Sunday, January 5, 2014

Down the Drainage

Over the weekend J and John and Brian and Katie and I headed for a relaxing ski-/snowshoe-in weekend in an undisclosed yurt in an undisclosed Utah mountain range.

We had two options for reaching the yurt: a) skiing on a closed and pretty much idiot-proof road or b) a short pleasant ski on a trail followed by a long bushwhack up a creek drainage. Needless to say, we chose the latter. Humans are incorrigible optimists, and thus, regardless of how many times in the past John had turned a pleasant stroll into a white-knuckle adventure, we trusted him when he wrote in an email just before we left:

"I'm not seeing a coffee shop in XXX ... how about let's meet at 1:00 PM at the bridge where XXX Highway crosses the XXX? This should get us to the yurt before dark with plenty of margin for error."

Flash forward, pictured here, to said margin of error circa 6:30 p.m. Friday (hint: we haven't arrived at the yurt yet): 

I'm all for the time-honored tradition of finding a supreme and properly short pre-trail espresso, but maybe instead of worrying about that we should have spent a little time with the map. 

But actually, if you're wondering why we seem so happy in the above photo, this is because it captured the best moment of the trip: the instant when we reached the path on the way to the yurt and thus finally knew for sure that we weren't going to spend the night in the woods walking 50 minutes per hour to prevent frostbite (says the guy who has already had frostbite). John was so happy that he shotgunned a beer before proceeding. Let's just say that we had a little more adventure than we bargained for.

The afternoon had started out with a beautiful ski. Though maybe, as shown by his expression here in the parking lot, John might have had a sense things would go awry from the outset.

After a mile or so of actually kicking and gliding it was time to leave the trail and switch from skis to snowshoes. No problem so far, especially after a WheatThinspause, to invent a German word.

As you can tell, J is accustomed to stopping for Wheat Thins in strange places. The slog went fine for a while, until it dawned on us that breaking track on snowshoes is hard work -- despite the relatively poor snow year, it was over a foot deep in most places and at some points up to J's waist -- and especially when some of us were carrying very heavy telemark skis. And especially when we were bushwhacking up steep hills full of crappy brush and small trees. When we turned off the trail, we were only about 3/4ths of a mile from our destination, but, after establishing a pace of about a half-hour per tenth of a mile, it was pretty clear we weren't going to make it in by nightfall. Of course, there are advantages to staying out on the trail too late ...

After a bit farther we made the decision to ditch our skis, which at least gave us the chance of sleeping before midnight. Look, J and I love winter hiking with headlamps and full packs carrying skis somewhat lost as much as anyone (it's hard with a GPS to be really lost, of course), but the low-point was definitely the scramble up one last steep, snow-free hill -- but at least here we learned that snowshoes are pretty effective on mud. Sometimes the best laid plans do down the drain(age) ... Finally, however, we reached the awesomeness (pictured the next morning).

And it's funny how steaks and quadruple ales in a yurt can make up for almost anything.

The steaks were tremendous. Not sure what John was reacting to here. 

It's also funny that the yurt had a disco ball.

Dirty socks and smoky air always make for good photos.

It's also funny -- or tragic -- that the biggest downside of the weekend ended up being not bushwhacking with headlamps in the cold but the unbelievably poor sleeping conditions. It seemed on the surface that the bunks had nice pads on them, but these pads turned out to be the hardest surface known to humans -- I think they were 1970s foam mattresses left to freeze in the yurt for 40 years. Between the rock-hard pads, and the resultant incessant human shuffling, and the snoring, and the temperature vacillating between 75 and 19 degrees (the latter when the fire went out), "this might be the worst night's sleep of the century," as I announced at 12:45, maybe 9 minutes after falling asleep for the first time, an hour before screaming, in response to John's snoring, "Hit him!", three hours before, bizarrely, I successfully and instantaneously shut John up with the simple command "John, stop snoring!", four hours before J said "the whole left side of my body is asleep, but the right isn't," and five hours before John said "I can feel every rib in my body." How strange and bad were the pads? Katie decided that she preferred to sleep on the floor, under the table. As she moved from the pad to the floor, Brian left the yurt -- and when he returned, apparently I asked in all seriousness, "Is that a moose at the door?" Later when I turned on my headlamp, Katie asked similarly whether there was a car outside.

The next morning, the men chivalrously set out to retrieve the skis. I mean, how manly is it when three guys stare at a GPS screen to make sure they don't get lost, and one guy points optimistically in the general direction to be taken? 

Speaking of groups of men, soon after we headed out we came across two surprisingly social male moose (sorry, small camera only).

Luckily the skis were no worse for the wear.

At this point, John could no longer take it, so he bailed back to his car via the flats, while Brian and I set out on the last bushwhack up to the yurt.

At this point, we had the option of a) another sleepless night, albeit in a gorgeous setting or b) an easy ski down the road, an espresso, a stop at a smoked trout shop, a warm restaurant, and what became, as predicted, no exaggeration, a 12-hour sleep at home. We chose b. The weather changed during the ski from snowstorm to too sunny for good photos. 

It was unfortunate that Katie missed the moose in the woods, but the restaurant made up for that.

After trudging up those hills in the snow, we have new-found respect for moose -- and a new aversion to the word drainage.


  1. Hmm, sounds like our trip to Indian Lake last fall… just substitute in, for cause of lack of sleep, barking dogs and crying one-and-a-half year old (and then, the next day, an impending wind and lightning apocalypse). No shame in bailing after one night! Spectacular shots, though. When do you actually have to go back to Kansas to do some work?

    1. Wow Andy -- a professor perpetuating the myth of professors "off" on breaks! I am telling the union (oh wait, we have no union). I am starting to work on a paper I have promised to give entitled "Malthus on the Great Plains." Granted, I am not much further along than "He was not very popular."