Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Day 20: The Bushwhack!

August 4: I didn't sleep well during the night. The problem with camping at popular backcountry campsites are critters. They've learned to associate food with people and generally have lost their fear of people. It makes for very aggressive critters trying to get into your gear.

View from my campsite at Lower Ball Lake shortly after sunrise

And that's what happened all night long. A mouse kept trying to get into my gear. I tried to throw rocks at it but the thing moved like a bullet. He was fearless and indestructible! So I didn't sleep especially well.

But the sunrise finally arrived and I packed up camp and headed out to begin the infamous 5-mile bushwhack. There was no officially created trail for the next 5 miles--just a vaguely plotted line on a map. Mentally, I broke this bushwhack down into three distinct segments.

The first segment was to climb the ridge behind Lower Ball Lake then follow along the top of it.

The climb up was hairy at times. There were a number of steep, rocky cliffs and an inopportune fall could have meant death! My progress went slowly as I navigated the rocky obstacle course looking for the safest, easiest route available. As a general rule, I aimed uphill and a little to the left where the ridge came down from a mountaintop, but my actual route had me going up and down and all around. Occasionally I had to backtrack when I ended up next to a steep cliff and felt I should find a different route for safety's sake.

The first segment of the bushwhack involved going uphill to the ridge-top, then following the ridge to the left. Rather than shoot for the top of the mountain, though, I angled my route a little to the left so I'd get to the ridge near the left side of this photo.

There wasn't much evidence of anyone being up here either. No clearly defined trails, and some areas seemed completely untouched by man. At this high elevation, the trees were thin and the views absolutely stunning!

Where there was no right or wrong way to scramble to the ridge-top, everyone took wildly different directions and routes and no trail formed. Once I reached the ridge-top, there was an obvious best route to follow: stay on the ridge top! It was generally flat, required less up and down hiking, and the ridge itself acted as a directional marker. It was also clear that everyone who reached this point felt the same because all of the various routes up merged into a single trail along the ridge. It wasn't an official trail by any stretch of the imagination--just the pounding of feet following the most obvious option. My pace picked up quickly through this area.

The second segment of the bushwhack involved descending thousands of feet to the valley bottom on the right side of the ridge. I had climbed up from the east-facing slope and would have to descent the west-facing slope. A cairn marked the turn off the ridge. The only rule for this section was to always head downhill. As long as I was going downhill, I was going in the correct direction. This segment would end when I reached the bottom of the valley--probably at a creek.

The second section of bushwhack was more-or-less straight downhill to the valley bottom. There was a lot of waist-deep vegetation to push through, though!
I was surprised to see a very clearly defined trail leading downhill and followed it. This was easy! I hoped the whole bushwhack followed such a well-defined trail the entire distance!

It only lasted about 5 or 10 minutes, however, before the well-defined trail split, split again, and again. With each split, the trails became fainter, more overgrown, and harder to follow. After 15 minutes, I was standing in an area that looked completely untouched by man without even a hint of a trail. This is where the real bushwhacking began. This is where the bushes in bushwhacking were located. Vegetation scraped at my arms and legs and ripped new holes in my pants. An occasional blow down would block my path and require my scrambling over or around it, but those weren't too bad. It was the thick, waist-high vegetation that became the bane of my existence.

You can't move very quickly through this stuff!
I wondered if I was the first person to ever push my way through some of these bushes, and I was comforted by the SPOT device on my pack. If I hurt myself out here or (heaven forbid) died, nobody would ever find my body without it! Even if people knew I was out here, it would be impossible to search thoroughly. For all I knew, there could be long dead bodies on the trail in this section and I could pass a few feet away from them and not even know it. The SPOT device was transmitting my position every 5 minutes. If I died unexpectedly, it would help search and rescue narrow down my location to within a few dozen feet. It's the only way they'd be able to find me (or my body!)

Bushwhacks like this are really best done with a hiking partner, but the SPOT was a close runner-up!

Occasionally, I'd find a small game trail which I could follow for maybe 10 or 15 seconds before it petered out and I was waist deep in vegetation again. For those brief few seconds, though, I felt like I was flying! I wondered about the hikers who came before me who plowed through the area, and I wondered why the game trails would peter out to nothing. What happened to the hikers?!

It took me over an hour to navigate down to the bottom of the valley where I reached a small creek. This was the third stage of the bushwhack: Following the creek out to a proper trail and "civilization." The route was easy to follow but difficult to traverse. Just follow the direction of the creek and stay at the valley bottom. If I started going uphill, I was going in the wrong direction. If I started going away from the creek (or upstream), I was going in the wrong direction. I just needed to follow the mostly flat creek downstream back to civilization. Easy peasy!

This creek marked the beginning of the third section of the bushwhack--follow it downstream until it reached civilization!
Except, of course, it wasn't easy. I veered back and forth near the creek, continuing to put the whack in bushwhacking. Sometimes the lay of the land pushed me a little out from the creek, but then I started heading uphill or reached an unexpected cliff and I had to backtrack back toward the creek. My map showed the route on the west side of the creek, but I followed a small game trail to the east side. But that petered out after a few minutes and I had to bushwhack back to the west side.

Progress was frustratingly slow and difficult, veering back and forth looking for the best route through.

Six and a half hours after I started, I finally reached what looked like an old parking lot with a campsite and the official end of the bushwhack. I made it! I was alive! I hollered into the air with glee. I made it! I was done! The bushwhack was behind me!

This clearing (and campsite) marked the official end of the bushwhack. I made it! I survived! Yeah!
The official maps of the PNT showed the bushwhack as being 5 miles long but my GPS had recorded my route as closer to 6 miles with all my zig-zagging and backtracking, which meant I averaged just under one mile per hour. It was a full day of hiking! And I officially covered 5 measly miles. Ugh.

I was exhausted when I reached the end of the bushwhack and needed a break. I laid out my groundsheet in some shade by the campsite and laid down taking a two-hour rest break and examining my new injuries. So many small cuts and scrapes on my legs! I wore pants, but they had so many holes in them now. These pants would definitely need to be replaced--probably sooner rather than later.

I was tempted to stop right there. It was a lovely campsite with the creek nearby, but I really wanted to get more than 5 miles in for the day and there were still hours of daylight available.

I had trouble finding the trail out of the clearing. According to my maps, there was supposed to be a real trail here, but I couldn't find it. Argh! I did find some orange flagging that appeared to mark a faint trail so I started following those, but it seemed more like a bushwhack than a proper trail. At least it wasn't overgrown with vegetation and I could move fairly quickly over the terrain. But the next mile... was more bushwhack than trail.

At least I thought it was the end of the bushwhack.... seemed I still had to do a bit more!

After a mile of following the flagging, though, I finally reached a real trail! The next couple of miles were filled with dozens of day hikers and groups swimming in the creek I had been following. Polluting my water source, I was thinking, but there should be other water sources I could drink from so that wasn't a big deal. But so many people! I bet I was the only one who hiked over from Ball Lakes, though!

Now that's a real trail!
One of the day hikers I stopped to chat with for a few minutes and he asked where I had hiked in from. I told him that I started the day at Lower Ball Lake.

He looked at me, a little confused. "But there's no trail between there and here."

Yeah, tell me about it! *rolling eyes*

The trail reached a gravel road--the trailhead for all those dayhikers--and I followed the road a short way to another old road. It used to be a gravel road but dirt and rocks were piled at the beginning of it to block vehicular traffic and only allow pedestrians through.

This pile of dirt and rocks prevented vehicles from accessing this old forest service road. It was a hiking trail now.
The trail switchbacked up the mountain, passing a couple of nice waterfalls and providing some nice views of the valley below. I could see all the way from the ridge-top I followed in the morning to the valley bottom I spent most of the day following. I hadn't gone far, but wow--it was far!

I followed the former road-turned-trail a few miles and up a couple of thousand feet before setting up camp at a flat area on the trail shortly after filling up with water at one of the waterfalls. For the second day in three days, I camped directly on the trail when I couldn't find a place off the trail to camp, but this time it didn't seem like a big deal because it was on the old forest service road. If, in the unlikely event a hiker came by, they would have no trouble getting around me. I wasn't blocking the trail despite camping directly on it!

View from my campsite on the trail
After a half hour after setting up camp, giant ants seemed to invade my campsite. Where did they all come from? I spent much of the evening flicking them off my groundsheet. I cleared  an area around the edges of my groundsheet so they had to run across "open ground" where I could see them easier and flick them off as needed. I wondered if moving my campsite 30 feet up the trail would help, but I was tired and comfortable and didn't feel like moving camp. I could keep flicking ants. They were bound to need some sleep eventually, right?

I also found the first tick on my pants. Where did that come from?! Well, obviously, it came from the bushwhacking. It was kind of remarkable that I hadn't found more ticks before today. I didn't flick it off like the ants--I crushed it. The tick deserved to die, I thought. I also didn't want it trying to crawl back into my campsite like I suspected many of the ants were doing!

It was a long, brutal day of hiking--and my GPS recorded covering a mere 12.0 miles. The official trail miles that I completed, according to my maps, was about 10.5 miles. It was a brutal, brutal day and I was glad it was over!

This was taken shortly after I started the day's hike, looking back down at Lower Ball Lake which I camped next to the night before. See my campsite on the far shoreline? =)
Some of the hike up to the ridge-top was a bit harrowing, like this dead end that dropped 30 feet down!
The top of the ridge was the easiest and fastest section of the bushwhack--and there's even a hint of a trail along it!
Views were awesome near the ridge top!

There were tons of hikers near the trailhead!

Looking back on the trail, I could see the ridge top where I was in the morning! I didn't make it far as the crow flies, but OMG--so hard to hike it!

So many scrapes and bruises from the bushwhack (as well as the blowdowns from the previous two days). Only the biggest cuts and scrapes show up in the photo. All the tiny little ones you can't really see.

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