Remember how I said that on Day 2 I began loving this journey? Well on Day 3, we finally found out what the “hell” part of the Hell Hike and Raft was all about.
We awoke to freezing temperatures. Being from the Deep South, it’s not something I’m accustomed to dealing with often and to such extremes. With frigid hands, I muddled my way through breakfast and breaking camp.
This morning’s pack up was different from the previous night’s. We’d be saying goodbye to John and the horses which meant we needed to pack our tents on our backs for this leg of the journey. We got to abandon our sleeping pads though since on the rafting portion we’d have thick, (relatively) luxurious rafting pads to sleep on.
This significant change in gear meant reconfiguring my packing strategy. And even though our Teton Sports packs were very groovy indeed, I realized later in the day I’d packed things far too lopsided and it caught up with me as I found myself listing to port the whole day. Which is not what you want on a massive descent. But by the time the realization hit me, I was beyond caring…
But let me back up a little.
All downhill from here…
It was to be our last day of hiking before meeting the rafts on the Snake. The exit from Hibbs Cow Camp to our intended camp on the river meant a brutal day of 6,000 feet elevation loss over about 6 miles. And on trails that hadn’t been hiked in something like 20 years.
We scrambled over and under logs, along loose gravel and rocks, and steep slopes that were not for the faint-of-heart. Down, down, and more down. Constantly, for hours on end, bracing our bodies and heavy packs against gravity and loose footing.
And then there were the water crossings. I lost count. I took great pains early on to keep my boots dry. By the last one I gave up and just plowed through, letting the cold water flood my boots, a temporary relief for aching feet like an ice pack. Exhaustion ruled so walking on squishy boots from that point on seemed the least of my troubles.
It was an unforgiving route. It was hell. None of us felt like taking pictures. We plodded along with legs like jelly. Yet it was beautiful. And the company top-notch. A very odd dichotomy to find ourselves in. Solidarity kept us moving forward.
The group seemed more spread out than over the past two days with the fitter, younger, and less injured folks setting a better pace than the rest of us. Marshall had to abandon us part-way, picking up the pace so he would make it to the boat take out in time to catch his ride. That left us under the guidance of Rick. And given that these trails were not well-used, there was some discussion and uncertainty as to which trails were the ones we were to follow. Our Hell Hike and Raft crew was a sort of hiking guinea pig for this route. Fortunately map skills prevailed and we managed to keep ourselves on track.
By the last mile, the terrain flattened out and our journey became a matter of getting to camp on legs like noodles and feet tender as raw hamburger. The foliage became more lush as we neared the water as you can imagine. The change of scenery helped me refocus on why I came here and that I wanted to take in every glorious moment, not be bogged down in pain. And as we got closer, there were more and more bear signs of the scat variety and bedding areas. It was intimidating. Let me tell you, that will get your attention off of sore feet and legs…
Pushing physical limits…
As problematic and sore as my knees can get, I’ve never worried about them giving out entirely before. On this descent, I started to worry. Seriously. Each step became a dance with tenderness and my feet joined the choir of protest early on. My mangled toe and sesamoid bone were done. Try as I might to adjust my boot laces, I couldn’t relieve the pressure on them. I had to simply plow on one tender step at a time.
It was on this day I wished I’d brought both trekking poles. I set out with only one knowing I wouldn’t be able to hold one in my right hand for very long. On this day, I would have taken the pain in my hand for the relief and stability that extra pole would have provided because in addition to painful feet, each step had to be carefully placed to keep from slipping. And indeed I landed on my rear several times on the descent.
The bulk of our steps, for six miles, was bracing against the loose, steep slopes with ungainly forty pound packs strapped to our bodies. In addition to the complications of my feet, the brutal nature of this route meant my thighs and glutes were screaming, too. Today’s journey was about the challenge; pushing my personal limits and finding ways to get past the mental barriers that wanted to keep me focused on the discomfort and pain. At one point I confessed to Adam one of my techniques… singing saucy Monty Python songs quietly to myself to stay in my happy place. That seemed to amuse him, although it didn’t surprise him. 😉
I’ve wanted to see the Snake River for as long as I can remember. I never imagined I would be exhausted and in great pain during my very first glimpse of it, though. I was in hiker death march mode, focused on the promise of being able to collapse once I got camp set up.
By the time we arrived, I almost couldn’t wrap my head around making camp. The mental challenge of getting through the day had taken it’s toll. Fortunately auto-pilot took over to some extent and I muddled my way through it. I set to the task right away, knowing that if I took a break I wouldn’t be able to muster enough energy to do it later.
We pitched our tents on the cliff overlooking the Snake so I had yet to see the swanky America’s Rafting Company kitchen set-up down by the river. Once I finished settling into my tent, I grabbed my camera and GorillaPod and mozied my way down to the river on protesting feet.
I’d only briefly gotten to say hello to Wendy, my fellow southern girl, who was only able to join us for the rafting portion of the trip. So it caught a little off-guard when I set my coat and tripod on the table next to her and she gave me a quizzical look and asked “Is that your vibrator?” I laughed, gave her a high five and said “Darlin’, we are going to get along just fine.” Of course, I did set her straight that I don’t generally pack that kind of equipment out during a backcountry trip.
And with laughter and relief, we all set to enjoying our first night on the Snake with a healthy stock of PBR, great cooking by the America’s Rafting Company crew, and frolicking in the rejuvenating water.
Our actual distance was far less than was originally anticipated for the trip. And that’s a good thing given the terrain and time it took us to even do what we did. It’s one thing to do a long, difficult hike for one day. Three days in a row is another story. Missouri Howell was our enthusiastic cartographer for this expedition and came up with these numbers and map for us (with my commentary for added color):
- Day 1 – red: 4.39 miles, 1,657′ gain: In spite of what appears to be a low-mileage day, it was loaded with a big dose of up and down over challenging terrain but totally doable when you’re on Day 1 and amped up for the adventure.
- Day 2 – blue: 6.60 miles, 2,280′ gain: Nice day. Big views. Challenging but achievable terrain, distance, and elevation changes. Yeehaw, right?
- Day 3 – black: 5.67 miles, 6,280′ loss: Idaho, it’s a good thing you’re beautiful because that hike was indeed hell.
The big picture in undertaking a hike like this is that the pain does fade. And the triumph and accomplishment remains. So yes, in spite of the pain, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
For your viewing pleasure…
To recap the hiking portion of the trip, here’s a short slideshow of our time in the Seven Devils…
For the Hell Hike and Raft full monty according to Val, head over to my Flickr album of the adventure.