Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Lessons Learned Alone in the Grand Canyon
As a child, I had a picture book chronicling the adventures of Donald Duck and his three nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, on a camping trip in the woods. The details have gotten fuzzy in the 25 years since I last read it, but I remember the important points: Uncle Donald takes the ducklings backpacking along a river, where they set up camp. Donald choses to camp in a sandy spot on the river’s bank, while his nephews opt to pitch their pup tent on higher ground. As it tends to in children’s books, the inevitable occurs and it rains heavily overnight. Even as a child, I can recall the injustice of Donald—the kindly uncle—being at the brunt of the parable, his tent flooded and collapsed by morning while the ducklings slept snugly (and perhaps smugly) in their scout-worthy, flood-proof pitch.
I would think about this story for the first time in decades on my recent shakedown hike, a four day backpack along the Grand Canyon’s Escalante Route. Unfortunately—as would become abundantly clear when a windstorm brought my tent down around me in the middle of the night—I was undoubtedly Donald Duck.
For a complete description of Escalante Route–one of the Grand Canyon’s more remote, backcountry trails–and a day-by-day breakdown of my journey, see my full trip report, here. Rather than focusing on the details of the trip, this essay focuses on what I took away from it, and how I plan to apply these lessons as I continue planning for the PCT.
The Big Stuff
A shakedown hike is about a lot more than just gear.
On Fear, Grief, and Being Alone
I was afraid—or at least nervous or uncomfortable—for a substantial proportion of the hike. This took me by surprise. I consider myself a pretty gutsy person, one who’s not afraid to exit my comfort zone and try new things. But this route made me fear for my life in ways I didn’t expect. Some of this, I’m sure, were based on factors that are unique to me: as I’ve previously written about, my significant other died this year—at the horribly young age of 32—in a backcountry accident. In the ensuing time, I’ve spent a lot of time in the outdoors — on a 10-day trek of the Cordillera Huayhuash, an overnight backpack in the White Mountains, and countless day hikes — but had not been on a prolonged trip alone.
In the setting of this loss, (and even, perhaps, without it), the remoteness of the Escalante Route and the harshness of the environment were ever-present reminders of my own mortality. My pre-hike research had warned me about the 40 ft free-climb/scramble over the Papagos Wall, but I was surprised at the numerous precarious points of trail preceding the wall where a fall would have meant serious injury or death, particularly given the several days it would have taken someone to find me. For over two days, I didn’t see any hikers on trail (and saw no one at all other than rafters who briefly stopped on a beach), so if I’d injured myself badly, it might have been several days before anyone found me. My parents and friends had a detailed copy of my itinerary, so if they hadn’t heard from me by the evening of my final day, they would have known to call the park service, but the reality was that it might be days before rescue, days in which I might have had problems with severe dehydration given that most of the precarious spots were high above the only reliable water source, the Colorado.
I have been researching PLBs for the PCT (personal locator beacons, which send an SOS signal and GPS coordinates through government satellites when activated in the event of an emergency) and considered buying one prior to this trip but decided to defer. This was a huge mistake, as it likely would have afforded me some peace of mind. (Of course, these devices are never 100% effective, and the best way to stay safe in the backcountry is to avoid getting into situations in which you’d need to activate one, but they’re still better than nothing.)
My fear of injury, coupled with worries about my tent collapsing again, my hesitation to cowboy camp because of the aggressive canyon rodents (think of them crawling into your sleeping bag in the middle of the night — and trust me, these buggers would have) and my concerns about loosing the route (I wasted significant time on the third day by going more 3 miles off course) made for a generally uncomfortable and frankly stressful trip. A great deal of this might have been mitigated by having someone with me. When there’s someone else around you’re able to distribute the anxiety—like group gear weight—and you worry less because there’s someone else to worry with you, someone to talk things through and to reassure you (and for you to reassure) and to distract you from your fears. In the absence of this, I had to be wildly explicit with my reasoning and thought process. When I lost the trail, I even started talking out loud as I made a plan, not out of insanity (I hope), but in order to comfort myself with the reminder that I had one. It just takes a lot more energy and stress to do this all on your own.
On Grief and Being Alone
At eight months out from my significant other’s death last March, I can honestly say that I’m doing a lot better. I’m a walking, talking, contributing member of society, and on most days I feel like I’m really living again, rather than just going through the motions.
There’s nothing like being alone in the backcountry, occasionally fearing for your life, to strip this painfully acquired progress away. Without the ever-present distractions of work, friends, family, errands, life, I was left with abundant time to reflect on my loss. The desert is vast and uncompromising, offering little comfort. The huge expanses of sky that I’d grown to love as I child left me feeling exposed, as though the gaping hole across the earth I was navigating mirrored the one in my heart. This was exacerbated by the fact that V would have certainly have joined me on this trip (and his confidence and competence at all things in the backcountry would have gone a long way to assuage my nervousness), which made the loneliness of the trail feel all the more acute.
The Grand Canyon reminds you that you are tiny and insignificant, and coupled with the unrelenting memory that one of the strongest, most capable people I know had been swallowed by the power of the earth, there were times that it felt inevitable that I too would die out here.
Shake that Gear Down
If you’re interested, here’s what I packed.
What went well:
- I loved my pack, the Zpacks Arc Haul, and felt this trip really allowed me to refine how to pack it for maximal comfort.
- Altra Lone Peak 3.0: I’d been on the fence about how this shoe would work with a heavy pack on anything other than a well-groomed trail, but it did amazingly well on the rocky terrain and scrambling of the Escalante and left me convinced that it’s the footwear for me on the PCT.
- Darn Tough Light Hiker Quarter Socks: Wow. What a great sock.
- Neoair Xlite: I stand by my initial impression that this sleeping pad is a dream that is well worth the transitory lightheadedness required to inflate it each night. So comfy!
- Surviving stoveless (see problem two, below) went surprisingly well and I’m now once again thinking of going stoveless for much of the PCT. (This was my initial plan, but I was briefly swayed to the stove side of the force by visions of nightly hot chocolate and mac and cheese.).
- My layering system worked great. I wore a thin, Icebreaker 3/4 zip base layer top (a longtime favorite of mine, though it’s acquiring some holes), my old 750-fill down puffy by Mammut, and an OR Helium II rain jacket. When it got really cold in camp I wore all three, which worked well, and also liked the combination of the base layer and the Helium for hiking on cold evenings and mornings.
What needs fixing:
- Tent woes: My Zpacks Duplex collapsed in my face on a moderately windy night. I would normally have been ok with cowboy camping if it weren’t for the Grand Canyon’s Super Rodents (like Superman, but stealthier, capeless, and with sharper teeth capable of chewing through the most rugged of food bags and gear). I’m going to practice with it a little more, but the experience did leave me dreaming of free standing options.
- While it worked perfectly in my kitchen, my BRS stove wouldn’t fit tightly to the small fuel canister I’d purchased, making it unusable for anyone who prefers not to die in a giant fireball.
- Added pack weight: I brought too much food. Which ended up being a good thing, given the aforementioned stove problems, it was still really too much food. Which meant a heavier pack. I’ll need to plan for smaller portion sizes for the first couple of weeks of the PCT until hiker hunger sets in.
- My backpack’s load lifter straps slipped constantly on this trip. Zpacks apparently recommends safety pinning them, which I’ll try on my next voyage.
- While I really liked the fit, waterproofness, and weight-distribution of my pack, I discovered that it irritated the skin of my shoulders and back (a fact that was exacerbated by the fact that I was wearing a racer-back tank top.) This was fixed when I covered the skin with my base layer. I prefer to hike in sleeveless tank tops, but I’ll need to find one that covers my back and works well with my pack.
- Do I like trekking poles? I’m still figuring this out. They’re on my “must have” list for winter hiking (and if I keep the Duplex, they’re a required piece of my shelter), and while I do think I like the added stability and joint support they give me while carrying a heavy pack, I find them a nusence on narrow portions of trail or segments when a lot of scrambling is required. On the third day of my trip–when I knew I’d be doing a lot of hand-over-foot scrambling–I kept them in my pack, and enjoyed having my hands free.
What does this mean for the PCT?
As you may have picked up on, this trip was challenging for me—particularly psychologically—and not always in an enjoyable way. While I learned a tremendous amount, there were numerous times I wanted out: out of the canyon, the fear, the grief, the discomfort. There were times when I wondered whether the whole idea to hike to the PCT was insane.
While I did feel better by the trip’s end, and better for having toughed it out, I left the canyon feeling unsettled. I’ve spent months planning for my 2018 thru hike, but what if it has all been a mistake?
After reflecting on it, I’m once again looking forward to the journey. Here’s why.
Why the PCT Will Be Different:
Because I will make it different. The point of a shakedown hike is to figure out what does and doesn’t work, and that’s a principal that can and should be applied to a lot more than gear. With that in mind, I’ve outlined the big problems (or even smaller ones that just bug me) and the potential fixes I’m considering for them.
- Tent Solutions (tentlutions?): After my tent collapsed on me, I did feel a weird amount of anxiety on subsequent days about whether it would be too windy for me to set up (it took me an hour to pitch in the wind) or whether it would collapse again. This trickled into other aspects of my trip, like worrying about whether I would get into camp in the light for fear that it’d be tougher to get a good pitch in the dark (particularly when I camped on rocky surfaces). This may seem like a relatively minor concern, but I don’t want it to weigh me down on my thru hike. When I started planning for the PCT, I had wanted to be the badass hiker with a super lightweight pack and shelter from the get go, but maybe I’m not there yet. I want to have confidence that the shelter I bring will make it through the night, and don’t want to waste energy worrying about whether I’ll be able to get my stakes in the ground. As a result, I’m flirting with trading weight savings for peace of mind and considering selling my duplex and buying something in the Copper Spur family. A non-nuclear option would include purchasing and testing out new stakes and learning ways to pitch the Duplex on rock and sand.
- Fear of Death and Injury: Fortunately, the PCT is a well-developed, well-traveled trail and for the most part, I don’t expect it to have the same level of exposure and remoteness I experienced on the Escalante Route. The exception—and this a big but—to this is that due to my schedule constraints, I’ll be starting the trail on some of the toughest terrain—Washington—in early July, when large portions of trail will likely be covered in snow, making the exposed passes more technical and the navigation a challenge. The most important solution to this will be finding others to hike with during these challenging sections in the first few weeks. While I haven’t figured out exactly how I’ll go about this, there should be numerous other hikers planning to start right around when I am (July 1), so it should be doable. This winter, I’ll be taking snow school classes in the White Mountains to refresh my self-arrest skills (I’ve done it before, but it’s been a while) and route finding ability on snow. I’ll purchase and bring a PBL and have GPS on my phone to assist with navigation (though I’ll also carry a compass and paper maps as I always do).
- Grief: This is a normal part of the healing process, and big part of the reason I’m doing this trail is to honor and remember V. I wouldn’t take the grief away even if I could. I also expect that on a more populated trail, I’ll feel a little less like I’m all alone in the world.
- Discomfort, and traveling solo: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the last few months, it’s that human beings are remarkably resilient and adaptable, even (or perhaps especially) when faced with the most extreme of challenges or losses. Since childhood, I’ve been comfortable sleeping in a tent and with the majority of the trappings of outdoor life. I realized on this trip that I was less comfortable with being alone than I expected, and anxious about being able to set my tent up correctly. These are things I expect to become more comfortable with on the PCT. That said, I’m prepared to be uncomfortable with the act of thru hiking—something I have never done, after all—for the first 2-3 weeks. If, after three weeks, I find that it’s really not working for me, I’ll stepback and re-evaluate (this year has taught me that there are far worse things than not hiking the PCT), but I suspect I’ll love it.
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