What a hell of a few days!
When I staggered out of the wilderness last night, in the dark, exhausted, without any food, or drinkable water and with a broken plane, I had only one thought. What a fantastic couple of days!
Panorama looking down on Jack Ass Pass near the Cirque of the Towers
The story starts with wanting to go see the ‘Cirque of the Towers’, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. However I wanted to get some video of it from the air! Now the story of my failure is long, and surprising short of predators, although, for some unexplained reason it has a llama in it!
Now getting into the Cirque is a bit of a chore in that you have to drive some 30 or so miles down dirt roads (which can require a LOT of attention if you are in a low clearance 2 wheel drive car). However once you get to the Big Sandy trailhead, it gets interesting! Getting to the Cirque is a hard days hike, but easier as a 2 day trip. Its about 8 miles in, and about 2-3000 feet of ascent. However I was packing in a plane and all the kit to go with it too! Not to mention a tent, enough to stop me freezing in the expected well below freezing temperatures, and enough emergency kit that I could make it back to the car in a tight pinch.
INTO THE CIRQUE!
The first thing I noticed was:- no mosquitoes! That was such a blessing. Previously when I’ve been here they make your life a torment in that whenever you stop, great clouds of them descend on you, and bug spray and nets or not you get peppered with bites. Same goes for when you pitch the tent, you basically have to throw up the tent and get in it asap just to escape from the bugs. This time, NOTHING, nada, not even a hint of a mosquito. That made the walk through the dry piney forests of Big Sandy incredible pleasant, but in the back of my mind I was fully aware that the reason there were no mosquitoes was that a hard frost had killed them all. It was likely to be cold that night.
I left the car at 2pm, not out of any great plan, I just knew that was plenty of time to set a ‘base camp’ of sorts. There are also significant wildcards about heading out this time of year. Thankfully it’s too late for nasty thunderstorms, but snow is more likely to be the real hazard. First sign of bad weather and I would have to abort. No way was I prepared for harsh weather, and even getting back to the car would only be half the battle. However the cirrus cloud which I wasn’t quite sure if it was a front coming in (in which case I would be screwed) or was just some weather created by the mountains, burned off, and the rest of the day was as beautiful, pleasantly ambiently warm as a man under a deep blue sky could hope for.
The place was near deserted (the crowds of summer gone!), and I only passed maybe 5 people heading up to Big Sandy lake. Then came the first choice, to head up to Temple or into the Cirque? (right or left at Big Sandy lake?) I opted for the Temple, a giant triangular looking granite monolith. Merely to sand under Temple is an intimidating experience. I pitched camp in the last trees under Haystack. In this case it primarily wasn’t for fear of lightning, but in the full knowledge that it would be several degrees warmer in the trees, and given that I really wasn’t sure how my sleeping bag (‘rated’ to below freezing) would actually perform. As it turns out it did just fine, however my pillow was a pair of boots with a pair of pant (trousers) and fleece thrown over the top, prove more troublesome in getting a good nights sleep. Also there is the latent fear of the night predators. I’d hoisted the food into a tree, but you know that you are ALONE. There is no help. That sort of exposure sharpens the mind, and gives on a very light sleep. Was up about sunrise, although no direct light filtered down into the valley.
The view of 'Haystack' from the tent in the morning
After a breakfast of ‘instant noodles’ I headed up towards the cirque of Temple, taking only the plane and some food. It was a pathless bushwhack, but not difficult. The sharp spike of Steeple rising steeply over the lake making for some excellent views before coming into the presence of Temple. And YES, I went to Temple on a Sunday!
View of Steeple over Clear lake
I was completely alone in this cirque.
The condition for flying were as good as one could hope for up in the mountains. Scarcely a breath of wind, with giant mountain shadows littering the landscape. Bummer was the voltage regulator had fallen off the transmitter side of things on the plane, and I assumed my wiring was regularly color coded. Well anyway, I plugged in the battery, and theres this futt sound and a smell of burning electronics. I’ll wager that’s smells not graced the presence of Temple before! So that was the end of the possibility of remote video, however, I could still just record with the camera on the plane. It’s SOOO much easier to fly without the Helmet of Magnetar! Sure you can’t fly out of line of sight, but you only have to worry about flying the plane. Flight was fantastic!.
Best flight EVER! 🙂
I then decided to head up onto the unnamed mountain in the middle of the cirque (the mountain of broken planes?). By the time I had gotten up there, there was a random wind blowing up to 15 mph, but the view was phenomenal!
Random un-named mountain (Plane Destroyer Mountain?) near the Cirque of the Towers
-The location of ‘Plane Destroyer’ mountain
But a 15mph wind that’s tricky. The plane is already heavy (almost 1kg) which means it has to fly faster to maintain its lift. Further I was already at almost 11000 feet which means that in order to get stable flight you need to fly faster due to the thin air. Getting into the air proved trivial. Getting it to land, that was difficult. You see I probably only had 10ft or so of uneven granite to land on. I was ontop of the mountain, to overshoot means the plane falls off the cliff on the other side. To undershoot means flying into a granite block! In the end, after several aborted attempts where the plane, due to its slower speed and the irratic wind had almost been tipped over, pretty much out of desperation, I bought the plane in ‘hot’. Sure it was fairly stable, but on ‘landing’ the camera and motor broke off. In many ways it was a relief, in that there was now no way I could do aerial video of the Cirque of the Towers (meant I didn’t have to take all this kit up to the pass). I packed up and took the short way down. Risky to be sure as I had no surety that the path wouldn’t end in an impassible cliff. Thankfully it didn’t and I saved myself about a mile of bush-whackin’ down to Temple lake and back again. On the way down, of all the bizarre and unexpected things, I found a llama with no apparent owner. WTF?
It took to its heels as I approached. Dropped down to base camp by about midday, packed up and cooked what food I had left (more raman noodles!). Then the trek down to Big Sandy lake. Got to the path up the Cirque of the Towers by about 2ish. Took basically all the water, wine and food I had left, and headed up towards the cirque. I was very tired by this point, and to make matters worse, lost the trail just before the first lake and ended up in a giant boulder field. There was many a hole you could have fallen into and never been seen or heard from again! I reached an overview of Jackass Pass (my target) by 4pm, but I was a spent force. I could go no further. It was a double blessing that the plane had crashed, for there was a steady 30 mph wind gusting higher near the cirque, all but impossible to fly in. I hung around on the pass till 4:30, full in the knowledge that I would be walking out in the full dark. Going down was fast, aided by the fact that I kept the path the whole way.
Defeat at the Cirque
Got back to my pack at 5:45pm and began the weary trudge out. I was all but out of food, all but out of drinkable water. Now its true that I had both water treatment and a water pump, but was reluctant to risk using them if I could avoid it. (theres a really nasty bug in the water around here called giardiasis). By 8pm it was near full dark and I was walking on a head lamp, so tired that I could only walk for 10 or so minutes at the time. Turns out the headlamp was fantastic, as not only did it free up both hands, but periodically you could sweep the local area looking for glowing eyes! However it could only penetrate the murk for 20 or so feet, and I was ever fearful of losing the path. I eventually managed to get onto the flats near the trail head, but was lost in what turned out to be the campground. It was both a delight and a nightmare to find those park benched. I knew I was REALLY close to ‘home’ but had no clear idea which way to go. I then found a road. Again, great, but which way to go when you can only see 20 feet? Turns out it was the one way loop around the campsite, and if I had known I was probably only a couple of hundred feet from my car. I guessed good and as I came over the gentle rise, what do I find on the other side, but my ‘little blue New Yorker’! Dumped everything asap, tanked up on water and chocolate before crashing for the night, having to run the engine periodically to stave off the cold of the night freeze.