Zero Summits But 100% Fun in Washington: August 3 – 15, 2020

After resting our bodies and catching up with friends in Idaho for a week, we were ready to enjoy a few climbing adventures to wrap up our final 2 weeks of the Still Moonin’ trip.  Our final destinations, Washington Pass and Leavenworth, are some of our favorite areas in Washington.  It was time to head back to the Pacific Northwest. 

Our drive from Harrison to Winthrop, retraced the same route that my dad and I took 24 years ago while riding our bicycles across the USA.  I will never forget climbing 4 mountain passes in 3 days (Rainy, Washington, Loup Loup and Disautel).  It was a lot for a girl who had not trained, who was not used to mountains and was riding a fully loaded bike!  However, I can thank that experience for my eventual move to the PNW and the start of my love affair with mountains.  Plus, the memories of that time with my dad are precious, and we still reminisce whenever we are together. 

So, it was fun to share a few of those memories on the drive with Mike.  Mike had never seen Grand Coulee Dam, so we made a quick stop to take in the enormous concrete structure.  The amount of concrete in the structure is enough to pave a 3’ sidewalk around the equator 2 times!

We arrived at Lone Fir campground late, but somehow lucked into a wonderful camping spot for the whole week.  Plus, the campground was upgraded this year with running water and even had some nice camp hosts!

It was chilly!

We woke up to a blue-bird day, but my finger was still swollen and very sore.  I was bummed about the finger, as I had big climbing plans for this week which will just have to wait for another time.  If we could not climb, we would hike and enjoy the scenery of this gorgeous area!

Blue Lake is a trail we have hiked many times, but we have never actually made it to the lake as we always turn off about a mile short onto the climber’s trail to the Liberty Bell group.  We had a gorgeous day, blue sky, and no wind.  As we were hiking, it was the first time we saw everyone on the trail wearing masks/buffs.  In Wyoming and Idaho, we would avoid people by getting off the trail, but few wore masks.  The meadow was in full bloom with lupine, sunflowers, and white/pink heather. 

The lake turned out to be gorgeous. Very blue, go figure, and surrounded by step talus fields.  There were lots of fish jumping that almost looked like pods of tiny dolphins.  A few people were brave enough to jump in, but the water was way too cold for me.  We enjoyed the views and sun while eating our lunch.  It was a nice way to spend a day.

The next day, we hiked Maple Pass loop, which starts from Rainy Pass, for a rewarding 8 miles hike.  It is popular, but we managed to find a nice gap between groups to have our own space.  The hike climbs through pretty forests with moss beards on the trees which made us feel like we were home.  We took the side trail to Lake Ann.  It was surrounded by steep hillsides which we would end up climbing up to the ridge to hike around the whole lake.  The skeeters were bad, so we took just a few quick pictures and back on the move.

As we continued to hike, we were treated with great views of Black Peak.  We had climbed it many years ago but remember it fondly. 

From here we climbed up and up to Maple Pass with stunning views into the North Cascades.  Glacier and Dome Peak were in full view plus countless more.  Wow, such beauty. 

From here it was all downhill.  We enjoyed great views of the Liberty Bell group and Rainy Pass.  It was fun to look at these mountains as we have stood on the summit of most of them!

One of our favorite things about visiting this area is the Mazama Country Store.  It is a 20-minute drive downhill from the campground into the gorgeous Methow Valley.  Every time we descend, I still remember zooming down on my bicycle, the best descent of my life!  The reason why I like the store so much is they have an amazing assortment of treats, good coffee, and a great back patio.  We ended up coming here several times during our week to sample the different pastries, yum!

Poster Peak has been on our list for awhile and since the climbing is easy, we decided it would be a good option for my finger. 

We woke up early to misty weather, not a great sign, and an extra sore finger.  However, we decided to at least give it a go.  On the approach, we somehow misread the instructions and missed our turn ending up hiking to Kangaroo Pass instead.  We decided it wasn’t meant to be that day and bagged the climb.  It was a pretty little hike and an area I would like to explore another day.

The next day, we decided to attempt Poster again.  We got the approach right this time, but at the base, the mist was swirling. Visibility was terrible, plus it was cold.  After hanging out for a bit, we were not feeling it at all so decided to turn around.  On the way out, Mike strained his calf muscle which had been tight all week.  The Raff’s were out for the count.  0 summits in 7 days plus 2 injuries.  Not exactly the way we had wanted to spend our last week of our climbing adventure, but in true Raff style, we made the best of it and had fun.

From Washington Pass, we headed south to Leavenworth to meet Mike’s parents for the week.  We had not seen them since we left Portland in June 2019, so it was so great to get to spend the week together in one of our favorite places.

One of our favorite things to do besides climbing is wine tasting, and Lake Chelan has some fabulous wineries.  Mike’s parents first introduced us to this wine region 13 years ago, so it is a fun summer tradition to make a day of it tasting with them.  Our favorite is Nefarious, a small family owned winery with a nice lineup of whites and reds.  They have an incredible back patio which we enjoyed while sipping our wine.

Tildio is another old favorite.  I enjoy their red blends, but they also have a yummy Sauvignon Blanc.  They were only pouring by the glass, so we enjoyed their shady patio. Succession is newer and quickly becoming one of our favorites.  They have excellent wine with good prices.  I also like their tasting lawn with tables right next to the grapes!  To wrap up the day, we had BBQ at Chelan Winery, which was delicious.

We spent the rest of the week enjoying catching up and relaxing with Mike’s parents.  We all enjoy walking the gorgeous river path to town.  In town, we have our favorite shops… chocolate, cheese, olive oil, and gelato, which is quite the culinary experience! 

Leavenworth has great climbing, and we decided to test our injuries by climbing a few pitches.  The first day, we climbed super easy on a fun 3-pitch climb called Groundhog’s Day.  It went okay, but neither my finger nor Mike’s calf did well.  We took a day off and then tried to climb one last time, hoping by some miracle we were cured.  Nope, climbing R&D, a fun 4-pitch climb, confirmed we were both hurt and climbing was out.  Based on that, I decided to make a doctor’s appointment back in Portland which later confirmed a pretty bad broken finger!  What a bummer. 

Throughout the week, I had plenty of time to reflect upon our trip.  It has been an amazing 14 months filled with so many adventures, new experiences, and joy!  We are so incredibly blessed to have taken this time together, and I am so happy that we made it happen as we promised ourselves after our Many Moons trip 9 years ago!

I was having mixed feelings about it almost being over but also excited to go home to see friends.  I was sad to leave the freedom, spontaneity, and simple life behind… our chores took 5 minutes, we only needed what fits in the van and we had so much quality time together with low stress.  I will miss the small towns and being able to avoid crowds by climbing in the middle of the week.  I will miss sleeping in Craggin’; it ended up being so cozy, and I will miss the daily adventures.  But on the flip side, I will not miss the constant planning on limited wifi, trying to figure out where we were going to sleep tonight and where to go tomorrow.

After 14 months, we pointed Craggin’ home and felt a little sad. It was fun to drive by all the familiar mountains…Stuart, Adams, Rainier, and Hood, plus enjoy the dramatic views of the gorge.  As soon as we pulled into our driveway, it felt nice to be home. The trip may be over, but we will continue to keep the adventures alive.  For now, we will transition again with Mike teaching remotely, me searching for a job and us welcoming a new addition, Kalymnos Stimulus Raff (Kaly), our puppy into the family. 

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | 8 Comments

Adventures in Idaho as We Get Close to Home: Jul. 24-Aug. 2

After our wonderful week in the Winds, we woke up once again with our new summer normal: tired, happy, and without a plan. The Tetons had been next on our list, but we just couldn’t deal with the thought of visiting Jackson on a weekend in July this year. Hopefully, we’ll get back there before too many years because two of my top climbing aspirations are in the Tetons.

After doing the important stuff (laundry supervised by dead moose heads, unpacking in a city park, and finding a much-needed place to dispose of used wag bags), we decided to head for the Sawtooths around Stanley, Idaho. Neither of us had been there, and it seemed like a good place to chill out. We enjoyed a beautiful drive through western Wyoming before crossing into Idaho and spending the night near Idaho Falls at one of the most scenic rest stops anywhere.

When opportunity knocks, the Craggin’ Wagon pulls over, and Sarah found a great opportunity the next morning. As she was studying the map, she noticed that we were only a few miles from Borah Peak, the highpoint of Idaho. Who needs rest when the mountains come calling? We found a campsite, packed for a day climb (yay!), and waited out an afternoon thunderstorm that we hoped would break the 90-degree heat before we climbed the next day.

 We woke up at 4:15 the next morning to try to beat the heat and any potential thunder later in the day. Trip reports vary between 3.5 and 4 miles, but they all agree that Borah Peak requires 5200 ft. of elevation gain over that short distance. The first 40 minutes are pretty mellow, and then you ascend rapidly for most of the way. Steep switchback give way to a long traverse above tree line. We got some nice sunrise views, although the morning sky was a bit hazy.

The technical crux of the climb is a 3rd class scramble, somewhat  exposed, called Chicken-Out Ridge. It didn’t feel nearly as scary as the icy snow bridge we had to cross a few minutes later, though. It was wide enough, but a slip could have high consequences. It was nice to have a fixed rope to get down to the snow, but we were definitely happy once we were across it.

A climber’s trail runs toward the summit, which still seemed suspiciously far away for the given mileage. Much of it was scree, so it was pretty tedious but not overly loose. We popped onto the summit after 4.5 hours (average is 6-7 hours), happy to have a fast time for once. I’d never heard of the Lost River Range, but it was actually quite beautiful! The peaks are multi-colored and very geometric. Several alpine lakes added to the delightful view.

At 12,267 feet, Borah Peak’s summit (#11 for me this year) was most likely the final really tall summit of our trip, so we spent a few minutes enjoying it before heading down to get across that snow bridge before it saw too much two-way traffic. From there, it was just grit-your-teeth and put in the miles down. Luckily, our knees weren’t too wrecked by time we got down. We still aren’t actively pursuing state highpoints (9 is a long way from 50), but it sure has been a fun and spontaneous diversion throughout our road trip.

That afternoon, we headed to Stanley along a tremendously scenic highway that followed the Salmon River. The whole area looked to be an outdoor lover’s dream: fishing, kayaking, rafting, hiking, climbing…so many good things! We’d just climbed 5 mountains in 11 days, though, so it was going to be pretty low key for us. An earthquake this spring had damaged the main climbing objective that interested us, and another earthquake damaged the area a couple weeks after our visit. It seemed like a good time to go slow.

For once, we actually stuck to that plan for our entire stay! We had a great shady campsite not far from the Salmon River, and we spent a good deal of our time, reading and relaxing in camp. Our camp host, Red (who had turned gray), was awesome: big bushy beard, floppy hat, and smiling eyes that somehow managed to shine through all that. He entertained us with stories of his newfound love of driving a potato truck on a farm each fall. Still, when the other Old’s started making fun of us for being lazy, we decided we better at least leave the campground.

Redfish Lake is the main attraction for many people who visit Stanley. We drove around and enjoyed some awesome views of the mountains across the lake, but the resort was too crowded for our taste. There was a long rainstorm the day we had hoped to take the boat shuttle across to do an easy hike, so we will have to come back another time. Instead, we took a quick dip in some hot springs on the river. Good times!

Our eventual destination for the week was actually fairly close to home: Harrison, Idaho on Lake Coeur d’Alene. This time, though, I had my own idea for a detour along the way. In 1978, I spent my first summer in Powell, Idaho, where my dad worked for the Forest Service. I said my first word (“bird) there, and everyone thought it was adorable until I repeated it about 5,000 more times. Anyway, I had only seen it one other time (1997) and thought it would be cool to go back since we were so close.

Powell is only a few miles from Lolo Pass, about an hour from Missoula, Montana. It’s a beautiful area and being back in the forest after so much time on the open range was awesome! The ranger station is only a maintenance building now because a large visitor’s center was built 15 years ago, but we stopped for a quick picture to send my parents—if I look even goofier than normal, it’s because I had to dodge the sprinklers for the shot!

I was worried that Sarah would be disappointed we had driven so far without leaving time to actually do anything, but she seemed to enjoy it. Maybe since it was important to me, it was also interesting to her. I don’t remember a boring stretch of the entire drive, though, and there were a few interesting stops since we were on the Lewis and Clark trail. Even better, we took a refreshing swim in the crystal clear river right about the time the thermometer hit triple digits!

A few hours later, we pulled into Harrison to find that not much has changed in the five years since our last visit, but that’s part of the charm. We were excited to spend time with Dusty, one of my best friends since we were eight, and his family. Our families change more than Harrison does, but the mark of great friends is that you can pick up right where you left off no matter how long it’s been. We had a great time with Dusty, Courtney, and their daughter Cora, who is a very cool kid! As always, Courtney’s parents were fun and gracious hosts.

The Sarah “Splash”

Apparently, we picked the right weekend to visit because the lake was perfect after a string of hot weather. We took full advantage of it while Dusty and Courtney gave us our first wake surfing lesson! Dusty is pretty good at it, so it was fun to watch him. Sarah took to it right away (no surprise), but I drank a lot of water the first time (also, no surprise). I used a bigger board the next day and had much better luck. So much fun! The only bad part was that Sarah got her middle finger stuck in the rope on her last try, which we later learned actually broke the bone.

Our week in Idaho was a little out of our norm; for all our travelling, we rarely wander aimlessly or stay idle for long. This week was what we needed, however. Neither of us ever want to leave anything on the table, but not all the adventures have to come at once. For now, we were content to catch up with great friends, and we were also happy to be getting close to home.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | Leave a comment

When Can We Go Back to the Cirque of the Towers? – Wind River Range, WY: 7/16 -7/23

Once again the Raffs had no plan, which might be the theme of the summer.  Sticking with our new rule, only visit towns where the population is less than the elevation, we headed to Pinedale, WY.  Pinedale was also centrally located to our three top options… Wind River Range, Tetons and Sawtooths, so it seemed like a great place to spend a few days to get organized. 

We opted for hotel in Pinedale to kill 3 birds with 1 stone… much needed showers, laundry, and internet.  After a bit of research and chatting with the local gear shop, we decided to head into the Winds to visit the Cirque of the Towers.  This has been on my list for years, and we were hoping to make it here last summer but just ran out of time.  So, I was thankful to learn that the snow melted early this year, and the climbing routes were in. 

The town has a great vibe and even though it is touristy, it has a definite local presence.  The little gear shop in town was a great source of information and had a great selection of gear.  We ended up visiting the shop 3 times in 3 days, so they got to know us well.  I also liked the local laundry mat with their trophies on the wall!

This would be our first real alpine adventure of the year.  We had two main climbing objectives and planned for 6 days and 5 nights.  Our packs were enormous – 50 lbs. for Mike and 45 for me.  We went back in forth on bringing KEENs or not, as they added an extra 1.5 lbs.  We also had a long debate over the rope length – 60m vs 70m.  The 60m was 2 lbs. lighter but would require some downclimbing between raps on one of the mountains.  So, we opted for the extra assurance, and Mike hauled in the 70m! 

After packing in the city park and all the final preparations were completed, we headed to the Big Sandy trailhead 2 hours out of town.  Our plan was to sleep there and hike in the morning.  We arrived at the most crowded trailhead I have ever seen!  Over 100 cars were parked everywhere – as there were not enough spots. Somehow, we lucked into a flat, shady spot in the parking lot near a vacant picnic table.  It was perfect. 

As we were relaxing, we met 2 Czech-Americans who had just finished a 5-day backpack trip.  We had a great time chatting with them about Czech Republic and traveling in general.  It is always fun to chat with fellow travelers who enjoy swapping stories and laughing.  They even shared their Czech beer with us, the original Budweiser, and we got to practice saying cheers in Czech…nicedriving (really fast!).

In the morning, we started our hike with our normal mantra – slow and steady.  We were excited as we only had to carry 1 liter of water as we would have plenty of opportunities to re-fill along the way.  Forty-five lbs. is heavy, so I was all for our hourly break to take the pack off for 5 minutes.  The first 5 miles are flat and follow the Big Sandy river through meadows and trees.  The river is perfectly clear with a rocky bottom. 

After the Big Sandy lake, the trail starts to climb toward a few lake basins, dropping in and climbing back out again.  The views were incredible, and as we got closer to the Cirque, we got our first views of Pingora – wow!

After the last lake, we climbed up to the pass, which is the Continental Divide and got our first full view of the Cirque.  It was stunning and even more spectacular than the pictures!

The campsites in the Cirque were not obvious, and it was hard to find spots that were both shady and flat.  After sending Mike on a house hunting marathon, we settled into a nice spot for the week.

The mosquitos are notorious in the Winds.  We received good advice from our friend Mac to bring bug shirts.  They worked like a charm, and we wore them around camp.  We may have cancer, but the bugs stayed away!

The day after our pack-in, we climbed Pingora’s South Buttress.  The approach was quick with some 3rd class scrambling up to a large ledge where the route starts. 

I led the first pitch and felt a little off balance due to being more tired than I expected from the pack-in, plus I was not used to climbing with a rack and a pack.  Mike led the fun 2nd pitch which went up a big corner and had some nice stemming. At the base of the 3rd pitch you have options.  There is a K-shaped crack with 2 5.8 options or to the left an easier 5.6 crack.  Based on how the first pitch went, I opted for the 5.6 option with the plan to come back another day and climb the 5.8.  I climbed it easily, and it felt a little better than the first pitch. 

From here to the top was 300’ of easy scrambling, and then we were greeted with an amazing view!  The summit is large, and we enjoyed soaking up the views.

The whole reason we opted for the 70m was the rap descent of Pingora.  If you do not have a 70, then you must downclimb 2 sections and do an extra rap.  Well, I messed up when I went first and ended too soon, so we ended up doing all the raps that we would have with the 60.  Plus, our rope got stuck on the last rap, so I had to climb up the downclimb anyways.  So, next time, we would save the weight and just bring the 60!  Mike was gracious about it.

The next day, we decided to rest.  We both felt tired after the pack-in and climbing Pingora, plus we wanted to be at 100% for our attempt on Wolf’s Head.  After a slow morning in camp, we hiked up to scope the start of Wolf’s Head.  There are 2 options – scramble grassy ledges or a climb a gully to the summit of Tiger Tower and then rap to the start of Wolf’s Head.  We had chatted with a few climbers who said the grassy ledges were wet and super slick, so we checked out the gully.  It didn’t look too bad, similar to a lot of gullies we have climbed in the North Cascades.  We also enjoyed checking out the lake in the upper basin.

Back in camp, we moved around to various shady spots while watching the climbers on several different towers.  I enjoyed the afternoon feeling satisfied from the prior day’s climb and anticipating the next climb.

Wolf’s Head is a committing climb as you climb up one side of the mountain and descend the opposite side.  It would be difficult to bail off in emergency or bad weather, so it felt a little more serious.  We were excited to see that the weather report looked great for the next day, and we were a go.

From right to left… Pingora, Tiger Tower, Wolf’s Head. We climbed the gully between Tiger and Pingora. Then climbed the entire ridgeline shown in this photo.

We were up at 3:30 and hiking at 4:15. It was a beautiful night sky with all the stars and the milky part of the Milky Way!  We made it to the base in 45 minutes, faster than planned.  After getting all our gear on, we ended up waiting 20 minutes for first light! 

The gully ended up being okay, not too loose and only a few easy 5th class moves.  We got to the col quickly and roped up to summit Tiger Tower.  It was fun easy climbing to the summit.  From there, we had 2 raps down to the start of Wolf’s Head.  The first rap was straight-forward, but the second rap was weird.  After a little more climbing, we were at the start of the actual climb… the sidewalk!

The sidewalk is a 30’ long section that is 3’ wide and drops off 500’ on both sides.  There is little protection for the 30’, so it feels extremely exposed but really fun too!  After the sidewalk, we simul-climbed for several hundred feet on the ridgetop.  The climbing was easy, but the ridge continued to narrow so the exposure felt more and more intense! 

The ridge has 5 towers that you bypass either on the north or south side.  We arrived at the base of the first tower at the same time as the party behind us.  They were climbing a little faster than us, so we let them pass.  They were nice and took a few great pictures of me climbing!  However, we didn’t realize that the second climber was leading his first ever climb, so we ended up having to wait a few times for them too.  It all worked out, and it was fun to share the climb with them.

To bypass the first tower, you make an exposed boulder move and then squeeze through a slot to go to the other side of the ridge.  Mike led the pitch, and I heard many grunts as he squeezed himself through the 1’ wide slot.  I had it quite a bit easier being smaller!

The next bypass is called the piton pitch as there are a few old pitons protecting the exposed slabs.  The crux of this pitch was a short downclimb on tiny feet! 


The 3rd pitch is the money pitch with a fun hand crack traverse on one side of the ridge before you cross to the other side for a tiny foot ledge traverse.  This was when the exposure was starting to feel extra real!

The final pitch was a 4” crack traverse that you could either put your feet in or your hands.  I opted for my hands, so I could put gear in but then had to smear my feet while looking down at the nothingness below me!  Then I had a little downclimb, a final chimney and one last squeeze through a hole back to the other side of the ridge.  The last squeeze felt more like a belly flop than climbing, but it was fun!


From here, it was easy climbing to the tiny summit!  We made it and were grinning from ear to ear!  The climbing was all easy, and I was impressed with the first climbers who figured out how to make this climb go!

It is not over once you are at the top, as we now had to descend, including 6 raps and some exposed walking.  We had heard that the descent could be confusing and was not trivial.  The first rap ended up being the crux of the descent for us as we had to downclimb a very exposed 10’ to an anchor.  Mike went first, and the end of our rope got stuck so he had to rap much further than normal to get it unstuck.  All the while he is doing this, I am sitting at a somewhat manky anchor with a 1000’ drop off.  It all worked out, and the next few raps were much easier!  I did not find the descent to be nearly as bad as expected.

After a final rap, we were at a col and from here it was an easy hike back down to Cirque Lake.  We were back to camp after 13 hours where we quickly got water, ate, and crawled into the tent right as the rain hit!  Perfect timing.

We woke up to low misty clouds.  The weather for the next day had extremely high winds forecasted, so we decided to hike out a day early.  We had successfully climbed both of our objectives, so we felt okay with our decision. On the hike out, we continued to enjoy the gorgeous views while making plans on when we could next come back to the Cirque!  It is so beautiful, and there is so much climbing!

After getting to the trailhead, we drove a few miles down the road to a lodge for a burger and beer.  As we were eating the burger, beef from the local ranch next door, a huge lighting/hail storm hit.  So glad we were dry and not still hiking!  The burger was amazing, and the beer tasted darn good too.  After dinner, we paid $4 for a hot shower to clean off the bug spray and sweat from the last few days.  We lucked back into our amazing parking spot at the trailhead for a good night sleep in the van!

The Cirque of the Towers was everything that I had dreamed about and more!  Sometimes things do not live up to the hype, but I would say the Cirque exceeded in all categories… beauty, climbing quality/fun, and adventure.  I cannot wait to plan another trip into this majestic place!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | 2 Comments

Who Needs Presidents When We Can Be Kings?–July 11-15

It’s not often that Sarah and I are without a plan (or 2 or 3), but that was the case after a momentous week with her family at the lake in Minnesota. We’d been too busy playing and visiting to do much research the previous week, and now we found ourselves tired and homeless once again. We had some possible targets in mind but were unsure of route conditions as snow seemed to linger in the mountains. With time starting to slip away, however, we felt the need to get somewhere quickly and found ourselves pulling into Rapid City, South Dakota to try out Mt. Rushmore’s granite slabs.

We had been to Mount Rushmore together in 2012 and enjoyed the monuments but not the crowds. This year, despite Covid-19, we found that Rapid City is still absolutely nuts. Plus, we were here on a Saturday in mid-July! The grocery store was way crowded with people but full of empty shelves. It felt like the frenzied shopping experience many of us remember from March. Our time downtown was about the same: too many people and too few masks. We both felt like it was time to get back to the quiet outdoors as quickly as possible, but we weren’t sure that was even an option in this area.

Getting a campsite wasn’t any better. We wouldn’t expect to find a weekend spot during a normal year, and camping is actually more crowded in many places this year. There is a free parking lot that allows car camping near the climbing; we thought this would be our best bet, but it was super crowded and only had 1 pit toilet and picnic table for everyone. After searching various campgrounds, we lucked into a spot about 15 miles down the road; it was one where you park on the side of the road instead of in a driveway, so I think most people assume it’s only for picnics. That, or maybe people just got turned off by the world’s worst camp host, Carl. Not only is he the grumpiest park service employee I’ve met, but he lied about cleaning the bathrooms. How can I be sure? Well, there were 3 signatures on the posted cleaning sheet, but there were also 3 patches of dog (I hope) crap on the floor for that same period—36 hours. Screw you, Carl…you and Rapid City can have each other!

Strangely, the climbing at Mt. Rushmore is the only uncrowded activity in the whole area! Its sport climbing has a decent reputation, although it probably isn’t a top destination for most climbers. The granite there is a little different than in the North Cascades and City of Rocks; it is grainier and features schist (crystal knobs) holds that are essential to the climbing. They felt pretty solid but didn’t inspire trust right away. We’d heard that Mt. Rushmore’s bolts weren’t run out like the climbing in the Needles, but they still felt pretty darn far apart! Most hard moves had bolts in the right spots, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to name any of the routes we climbed Shredded Cheddar.

Because of these factors, we kept our grade low for the day. We climbed a 5.8 called Star Dancer that locals consider a classic; both of us enjoyed it but thought the word classic was a stretch. Some of the old-timers on Mountain Project said it’s harder now because key holds have broken. The best climb was a 5.7 mixed line called Weird Water. It was long (2 rope rappel) with great balancy climbing. It weaved back and forth up a cool schist face overlooking the highway. Like many of the climbs here, you actually summit. It was a nice vantage point for waving down at people who had stopped along the road. So weird to be a mile away from tourist hordes and only hear one other group of climbers the entire day!

It was nearly 100 degrees by 1:00 PM, so we decided to call it quits and check out the Needles Highway instead. This ended up being our favorite part of the Rushmore area this time. The drive was full of gorgeous scenery with endless hills covered in granite needles and dark green vegetation. We were really high up, and the road was narrow, curvy, and exposed. Good stuff! Several rock tunnels barely allowed passage for large vehicles…Craggin’ fit just fine, though.

After driving the main road through Custer State Park, we also drove the game watching loop in the outer sections (finally, no crowds!). Despite the heat, we saw plenty of animals: buffalo, pronghorns, a deer or two hanging out in a rare shady spot, prairie dogs, a turkey I nearly ran over, and a mountain bluebird. You’ve probably figured out by now that we both love animals, so this drive was really a treat!

With a crappy forecast and so-so excitement about the climbing at Rushmore, we decided to head out the next day. To be fair, I think we were more tired than we realized after a few weeks of going hard. It takes about 3 days to adjust to new climbing areas. We didn’t give Rushmore a fair chance, but neither of us are keen to visit again. Soon, we found ourselves back in Wyoming (big surprise…I think it was our 6th trip through the state since last June!) still without a plan. We kept discussing the same three options but couldn’t figure out which was best, so we chose…none of them.

King’s Peak (13, 528 ft.), the highest point in Utah, is only a few miles past Wyoming’s border. We’d thought about checking it out a few months ago, but there was still too much snow. Utahns spoke very highly of the Uinta Mountains, though, and King’s had sort of been on our radar as a maybe all summer. We knew we were somewhat unlikely to ever go there after this trip, and our other choices all had major drawbacks so early in the summer. So, we literally did a U-turn halfway through Wyoming and headed back to Utah!

The drive wasn’t super exciting, but we did pass Independence Rock—a vital point on the Oregon Trail. Settlers needed to see it by the 4th of July if they were to make it to Oregon without getting stuck in the winter. The Oregon Trail has always fascinated Sarah, so it’s cool that we have seen so much of it along our travels this year. We camped in a gorgeous spot, too—Flaming Gorge, Wyoming, lights up in a red glow at sunset (No Foto!). I didn’t realize it until looking at some pictures my father-in-law took that night in Illinois, but the big bright shooting star I saw that night was actually the Neowise Comet; what a treat to see it light up the darkness in the big open sky (I’m pretty sure I’ve never peed by comet light before)!

King’s Peak is really in the middle of nowhere. We drove 1.5 hours on mostly gravel roads through cattle country before hitting the trailhead, being found by killer attack mosquitoes, and dousing ourselves in DEET. The pack-in was around 8 miles of mostly flat trail. Luckily, there was shade and cloud cover most of the day because we hadn’t been able to get an early start. The first 5 miles are a little boring; they reminded me very much of the approach to Middle Sister from Pole Creek…flat, hot, and forested. There were some pretty flowers, especially the columbine.

Once the trail opens up, though, it’s spectacular! After crossing the river, we were suddenly surrounded by gorgeous flowery meadows and pristine mountain peaks! It was supposed to be windy that night, so we camped under some trees near Dollar Lake instead of out in the open meadow. Several other lakes dotted the basin, and it wasn’t long before we saw deer and some woodpeckers. We had plenty of mosquitoes visit, as well, which gave us a chance to try out the bug jackets we’d been carrying around in the van all year.

It was surprisingly cold that night, and I remember feeling disheartened to see that my phone read 1:25 when I woke up shivering, only to find I had 3 more hours before the alarm. The morning approach was just about perfect, however. Not long after setting out, the pink morning alpine glow sat over the mountains and reflected off the clear tarns throughout the basin. We kept our eye out for bears and moose but had to be satisfied with marmots and pikas instead. We could see Gunsight Notch, our first waypoint, for nearly 2 miles before we got there, so it was good we were surrounded with beauty.

A shortcut at the notch is the key to climbing King’s Peak without hating life; it shaves nearly 2 miles off the round trip, as well as a couple hundred feet of elevation gain. It has a reputation for being hard to find, but we happily discovered 3 large cairns marking the way. We had to keep our eyes out for the cairns farther across the shortcut, but we could make out the trail up the actual peak from clear across Daisy Basin before we descended down and boulder-hopped across the basin to rejoin the trail.

A short climb up to the pass got our hearts going, but we felt pretty good. All that time at elevation this year had paid off, and we even felt like having a decent snack before continuing above 12,500 ft. On the downside, the water we’d filtered the previous night tasted like a mud pie. We only had another 1,000 ft. to climb, but it was quite a bit farther than we expected. Two false summits and ¾ of a mile’s worth of boulder hopping stood between us and the top.

It was such a gorgeous morning, though, that we barely even noticed the tired muscles starting to grumble to our brains. We reached the summit around mid-morning, just over 4 hours after leaving camp (on the fast side of the average time). Neither of us had tried to burn up the trail, so it was nice to summit with a decent time while feeling strong. The 6-peak panorama around us was a feast for our eyes! If only we’d had more time, we could have traversed the entire range! We’d beaten the forecasted winds up to the summit, so there was ample time to enjoy the view and celebrate our 8th state highpoint with a Snickers bar and more mud pie-infused water.

Normally, we’d take 3 days to do a 28-mile climb, but Sarah actually had an important phone call we had to be back for the next day. So, we popped a couple of Ibuprofen and made tracks back down to our camp. Sarah found a better way across the basin, and we got a great reminder that hikes in Utah are often just as rewarding on the way out as on the way in. We laid down for about 10 minutes back at the tent, threw our gear together, and gritted our teeth for 8 miles back to the Craggin’ Wagon.

Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to get you out of your equilibrium, but nothing like a little mountain therapy brings it right back. King’s Peak was not a technical challenge, but it was absolutely stunning! Neither of us had ever been in a place quite like the Uintas. It almost fell off our radar, but luckily we just really didn’t have a plan. We might have no need to rush back to Rushmore, but it was good to live like kings for a couple of days.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | Leave a comment

Family Time in Spicer, MN: 7/4/2020 to 7/10/2020

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in April.  When I asked them last year what they wanted to do to celebrate, they just said they wanted to spend time together with the entire family.  So, after a little brainstorming, we opted to spend a week at a lake resort in Minnesota.  We wanted to make it extra special for my parents as their European celebration trip was canceled and they had been cooped up, along with the rest my family, all spring. 

A week-long lake vacation sounded perfect for us after climbing our hearts out for the entire month of June.  Our bodies needed to recover, and some good old family time would be good for our spirits.  I am extremely fortunate that everyone in the family gets along and enjoys spending time together.

Recovering with wine! Photo by Doug Mathews

After a long, hot, boring drive through Eastern Wyoming, South Dakota, and Western Minnesota, we arrived at Lake Florida to settle in for the week.  The resort is old-school with 13 basic cabins located right on the lake.  There is no wifi and minimal cell phone coverage, although by the end of the week my 16-year old niece had located all 2-bar spots around the place! 

The resort sits on this gorgeous small lake with crystal clear, warm water.  It has a nice sand beach, 2 docks and tons of different watercrafts including SUPs, kayaks, and water bikes.  Floating in the water was a large trampoline and foam lily pad.  The owner mentioned that these were for the kids, but the adults took over the trampoline most afternoons to hang out while tossing the occasional kid into the water.   

Photo by Doug Mathews

Most mornings started out slowly by enjoying a cup of coffee on the dock overlooking the perfectly calm lake and watching my dad fish.  After coffee, I found various partners to go for a kayak or SUP to the nature-reserve side of the lake to look for big fish, loons, and turtles.   The afternoon was spent playing in the water with the kids and lazing on the trampoline with the adults.  Evenings were filled with shared meals, stories, and various games.  It was a very relaxing week and special to spend so much time with my siblings, parents and ever growing-up nieces and nephews.

Posing for my dad early one morning. Photo by Doug Mathews
3 Ladies. Photo by Doug Mathews

I tried to have one-on-one time with everyone in the family.  My sister suggested a nature hike at the nearby reserve in an area that she had scoped while out on a run.  What she failed to mention was the number of garter snakes that we would encounter!  We walked on a freshly mowed grass trail and almost every other step we jumped and screamed due to another snake!  I was very happy to get back to the resort!

Staying away from the snakes! Photo by Doug Mathews

I also enjoyed going tubing behind a speed boat with my brother.  Neither of us had been before, so why not try together.  It was fun holding on for dear life all the while giggling and hollering as we were being bounced around.

The time with my nieces and nephews was extra special as well.  I loved watching Mike play endlessly with them all and never tire of them jumping all over him.  It was also fun to watch the cousins’ bond and share their common interests.  I loved having them pop over for a visit to our cabin and giving them ice cream or playing a game.  It was super awesome to have that much time with them.

Balance wars on the Lily Pad! Photo by Doug Mathews
Photo by Tracy Madden Mathews

We tried to make the week extra special for my parents, as well, including a resort wide champagne toast and decorating their cabin.  During a few of our shared dinners, we heard stories about their courtship, engagement, and early years of their marriage.  Plus, we all shared our favorite memories and what we were most thankful for.  The theme was the same – we were thankful that they showed all of us what a strong loving marriage is all about and for creating a family that gets along.  We are lucky.  Thanks Mom and Dad and Happy 50th!

Photo by Doug Mathews
Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | 1 Comment

Limestone Cowboys: The Sequel (Ten Sleep, WY)–June 16-July 3

With only a few weeks remaining in our Still Moonin’ Adventure, we are once again behind on our blog. Somehow, we have managed to enjoy some great climbing during the past month without feeling like we were compromising our morals or the safety of others. One way that we’ve accomplished this is to spend longer in uncrowded areas instead of making a ton of quick stops in crowded places.

After two weeks of spectacular crack climbing and granite slabs, we moved from City of Rocks to Wyoming’s Ten Sleep Canyon. If you’ve followed our trip, you might notice us repeating last summer’s path. This wasn’t the plan, but what has this year taught us except flexibility and gratitude for small things (well, that and hoarding)? Ten Sleep is one of the most unique and grittily charming places I’ve seen, and I wrote quite a bit about the town’s flavor last year. If you aren’t into the climbing stuff, you might enjoy that blog more (USA—Summer 2019 heading in the side menu if you’d like to discover the best small town 4th of July celebration anywhere); I know that I really enjoyed reliving it before writing this one. The rest of this blog will focus on the climbing. I’m not sure why we didn’t take more pictures.

Ten Sleep’s climbing really challenged us last year; we’d never climbed on limestone before, and it was about as different from the Cascades as possible. It’s very physical and pumpy; technique is important, but power and endurance might matter more. After nearly 3 weeks of climbing limestone in Greece last fall, we are much more attuned to it. We knew we’d struggle with endurance since there was no way to train in a gym, but Ten Sleep’s bolting is so friendly that we wouldn’t have to worry about taking giant falls if our grip blew. Safe bolting makes TS a great place to push, and we gave ourselves permission to go bolt to bolt when the pump was too much.

Here are descriptions of our favorite climbs:

Ice Station Zebra (5.9 with 5.10c extension)—A grinfest of a bolted crack—like they say, no one comes to TS to place cams. The book says to lieback the bottom, so I did…only to watch Sarah stem her way up effortlessly after I grunted, slipped, and fell the first try. Hey, it was a warmup!  Sarah did the short arete extension, but she said it was nowhere as good as the crack.

Plinko (5.10a/b)—Okay, this one is weak for our list, but how often do you get a full pitch of bolted chimney? Sarah stemmed the bottom here, too, while I opted for some sort of weird arm jam to get into the chimney before testing the durability of my chockstone jacket as I inched up the entire way. I need to learn how to climb like a girl!

Thor (5.10a)—Super fun! A short lieback led to a roof with great jugs to pull through; the whole thing is a super pumpy jug haul! Not the best match for our pipe cleaners, but we both liked it so much we climbed it twice.

Death Flake from HELL (5.10a)—A long, PUMPY ride full of big moves on pockets, jugs, and a steep flake at the top that lives to laugh at your wrecked forearms! This a main objective for me, but we did it after a full morning of pushing my grade on steep routes. I was a little ashamed to ask for a take at all 5 last bolts…not because I didn’t want to fall, but because I was too lazy to climb back up again if I did! 😊

BBQ Buddies Control the Cosmos (5.10B/C)—I love this climb! The crux is near the bottom—a few moves of liebacking with slippery feet. You get a nice rest in the middle on an easy slab before finishing on a bomber flake that goes on FOREVER. So much fun!

Dirt Gator (10B)—This was one of my favorites from last year, but I never got quite confident enough with pockets to lead it. This year, I led it twice…both times, I needed a take after an awkward clip, only to cruise the crux afterward. Sarah high clips it, which is ironically a bad habit that gets me into trouble sometimes. That clip is the only awkward part; the pockets are perfect the rest of the way.

Big Bear Memorial (10C)—If I could only climb one route in TS for the rest of my life, this 35m of awesome would be it. The bottom ‘s short crack is the technical crux; it gives way to a steep dihedral on bomber jugs and pockets before a hard move or two at the top. You can stem most of it, though, which helps manage the pump. This was my #1 goal to lead in TS, so I was super excited to get it done.

As all of you know, Sarah is a really good rock climber. She doesn’t normally tell people this, but you only have to watch her for a few seconds to recognize it. She also won’t tell you that she leaves stuff on the table sometimes because she wants to include me. So, I was happy to see her push (and succeed) on some stuff she wasn’t sure she could climb. Here are a few favorites from her world:

B1 Bomber Dude (11a) – My first 11a on-sight!  My favorite type of climbing is balancy, delicate and crimpy.  This climb delivered on them all!  I enjoyed the flowy movement and sustained crimps.

Munsterlander (11c) – I eyed this climb last year; it is located near Big Bear Memorial, and our friend Kelly told me I just had to try it as it is one of the best climbs at the grade.  My goal for TS this year was to try at least 1 climb that I didn’t know if I could get to the top.  This was the climb to try as it is 5*, well bolted and not too overhung.  It is long and sustained, so I had a few takes due to the pump factor.  I was grinning ear to ear when I clipped the chains!

Crazy Wyona (11d) – After our trip last year, I really wanted to climb at the Back 40 as all the climbs on vertical, crimpy and balancy.  Right up my alley.  I climbed 2 of the other 11s there before giving this one a go.  I approached it with no expectations, but after a few takes and 1 fall, I made it to the top.  I was ecstatic and couldn’t believe I just climbed 11d!  I would love to go back to try and climb it clean someday! 

While we really got into the climbing this year, we also enjoyed plenty of downtime. Ten Sleep Brewery and Dirty Sally’s ice cream cones helped with that. Having over two weeks in one place is a luxury that we don’t normally get in the real world, but we took full advantage of a few extra rest days that allowed us enough recovery time to climb hard the entire time. As you can tell from the pictures, we had one of the best campsites of all our travels—right on the creek, plenty of space, and lots of shade. We were also lucky enough to meet up with some friends from last year; Kelly and Maria, you have no idea how much we needed to share those socially distanced candlelight “campfires” with you.

We must have done Ten Sleep the right way because we climbed until we couldn’t climb any longer…literally, we had to stop early the last morning because we couldn’t hold on to the jugs! Time is a funny thing, as I think we’ve all learned this year. Now that we are winding down, I find myself thinking, “next year, when I climb this,” only to realize Ten Sleep is probably 15 hours from Portland. For now, I guess we’ll just be grateful for the opportunity to be here this summer. It may not be anytime soon, but Ten Sleep, we’ll see you again!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | 6 Comments

Back in the Craggin’ Wagon: May 26 – June 15, 2020

The Raffs are back on the road following our “pause” in SW Utah.  After much conversation and a little encouragement from all of you guys, we decided to continue to blog about our travels.  Thanks for following us along on this adventure.  It has been nice to hear from home along the way, especially now that we have been on the road for a whole year!

Before heading to City of Rocks, Idaho, we decided to do a quick tour through Southern Utah.  Our first stop was a quick repeat of Bryce Canyon National Park.  We somehow missed seeing Thor’s Hammer on our first quick trip, plus we wanted to check out the park minus the snow.  It was a little busier with more out of state plates, but we were able to do a nice hike and social distance. 

From Bryce, we headed to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  Our original plan was to drive the Hole in the Wall road for 25 miles to a picturesque slot canyon, but after 2 miles of bumpy, slow driving, we opted for the Zebra slot canyon only 8 miles down the road.  It was scenic but very hot.  I was happy for my sun hoodie and everyone stopped to ask us what we were wearing.  Guess we weren’t around climbers here!

On our second day, we drove the Million Dollar road connecting Escalante to Boulder; the road was built by the CCC.  Before the road was completed in 1940, they would use mule trains to deliver mail and supplies.  These were the last towns in the US to get mail via mule!  They would also transport fresh cream between the towns via mule.  Sometimes, it would get too hot, and the cream would ferment and explode!  This was also the last uncharted area of the lower 48 and wasn’t fully mapped until the late 1800’s.   The road was built through a sea of sandstone domes in red, coral, and white offset by green trees and shrubs!

We did stop for a great hike to Calf Creek Falls.  It was hot and a little busy which took away from the enjoyment, but the falls themselves were spectacular.  They also acted as a natural air conditioner, so it was a nice reward to cool down before our hike back to the van.

Our last stop on our tour was Capital Reef National Park.  The night before exploring the park, we camped high in the Boulder mountains, which was 30 degrees cooler than below.  We were rewarded with a splendid sunset over the brilliant red water pocket fold and Henry Mountains in the background.

The park itself was a little disappointing, but we did enjoy a nice walk through the Grand Wash – one of only 2 washes that go all the way through the reef.  It was an easy hike following the wash between the towering walls, 800+ feet tall.  At one point, it narrowed to 20’ wide.

With more time and a 4wd vehicle, I would have enjoyed traveling on the gravel roads through more of the back country.  We will just have to come back someday.

From here, we pointed Craggin’ north and left the Utah desert behind.  We desperately needed a shower, so we stopped at a Love’s Truck Stop.  The showers were super clean with nice hot water.  It was a great tip from my folks after their road trip a few years ago.

We also stopped at the local REI to pick up some new gear.  I was happy to see that the worker was wearing a KEEN mask.  After chatting, she gave us masks too.  So now, I can continue to spread brand awareness with my new mask.

Our destination for the next 2 weeks was City of Rocks, which was the place that we kicked off this trip almost a year ago.  Idaho was one of the first nearby states to open campgrounds to out-of-state residents and being familiar with the climbing there, we felt we could responsibly social distance at the crags.

It turned out to be a great decision, and it was really nice to camp again in the van.  Waking up every morning to Elephant Rock out the window and seeing spectacular sunsets every evening was a real treat.  We felt enormously privileged to enjoy this special spot during this time.  Plus, the climbing is pretty darn awesome!

The town nearby, Almo, is small with just 2 places for tourists… a general store and a pizza joint.  The two took different approaches to protecting themselves from Covid-19.  The pizza joint built a take-out window with a microphone and minimal contact with their customers.  They still had amazing pizza and even Breakside beer (our favorite beer from Portland!).  The general store had no precautions in place with employees not wearing masks and no capacity limits.  For the most part, we stayed up in the park only dropping to town for pizza/beer and to check emails.   

We did have one stormy weekend, where we ended up at an Airbnb.  It was a good thing as it snowed and stormed for 2 straight days.  It was nice to do laundry, shower and stay cozy in our little house with views of the storm raging over Castle Rocks.

We were too early to see a cow drive this year, but we did see 3 days of endurance horse racing through the park.  There were 2 courses per day, 25/50 mile.  We would see them trotting by in the morning and then throughout the park as we were climbing.  What a beautiful place to ride!

If you want to read about climbing highlights see below, otherwise skip to the last paragraph😊

Elephant Rock is one of the most iconic rock formations in the city.  We had a perfect view from our campsite and would watch climbers from morning until dusk climbing the high-quality routes.  We spent one morning in the area, and the climbing really was amazing.  Mike led Wheat Thin (5.7T) which is a long crack that has a very thin section.  I led Rye Crisp (5.8T) which follows this crazy flake to the top which requires a lot of fun laybacking and big gear!  There was also a brand-new sport route called Strawberry Fields (5.9S) that had a variety of moves and some amazing surprise jugs at the top.  Highly recommend giving it a go!

Jackson’s Thumb – Theater of Shadows (5.7S) – 4 pitches of fun, rompy, slab climbing.  Very well protected and just fun.  Plus, the views from the summit were outstanding looking down into the center of the park.

Batwings (5.8T) – I scoped this route out last year and even watched a few people climb the crux, but I wasn’t ready to commit to the runout.  This year, I decided to give it a go.  It is 150’ long with a 15’ slab runout crux low and another 20’ easy slab runout at top.  But in between, it has the sweetest hand crack dihedral that will have you grinning from ear to ear. The climbing wasn’t hard, but it was a mental challenge.  When I got through the crux, I yelled to Mike I would never climb it again, but by the top, I knew I would!

Skyline (5.8T) – Skyline is aptly named as it climbs the left ridgeline of a small rock feature right in the heart of the park.  You can see the line from the road and often will see a climber’s profile.  The climbing is awesome, and the exposure is spectacular.  Plus, the view from the top is pretty darn amazing!  After my lead, Mike decided to push himself and lead it a few days later.  I was happy to climb the route again and the exposure still got my attention!

Lost Arrow (5.7T) – This route had never been on my radar, but after talking to a few other climbers and needing a more off the beaten trail to climb on a Sunday, we decided to give it a go.  It is a 2-pitch climb that ends on the top of a rock tower.  The climbing felt very alpiney, even clipping the original pitons!  I led the first pitch with another airy traverse and Mike led the runout slab to the summit.  The views from the top were stunning and the free-hanging 35m rap was the icing on the cake!  If you like a little adventure, do this climb!

Tribal Boundaries (5.10b S) – I loved this climb as it was delicate, crimpy, and balancey the entire way with a little slab at the top.  This is my favorite type of climbing and this line was beautiful! 

Bloody Fingers (5.10a T) – I have been eyeing this climb since my 2018 trip with Karen.  I never felt like I was ready, and since I haven’t led a trad route at this grade, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to lead a 120’ pitch as my first attempt.  However, the line is so beautiful and after watching several people work through the crux, I decided to give it a go on our last day in the City.  The crux is the first 20’ and takes gear well.  Finger jams and small hands with foot smears.  It was a bit burly, but I made it through to the first rest clean!  From here, it is amazing hand jams and finishes on a delicate slab to the anchors.  I was overjoyed with this route!  It was perfect, and I grinned from ear to ear for the rest of the day!

City of Rocks once again exceeded expectations on this trip.  It was the perfect place to start climbing and camping again.  I love the laidback vibe, beautiful scenery, and the friendly climbers.  It also has a lot of variety allowing you to choose your own adventure.  From here, we will again retrace our Summer of 2019 steps and head to Ten Sleep, WY for some limestone cragging.  Thanks for following us along on this adventure for the past year!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | 3 Comments

Still Moonin’ but Not Movin’ Part 2: March 18 – May 25, 2020

Greetings everyone! We are halfway through week 10 of “that spring we lived in Zion.” When we got here there was still significant snow in portions of the park, but next week has forecast temperatures of triple digits. We’ve “celebrated” April Fool’s Day, our 9th wedding anniversary, Easter, Mother’s Day (well, we wished our mothers a happy day), and now Memorial Day from the basement of the Cackleberry Ranch here in SW Utah. It’s obviously not the amazing climbing expedition we expected, but we both feel incredibly lucky to be healthy and also able to keep our adventure alive to some degree.

As I’ve mentioned, we rented a basement apartment here for one week to try to figure out what to do next. The weather was really crappy, and Craggin’ isn’t exactly a spacious rolling palace in which we could wait out days of rain. We still weren’t even sure we shouldn’t just go home, but our house is rented out until August, and it’s not like much was happening in P-Town. For that 1st week, we really enjoyed having so much space and catching up on NetFlix when we couldn’t go outside. At the end of the week, we cut a deal with the owners; they are normally always booked but suddenly had vacancy until June. They are an incredibly nice family, and this place has really come to feel like a second home.

We made it up to Zion that first Saturday, unsure what to expect in terms of crowds. They weren’t collecting fees, which protected rangers, but it had only been a week since Utah’s governor had announced that parks were a GREAT place to go in order to escape the pandemic; also, it was Spring Break for Utah’s schools. We got there early trying to minimize crowds and foolishly headed for Angel’s Landing. The first part of the trail wasn’t bad for social distancing, but when we came to the base of the landing, we both cringed: shoulder-to-shoulder people going hand-over-hand on the chained handrail up to the top! This was the very scene that got out nationally; locally, it was used to lobby for the park’s closure (Angel’s Landing did close two days later) because of all the outsiders; however, the vast majority of sweatshirts bore the names of Utahn schools. Anyway, we turned the opposite direction and enjoyed a great hike up to the West Rim of Zion Canyon instead…saw about 10 people over 7-8 miles.

It was quite clear that we’d have to set some rules if we were going to continue trying to have fun. First, we couldn’t drive all over the place; I’ve since seen 50 miles as a guideline during stay-home orders. We usually stayed within 15 miles of home, but we never stop for bathroom (except for the odd pee along the road) or snack breaks, and all the visitor’s centers were closed. Second, we’d always turn around if social distancing wasn’t possible; since neither of us likes to turn around, it made us plan better to avoid troubles. Third, we’d keep the risk factor low in our activities…I can see this one being tougher as things open up now and we begin to regain climbing fitness. So far, though, we’ve been conservative…for instance, we walk our mountain bikes if we aren’t 90% sure a section is within our limited abilities.

At first, we worried that conflict might arise over our Oregon license plates. We read news accounts of places like Moab warning visitors to stay away…they weren’t welcome and wouldn’t be allowed to shop. We totally understood that viewpoint and didn’t want to be a burden to small communities with few resources. La Verkin, however, didn’t seem stressed; the grocery store was well-stocked and hardly ever busy. They barely had any Covid cases and, at the time, probably didn’t even believe the threat was real. We kept a low profile and made sure to be friendly, and soon we found that everyone was very welcoming and kind. Our landlord’s neighbors even brought us a loaf of warm homemade bread!

After that first day in Zion, we wanted way more solitude than the main canyon offered, but it’s surprisingly easy to enjoy the park without crowds. Of course, the big attractions along the scenic canyon drive are magnificent, but the park’s outskirts also offered all kinds of striking beauty and great hikes. All that rock was tempting, but we stuck to our guns and kept our ambitions in check (the periodic snow helped limit those also). If you ever want to visit Zion but don’t like crowds, we are the people you want to ask before you go! Although, sometimes we got eerie reminders that we weren’t alone!

The other early highlight was a daytrip to nearby Bryce Canyon. I’d wanted to visit this park for as long as I can remember, and it certainly didn’t disappoint me. Bryce is really high elevation (8,000-9,000 ft.), and early spring might be a little lighter traffic even on a normal year, but heading up there on a Wednesday made it downright deserted. I’d guess that there were, at most, 20 cars in the park that day. Most of the hiking trails were closed, but we hiked a couple of miles down to the Queen’s Garden and to Sunrise and Sunset Points. From there, we did the scenic drive and enjoyed the hoodoos, arches, and spectacular views down the Grand Staircase all the way to the shadow of the Grand Canyon. I’d love to go back sometime, but it was an amazing taste of a fascinating place before it closed a few days later.

We got two full weeks of exploring the outskirts of Zion before the park closed, so we felt pretty fortunate to have seen so much. We were disappointed, but we had been expecting the closure since we’d arrived. Plus, with the park closing, it made it even easier to relax among the locals who might have been worried about travelers; by now, I think Craggin’ was familiar to the small community. I’d like to think that Sarah and I have become pretty resourceful travelers, and a little research revealed plenty of off-the-beaten-path local outdoor areas to explore.

After the parks closed, we have basically spent 6 weeks roaming the desert. Sometimes, we start on trails but often end up following washes or sporadic cairns using maps, GPS tracks, and common sense to figure out our routes. I love that the same section of desert offers a different experience with each visit–a new cave, a blooming plant, or even just slightly brighter light or darker shadow creates new sensations. The sand also tells a story…it’s common to see tiny tracks or deer sign meet a predator’s prints; they travel the same line for a bit, and then you see where the real hunt began! Since we stayed the entire spring, we also got to see the desert transform from basic sage, juniper, and small cacti into a wide variety of bright flowers everywhere you look. Red rock reefs, rainbow-tinted sandstone mesas, and the peaks of Zion provided constant reminders that we were in an incredible space!

As things have opened up here in Southwest Utah and Covid-19 cases have remained extremely low in our county, we’ve started to branch out a little in our adventures.  This area has some ghost towns and petroglyphs to enjoy; in fact, nearby Silver Reef is the only sandstone in the United States to ever produce enough ore to be mined. We “climbed” Baldy Mountain, which was sort of a high-elevation hike with seasonal snow travel and route-finding skills. We discovered the thrill of mountain biking. For the past week, we’ve even clipped some bolts on easy sport climbing at a couple of deserted local crags.

What’s next for us? I’m really not sure beyond the next couple of weeks. We’re most likely going off the grid and returning to life in the Craggin’ Wagon; we have masks and a good supply of hand sanitizer that we found in quart bottles designed for motor oil at a 7-11. Idaho opens next weekend, and we are hoping that City of Rocks—where we began our Still Moonin’ Tour—will offer relative isolation and fun. We have a few things in mind, but the plan is to go fewer places but stay for longer.

I’m not sure whether there will be another blog; I’m really not even sure many of you want to read about this stuff right now (and I don’t blame you if you don’t). Sarah and I have struggled to figure out how to feel since getting back—is it possible to grieve the premature end of a trip we’ve long planned and saved for but also to feel extremely fortunate to be so lucky right now? It’s surely required flexibility and reflection on our part, but I guess those qualities are part of what you seek when you travel. No matter what the next two months bring, we hope that you all remain healthy and enjoy some sort of return to more happy circumstances. As for us, well, I guess we’ll do our best to use good judgment and still keep on moonin’!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | 8 Comments

Still Moonin’ but Not Movin’–Part 1: Mar. 6-17.

In the craziness of the past 6 weeks, you probably haven’t had time to wonder what happened to those Raff people that were 8 months into their yearlong trip. Well, we’re obviously not travelling at the moment; in fact, I guess we’ve sort of moved to Southwest Utah. Surprised? So were we, but life is pretty good, all things considered.

This is not Utah.

I’ve hesitated to write this blog, partly because not everyone will agree with all our choices—let’s face it, there was serious shade being thrown around while everyone tried to figure out how their existence was changing overnight (side note: if you post about any topic more than a dozen times in a day, you are no longer on my Facebook feed because life is too short to climb with beta sprayers). There’s also some guilt—we landed in a safe place with outdoor opportunities, and we had already planned to be unemployed during this time. The future is unclear, but we are still extremely lucky.

The truth is that we really didn’t know what to do at first…we got back to the U.S. the same week that schools were closing and toilet paper disappeared; I was just glad people were finally washing their hands in airport bathrooms! We learned that the WHO had declared a pandemic as we drove over the border between Missouri and Kansas about 9 hours into a 5-month road trip. Anyway, here’s the everchanging story of what Sarah and I are calling “that spring we lived in Zion.”

We weren’t too worried about flying from Costa Rica because they hadn’t yet recorded the virus (the 1st case was announced the following day), but we were still happy to get back before borders really started closing. Our first stop was once again with Sarah’s family in Indiana for a few days. Highlights included a morning walk at Sarah’s parents’ favorite park, another round of delicious pasty production and consumption, margaritas with Sarah’s sister, and some fun and games with our niece and nephew. We don’t use our phones internationally, so it was also nice to talk with my parents. These might sound like little things, but little things with loved ones are what you miss the most during travelling!

Like I said, we didn’t really know what lay ahead of us at the time. Like many people, we had fun plans during spring, beginning with our annual trip to climb at Red Rock Canyon. We set out for the 2,000-mile leg of the road trip only a few days before states began seriously shutting down. I think we both had an inkling that our trip was about to change drastically, but we hoped to salvage what we could; by the time we got to Red Rock (a mere 3 days later), much had come out about the way the disease spread exponentially and the need for social distancing.

Our first big moment of the road trip came early on the second morning. We awoke early and started the Craggin’ Wagon up to leave the rest stop we’d slept in that night; it was time for our summit bid of Kansas’ high point! This endeavor required a grueling hour’s drive and stepping all the way out of Craggin’ to take a photo. Mt. Sunflower (4,039 ft. elev.), sat in the middle of a field; there was actually a really cool metal-work marker with a mailbox summit register and a Little Library that had been someone’s high school project. It was our 7th state high point and the 3rd of this trip; I did some quick math, and I should finish the 50 high points right around the time my 6 year-old niece turns 92!

Later that day, we drove through some of the most beautiful areas I can recall on any major highway. The Colorado Rockies are the real deal, y’all! It was a beautiful sunny day, and the snow-capped peaks seemed to be screaming, “Come play with us!” We still had a long drive, though, so a few photo opportunities had to suffice. This area was on our short list of Plan B’s if climbing got shut down, but within a week it was also one of the higher concentrated areas of Covid-19 in the Southwest.

Sarah found two of the prettiest free camping spots I can imagine for the rest of our drive. We spent that second night in a BLM campground near the Colorado/Utah border. Although free, it was equipped with a clean outhouse, picnic table, and amazing views of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness! What a place to eat a quick dinner, sip a cold beer, and ponder what the hell we were going to do for 5 months!

The last day of our road trip took us across Utah, a tiny strip of Arizona, and into Nevada. Highlights included driving through the San Rafael Reef (a 30-mile wall with only one narrow opening blasted for the highway) and the Virgin River Gorge. We’d discussed visiting Moab for the day, but we ran into a snowstorm instead before dropping down into St. George, Utah, which has a growing reputation for good climbing. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would be heading back to this area shortly! We stayed the night at another picturesque but more primitive BLM camping area an hour from Vegas.

After 28 hours of driving over 3 days, it was nice to see Red Rock through the windshield! Red Rock is one of my favorite places in the world; we go there every spring to kick off climbing season. The weather is typically great, and the area offers some of the best variety of moderate multi-pitch trad routes in the U.S. This year, however, we were three weeks earlier, the weather wasn’t great for climbing on brittle sandstone, and the world was coming apart. Usually, we find solace and adventure in the outdoors, but this trip felt kind of pathetic…like trying to hide from a monster by ducking behind a light pole.

The park was by no means deserted, but there were no crowds either. I know that photos of terrible lines and crowding in parks came out in the next weeks, but when we were there, Red Rock was way less busy than we normally experienced. We stopped at the main pullout late on Saturday morning, and easily found front row parking right beside the trailhead. It was too wet to climb, so we hiked a really cool 5-mile loop that took us out of the park and down the Calico Basin before returning to our starting point. Not our usual kickoff but a nice leg stretcher in the sun…we’d only heard the words “social distancing” for a few days at that point, but it seemed pretty doable after that morning.

The grocery store, on the other hand, was a terrifying petri dish of crowding, pawing, and racing around as people rushed to buy up whatever they could. I don’t know that we saw people hoarding, but if everyone goes to the store at the same time for the same stuff, there will obviously be problems! We had a cooler and 3 small food bins in the van, which made “stocking up” a relative term. In order to get enough food for a few days, we had to go to 2 different stores. I’d bet money that we were exposed and exposed others to more germs in those 2 visits than in our entire 4 days in the park! I realize one is a necessary evil and one is not, but I am saying that an outsider’s perception of Red Rocks for that weekend would be far less accurate than the same person’s perception of a grocery store in Vegas!

The next day was the only real climbing we did. Neither of us was in shape, so we clipped a few bolts on easy routes in the Hamlet area. We’d climbed there the previous year and knew there was some fun stuff. Again, not many people there. Since Sarah and I had zero climbing endurance, there was no worry that we would push ourselves anywhere near our climbing limits. I’ll be honest; it felt great to be on the rock. Were we justifying selfish actions? Maybe a little, but hindsight is easy to judge.

Some type of weird low moist cloud system sat down on the canyon that night, so the next day ended up with rock too wet to climb. We weren’t really used to bad weather at Red Rock, but we ended up getting to hike some stuff we normally ignore. Turtlehead Point (believe it or not, I made no jokes about its name that day) was a five-mile hike that gained a couple thousand feet and offered great views of the park, as well as Kraft Mountain, Calico Basin, and The Strip that shut down that very morning. It made for a fine Plan-B.

By now, it was painfully obvious that our Red Rock trip was a bust. Hiking was okay, but the weather forecast was terrible. Every passing day brought more dire news about the expected damage yet to come, and things were shutting down all over. Even if the weather improved, we were realizing the potential negative impact our climbing could create for others, and driving around the country touching door handles seemed like a pretty crappy choice as well.

Ignoring our neighbor blasting REM’s End of the World on repeat for several hours, we dialed up the ol’ Interweb and researched some of the places in our general vicinity that might be better places to lay low and socially distance ourselves. We hoped for a small town with potential hiking opportunities, and we also wanted to find a place with a roof and indoor plumbing—two weeks of rainy forecasts and a shared outhouse in the middle of a pandemic made van life sound pretty unappetizing! On a whim, we checked out the area around St. George that we passed through a few days earlier, and we found a great basement apartment to rent for the week in the small town of La Verkin, Utah. And that, my friends, is how we began “that Spring we lived in Zion.”

To Be Continued…
Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020 | 6 Comments

Sloths Galore in Quepos, Costa Rica: March 2 – 4, 2020

Our last stop in Costa Rica before heading back to the States was Manual Antonio National Park near the town of Quepos.  It is well known for its scenery and easy to spot wildlife including 3-toed sloths, so we were excited to explore. 

We opted for another adventure travel day and took the taxi – boat- taxi shuttle from Mal Pais to Quepos.  We caught the taxi-speed boat in Montezuma, but enough time for a quick morning walk on the beach.  The beach was beautiful with green trees, white sand and blue water to make for pretty views.  We were entertained by the pelicans dive bombing and a few lucky catches.  Peacefully keeping watch on the beach was a beautiful heron. 

The speed boat took us the 26 miles to mainland in 70 minutes.  It was a blast.  We saw rays and a whale while enjoying the breeze and good views. It was a fun way to travel.

Quepos felt lived in and more authentic than our last few stops.  We found a great soda restaurant that was packed nightly and the food was so good we went twice!  During our walks around town, the locals waved at us, and we got to watch the kids play soccer. 

Manual Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s smallest parks but also its most popular.  It is easy to reach and close to amazing beaches, so it is on everyone’s must see list.  To help reduce the impact to the park, they limit the visitors to 700 a day.  First come, first serve.  So, we caught the local shuttle to the park first thing in the morning, to ensure our entry, even skipping breakfast.  We lucked out and got into the park while avoiding loads of guides for hire at the entrance. 

Once inside the park, we followed the Sloth Trail through the woods and mangroves.  There were lots of pretty trees with tons of twisty vines.  We also saw giant trees supported by tall buttress roots.  However, no sloths, so we were feeling a little disappointed as we’d read they were easy to spot here. 

We took another trail to get a few good views of the beaches.  Along the way we saw a couple of capuchin monkeys defending their turf by showing their teeth.  A bit like a scary movie!

On the beach, we saw giant lizards sunning themselves on the rocks.  They blended in well, so they were easy to miss.

On the way back to the main area of the park, we noticed a large tour group, so we stopped to look.  There resting in the trees were a troupe of howler monkeys.  One mama even had a baby resting on her, and you could just see its little hands – adorable!

It was hot and humid, and we were hungry, so we took a break at the concessions.  The capuchin monkeys can be quite aggressive, so they do not allow you to bring any food into the park; they even check all bags at the entrance.  So, I was expecting the concessions to be expensive and not good, but I was wrong. The food was good, especially the passion fruit ice cream, and the prices were reasonable. 

From here we headed to the other side of the park along with 600 of our closest friends, well that is what if felt like at least.😊  Along they way, we spotted our first 3-toed sloth, and it was on the move in clear view.  I was surprised how quickly it moved, and it was neat to see its toes and face!

We arrived at the beach and followed another tour group to a palm tree, and lo and behold there was a 2-toed sloth sleeping in the palms.  But what made it extra special was that it was cradling a baby sloth!  We got to really see its face, so cool with its little pig nose.

This area was also known as the monkey spa, and we saw tons of them grooming each other with such focus! 

We opted for a side trail with an uphill start to ditch the crowds.  We were rewarded with one more sloth sighting and lots of pretty sea views.

Back at the beach, we enjoyed a refreshing swim.  The beach was in a protected bay, so calm waters allowed us to float, and it was so warm I could have stayed in all day.  We did see a small shark circling in the bay nearby.  I wasn’t worried about it but after we got out of the water, we heard the rangers blowing their whistles as they closed the beach.  Glad we were able to sneak in one more swim!

We headed back to the entrance and had a few more nice surprises along the way.  The first was seeing a pair of trogans that had a nest in an old termite nest.  Their colors were bright, and it was nice to see them side by side to see the difference between male and female.

As we neared the exit, we saw a large group of gawkers, so we checked it out.  There was a young (1-2 years old) 3-toed sloth near the trail at eye level.  Very cool to see it close-up, but I felt bad for the little guy as he was getting crowded in by picture takers. 

Things continued to go the Raffs’ way, as we had no wait for the shuttle bus on the way out, stopped at an amazing falafel and juice bar on the way back to town and again picked up the shuttle with no wait on the side of the road! 

Back at our hotel, we had one more treat in store – a troupe of squirrel monkeys.  They are the hardest to see in this region as they have irregular migration patterns, so we felt lucky.  They are playful and very small.  I think they like stopping at our hotel as they enjoyed a refreshing drink from the poop before they leaped through the trees to go on their merry way.

Manual Antonio was a great last stop for our travels in Costa Rica.  I can see why it is the most visited park as it is small, easy to see animals, and located near some amazing beaches!  The next morning, we headed back to San Jose in our shuttle bus to start our return journey home. 

We enjoyed an easy afternoon relaxing in our room near the airport doing our normal activities before leaving a country – catching up on our journals and blogs.  However, this time we didn’t have to plan for our next country as we were headed home!  We were unsure what to expect during our flights back to the States and when we got home as Coronavirus was just starting to hit, but 0 cases in Costa Rica.  We were also uncertain how it might affect our travels going forward.  So many unknowns, but we were happy to be heading home.

I was a bit sad to finish our international travels.  Traveling in Central and South America is special and really fits what Mike and I look for while traveling… adventure, gorgeous scenery, amazing wildlife and new cultures.  It also has just the right amount of challenge to keep us on our toes.  We will be back, as we have much more to see, but for now we will head home to the uncertainty that awaits.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Costa Rica | Leave a comment