Friday, September 6, 2019

Backpacking Great Basin National Park: Day 1

Our phones' alarms rang loud far before sunrise and we gathered all of our gear before heading downstairs to the hotel lobby for breakfast. 

We had spent the night at a Ramada in Provo, Utah where we slept two to a bed. With less than five hours of sound shut-eye, I was exhausted and devoured as much coffee, pint-sized blueberry muffins, and questionable eggs as I could before we began our 190-mile drive west for Nevada. All four of us and our gear filled Drew's Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and we followed U.S. 50 for hours as it penetrated its way into the vast openness of western Utah. The road flawless road carved around burnt red rock formations and past mirages of Sevier Lake, and the almost fictional mazes of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land.

U.S. 50 was dubbed as "The loneliest road in America" by LIFE magazine back in 1986, and it really is. As it stretches from the dry western flats of Utah into the deserts of eastern Nevada, the road is perfectly straight and for the most part completely flat. Even as a backseat passenger, it was hypnotizing. Feelings of monotony and vertigo evolved we pushed towards Baker, the gateway town to the entrance of Great Basin National Park. Cell service nonexistent, we crossed the state line into Nevada on HWY 159. The road switched from pavement to gravel and judging by my guidebook, we were accessing the park from its southern boundaries. Drew pulled over somewhere off of HWY 487 and I hopped out to stretch and orient myself with the paper map I had been resorting to. I expressed to the others I could already feel how thin the air was. It was a dry, hot air too. I gazed up at the forested Snake Range mountains on the near horizon, it had been a minute since I'd seen any minutes and it was a great, bittersweet feeling.
Pausing quietly for a few seconds, I got my bearings straightened out and explained to Drew which road we needed to head down to reach the main park entrance. We hopped back in the Highlander Hybrid and continued towards Baker. There wasn't a lot in Baker; two standalone gas pumps, a few homes to the town's 65 residents, a restaurant called Kerouac's, and a general store with groceries that doubled as a lounge at night.

We followed signs for the national park, and I couldn't contain my excitement. For years I've dreamed about exploring this place, and I was stoked to finally step foot in it. I got my camera out had Chadd take a picture of me smiling and standing in front of the  "Great Basin National Park" sign, then carefully propped it on the hood of the car for a group picture. The mutual eagerness to get out on the trail was growing and we were all thrilled at the immediate mountainous scenery that filled every corner of our eyes.

Months back we sat in Drew's apartment in Milwaukee, planning our trip, and one thing we all agreed on was that a tour of the national park's Lehman Caves was mandatory. These fragile caves were first discovered by Absalom Lehman in the 1880s and declared initially as a national monument run by the National Forest Service. The caves carried its protected national monument status until 1986 when they were absorbed into the creation of Great Basin National Park.
I was curious to venture deep underground into a sliver of this dark, 2.2-mile maze of elaborate caves and how its geological work would compare to the caves I visited during the summer of 2018 at Wind Cave National Park, in South Dakota. There are also two other national parks with extensive networks of caves that are on my bucket list to visit, Mammoth Cave National Park and Carlsbad Cavern National Park. True fact: I've always wanted to get into spelunking but I'm shamelessly terrified of tight spaces. There are quite a few caves in Great Basin National Park, but there's one I think is alpine cave called Long Cold, located at about 10,000ft of elevation, so obviously somewhere hidden in the mountains, that shoots down 480ft with permanent ice at the bottom. Unreal.
The Grand Palace Guided Tour, a steal at $11, took close to two hours, as we meandered the route's .6 of a mile to parts of the cave with storybook names like "The Music Room," "Gothic Palace," and "Inscription Room." As soon as we got underground the temperature dropped. It was eerily silent and damp. A park ranger shined her flashlight at stellar cave formations, or nature's best art I'd call it, like "Popcorn," bold stalactites and "Cave Bacon," the latter a semi-translucent sheet of rock that when a light is shined against it, it's color glows like well, bacon. With a burst of gratitude for getting to (again) experience such a bizarre and intriguing landscape underground, we exited the caves.
I stopped back in the park headquarters, registered for a backcountry permit, and asked about conditions up near Pyramid Peak, and Baker and Johnson Lakes, where we'd be backpacking to and spending a night. The ranger cautioned about storms, checking the forecast on her computer. I wasn't worried about storms on our first hike to our Baker Lake, where we'd set up camp one for the night, but rather concerned about climbing over the pass between the two lakes at the foot of Pyramid Peak. That's all open, exposed alpine terrain that I didn't want to be caught in if it stormed.

After filling up our Nalgene bottles and soft water bags, we headed out on a dirt road that rises from 6,730 ft upwards to the Baker Trailhead at a solid 8,000 ft of elevation. Some four miles later, we reached a small parking lot and began preparations for our 5.3-mile approach to Baker Lake. Consulting the guidebook to get a quick refresher on the Pyramid Peak Loop we'd be backpacking the next few days. I originally found this trek via Backpacker Magazine's website and was sold the second I started my research on it.
Drew and Chadd pulled a cardboard box from the trunk and began divvying up all of the dehydrated meal pouches we had ordered from Mountain House. I stuffed two and a half days' worth of meals into my Gregory Baltoro and took a quick glimpse up at the sky. The forecast called for afternoon storms, a common occurrence where we were heading. Distant dark clouds pressed me into suggesting we start our hike but be alert. I activated my SPOT Gen3 beacon, setting it to ping our GPS location every ten minutes. We took a group picture, Ben registered us at the trailhead log book and began heading west, along Baker Creek, bubbling in between lush green walls of plants that lined its entirety.
Entering into an opening with walls of jagged rock to our north, we ascended a few easy switchbacks bordered by rich sage and shrubbery until those aforementioned dark clouds rolled in, followed by thunder. I kept a sharp eye out for lightening as it began to rain. We dropped our packs, donned our rain jackets, and unfurled the neon-colored covers that shielded our gear from the elements.
As the thunder boomed more intensely, the wind picked up and I spotted lightning to the west above the mountains. Immediately I looked around and found a spot about twenty feet off the trail we could all take shelter and wait-out the passing storm. We found a nook beneath a tall pine tree, nestled into the hillside where we sat for about thirty minutes as the rain fell.
The temperatures dropped as the front gravitated more towards the south of us. I stood up from beneath the hospitable shelter of the pinyon pine tree's branches we sought refuge under and walked back towards the trail to look around and gauge the weather. We were in the clear, the blue skies had returned, and the four of us kept moving.
As we passed the 9,000 ft elevation mark reading per my Garmin handheld GPS, the troubles of adjusting to the altitude had begun to sink in. I was feeling it, and Chadd was too, so we both slowed our pace down a bit in a bid to acclimate better. I sipped from my Nalgene, frustrated because in the week leading up until landing in Salt Lake City twenty-four hours ago, I had been battling a terrible cold, a cold so bad I almost considered canceling my own plane ticket. But I couldn't miss out on this trip, and backpacking in the mountains to me was stubbornly worth it, even if I was in pain.
The trail skirted parallel to Baker Creek's chilly clear waters, passing under the shade gifted to us by the towering grove of quaking aspen. Their tiny green leaves flickered rapidly in the wind as we passed underneath on the narrow trail. I love aspens, they're one of my favorite trees, and I always stop to admire them. Some of these giants were a surprise with bulbous, puffy growths and odd shapes that puzzled the mind.
Crossing the creek, we were getting deeper into the Snake Range. Banks of rocky cliffs on our left, grand pinyon pines with thick stumps so wide you couldn't even hug, iconic rocky mountain junipers, and clumps of engelmann spruce on our left. The distant booms of thunder hadn't faded either. We took a quick breather and Chadd stopped to refill his water bottle in the creek. The trail turned to more steep, rocky switchbacks under the awnings of the diverse pines. Everything was so quiet too. I was absolutely humbled.
Hacking up disgusting yellowish phlegm from my clogged lungs every few steps, my altitude sickness had accelerated, and I found myself needing to stop more and more. This sucked. Especially because I had spent so much time training for this trip. Chadd and I both dropped back, while Ben and Drew went on ahead to see how far we were from Baker Lake. We had to have only been a few miles away, and what I assumed should have been a fairly easy approach hike, was made increasingly difficult by my lingering sickness and the fact that we had now reached the 10,000ft threshold level. I was feeling so discouraged. This was getting worse the higher I hiked, but my gut kept telling me to push forward as Baker Lake just had to be around the end of the next switchback.
Dusk was beginning to fall. I slurped water from my Nalgene, then reached over and unzipped the hip pouch on my pack to check my Garmin GPS to see how long until that dimming Nevada sun eventually disappeared. The screen showed we had a little over an hour and were right at about 10,500 feet of elevation. Chadd and I agreed to make a strong push to Baker Lake which at appeared after we crested our last switchback. The glass-like surface of Baker Lake was an indescribable symbol of relief. This alpine lake sat beneath an amphitheater of golden and tan, prominent vertical rocky cliffs that had been sheered away by glaciers and the constant rockfall events. It was simply jaw-dropping, and you'll see pictures in the next day's travelogue. We scouted out a spot to pitch our tents and set up camp for the night, and found a soft grassy patch below welcoming pines on the northwest side, in the shadows of 12,298ft Baker Peak. Ben collected water from the lake and it boiling to cook dinner, while Drew helped me set up our tent.

I was feeling so weak, disoriented, lethargic, dizzy, and short of breath. I was totally overcome by the altitude sickness and wanted to rest. I didn't even have the strength to blow up my sleeping pad, which Drew again heroically did. I curled up in my sleeping bag and tried to rest. I drank some more water and attempted to stomach a few bites of rehydrated mac and cheese before going to sleep. What followed was honestly the most terrifying night of my life I've ever had in the outdoors.