TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

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TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by michaelzim » Thu Aug 20, 2020 3:42 pm

A RIDGE TOO FAR – Attempt for Blue Canyon Basin from Wishon via Rancheria trial-head. Aug. 12th. – 17th. 2020

* Warning – Sorry, tried to make it short, but this ended up being a long story rather than a succinct report! - However, for those who may attempt the same route in future these more detailed notes may prove to be of service.

This is my first Trip Report and it’s not at all what I thought it would be. I had hoped it would be a tale - laced with gorgeous pictures - of finally getting to a destination that had been on my radar for a long time due to its remoteness. Instead it was a very different journey. One where I did not even reach the Promised Land I yearned for. One where the primary state of my being can only be described as extended exhaustion. One where I was forced to acknowledge the limits of something none us can escape…getting older.

I learned more in these 6 days than I have in a dozen past Sierra’s trips. There is nothing like stark experiential reality as a teaching tool. How to approach my back-packing in future is going to change dramatically from now on. Perhaps some of these things would be of interest to others here on HST hitting the more ‘mature’ years, so I will attempt to share them in case that is so. In addition I owe some time and print back to this forum as have gleaned so much from it in the past. Here goes then, with a little background to start with so it makes sense.

My ideal high Sierra paradise is to find a pristine lake, with some trees for shade, uninterrupted views, peaks for evening light shows, and isolation. There make a base camp and do day-hikes to adjacent areas for 4 or 5 days with no need to break camp continually. My daughter and I have done this on and off for many years. She started back-packing with me at age 9 and was 36 this past June. She fell in love with the high country and we had planned to leave for this summer’s sojourn by mid-August instead of waiting until September due to super cold weather the past two September trips. It was always the high point of our year. Sharing the weight of ‘only-need-one-of-them’ pack items was great for me too. This aspect, and many others of course, changed irrevocably when she died at the end of July and my backpacking suddenly became a definitively solo event.

With some absolutely incredible help from a HST member I decided to continue with the trip but aim for a ‘dream destination’ instead of somewhere more tame. That’s where the Upper Blue Canyon basin and Tunemah Lake via Coyote Ridge came in.

I didn’t have time to change any equipment, and did not want to. Thus still had our two-person REI Half Dome tent and had to carry all the prior shared items like stove, gas, pot, water-filter, bulk water container, day-pack, trowel, mini medical kit, camera, etc. With food at approx. 1 pound per day and a 10+ day trip, this put my starting pack weight at 48 pounds. With an added 4 pounds if I filled my two water bottles. Heavy, but I had done that many times before. What I had not done before was to carry that through trail-less lower elevation forest terrain, at age 70.

Day 1. Left home before dawn. Drive of 7 hours well over speed limit to Rancheria trail-head.
Rancheria is not a very inspiring trail-head. There were a few cars and a stock wagon there, plus a couple of people hanging out. I got my gear together, covered the car and left around 12:45 pm. I work out daily on my Stairmaster, etc. but no chance for altitude acclimation so knew I may poop out early in the first two days. However, my pace was good thanks to the minimal elevation changes on the sections to Crown Valley. I did notice something strange though. My map had only one creek after Little Rancheria at Cabin Creek, but there were in actuality three. That should have been a wake-up call for things to come, but I guess I was more ‘dazed’ than I realized and just brushed it off. The other thing I noticed was the near impenetrable thick swathes of brush everywhere (see photo below). I can’t find the name for this though it was endemic – and to become a more than familiar obstacle for me! *[Looks like a cross between a Cotoneaster and a Berberis. I just marvel at how @giantbrookie and intrepid friend must have hiked through this stuff on their overland route directly east to Crown Basin].
1 - Obstacle Bush.jpg
I decided to make camp just after the cow ranch cabins meadow (cabins not on my map but are on CalTopo) as there was not much clear ground elsewhere due to past fire and extensive ground slash, logs, sticks and brush. As is usual I had zero appetite due to elevation and fatigue and didn’t bother to cook supper.

Day 2. There were two options over Coyote Ridge into Blue Canyon. A southern route by Kettle Dome and a more northern route over Coyote Pass. The condition of the trails was an unknown, but suspected to be marginal. Losing all that elevation via Kettle Dome was not too enticing, so I decided to go via Mountain Meadow and Coyote Pass, if and only if, there was a trail. I had seen enough on the way so far to tell that going through this kind of forest was just a mass of nonstop obstacles. Thus, when I did the small jog up the Chuck Pass trail and saw a sign for Mountain Meadow and a trail heading east, that decided my route. Little did I know how ephemeral that trail was.
2 - Jct..jpg
– Main trail north to Chuck Pass. Side trail to Mountain Meadow. As is evident, not very maintained. -

I can sum up the next hours by saying, I spent nearly as much time trying to re-find the trail as hiking on it. One moment it was there, then it was just gone. No trace. Bizarre.
3 - Disappearing Trail.jpg
– Trail began to disappear more and more. -

It finally disappeared for good after Scepter Creek…or I presume was Scepter Creek as my map once again showed fewer streams than the reality on the ground. Then it was bash through the bush whatever way best. Sometimes not too bad, but other times lots of zigging, zagging, clambering over dead-falls, and wondering exactly where I was. I had not appreciated before just how different it is navigating in zero ‘greater visibility’ where no peaks or landmarks are visible for hours on end due to endless trees.

Eventually the ground opened out and I came to the meadow at Crown Creek. To my amazement I saw a USFS sign from 200 yards off and had high hopes of the trail again. Nope. “Trail Not Maintained For Stock Use” – No kidding! Just a tree, the sign, and long grass all around. Further scouting and I found no evidence of a path or much confidence in my location precisely as my map was proving to be too skimpy on some important details. Facing the unknown trees, brush and ridge ahead I decided to follow the more open ground due north up the valley then climb east towards Mountain Meadow after a night’s rest and more acclimatization. This proved to be a bad decision as what was initially more open ground turned into another old fire zone with incredible amounts of dead-falls, rotten logs, hidden snag-a-foot branches, brush walls, etc. After some choice Shona swear words, tripping and stumbling for the umpteenth time and some jarring falls into rocks and logs my (very dulled by now) inner voice said: “There will be blood” – if you continue like this! Indeed there was already as Newton and my heavy pack had been colluding for a while. I had not realized it but my pack strap on one shoulder had ripped off the skin and was bleeding, my right big toe was throbbing badly (and black when removed boots that evening), and I had a gash on my leg. When I hit yet another impenetrable wall of this stuff (see photo) I finally realized I had to quit.
4 - Enough.jpg
– The place I finally decided enough was enough. -

I belatedly made camp in the only clear ground I could find and just lay down exhausted. I made my first meal and left most of it untouched as had less than zero appetite. I had also not been sleeping nights, and was still awake at 3:00 am. This pattern continued for the whole trip and I’m sure did not help matters much either.

Day 3. With a new day I somehow found the energy to consider climbing out of the valley to the east and seeing what was there. After a morning cup of coffee (breakfast apparently) I went up the slope following deer trails into the rising sun sans pack. It was not too bad, and better yet I found the equivalent of a freeway just over the crest of the north-south axis ridge that looked like a great way to head up to Mountain Meadow. So I went back down, donned pack and clambered up. Out of the brush zone it was that sandy soil and a 25 degree slope so lots of slipping back down on each step. Also hot! It must have been 80 degrees by 9:00 in the morning. Made it to the crest and inner little dip valley with only one tumble into some branches, then dumped my pack on the ‘freeway’ for a thorough reconnaissance.

After extensive wandering up and down the main valley just east of the spur I could find no sign of the supposed side creek running up to Coyote Pass from the main creek (unnamed – so will call it Mountain Meadow creek). Thus once again I had no clear idea of exactly where I was and in retrospect my dulled tired brain was not helping me. The place sure looked like a “mountain meadow” to me!

So I called it quits and decided to camp early on that spur ridge as at least I had a bit of much missed view for the first time. This is where the 8 oz. to carry that 2 ½ gallon collapsible water container pays off. I could camp up there but have plenty of water c/o the creek far below. Temperature remained almost unchanged into the evening.
5 - Temp..jpg
When I turned in my ridiculous lack of sleep was not helped by an unfixable leak in my old Thermarest, no doubt c/o one of those falls. The after hours night ground became rather hard after that too.

Day 4. Altitude estimate 8,300 ft. and crazy hot night. T-shirt weather even before the sun was up. After two cups of coffee-cafix I somehow decided that if I were going to make a trail going up to Coyote Ridge I would have done it right there, to the east-north-east of me up the gentler gradient I had scouted yesterday. So I donned pack, ignored all my prior decisions to turn back, and headed up the slope – to hell with the supposed stream defining the proper Coyote Pass trail.

It was the same old slash, logs, branches and ground litter fest in the forest again, but less brush and more visibility so I kept going. Finally I stumbled onto a rock outcropping and got a proper view for the first time. (See video link 1).

*[That was the “Monarch Divide” to the south not Spanish Divide. Spanish Lake is one of the lakes up there. Tired brain!]

Oh gosh…there is another ridge to climb behind this one yet. (More swear words in Shona). However, I had come so far and the Promised Land was just over…there. My mantra became: “Just keep going and you will get somewhere eventually”. My pace can only be described as a plod. My legs were just not coming through for me like they had before. It got steeper, and sandier, and slower. Then eventually, and as I measured later a 1,770 ft. climb, I was at the top. I dumped my pack and climbed a rock outcrop to take in the view. (See video link 2).

* [From the top of the Kettle Divide at Coyote Pass – The Promised Land beyond!]

I realized Coyote Pass was right in front of me to the north and Blue Canyon was awesome…but so, so, so far down there! Could I do it with rubber legs??? After a short rest I went to get my pack and…I could not find it. I looked and looked but no dice. Another warning that things were not altogether right! I eventually backtracked from the rock knoll and realized I had wandered off too far north instead of going south-east…whence I finally found my pack. I had plain spaced out big time…Crikey!

The pass itself looked super simple, but going east and down into Blue Canyon it rapidly got steeper and rockier with small, easily displaced rocks. Wham! I was down again. No energy for even English expletives. I was in a place of very deceptive slip-out-only-when-put-committed-weight-on rocks. Or I was just too darn tired to feel them properly. The “shock-absorber” effect of stopping me from accelerating downhill was even more brutal on my legs than climbing had been. The inner voice came back through the dullness, but this time said: “There will be bone, if you continue like this!”

So once again I dumped pack and went to look over what appeared to be a steep drop-off just to the north. Indeed, a cliff more or less, with a helluva view into upper Blue Canyon and the gorge leading up to the Promised Land basin. And a scree fest at that gorge. And a narrow rock valley after that. And all that elevation to gain again. And it was HOT!

No way. My legs plain will not do it. I knew for certain I was not up to going further. Finally I had to give up and turn back. I had given it my best. Plus there were rain-clouds building and it was time to move to safer terrain not get caught on a precarious, steep and forested slope.
I turned due west and went down the supposed Coyote Pass trail zone north of the stream I never found. However, it was much too steep v. the way I had come up so I switched to a WSW tangent and roughly retraced my steps. When I finally hit the bottom at supposed “Mountain Meadow” I was much further north, but of course could not see a thing through all the trees. All I knew was I didn’t know quite where I was again. Finally I found the ‘freeway ridge’ and followed it back down to my prior camp site. Pitched the tent, got water, and tuned in just before a helluva storm hit. Lots of drama, wind, and some rain, but very little lightning – which was fine by me re fires. Then I remembered that I had not checked the tree I was under for ‘storm suitability’. I spent the next hour wondering if a branch was going to plunge through the tent and finish me off – but I didn’t care very much by that point! Once again I was too tired to eat more than a nibble and hardly slept all night. A morning look up at the tree showed it had been one of the safest around.
6 - OK tree re wind..jpg
– Yep, an OK tree to be under after all. -

Day 5. Seeing as I was heading back I loaded up my morning coffee-cafix with extra powdered milk and sugar which gave a boost to an early start. It was going to be even hotter today, as was 70 degrees at 6:30 am. I headed down the ‘freeway’ until what seemed like the right place to head due west, then followed deer trails down to the Crown Creek meadow. I was not at the place where that sign had been, but with the sun directly behind me headed due west as knew I had to hit the old trail somewhere. After the usual game of “pick a trail” through the forest and crossing two creeks I finally found my footprints on the old TRAIL!!! God I was glad…until I lost it about 500 yards later. It went straight into what looked like a 50 year old thicket of brush and logs. And I could not see how I had circumnavigated it before. No way was I going to give up on a trail now so spent considerable time re-finding it (whilst never losing sight of my dumped pack). This happened three times before the trail seemed to ‘stabilize’ and came out at the main junction to…Kettle Ridge??? Yes, somehow I had missed the junction with Chuck Pass trail a bit further north. Which re-emphasized to me that I was not ‘altogether there’ re my normal spatial awareness – though to be fair, a number of the junctions off the main trail in this area are barely visible and poorly marked.

Now on the ‘impossible to disappear’ main Rancheria trail I could just dull out and walk without having to continually figure where I was or how to go ahead of me. It was so much easier. Another thing I had taken completely for granted, that the paths through forest zones act as invisible compasses despite how much they weave and wander. No need to do anything but stride on…or plod on. Which is what happened every time I hit the slightest incline. My legs would just start punking out and I was stopping every 100 yards, then 50 yards, then 25 yards. I couldn’t believe it, but was inescapable proof to me that I would not have survived going down into Blue Canyon and the ten times harder leg work that would have required.

I knew from prior (easier) trips that I would not be able to drive the seven hours home without rest, thus did not want to arrive at Rancheria trail-head near night-fall as it would be a bum place to camp. “I must have at least one lake this trip!” so decided to aim for Chain Lakes as my last night layover place…but never even saw the turn-off for it! I was looking for it after the knoll beyond Cow Meadow and near invisible Stratham Meadow junction, but zero. And then the three creeks where my map said one fouled things up even more. Didn’t happen. No lake. I made camp in the only open ground I could find which was a meadow just south-east of Little Rancheria Creek. The cows had made the ground rock-hard and cratered so I gathered up grass to make a pad and compensate for the failed Thermarest. With that done and tent pitched (more dark clouds building) I went to the stream to wash more thoroughly for the first time and get water. Man, I was FILTHY! My legs were almost black with dust all the way up past my knees. Other areas not much better, and a lot more: “There will be blood” markings I was never even aware of.
7 - Final campsite.jpg
– Little Rancheria Meadow only clear space to camp. -

For the first time the mosquitoes were out somewhat (but not at professional standards) and I turned in early again without bothering to cook. I was beat.

Day 6. Broke camp at dawn and made Rancheria trail-head by 9:00 am. My simple sheet, clothespins (at windscreen wipers), and boot-laces (to tie over mirrors) car cover was once again successful at keeping my windows clean v. the other greatly dust-covered cars there.
8 - Simple trailhead car cover.jpg
PIC 8 – Very effective old sheet car cover for sun and dust prevention.

A stock trailer pulled in as I was loading up that billowed plumes of dust everywhere to prove the point. The stock guys were the first people I had seen since I left here 6 days before, and one said: “Well howdy. I can see by how dirty you are that you’re a-coming in and not a-going out!” Ummmmm…he should have seen me before I spent all that time cleaning up at Little Rancheria Creek!

Thankfully the drive home was relatively traffic-jam free despite potential for such - for those who know where our freeways can become parking lots, at Altamont Pass, Livermore, Oakland, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa. That was a good first in a trip of many “firsts”…With the final one being hitting the biggest raindrops I have ever experienced in California going through Hopland. Also lightning every few seconds. It was incredible. Like the first ITCZ (inter-tropical-convergence-zone) storms when the rains broke in Southern Rhodesia when I was a kid. Absolutely huge fat drops that made a deafening roar as they hit the windscreen. Then a short time later after arriving home, the house shook from a small earthquake – but that was not a ‘first’ by any means.

So ended my 70-year-old birthday trip. As I said, not quite what I expected!

In case interested, I have made a mini summary below of some of the more ‘statistical’ aspects of the trip and a few things I learned about “back-packing at 70”. Obviously they only apply to me but others may find them useful:

- The map I was using was half of the giant USDA/FS John Muir Wilderness map – Central Section – dated 1983.
- If going to cross-country for any distance through forested zones get the best map possible. Probably a good idea for open granite country too, but not as critical.
- I took a compass for this trip and it was invaluable in the forest when the sun was behind a lot of clouds. I would be convinced I was say going due W, but the compass would state I was going SSW. Sobering.
- My eyesight is not what it used to be. Fortunately I took my ‘near-and-long-distance’ glasses with me (which I never wear at home) and they were invaluable at giving me a sharper edge to see the faint glimmerings of the old trail I would have missed numerous times without them.
- My muscle ‘bounce-back’ has clearly changed in the past few years. I work out daily the same as have for years, so it is not that. I have been used to my legs re-performing again after a night’s rest even after a long hiking day. This is not happening any more. My guesstimate now, is that after two strenuous days with in-bound pack I need one full day of muscle rest. I intend to plan future trips around that and see how it shakes out.
- Altitude is not something I have ever had too much trouble with. However, by day 3 up at altitude I am usually noticing more ‘acclimation’ and energy. This did not happen this trip. So again I suspect my issue was not a new intolerance of “altitude” but was that lack of muscle bounce-back. Day 5 was hardly different on my legs than day 1. This was new for me.
- I am going to try and cut down on pack weight despite using just about every item I take up. (Well except a simple medical kit I have never used but think if I leave it behind it will jinx things and I will finally need it!). This was the first trip ever, since the late 1980’s, that I have never used any of my cold weather gear. Not once did I even put on my first layer Polar-fleece jacket. Thus all that gear was un-needed, but I would never leave it behind.
- I fell more times on this trip than I have in all my years of back-packing combined. I’m not super sure why that was, though terrain was obviously a major factor. However, I am going to presume that age has something to do with it and again, plan for trails only until I reach open granite in future.
- My leaving home body weight was 142 pounds. My return home body weight was 135 pounds. So yes, I lost 7 pounds in six days. I need to find new foods that my gut can accept that do not need cooking, as that does not happen when I am too tired to bother. Unfortunately a 3 year undiagnosed multiple parasite infection (including severe Giardia) in the mid 1990’s has made my camping food choices a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, this trip implies I need better solutions.

OK, here endeth my way too long first Trip Report on HST. If you got this far I hope something has been of help. Take good care, and again, thank you, thank you so much to all those who have helped me on this forum.

Best ~ Michael (michaelzim)
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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by rlown » Thu Aug 20, 2020 3:52 pm

I'm gonna ask a weird question..
why did you go there?

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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by balzaccom » Thu Aug 20, 2020 5:33 pm

Hey Michael. That was quite an adventure. So sorry to hear about your daughter.

In looking back at this report, I couldn't help think that your willingness to do without food so often may also have contributed to your weakened state---both mental and physical. But your perservered. You made it back. And you have a story to tell.

Thanks for telling it here. I am sure it was a lot more fun to read than it was to live it!

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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by mckee80 » Fri Aug 21, 2020 6:03 am

Hi Michael,
I'm really sorry to hear about your daughter. I'm glad you came out relatively unscathed. I've had to make adjustments in my planning as well. There are pretty big gaps between 1) what I originally plan to do, 2) the plan on day 1, and 3) what I actually end up doing.

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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by michaelzim » Fri Aug 21, 2020 8:21 am

Thanks for the comments...

Indeed, the loss of my daughter (and my only back-packing buddy) is a huge blow to me, plus no doubt had an "effect" on my trip. With her along we may have made a combo effort to get down into Blue Canyon by doing some kind of rest-over day in the woods to recharge. Hanging out alone for yet another day though just did not appeal to me as the journey was becoming too long anyhow re how much time I could then spend in the Promised Land itself before having to head back out. Too much heavy travel, with not enough time left to properly hang out.

To answer your good question @rlown. The reason I went there (Coyote Ridge) was for the ultimate destination point of Upper Blue Canyon basin and Tunemah Lake via a route that seemed more direct with much less elevation gain and loss en route. The basin and Tunemah seemed to fit all my 'base camp destination criteria' perfectly except for access - which I had not really foreseen as such a problem. I just figured it may take a day or two longer. I did not bank on all the physical obstacles as had plain not done that kind of lower elevation cross-country before. I was so used to the free wandering and clear sailing of timber-line and above that I guess it dulled my imaginative breadth. In retrospect it seems so obvious to me of course, as I had "seen" that kind of forest stuff by passing through it on trails many, many times. Oh well, I sure "get it" now though!
Also, the alternative approaches more from the north seemed much further on paper. Either the very long haul from Florence via JMT, Goddard Canyon and Martha Lake. Or over the Divide from Blackcap Basin - which my daughter and I had been to in 2017, so knew how long that trek was from Wishon. In retrospect though, they would have been far less tiring as the obstacle courses are what did in my energy. Trail hiking was so much easier and faster.

And yep...age is definitely a factor subject to some denial on my part! That took a very visceral kick in the rear.

Best ~ Michael

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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by rlown » Fri Aug 21, 2020 9:40 am

I think most of us have had one or more of those kinds of trips. Let's just say it builds character.
Sometimes it is better to just turn around and chalk it up to an experience you'll never forget.

Nice report though!

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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by schmalz » Fri Aug 21, 2020 10:15 am

It's crazy how many trails have disappeared in the more wooded parts of California. I sometimes I wish I could go back in time and hike them.

Pro-tip: If you are planning a hike through a wooded section and aren't sure about trail conditions, you can spotcheck it with satellite imagery on caltopo to get an idea of what you're getting yourself into." onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;

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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by TehipiteTom » Fri Aug 21, 2020 11:04 am

My condolences for your daughter's passing. As a parent, I can't imagine anything more difficult. I hope your memories of your trips together are a comfort to you.

Blue Canyon isn't easy to get to even on trail. I tried in 1998, and got no further than Randle Corral (bad weather). I also remember looking at Coyote Pass on the map a couple decades ago and being tempted, but thinking that's some ugly, difficult routefinding if the trail isn't there. Anyway, I hope you do make it to Blue Canyon someday--it's a remote and beautiful and really special place.

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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by kpeter » Fri Aug 21, 2020 8:56 pm

I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your daughter. I have backpacked with my daughter and know the special bond that it creates. And my best memories of my father are from packtrips I did with him. He is gone now, but I feel so close to him when I am on the trail. There is something spiritual about the wilderness, and I can't help but think those bonds that are forged between loved ones when out there are in a sense immortal.

I also sympathize with the issue of aging, and I have also had a scare when I put down my pack and could not find it until a thorough search. I am now much more reluctant to put it down anywhere except next to a landmark, like a trail or a stream. One thing my Dad taught me that it helps is to frequently look backwards as you hike--make sure you know what the return trip looks like as you go forward.

I am frustrated at the great many trails that have been allowed to revert over the last 50 years. Our society has some misplaced priorities. I wonder if you (or anyone) knows whether the southerly trail nearer Kettle Dome is still maintained?

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Re: TR - A Ridge Too Far (Upper Blue Canyon via Wishon)

Post by windknot » Sat Aug 22, 2020 10:09 am

Thanks for your honesty with this report -- I've hiked out of the FS road on Hoffman Mountain near there and can attest to the navigational difficulty of off-trail travel in the area. I too am sorry to hear about the loss of your daughter -- major respect for still embarking on this trip solo and for prevailing despite the challenges.

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