Monday, January 5, 2009

Trip aborted - walked out Sunday

The hike is over. I walked out yesterday, Sunday, Jan. 3 after wading through about five miles of knee, thigh or hip-deep powder. After I had walked under 1.5 miles on Sunday morning in about 90 minutes, I realized that at that pace, I would not make it to Grand Marais within the limits of my food supplies.

I was dropped off at the northern terminus. Surprisingly, Otter Lake Road was decently plowed and was navigable. The snow was deep, though. When we reached the trailhead, there was a snowmobile path adjacent to the road. I walked over it (without snowshoes on) and when I stepped into the powder, I sank to my thighs. Nonetheless, I racked up and after taking a few photos, started walking.

The going was exhausting. The temp was about 20 degrees F and it was snowing slightly. The snow was still deep, and open areas were soul-destroying. I sank in the white stuff and had to trudge my way though it to make any progress. The snow was a fine powder - no thickness to it and not much substance.

The trail was mostly easy to find and well marked. I did run into one spot 1.5 miles in where I could not tell where the trail went. I checked a few options and eventually went with my gut and realized that I had initially found the trail but did not walking far enough to see a marker.

Forward motion was draining. My hip flexors grew sore from picking up my feet and the snow on the shoes, and I was sweating profusely. I sweated out my softshell jacket and pants, much to my consternation. It had also started snowing at 2 p.m. Nothing heavy, but a constant snow that is enough to warrant weather protection. Without it I would have hiked in my base layer alone.

I arrived at Andy Lake Road at about 4:30, approximately 3.5 hours after I started moving. I had made only 3.4 miles. I stamped down a spot for my tent and pitched it in the parking lot. I needed to get into dry clothes and get some food in me. After the tent was up, I dug out an area in the snow for a kitchen. It was still snowing. I melted snow to fill my nalgene and made supper. After all of that, I pulled some of the wet clothes inside my bag and prepped for bed.

It did not stop snowing until approximately 6 a.m. that morning. When I woke up, the hole that I had dug for my kitchen was filled in and the sides of my tent was being pressed in by snow that had fallen down the sides of the tent.

I got up the next morning to a blanket of snow. All of it was fresh, puffy powder. By my estimates, I got 8-12 inches - a man I would later talk to said he got 12-16 inches at his house up the hill from the lake. Once again, the going was intensly difficult. I felt like a mountain climber on Everest who taking rest steps and stopping to catch his breath after every foot placement. The highest point of elevation on the trail was 1.5 miles from Andy Lake Road, so I used that as a guide point as to my progress. I never made it there.

After about 90 minutes of hiking and not making the landmark, I stopped and took notice of my situation. I was warm, dry, had plenty of food for another 4.5 days and the capability to procure liquid water for that time period. But at my pace, 1 mph or less, I would run out of food before I got to my resupply at Grand Marais. Furthermore, I could not effectively cut back on my calories because I was working so hard to make forward progress. I would have needed every calorie I could have consumed to fuel the work I was doing. So I put in a phone call to my girlfriend (I got great reception on top of that hill) and she and my father rendevoused to come get me.

That still left me with hiking out. I turned around and hiked back down my path in short manner and then turned east on Andy Lake Road. The road was not plowed yet, but I did eventually meet a pick up truck that was plowing a single lane. After he came through, I took off my snowshoes and put them on top of my pack and kept walking. Jackson Lake Road was 1.4 miles away, and from that Arrowhead Trail was 6.3 miles after that. Arrowhead Trail would then take me, at my guess, 4.5 miles down the hill to Highway 61 (of Bob Dylan fame) where I would find somewhere to wait for my retrieval party to come.

Once I hit the road my pace increased dramatically, almost to my normal 3-season walking pace of 3 mph. It took me just over 2.3 hours to get to Arrowhead Trail and about 90 minutes to walk the 4+ miles to Highway 61. Toward the end, my right ankle started to hurt from walking downhill on pavement so much. It still hurts today, but I expect that pain to go away in a few days.

When I got to Highway 61, a man driving a truck told me there was a store I could wait at just across the Flute Reed River on 61, just a few hundred yards away. I walked southwest and came upon the Chicago Bay Market - a little mini grocery store and cafe that stocked organic foods and homemade goodies. After chatting with the clerk, Sandy, I ordered a pizza with a mess of toppings and made-from-scratch ingredients and some 1919 root beer. I plowed through all but the last slice and waited for my party to arrive. I did not get cell phone reception there, so I called from the nearby payphone to relay my location.

Once they arrived, the drive home was long. We had to make a detour to drop my father off, and eventually rolled into my apartment at 11:30 p.m. It was a long, long trip.

I have no regrets about the trip and I do not consider it a failure. I was horribly outmatched by the snowpack and I do not think I could have stayed closer to the top of the snow under any circumstances. If I had continued, I would have gotten to camp exhausted and in the winter you can't just crawl into your sleeping bag - there is a lot of stuff to do before that step even comes up. I thought about making the best of it and just hanging around for a few days until my food supplies ran lower and then hiked out, but that was not the trip I wanted to do. I will be following this post up later with gear commentary, as that has been deliberately omitted from this post.

For those who have been following this trip, thanks for reading and I hope you stay with me as I plan and carry out future trips.


samh said...

Well, Matt this wasn't the blog post I was hoping to read I must say but I'm sure it wasn't the blog post you were hoping to write either.

Ma nature put it to you and you made the rational choice to back off. I agree with your closing statements about lounging around and waiting out your food supply as well. You made the right choice to end it when you knew you had to.

I look forward to forthcoming gear commentary.

Martin said...


I enjoy your posts on BPL and it's nice to check out your blog.

I'm from Sault Ste Marie and other points North of Superior so I know how much snow can fall quickly dad would wake us up at 5 am to shovel the driveway growing up.

I know you haven't posted anything about gear yet but my first question being a big fan of both skis and snowshoes is do you think you had adequate snowshoes? I am real keen to here your thoughts on this. I've travelled in the winter with old school leather/wood snowshoes that were fsr superior to any modern that they had great flotation. Wondering if this would of made any difference for you.

Chris Wallace said...

I agree with Sam. Sometimes it's a hard decision to abandon your goal but safety is always more important.