Why I backpacked 66 miles during a week?

My boots are the most important element while I’m backpacking, because they are the ones who support all my body structure and my weight along the trails. tiagocosta © 2016

The sensation of being free is nowadays, a much more difficult stage to achieve during a long period of time. To compete on the current international market and be a better professional, I have to do more than my normal obligations. As a result, I turn more stressed and I have less time to live the immensity of this planet. In a week, there’s 168 hours, and from that time my body requires 7 hours per night of sleeping. During the days, I have 18 hours of classes, and as the educational scientists say, for one hour in class students should work 2 out of class, making 36 hours. Besides that, I want to do more, so I have personal projects, and probably I spend 10 hours per week with them. I try to exercise at least one hour per day, in 6 days per week, making 6 hours. I cook all my meals, and I try to be really smart by cooking fast and healthy, but this still takes 1 hour per day, 7 hours per week. To actually eat, I need time, 2 hours per day, 14 hours per week. What else? I spend 3 hours per week driving my bike in the small Cedar City, 2 hours in the grocery store, 2 hours cleaning the house, and probably, 8 hours investing in social life and networking. Are you doing these counts with me? Those are 152 hours per week, leaving me just 2.28 hours per day to care other normal things in my life. I see myself begging for more time in a day, but I know if I had more time nothing would change. Because, it’s about the reality we are living. Although, once I get the opportunity to break the routine, I want to be free. No schedule, no due dates. Just freedom.

The 32mile Virgin River Rim Trail is situated in Dixie National Forest. Starts at the Stramberry Point, with the end in Woods Ranch (or vice-versa), taking hikers along 8,400ft and 9,800ft altitude. tiagocosta © 2016

In the only week of vacation I had this summer, I prepared my backpack and left the city, with Dixie National Forest in my mind. Despite being the closest forest from where I’m living in, I choose Dixie with the certain that for being close, I should know it. I should know the smell, the character of this natural environment. I wanted to go for a place where I wasn’t comfortable, that I was vulnerable. I wanted to have just the start and the end planned, knowing that in the middle everything could be unpredictable. Even if that represents a forest with black bears, cougars, coyotes, and more wild life with a potential danger for the human being. In a wild place, the only rule that exists is in a very basic way, the survival rule. In summer, bears leave dens in the morning to find food and water, and return to sleep. They reproduce, they care their cubs for around 17 months, before break up for different lifes. During the winter, they hibernate, and the cycle returns again to the beginning. One more summer, one more winter, and so on. I excepted to see wild life, but I didn’t want to have an encounter with a predator, even knowing that most of these animals fear humans. The truth is, when I hike in their place, they know better than me how to move there, how to hide, how to attack, how to win on their “market”.

Most of the bear attacks happened to humans, resulted of a disregard from safety rules. tiagocosta © 2016

I wanted to do this trip alone. For many people, this represents pain, for me is just a virtue. I prefer to be surrounded by great individuals, I like to share, to communicate with other people, but I built the capacity for being well alone and that was important in many steps of my life. When I was 15 years old, my parents had a complicate divorce and my sister was living in Italy. I felt alone. When I was 22 years old, my grandfather died and I felt alone because we were the only two men in our family; we had a huge complicity. In 2015, when I was 25 years old, I decided to travel to New York city to study, alone, and alone I returned in 2016 to Utah to be a student at Southern Utah University. Being alone means in my example, physically alone. I don’t blame anyone who made me feel alone, those are just conditions of life that I had to deal with and learn with it. In this trip, I expected to start alone, but to find many different people along the way. However, what I found was different than I expected.

Altitude and distance map from the Virgin River Rim Trail. This map belongs to the US Forest Service data.

On my first day, the 14th of August, I started at 11am in the south side. The rocky pattern from the trail quickly drove me along ups and downs, and even with good boots, I soon started to feel pain in my feet. Also, in my backpack I was caring around 55 pounds. I had a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, camping cookware, camping stove and fuel, a hammock, a tripod, a camera/lenses and some more photography accessories, two or three peices of cloth, the necessary water and food, and some more accessories. During almost all the trail, I never saw a good place to open my tent and relax, so I continued hiking, and I continued hiking, and I didn’t stop hiking. I arrived at Cascade Falls at 4 pm, and this was the first time I saw a place good enough to open my tent. But, I wanted to sleep by the Navajo Lake, and I thought that 4 more miles to the Spruces Trail junction would not be a bad idea. I made my first mistake there. I didn’t look to the altitude information, so I started this last section not knowing that this was the worst part of all the trail. The trail goes from the 8,900ft to 9,700ft in less than 3 miles. Always going up, with even more rocks then the rest of the path. Also, I was alone since the beginning. No hikers, no cyclists, no horse-riders, just some deers, some squirrels, some birds, and lots of dead trees. With my body in pain, and without a mental support along the way, I started to freak out. I wasn’t seeing places to open my tent, and I was feeling more tired. I turned emotional, I cried, I scream, I thought about my family and my Portuguese friends and how I miss them. I questioned myself ‘Why you’re doing this?’, but I returned to the beginning of the cycle; I pushed, I said ‘You can do this!’ and I repeated this times without end. I did around 14 miles total, and around 7 pm I arrived in the Spruces campground in Navajo. There, I met Mr. Gordon, the campground manager. He saw pain in my eyes and offered me a place to stay for free. The piece he gave me was for me the best one in that campground. He was the angel I needed on that moment, and on that moment, I knew why I was doing this. The unpredictable moments I talked before were just there, and after the pain, somehow, someone knew I needed a hand. I opened my tent, and I fell asleep.

Sunset in Navajo Lake. tiagocosta © 2016

On my second day, I didn’t backpack. I wanted to hike around the Navajo, to discover more about that place. Also, on that moment, I was questioning myself about the quantity of dead trees I had seen the day before. That view blocked my mind, I was seeing more grey than green! I felt sad. I wanted to know what was happening there. Why? From mouth to mouth conversations, I understood that was easy to argue that beetles were the main problem. But, the growth and the resistant of the beetle is a consequence from something more dramatic, the climate change. Bark beetles are the biggest forest pests in our planet, destroying and killing stressed trees at an incredible speed. They are effective because they work together in a short period of time, giving no time to the tree to defend itself. As they bore, they leave eggs, and with more beetles, more trees will die. There’s no natural predator for these pests, and also no chemical to kill them once they are under the bark. But, beetles always existed in our forests. During the summer, they grew attacking only stressed trees, and during the winter they died in a mass caused by lower temperatures. But, beetles are becoming stronger as a consequence from higher temperatures and less quantity of rainfalls. Beetles are now dying less because the cold is not as rough as in old times. They can hibernate using a natural anti-freeze, turning this into a negative cycle apparently without end. Scientists said since 2000, 70 thousand square miles of forest, the size of Washington state, died in mountains in Canada and United States. The result is simple: with more trees dying, the levels of carbon dioxide will increase, and with less oxygen, humans will pay the biggest price. We can’t live in this world without trees; if trees die, humans will die.

Climate change and beetles are destroying forests in the westside of North America. tiagocosta © 2016

On the third and fourth days, I was counting the time to finish the trip.

On the third day, I did a short backpack hike from the Spruces campground to Te-ah campground and stayed there for the night. On this day, I met the only hikers along all the trail. First, in the main trail I met a group from St. George who recognized me as a Portuguese guy for wearing the Portuguese jersey. They were pilgrims from the Camiño de Santiago, and knew a lot about the Iberian countries, Portugal and Spain. By the Te-ah campground, I met a man from Las Vegas, who was there to run away from higher temperatures in his city, he told me “I don’t know much about the trails, I just want to hike”. He was the first person to give me information about the beetle and dead trees. He traveled around the world, and the Portuguese island of Madeira was one of his favorite destinations ever.

Hikers along the trail. tiagocosta © 2016

My problem with this trip was not that I wasn’t enjoying the time in the woods. I was! I questioned why I was almost the only hiker along 32 miles of trail. But, I didn’t find the answer. Probably it’s because we are close from many different National Parks and National Monuments like Zion, Escalante, Bryce Canyon, Red Canyon, etc. So I understood that also in natural wild places, the human masses choose one to another based in what is popular and what is not. During my time living in Cedar City, I met locals who were born and grew in this city, and don’t know much about Cedar Mountains, which are the mountains between Cedar City and Dixie National Forest. It’s part of the character of this city! But, people tend to live in a box because it’s comfortable, and it’s easy. It happens not just here, but all over the world. It’s the price to pay for living in a developed society.

High Uintas Wilderness map by Avalon Travel.

I finished the Virgin River Rim Trail, thinking about the next journey I had planned for that week. Less than 24hours after, my backpack and I were prepared to take a bus and travel north to Salt Lake City. There, my friend Robert picked me up, and the team to climb Kings Peak was getting ready. One day after I stayed in his house in Park City, we packed everything, and we left first to the state of Wyoming, before we returned south to Utah, where close to the border the Ashley National Forest is located. The High Uintas Wilderness was our destination there, and the summit from Kings Peak was the main goal. Personally, I had more goals in this trip: I wanted to stay in a elevation over 13.000ft altitude, like I never stayed before. I wanted to observe the view from that high elevation, I wanted to know another hidden forest, I wanted to hike more than 30 miles, I wanted to see different wild life, like moose, and of course, have fun doing all of this, this time, with a friend.

Robert hiking the West Side Loop Trail to the Bear Lake. tiagocosta © 2016
We started our trip in Henrys Fork Trailhead, knowing at the beginning that we didn’t want to have our campsite in the most popular lake, the Dollar Lake. The plan was to hike around 5.5 miles to Elkhorn Crossing Junction and take a right to West Side Loop Trail, having the Bear Lake as our destination. There we established, and we started to prepare mentally for the longest day, the day where we were climbing the highest peak in Utah, the Kings Peak.
Sunset in the Bear Lake. tiagocosta © 2016

On Saturday, we woke up early, prepared the necessary food and water in our daypacks, and started the trail. The scenery in High Uintas Wilderness, was different from everything I had seen since I arrived in the US. There are lakes, ponds and creeks all over the place, grassy meadows between an incredible density of lodgepole and engelmann spruce pines filling the environment. We reached the Henrys Fork trail again, at the end of the West Side Loop Trail, and there at 11.000ft we started to feel the peak, even without seeing yet. We continued hiking to the Henrys Fork Basin, and after a quick lunch break, our bodies were prepared for the fast increase of elevation. First, we had to reach the Gunsight Pass at 11,888ft and this was the memorable point, the point were we saw the peak for the first time. At this altitude, everything needs to be slow, and there’s no clear trail. There, we saw people coming from different directions, just with the peak in mind. Robert was using a GPS to record the trail, and at the end of the day, 18 miles were marked. So, 9 miles to the top took us around 8 hours. At the top, there’s different sections, but the summit is at 13,528ft altitude. Here, I failed in one of my goals. One blister in my left foot, with 1 inch size, was giving me pain since I started to climb the mountain. After more than one hour hiking the unstable boulders, I had to stop. It’s incredible how a simple blister controlled all my movements. I was in one of the very last sections, but not the last one; I was at, what I guessed was around 13,300ft altitude, and not feeling comfortable to continue. Although, I was happy for that moment. At the beginning, one of my biggest concerns was if I could deal well with higher elevations, if I would have altitude sickness. I mean, I lived all my life in Lisbon, a coast country located at a really low altitude, but at over 13,000ft, I was breathing well and feeling mentally good, even having the blister increasing the pain in my body. Robert continued to the top, while I took a break for around 30 minutes, just having a snack while I was appreciating the view. I did not need anymore fortune on that moment, my day was done. I wanted to save that moment forever.

Robert hiking to the summit (13,528ft) in Kings Peak. tiagocosta © 2016

We started to hike down to the campsite at around 6pm, and worried about the time of daylight we had. We both concluded soon that we had to hike in the dark. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we were in a wild place, and animals like cougars or coyotes prefer the dark to attack. Besides that, in a dramatic moment, we understood that both of us had forgotten the headlights in the tent, ‘Whaaaaat? We are going to hike just with the moon light? NO WAY!’ On that moment, we both found energy somewhere in our bodies, and today I’m still figuring out how that happened. We did all the way back in around 4 hours, with the light in my iPhone, just with 27% battery, guiding us in the trail. We did it, because we stayed as a team. This is a life value I always carried with me, but it’s in these extreme moments that I fortify everything good I knew before, building my character on top of experiences. After 18 miles and 12 hours hiking, we arrived at the tent.

At the end of everything, I was feeling tired, but happy for what I had conquered. I returned to the city, ready to fight for new goals, as a young millennial living in a world of opportunities. I left my backpack and my boots aside for a while, but I know, they are ready for the next journey.

So am I.

Self-portrait at Gunsight Pass (11,888ft). tiagocosta © 2016
In one week, I hiked around 32 miles (around 51 km) in Dixie National Forest and around 34 miles (around 54 km) in High Uintas Wilderness, in a total of more than 66 miles. I carried in my backpack, around 55 pounds along the Virgin River Rim Trail, and around 25 pounds in High Uintas Wilderness.