I climb over passes.”

Prepped with various non-tortellini foods, Skratch labs drink mix, clean socks and freshly bandaged blisters he headed out in good spirits.

Pacers are allowed for the second half of this race and Brad had already selected the soul-crushing climb back over Hope Pass from 50-60 miles to pace. Now that we were all gathered I organized the other pacers for the remaining 40 miles – Kristoffer, Tara, myself, Erin, and Michelle. Since I hadn’t really run in nearly 2 months since severely spraining my ankle I was hoping to get off with a small segment to pace. Due to the way schedules shook out, I ended up with the 10 mile leg between Outward Bound and May Queen aid stations that would involve a 2,000 foot climb up Powerline to Sugarloaf Pass. At least coming 3/4ths of the way into the race I figured Chris wouldn’t be moving too fast.

Brad, Tara and I quickly left Twin Lakes to drive around to Winfield not realizing what a traffic mess the roads around Winfield would be. With 2.5 miles still to drive to the aid station it was looking like we’d never get there in time to meet and pace Chris. So Brad and I loaded up a couple backpacks with food (including tortellini this time), clothes and water, plus Brad’s own gear to pace, and set out on a forced march up the dirt road. Tara eventually parked the car off the road and hiked in to join us as well. Chris came in looking a little worn out but Brad’s company soon brought him around and he passed many people going up Hope Pass on the return trip and threatened to outrun Brad. Tara and I scored a ride back down the 2.5 miles of road to our car then drove around to Twin Lakes, ate a bit of dinner and were soon surprised by an early arrival of Chris and a worn out Brad. Kristoffer took over pacing for the next 12 miles and the rest of us scattered to Pipeline or other more comfortable places to nap through the night.

At Pipeline I concentrated on eating and staying hydrated knowing my pacing leg was coming up and tried to catch a little sleep in the field as runners came through to meet their crews. Chris arrived feeling sluggish (the downhills were hurting him by now) and dehydrated. Tara had the next 3.5 miles to pace and force liquids on him while I drove ahead to Outward Bound and got ready to “run”.

Tara had done her job well and Chris had consumed 20 oz or so of water in the hour jog and hike to Outward Bound. There we put him in a chair with his legs up, got him to drink some broth and eat a bit of real food while he started to come around a bit more. In fact, by the time we left the aid station he was fairly chatty and I was able to keep up a conversation on ultras and other adventures as we motored up the steep and sandy Powerline trail to Sugarloaf Pass. Chris was able to eat and drink through this segment and even run some of the flats and gentle downhills on the way into May Queen. There Erin took over pacing and Tara and I fought to get out of the mess of a parking situation and tired crew members. We barely located and reached the Tabor boat ramp by the time Chris hiked the 6 miles there to give him his last opportunity to switch layers and access his gear. Michelle took him the final 6 miles into town for a ~28.5 hour 100 miler. As much as Tara and I would have loved to be there at the finish, we were simply too exhausted after pacing all night and found an empty gravel parking lot to throw some sleeping bags down and sleep for 3 hours as dawn arrived.

Chris’s performance was inspiring and motivating – I’d be lying if there wasn’t an ember in me now burning to train for another ultra next year.

Before leaving Iceland, Tara and I had one final adventure. We boarded a Reykjavik Excursions bus in the morning for a 4 hour ride to Landmannalaugar – supposed to be one of the most beautiful spots in Iceland. We were on the bus since the road there is semi-rough but also includes a few stream fords that generally require specialized vehicles. Once we arrived we were told there was a big storm coming and we should get our tent up in a hurry. Also, a popular 4-day hut-to-hut route that half the bus riders were planning to depart on was closed.

Despite having a rental tent of a brand that Tara and I had never seen before, we quickly had a shelter erected and storm worthy.

Other couples nearby were engaged in a screaming match while trying to keep their tent from blowing away. Tara did comment that the brand of the tent (Helsport) was a little to close to “Hell spot”, a place she probably thought I’d just brought her.

Regardless, the storm brought some wind but wasn’t on par with a thunderstorm in the Midwest or Rocky Mountains. Once it seemed to have largely passed we took a short hike through the lava field above camp.

I spent the hike trying to figure out which mountains were which and forming some tentative plans for the next day (whose weather was supposed to be better).

Around 4am we woke up and the sky was clearing. Tara went back to sleep but I got up and decided to hike to Mount Brennisteinsalda. The start of the hike was the coldest, as I approached by the side of the lava field following a stream. Higher up at the base of the mountain I reached an active geothermal area.

While the clouds were still hanging around the views were amazing.

After two hours I’d made my way back to camp and crawled into bed for a nap. By the time camp really woke up and we’d had breakfast the sky was much clearer. Tara was game for a hike so we decided to do the closer, but higher peak Bláhnúkur.

The hike up when pretty quickly then we descended the far side of the peak on a rougher trail.

Not wanting to wade through the icy stream, we spent a long time walking upstream to make a route through braided channels and emerge on the other side with mostly dry feet.

Back at camp we lounged around for a while before taking down the tent when it looked like it could rain soon. For shelter we jumped on the bus early with 1000 yard stares finally ready to leave Iceland for the next stage of our trip.

After leaving Höfn we headed north on Iceland’s Route 1. By now I knew the many dangers of Icelandic driving. For starters outside of Reykjavik the road is pretty much only 1 lane in each direction (I think I saw one passing lane once). There’s no shoulder and a handful of people who seem to think that bike touring on this route would be fun. Sheep will graze right by the road and dart into it when you approach. Many people drive in the center of the road way only moving over when there is oncoming traffic (see sheep above). There are many one lane bridges. Some sections are gravel with grades of 12%. Finally, plenty of people seem to think it’s okay to park on the road and walk away from their vehicle to take photos.

Besides a stop in Breiðdalsvík for lunch I think we spent most of the day driving. By the time we reached our farm house outside of Egilsstaðir we were trying to muster up the motivation to drive out to the coast and see a cute town nestled down in a fjord. On the way out of town we figured we’d been driving too much and we should just stop at a little trailhead we saw and take a short hike.

Dinner was low-key and in a gas station (better than you might think, but definitely not lamb and lobster) and we were just excited to get some laundry done and have the guest house largely to ourselves. On the road again the next morning we drove through desolate highlands (you know it’s desolate when you don’t even see sheep) on the way into Mývatn. We did a short hike through a geothermal area as we came into town then stopped at the Mývatn nature baths – hands down the best hot springs we visited in Iceland.

In town we stopped for lunch at a cafe and ran into the Spanish group again. Then we headed around the lake to the lava field Dimmuborgir to start a hike.

We hiked north to the crater Hverfell, and looped around it’s rim before hiking back.

At over 6 miles it was a long hike for my recently injured ankle, but it held up fine even if I was moving more cautiously and slower than normal.

We then left Mývatn (one of the places that we could have easily spent several days) to the evening’s guest house. Up early the next morning we headed to the northern coastal town of Húsavík for a three hour whale watching tour.

Grey, cold and wet defined our tour and once we hit the swells people started to get sick.

We probably saw as many people get sick as we saw whales (about 6-8 of each), but Dramamine and starting at the horizon kept Tara and I from getting ill.

Still we were both glad to get off the boat and warm up at the end of the tour. We will recommend the whale museum in Húsavík. Then it was back in the car for a drive east across northern Iceland to our last farm stay. On the way we stopped at one more impressive waterfall – Goðafoss.

And one final church in the town of Blönduós.

We stayed at Gauksmýri guesthouse and horse ranch, which was one of our favorites of the trip. Again, we wished we had a couple days to relax here and do some horse back riding. We did at least walk out to their bird hut.

On our final day of driving we stopped in Hvammstangi to buy some food for our next adventure then completed the drive to Reykjavik in increasingly rainy and windy conditions.

Before returning the car we visited the delightfully bloody Saga Museum which gave us an episodic view of Icelandic history.

After three wet days in Reykjavik, Tara and I were ready to leave town and see more of the country. We’d booked a 6 day driving tour of Iceland through Icelandic Farm Holidays and they’d arranged our itinerary. After picking up the rental car (a VW we promptly called Veronica) and the GPS navigation system (the insistent voice of Samantha) Tara drove us out of Reykjavik initially heading to the north and east. Before long she turned over the driving duties and fell asleep in the passenger seat. This would be our normal operating procedure for the next 5 days – I start driving, enjoying the scenery and Tara falls asleep to wake up whenever I stop the car for something really good.

In this way we drove to Geyser – a geyser so famous it gave its name to all other such features. Unfortunately, it irregularly erupts these days but the neighboring Strokkur was more obliging.

Then we continued to one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls (and that’s saying something in this country), Gullfoss.

After being sufficiently awed by the scenery, we returned to the rural roads to reconnect with the main ring road (Route 1). More waterfalls awaited.

In a few days it would take a really impressive cascade to make me stop the car, otherwise I might have taken several extra days to complete our route.

This evening we’d have our first farm stay, where we were entertained by a group of Spaniards traveling nearly our same route (we’d first seen them at the Skógafoss waterfall earlier in the day).

To start the second morning of our trip we headed toward the town of Vik, stopping on the outskirts to do a short hike to the shore and a view of some sea stacks and arches out on the coast. The nearby basalt columns were also interesting, but watch out for the occasional wave!

We passed up the popular Skaftafell national part for a tractor ride out to the Ingólfshöfði peninsula (the first spot settled in Iceland). After riding across the tidal flats we hiked up a sandy slope for a short loop around the tip of the peninsula spotting thousands of puffins.

Back at the tractor we spotted a seal watching us from just off the beach.

The hike around the Ingólfshöfði peninsula turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Our next stop was one I had high hopes for – Jökulsárlón, a lake that receives the terminus of a glacier and is filled with floating growlers, bergy bits and other ice formations. The light was a little flat and the ice chunks further from shore than I was hoping, but still it was a pretty amazing stop.

Still, the fish soup at the cafe was excellent. We finished up our drive to the night’s farm but after checking in decided to head to Höfn, on the extreme southeast of Iceland, for dinner. We’d just missed their lobster festival, but still dinner (lamb and lobster) was fabulous, and I had my favorite Icelandic beer of the trip there.

We also visited the local pool/hot-springs in Höfn, which was quite nice. Then it was back to the farm for the evening.

The next morning we repeated the drive to Höfn, then finally turned north to explore new territory on the east and north of the island.

Reykjavik

Because we didn’t already have enough to do after our wedding I went out for a trail run two days before we left for our honeymoon and nearly broke my ankle on a rocky descent. A two mile hobble back to the trailhead, following by swelling and bruising and x-rays really tested the “in sickness and in health” clause of our nuptials. Confined to a large boot my packing got easier as I’d only need shoes for my right foot.

Despite the lack of mobility we made it to Reykjavik, Iceland on schedule and jet lagged. With a couple days to explore the city and get used to 21 hours of daylight (actually, I never saw darkness the entire time we spent in Iceland) we hit some of the standard sights like hot springs, churches and museums, especially the odd Icelandic Phallological Museum.

We’d both signed up for a short urban sprint orienteering race and set out to badly represent team USA against the favored Scandinavian athletes. I moved down to a course designed for 10-16 year olds and first timers, but it seemed more suitable to my current gait. At least the sun came out and lit up the town from the finish area at the University of Iceland.

Despite fearing that I’d never sleep given the lack of night, I found that without any real sunrise or sunset I was able to sleep 9 or more hours a night. I pondered the idea of moving to Iceland while Tara wondered when we’d see temperatures above 50F.

I had been given a special mission before this trip, to seek out and taste Hákarl – essentially rotten shark, which Anthony Bourdain called “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten. At Saturday fleamarket we located a small taster of shark bits and Tara armed herself with my camera in burst mode to capture the reaction. The first bite had a firm texture and wasn’t awful. Maybe like a really strong, if somewhat fishy cheese. I mistakenly went for a 2nd bite and got something mushy and really rotten.

It would be hours until I’d get kissed again, and required a cleansing of gum, coffee, 2 meals and a few sessions with a toothbrush.

Mission accomplished we went horseback riding with Eldhestar for the afternoon.

After cleaning up at our guesthouse (the Alfholl – Elf Hotel), we headed out for a wonderful dinner.

Actually, almost all of our meals in Iceland were amazing (maybe it’s the mass quantities of butter everything gets cooked in?). But the Við Tjörnina was one of the highlights of our trip and made up for the country also producing rotten shark for consumption. The Við Tjörnina might have been even quirkier than rotten shark, at least in their decor.

Finally, we finished of our last night in Reykjavik with a soak in the hot springs in town and caught some evening sun.

The next morning I woke up semi-early for a couple long-exposure photos around town before we picked up a rental car to explore the rest of Iceland.