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Desert Companion

The grating outdoors

The first rule of backcountry hiking: Be prepared. But what if you’re too prepared?

The discomfort: His first big solo backpacking trip — carrying everything but the kitchen sink

The zone: Zion’s beautiful — but rugged — West Rim

Discomfort Zone

My feet were hamburger, socks soaked through with blood. I knew I needed medical attention, but I was isolated in the backcountry of Zion.

I’d left ALICE miles behind, atop Zion’s West Rim, possibly never to see her again, nor the precious supplies she carried. Now, desperately replenishing my body with the cool water of this tiny spring, I had to decide whether to march back to ALICE and continue our misadventure, or plod on through coming darkness toward the safety of civilization.

I should probably mention that this was the first time I had ever backpacked. Sure, I had hiked with a backpack on. And I had camped. But I had never used the former to do the latter. The one thing I knew about backpacking was that it paid off to be prepared. Out in the wilderness, fully alone, my life would depend on what I carried. “Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it,” right?

Support comes from

To fit all these supplies, I needed a really big backpack. That’s where ALICE came in, my trusty Vietnam-era pack. She’s one of those giant, camouflage jobs that looks as big as the soldier carrying her. ALICE, incidentally, stands for All-purpose, Lightweight, Infantry Carrying Equipment.

There is nothing lightweight about her. But she could carry. Oh, how she could carry.

So I packed. I packed for comfort. I packed for boredom. I packed for safety. I knew the ability to make fire might save my life, so in disparate packs and pouches I stowed three books of matches, three Bic lighters, a magnesium fire starter, waterproof matches and a windproof lighter. (Fires aren’t even allowed in Zion’s backcountry. The only items I brought that I could legally set ablaze were cigars — eight Punch Royal Coronations, to be exact.) A sampling — just a sampling — of what else I brought: one fluorescent lantern, two LED flashlights, one 2-liter hydration system, three half-liter bottles of water, a water filtration pump, a three-subject notebook, two pencils, two pens, a felt marker, four spare AA batteries, 12 pairs of socks, eight pairs of underwear, two rolls of toilet paper, a Gerber multi-tool, a Swiss army knife, a headlamp, compact field binoculars, a camera, six rolls of film, two bottles of Deet, a tent, tent repair kit, eight steel tent stakes, eight backup aluminum tent stakes, a roll of duct tape, a spade, three space blankets, 50 feet of rope, six feet of twine and 15 various plastic bags.

Did I overpack? Let’s put it this way: When the outfitter picked me up in Springdale, Utah, to drive me to the trailhead, he refused to lift ALICE into his van for fear of injury. This guy lifts packs for a living.

 

Brake time

I was undeterred. After all, I had five days to cover only 16 miles. Most of my time would be spent with the pack off, reveling in nature’s wonder. I’d be traveling through the kind of place where I could get that deep quiescence not only of environment, but of spirit. True solitude. Real tranquility.

Turns out I don’t really care for solitude. As for tranquility? I wouldn’t know whether I like tranquility — because it was on the first day, at a time when tranquility should have been at its height, that my trip came unraveled.

It was only two miles of downhill trail to my first campsite. Like in a car, descending does not tax the engine. It taxes the brakes. My lungs and my quadriceps handled it splendidly. My boots, however, were slightly too big, and so with every braking step, my feet would slide forward just a bit. Just enough to cause friction and heat.

Arriving at camp, I kicked off my boots and saw red. I had already grown and broken a huge blister on the outside of my left big toe. “No problem,” I told myself. I was going to spend two nights at this campsite, taking short hikes and lounging. This blister and its smaller friends wouldn’t even slow me down. I patched it up, set up camp — and promptly ran out of things to do.

Relaxation and boredom inhabit nearby spaces in the mind. Driven by boredom, I lit a cigar, took in the scenery, and waited for the sun to set. The scenery was amazing. The western sky turned from blue to orange to purple to indigo, pines set against it in black. Sun extinguished, cigar extinguished, I retired to my tent where, for the first time in my life, I would sleep in true solitude.

 

The night speaks

It was terrifying.

The forest speaks at night. It rustles, thumps, even screeches. To a racing mind, these are all beasts of the night, coming to feast on the flesh of unwary campers. I had to calm down. I tried meditating. I tried reading. I heard a rustle next to my tent …

“What was that!” I brought my hammer and air horn in close (like I said, I came prepared), ready to thwart any attack. What if it was a raccoon?! I wondered, trembling. My rational mind knew I could kick a raccoon’s ass, but it didn’t matter. I was in panic mode. This was not the tranquility I’d signed up for. That night, I decided that I would scrap the rest of the trip and hike out in the morning.

Before sunrise, I repacked ALICE, shouldered her, and hit the trail. Damn, she was heavy! I plodded across Horse Pasture Plateau as her shoulder straps pulled my arms back with surprising, continuous force. After two miles, the trail made a long descent into Potato Hollow. My feet heated up and began to blister anew. Adding insult to injury, I caught occasional glimpses of the other side of Potato Hollow and was reminded this descent came with a matching ascent.

That climb, my first with ALICE, came all too soon. I was already a “husky” guy, and ALICE put me over the 300-pound mark. Climbing exposed my lack of fitness, exhausting me to the point that I could only hike short distances before stopping to catch my breath. I was working so hard that I needed to guzzle water just to keep heat exhaustion at bay. Worse, going uphill attacked my already blistered feet from a new angle. I was in over my head.

Once I finally reached Zion’s West Rim, I was out of energy, out of water, and my feet were nearly out of skin. Dehydration would affect my brain first, so I had to think while I still could.

I decided to try sucking moisture from a cactus. Cutting away the plant’s thick skin, I treated myself to a mouthful of sticky pulp and two handfuls of cactus needles. Less than refreshing.

All the while, I was hiking through the most beautiful country I’d ever seen. The West Rim of Zion features panoramic views of enormous monoliths and mesas in a stunning variety of colors. The views, unfortunately, had to take a back seat to survival.

Another torturous mile passed and I made the decision to leave ALICE behind and make haste to West Rim Spring, where I could refill my water reserves. I set ALICE next to two huge tree stumps, filled a day pack with basic supplies, and set off for the spring.

[HEAR MORE: Alan Gegax discusses hiking safety on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]

Free at last — but not for long

Unburdened by ALICE, I bounded down the trail like an Apollo astronaut. My battered feet carried me dutifully to the spring, where there was a vulture — a real, literal vulture — waiting for me. “Not so fast, vulture!” I said.

My thirst slaked, I was faced with that decision: Do I go back to ALICE or head toward civilization? I opted to head back to ALICE. Reunited as twilight fell, I set up my tent, crawled inside, removed my boots and nervously surveyed the damage.

They were worse than I had imagined. If I were a kid, I’d have given up right there, refusing to budge until my parents carried me. When quitting is not an option, it is remarkable what we can endure. I let my feet get some air and promptly, fearlessly, fell asleep.

I was startled awake in utter darkness to what sounded like a jet engine roaring past my tent. Seconds later, my vision was assaulted with a blinding flash. Thunderstorm. Rain pounded my tent. I counted my blessings for deciding to return to ALICE and went back to sleep.

The next morning, I found the peace I sought. I unzipped my tent and looked through the morning dew, spotting a family of deer, silently nibbling on revitalized desert grass. I looked back inside my tent, saw four bloody socks piled in the corner, and steeled myself for the day’s hike.

To protect my skinless soles from further damage, I wrapped them in duct tape. It was one of the few good decisions I made during the trip. The tape was a physical barrier between my flesh and the sock, and its slickness reduced friction.

The third day’s travels sent me down a trail literally blasted into the face of a cliff. It’s not a hike for the unsteady. Then, I got my first glimpse of inner Zion Canyon. I could actually see my destination. Only one ascent stood between me and safety.

 

Almost there

If only it were that easy. Climbing once again exhausted me. Bursts of travel were reduced to 20 feet. It was during one of those breaks that I saw my first hikers. “We packed in a hurry,” they told me, “and we forgot to bring matches. Do you have anything we could borrow?” Do I ever!

I continued uphill for ages, finally reaching Scout Slickrock, today’s apex, at midday. It’s all downhill from here.

Three days of abuse had taken their toll. I was so worn out now that, even on downhills, I could only trudge 10 yards at a time before pain and fatigue forced a break. On one of these breaks, just below Angels Landing, I met an older couple from Denver. We talked for a few minutes. The husband was a former adventure racer who could relate to my ordeal.

Seeing my obvious distress, they offered to carry ALICE for me. I politely declined and started to hobble away. The couple, pointing out the cliffs I had yet to confront, insisted. I relented and helped the husband put on ALICE.

“Holy crap!” he said when he hefted my pack. “How did you hike anywhere with this thing on?”

That wiry fellow carried ALICE all the way to my car. Once safely off the trail, the kind couple even offered me a shower and first aid. I had to decline. I knew that once I got my boots off, it might be weeks before I could put them on again.

Indeed it was. A referral to UMC’s burn unit told me I had second degree burns over large portions of both feet. I had to walk in funny-looking shoes for a while, but eventually I healed.

I’ve since hiked the West Rim Trail three more times. To this day, it remains the most scenic place I’ve ever been. ALICE has never been back.

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