Monday, 30 May 2011

Taos Ski Valley, NM - Memorial Day Weekend 2011

The Taos Ski Valley is located in north central New Mexico among the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is an eight hour drive from Midland, TX. Perfectly doable as a long weekend trip if you don't mind a medium long drive with no scenery for the first 3/4 of the trip.

In 2003 I stayed in the Taos Ski Valley for over a month, on and off, while taking the University of Alabama Geology Field Camp. We would stay there for extended weekends in the Austing Haus B&B before going out on week long camping trips to do field work. We attempted to do the Bull of the Woods hike to Wheeler Peak our first weekend there. Most of us had never been to this kind of altitude before so we were huffing it on the trail up (it's over 8 miles one way!) Then when we were about 2/3 of the way there we encountered a horrible hail storm and turned back for shelter. In the end we looked like we had been pelted with paintball guns. A few weeks later we hiked to Williams Lake and scrambled up the slope from there to Wheeler Peak. It is 2.5 miles from the hiker parking lot to Williams Lake and then another 3/4 of a mile up the slope to the summit.

We left from the Alpine Village Suites at 8:45AM and drove two miles on a dirt back road to the Hiker's Parking Lot. From there we began the 2.5 mile hike to the lake. It was fairly easy going at first, you walk past part of the ski slopes and chair lifts, but the trail is well marked. The ground is loose rock and gravel until it transitions into a dirt trail through the high alpine wilderness. We stopped for a brief detour to a geocache dedicated to Tim Harter who died in an avalanche in 1996. He and his wife owned the Stray Dog Cantina in the Ski Valley. This is where I first realized how much snow was still in the trees. I postholed all the way to the cache which was luckily hanging high enough in a tree to still be above the snow. The only thing worse than the postholing was the limbs and stumps from the old avalanche buried below that I kept falling through. I turned back and made my way back to the trail. Overall I think it was worth the effort though.

We brought our puppy with us on this hike. She's a two year old Welsh Corgi and we figured she would like the snow and cool weather.... boy did she, she could have dragged us up the mountain twice I think. Sometimes the snow was so deep we almost lost her though :D It was hard packed for the most part but some places were still soft and we only had our all terrain New Balances so I sunk to the midsection on more than one occasion and had to do the Bear Gryll's butterfly crawl to get myself out. We reached the lake about Noon and ate lunch in the shade where the wind was slightly less than hurricane strength. The view is STUNNING here, I forgot just how amazing it is. After catching our breath I dodged marmots sunning on the rocks to go find the Williams Lake geocache. The unexpected consequence of the thick snow drifts was that we were bushed.

After the hike up to the lake we knew there was no way we would summit Wheeler today. We were both struggling to catch our breath in the altitude and overexerted from fighting the snow. We looked up at the peak (soooo close!) and decided to return in the Fall to hike/camp via Bull of the Woods. This trail is 8 miles one way which is why we had decided to take the shorter Williams Lake Trail, but you gain elevation more slowly so you don't have to scramble up the peak as we would have had to do from the lake. It's a wonderful place so I am totally up for a return trip.

Traditionally I am a Clif Bar user when it comes to energy bars. I requested some PowerBar samples or coupons from them as I haven't tried any of their line in years and they've added so many new things to their lineup. I received two coupons for free product so we hit the local grocery store. I selected the Strawberry Banana Energy Gels, and my wife chose the Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Bites. After the hike to Williams Lake we chose a spot out of the ever-present wind and broke out our snacks. The Gels have a texture like Gummi Bears with a slightly softer center. I like the flavor and being a big fan of gummi candies I was impressed. I did get a small energy boost from them, and unlike my Clif Bloks there is no aftertaste from the brown rice syrup Clif uses. However, the Energy Bites were a big letdown. They were hard (granted it was cool ~60F) but they didn't even soften up with a bit of chewing, the flavor wasn't all that hot either and the peanut butter in the center was grainy and dry. Overall, I much more prefer the Clif Bars such as Peanut Butter Crunch.

I recently won a pair of Glacier Gloves from this blog. If you are interested in outdoor destinations around West Texas check it out! In Steven's review of these gloves he didn't have a chance to get to snowy climates. Knowing that I was likely to encounter snow and freezing water I packed these along for our hike. Williams Lake had a crust of ice over much of the lake, I put one glove on and stuck both my bare hand and my gloved hand in the water. Immediately I had stinging pain in my bare hand. While the gloved hand felt cold and I could tell the water was cold it wasn't painful and I feel I could have left my hand in the water for quite a while. You do get some water in the cuts that allow you to expose your thumb and pointer finger for gripping, but the wetsuit effect keeps this water heated by your body heat.

Second Test: As we were hiking back out I decided to test the gloves in snow. I picked a snow bank and again plunged a gloved and ungloved hand in. The pain was instant for the bare hand, much more intense than the water had been. Surprisingly though the gloved hand felt nothing. I think I could have kept it there for a long time with no concern. I even made some snowballs and felt only a slight chill through the slits. These are great gloves and will definitely be in my pack for cold weather hiking and camping from now on.

If was tough going getting back out of the woods. The midday sun was causing the icy top layer of snow to melt so we postholed a lot on the decent. It was tiring even to our puppy as she slowed down a lot after a mile or so of fighting snow drifts. The light at the end of the tunnel was The Bavarian, a German style bar and eatery located right at the trailhead. We stopped in and had Diet Coke (my Kryptonite) and the best grilled chicken sandwiches, with grilled red peppers and goat cheese, I have ever eaten. The menu ranges from burgers and salads to German brats and pasta dishes. You HAVE to stop here even if it's only for one of their selection of large German style beers. That evening we went to bed early partly from exhaustion but almost because the hotel inexplicably lost power for the evening.

The drive home was uneventful, our GPS decided to route us through Sante Fe for some reason instead of taking us the way we drove up. It added an hour to the trip, but we got some great vistas of the Rio Grande Gorge. Overall, despite not reaching our third highpoint as planned we had a fantastic weekend and I look forward to the chance to try again for the summit. Maybe as a two day backpack trip via Bull of the Woods.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Power Cachin' in San Angelo

I've been so busy lately with work that everything else has suffered, my precious video gaming time, my reading, my internet cruising, even this brand new blog! But the weekend before last I pulled myself away from all that for a day of Power Caching! What is Power Caching? It's when you go hunt geocaches along a road or trail that are spaced close together allowing you to find a lot of them in a short period of time. Now I prefer a cache at the end of a long rewarding hike as much as the next person, but when it's 103F getting in the car with A/C blasting is pretty nice too.

A geocacher by the name of Mommio in the San Angelo area has created a trail of 50 geocaches she calls the "Toe Nail Trail" after the road they are placed along. They very in type and difficulty and are very creative and fun hunts. We hit this trail as part of an event she organized to mark the release of these new caches. There were about 20 cachers on the road and throughout the day we ran in to many of them and spent time chatting.

The end of the day results for my wife and I were:

  • 42/50 caches found

  • 14 First to Finds (FTFs)

  • 7 Ticks (Blech!)

  • 2 Flocks of Wild Turkeys

  • 2 Door Prizes (Most finds, and finding the magic chestnut)

  • 0 Snakes seen (Someone else saw a huge rattler)

  • And many, MANY dead deer on the sides of the road.

My wife and I now describe the section of highway between Midland and San Angelo as Deer Alley because we drove home after dark and saw no less than 50 deer grazing on the shoulders of the highway, we slowed down to 50 MPH or such but other drivers were blowing past us. No doubt the reason for all the dead deer on the shoulders. It was a warm, ok hot day, but the challenge was fun, the competition was fierce, and we enjoyed every* minute of it.

*Note: + Wife did not "enjoy every minute" of waking up at 5:30AM on a Saturday :P

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Permian Basin Geocachers Clean Up!

With Earth Day recently past, I wanted to touch on the ways geocachers care for the planet and their communities.

I am a member of the Permian Basin Geocachers, a group of like minded adventurers that use GPS recievers to find "geocaches" hidden all over the world. These things aren't usually fancy or especially expensive but the draw is the thrill of the hunt. Remember how much fun it was to hunt Easter eggs as a child? It's like that only much much harder, and that's the way we like it. This game inherently relies on landowners allowing us to hide these caches with the expectation that we be good stewards of their land. So as a sign of respect cachers across the world practice what we call CITO, or Cache-In Trash-Out. Basically any time a geocacher is on a hunt, we should try to leave the spot looking better than we found it. That can mean picking up litter, not impacting sensative areas, and reporting illegal activities to the proper authorities. Beyond this we arrange group CITO events to give back to our community.

I'm not sure how to embed YouTube videos, but here is a link to a short introduction video on Geocaching.

Recently, the PBCA has done two CITO events. The first occurred on April 2 when we did our first clean up on a two mile stretch of Highway 349 that we have adopted north of Midland, TX as part of a city-wide clean up day. Almost 20 people showed up over the course of the day and in the end we removed an enormous heap of trash and carried over 10 bags of aluminum and plastic away for recycling. I would say the event was a huge success!

The second event occured this past weekend on April 30th. This weekend was designated Worldwide CITO Week by so we Adopted-A-Spot in Midland, TX. This is a program run by Keep Midland Beautiful that targets city parks as well as vacant lots that are in need of clean up. We were assigned a vacant lot adjacent to Taco Villa on Andrews Highway in central Midland. Almost as many people showed up for this event as the Highway clean up earlier in the month so we were able to clear the area of refuse in just a few hours. We then gave away a few door prizes generously donated by Groundspeak (the company behind and Magellan before eating lunch next door. We cleared 15 bags of trash and one bag of recycling that day.

As you can see, not only is Geocaching a fun activity for people of all ages, but it is also one that gives back to those who make it possible.