Monday, August 1, 2011

Little Devil's Tower

Dakotas Day 4 - Monday August 1, 2011 (Part 3)

S/SW on the Norbeck Trail
10:24am - Splitting off from the Sylvan Lake Trail that took us up to Harney Peak, we head south on the Norbeck Trail for a short distance before heading SW on the Little Devil's Tower Trail. We have decided to take a longer route back to the lake so as not to have to backtrack over the same trail we came up on.

10:29am - We are hiking through spectacular pine scenery, with sandy gravel under foot and blue skies above. As we hike further south, we see more and more evidence of the clear cutting that is being done to prevent the spread of the pine beetle infestation that is an epidemic, killing trees by the thousands of acres. Whole large areas of pines have been cut to the ground and gathered into large heaps. Where there must have been wooded areas with various smaller plant understory is now exposed to the harsh sun and is barren.

Pine and Granite everywhere
Cathedral Spires from the North
10:45am - We are passing by a formation known as Cathedral Spires, which is another fantastic outcropping of exposed and eroded granite mountain. There is a side trail that passes near the base of the formation, and I am sure it would be well worth the effort, but we do not have the time (or energy by the time all is said and done) to make that detour. We have already made the decision to do a larger loop in the hopes of hiking to Little Devil's Tower, and we are ambitious but not foolhardy. Well, most of us anyway...

As we trudge along the gravelly trail I am continually amazed at the beauty of the landscape. It is so completely different from anything I am used to around home that it is especially gratifying to be here. Without the pine beetle blight, it would even more spectacular, which is hard to imagine.

Approaching Little Devil's Tower from the South
10:51am - We reach the intersection where the spur trail to LDT splits off from the main trail back to Sylvan Lake. Leo wants a cold swim, Ted and Dave want to do LDT, and I am unsure. At this point I am tired, my feet are sore, my right knee is acting up a little bit, and it is hot as hell out here on the ridge tops where all the trees have been cut down and there is no place to hide from the sun. Ultimately, Leo decides to head on to the lake alone, while the remaining three of us head north up the spur trail to LDT. I know that when the going gets tough, I will likely bail out, but I would at least like to make the effort. Chances are that I will never get back this way again, and I would like to go as far as I can, even if I know it is unlikely that I can do another mountain.

Climbing Little Devil's Tower hand over hand
11:02am - I reach the base of the LDT formation. Dave and Ted have gone on ahead of me, and I am following along slowly at my own pace. There is a short tough climb up a draw to get to the fun part, where you need to start climbing hand over hand up the rocks. I love this, but I am hot and tired. I convince myself to go as far up as I can, but I know I will not make the summit. I like climbing, but this is a lot of climbing, there is a lot of exposed height involved, and my legs are feeling a little rubbery. The hot and tired part I could handle, but I don't really want to be climbing hand over hand up steep granite walls with legs that are feeling dead.

11:15am - I am perhaps halfway up the climbing part of LDT, and have reached a sort of plateau from which I have magnificent views in almost all directions. The views are like those from Harney Peak, if a little less high and a little less grand. Spectacular nonetheless. Dave and Ted are somewhere up above me. I assume they have reached the top by now as I am poking along in no hurry whatsoever. I expect to see them coming back down at some point soon. As for me, this is as far as I go. I tried going further but just don't feel up to it. I am disappointed, but there is no shame in my performance today. I have hiked a bunch of miles in more demanding terrain and heat than I am used to, and am happy with what I have accomplished so far. And we are by no means done, with a few miles left before we are back at Sylvan Lake.

View from most of the way up Little Devil's Tower
11:17am - I hear voices above me, and shortly after that I can see Dave and Ted outlined against the sky on the rim of the mountain. I manage to get their attention and take a few good pictures of them posing with their arms raised in triumph. After a few minutes they disappear from sight and I imagine that they will be rejoining me in the not too distant future. I sit down to wait and a young couple goes by, slipping and sliding enough as they make their way up the mountainside to be of some concern, but the disappear over the top and I don't hear any screaming so I guess they made it. As I wait, my cell phone rings and it is Grace wanting to say hi. I am happy to hear her voice, and we chat for a few minutes. As I am wrapping up the call, a very outdoorsy looking older couple goes by and shows obvious disdain for my use of the phone. Whatever. I am 2,000 miles from home and my little girl wants to say hello, so I am fine with that. I wouldn't be going out of my way to make a call, but I certainly aren't going to ignore that one.

Dave and Ted summit Little Devil's Tower
11:30am - Dave and Ted have rejoined me, and we make our way back down off LDT. Going down on a sore knee is worse than going up, as is always the case, but I am feeling pretty good. For me today it is more a case of dead legs than sore knees or feet. Which now that I mention it, my feet are a little sore. We head south on the LDT spur trail, and then west/southwest on the Little Devil's Tower trail back toward Sylvan Lake. Our hike is relatively easy at this point, which is a good thing as we are all feeling the heat and the exertion. It is nice to wind down through the wildflowers, granite outcroppings and occasional areas of wetland, but I am very glad we are going down and not up. At one point we see something in the trail ahead, and it turns out to be Leo's hat. We make the requisite jokes about Leo discarding pieces of clothing to lighten the load, and wonder what item of his we will see next. We are all hoping not to see underwear. :-) Fortunately the hat is only a stray...

We reach the trail head for this trail at exactly noon, which means it is a quarter mile back paralleling the road to get to Sylvan Lake and where we started.

12:13pm - Back at our starting point. We are hot and tired and the thought of getting into a cold mountain lake sounds wonderful, so that is what we do. I make sure I don't have my phone in my pocket, and go right into the water in my hiking shorts. The water is cold but delightful, and after a little while everything numbs up enough that you forget how cold it is. Leo is already in the water when we arrive, none the worse for wear, but glad to have his hat back.

As far as I can tell we covered about 9 miles in exactly 5 hours, with stops, lots of picture taking and a lunch at the top of Harney Peak. If you take out lunch time, we made a pace of only a little over two miles per hour, but given the ruggedness of the terrain and the amount of time we spent gawking at the scenery and me taking pictures, I think we did fine. I think this is probably the best day of hiking I have ever done (in every respect). What a thrill.

Next...The rest of Day 4: Burgers, Laundry, Camp, and a Storm.

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