Trophy country

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New Zealand. It’s plain I will not have time to do things justice as we go, likely not until long after we’re back in the US, so snippets will have to do.

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First on the list, due purely to the location along the circle we’ll eventually draw, was hunting in the alps near Mount Cook. A little nugget of beta M unearthed led to some good advice, which led to a long 4×4 drive up a glacial valley, a small hut, and a wildly successful three days hunting.

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We hiked out with a chamois and two tahr in tow, and a story which I probably wouldn’t believe had I not been there. Thus far, sitting in a west coast motel room smelling the sea breeze, things could not have gone better. Well, maybe the above tahr could have not gone for a 700′ tumble after the second shot, but mountain hunting properly refuses to go according to plan.

One day lost

Wednesday afternoon we spent in the Dallas airport, waiting for the Qantas desk to open so we could recheck the rifle, having had to leave security after our flight from Des Moines to do so. That had its adventures (firearms logistics will get a post of their own in due time), but soon enough we were through security again, eating not-bad thai food, reuniting with my parents, boarding a huge plane at 9pm, and flying 16 hours through a continuous night to land in Sydney at 6am. Thanks to the magic of technology and the international date line, Thursday had for us never came into being. 8 hours later we had regained two lost time zones, cleared customs in Queenstown, gotten our slightly sputtering Mitsubishi 4×4 from Rent-a-Dent (not joking), and were eating pizza downtown on a loud Friday night. A further 12 hours and I had fallen asleep before 8pm, slept for 9 hours, and am here right now, watching the sun rise over southern New Zealand.

It’s all actually happening.

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I feel obligated to say that we’re here thanks to the generosity of my parents. The internet exacerbates an aura already robust in modern American (and elsewhere?) culture, which pretends that everyone is more affluent (monetarily) than they are. Among other things, it is all but expected that once you reach a certain level of adulthood you’ll buy a house, largely irrespective of the financial details. M and my life is delightful and full of more options than we’ll ever have the time to take, but working jobs we love puts in place monetary and time constraints which are inexorable, and which we’ve come to terms with. These more prosaic lacunae are not often enough discussed out loud; the result being a collective mis-identification of what most of us can sustainably manage. So do not mistake us.

With this trip, discussions last Christmas pointed quickly towards New Zealand, now. My parents are both very healthy, but no one is getting any younger, and life is not getting any simpler. January-February was a good down time for everyone’s work, and if everything went to plan M would be neither too early nor too late in pregnancy, and thus still able to hike at close to full steam (nailed that one, btw). Most of all the decision hinged upon the increasingly obvious need, the older we all get, to do certain things as soon as possible if they are to be done at all. Which is why after a whole lot of sitting in small seats and a decent bit of airline shenanigans (Kiwi customs folks are very nice), we are were we are and all set to head north into the mountains after breakfast.

Updates will be available as the ambitious schedule we’ve set for the next three weeks allows.

The Human Factor: The Only Factor

Black Diamond, Powder Magazine, and writer David Page completed a series on avalanche risk entitled The Human Factor, which I suggest just about everyone read, here.

Taken as a whole, I find the article frightening.  It is full of passages like this one: “The report, like most in the genre, is long on details about snowpack, terrain, and procedure, but short on the actual factors—human factors, social and psychological factors—that led the victims out onto the slope in the first place. To hazard theories or guesses about how certain decisions were made is considered beyond the purview of the avalanche investigator. As a result, as one of Merrill’s mentors, John Minier, said months later, avalanche reports tend to follow the same basic template: “We did everything right and then disaster struck.”  The overall tone, especially of the first parts, is that skiing in avalanche terrain is very dangerous, and that any current understanding of that danger is likely based as much on probability as it is on fact.

The article moves quickly to Ian McCammon’s six heuristic traps, a set of ideas which have almost become dogma in the 12 years since initial publication.  I’m a fan of big words, but “heuristics” has always struck me as a strong sign of social science trying to do more science than will ever be possible, something reinforced by McCammon saying, as quoted in The Human Factor: “It’s an area of science that’s in its infancy…There are many people studying decision-making and many people studying the psychology of judgment and perception, but there are not many fields that are integrating all of those things into robust solutions for making better decisions.”  McCammon’s original paper is great reading, and his six traps are as good a set of basic self-checks as I can imagine, but psychology is not hard science, and human judgment will never be ruly enough to be quantified in the way I see McCammon hoping for.

Page does a fantastic job with his examples, deflating the seventh heuristic trap of avalanches; not seeing our own actions is those who get caught in slides.  As he quotes Amie Engerbretson, who triggered as was caught in an infamous slide within sight of the road near Alta, “The thing of it is…if I hadn’t been in it, I would definitely have been one of those people saying these people are fucking idiots.”   McCammon’s work has become a standard part of avalanche education, and while the sample size may still be too small to say for sure, evidence thus far indicates that knowledge of heuristic traps has not made a significant impact at reducing avalanche accidents.  The article speculates, and provides some great photos to illustrate, how we skiers may never acquire enough knowledge to make certain sorts of backcountry safe enough.

That’s the question I’m left with after reading Page’s article, and one I’ve been contemplating for a few years now: is backcountry skiing acceptably safe?  In some respects it’s a silly question, given the range of winter activities available which largely avoid avalanche terrain. Powder skiing in the backcountry is deeply alluring, such that Bruce Tremper’s 19 of 20 slot machine analogy is absolutely appropriate. When the reward is great enough, and relatively frequent and dependable, judgement suffers, no matter how horrid the consequence. As of today, I remain unconvinced it’s a pursuit that sufficiently justifies itself. Fear and revulsion seem quite appropriate.

Watch the first two minutes:

 

Hunting, land, and a moral failure of American capitalism

Hunting is expensive. Non-resident elk tags in the lower 48 run between 500 and 1300 dollars, when all costs are included. Deer tags are generally a fair bit less. Any other big game species (bear, moose, mountain goat, sheep) is generally quite a bit, or exponentially, more expensive than elk. Sheep tags cost between 1300 and 10,000 or so dollars (the later figure being the mandatory guiding provision in Alaska). These figures are for me shocking, coming from a background of fair-means human powered recreation where the cost of the activity in question is usually (outside National Parks) zero. The only exception is road-accessed wilderness rafting, which I’ve grown to regard as not exactly fair means, and along with backpacking in National Parks provides a decent means of comparison.

IMG_0919Bob Marshall forky; in 2014 a resident Sportsman’s License (which includes deer, elk, and bear) cost 85 dollars.  An 8 mile hike gets you off trail and into deer which only rarely see people.

Rivers like the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, Selway in Idaho, and Smith in Montana all have permit systems because left unregulated too many people would do the float during prime season, the result being excessive impact on camp sites and wilderness experience. Popular National Parks and National Forests, places like Glacier, Grand Canyon, and most of the Sierra (including Yosemite) demand a quota system for the same reasons as the aforementioned rivers. Most people don’t like having to jump through these hoops, especially when a prime August permit in Glacier or October permit to float the Grand might take years to get. At the same time, I recall no reasonable objections to the spirit or goal of these regulations. No one wants to see abundant poop under rocks in alpine meadows or desert beaches, nor profligate side trails through the precious vegetation in such locations.

Similar things can be said for hunting; any sane hunter wants to be able to spend a day or week out in prime terrain and never see another human, as well as plenty of well-fed critters. If hunting licenses and tags did not exist, or didn’t bring enough restrictions with them, neither of these things would ever be possible. There are just too many people on earth.

Spotted_Dog_WMA_Map_smThe Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area, Montana.

My quarrel with contemporary river and hunting regulations is that they cost too much money and don’t provide enough opportunity.  The cost is of course partly to further limit the number of people who are interested in any given year, and partly to finance the permit system itself.  Paying to play on public lands may be a necessary evil, but as the years have passed I find it no less offensive that things like running a given river or hunting a given species requires years, perhaps decades, of planning and waiting.  With the way sheep preference points are heading, someone who only starts building points today may never have more than a couple thousands of a percent chance to hunt in a given location.  As a country whose wildlife model values access and was specifically founded against the kind of European lands regime which spawned Robin Hood, this is simply unacceptable.

Answer to the river access problem is obvious; shut down the roads.  Demolish the Lee’s Ferry road and make everyone carry their stuff down a goat trail from the highway.  Close the Magruder road to motorized traffic and cease any maintenance which isn’t human-powered, forever.  Give the Salmon River road a similar treatment 10 miles downstream from North Fork.  Democracy of opportunity does not mean opportunity of mode, and in this day and this age experiencing true Wilderness should require hard work and sacrifice.  Boat-rampers have the Lochsa, Payette, big pieces of the Green and Colorado, and countless others.  As a general rule, today we need less access, not more.  More opportunity, measured in time and impulse, not less.  More quality, in every conceivable respect.

Hunting should be the same way, though the variegated nature of the discipline makes the management issues more nuanced and challenging.  Broad guidelines should seek to maximize the range of opportunities available for hunters, as measured by economics and range of opportunities.  Tag prices need to go down for non-residents, and for the more esoteric species for everyone.  At the same time, to control numbers without requiring more draw-only units, road access needs to be severely curtailed.  The Henry Mountains in south-central Utah is managed as a trophy unit for Mule Deer, both in terms of antler size and experience.  The odds of drawing a rifle tag there last year were .0007 percent.  If you get such a tag you will be mostly alone, and unless you drop dead or go blind you will shoot a big deer.  How popular would the unit be if all the roads between 24, 95, 276, and the Notom-Bullfrog were closed to any form of non-human powered travel (including stock)?  I think such an approach would go a long ways towards maintaining the integrity of the experience while providing proper opportunity for just about anyone who cared to cultivate the proper skills and fitness.

A few basic ground rules would have to be put into wide application to make such a system work nationwide.

First, close a bunch of dirt roads, as mentioned in the example above.  Bomb out culvert, bulldoze in trenches and rocks, enact laws which mandate the confiscation of any ATVs caught where they shouldn’t be.  This is the most contentious and most essential step.  It will necessarily lead to less pressure and more integral habitat, which will in turn necessarily lead to more robust populations of sensitive species such as mule deer, elk, moose, and sheep.  (Whitetails are the rats, or more charitably coyotes, of North American big game.  We couldn’t get rid of them if we tried.)  Which will lead to more hunter opportunity.

Second, private landowner rights must be significantly reshaped.  A good first step would be regulations requiring private holders to provide thru-access to public lands, so this and this will never happen again.  Abolishing the ability of landowners to sell ther landowner tags for anything beyond the cost of a standard tag is another step which, frankly, should have taken place 40 years ago.  Eventually, the rights of the most extensive landowners to limit public use of their land, including hunting, will need to be curtailed.  Perhaps anyone who owns a parcel more than 5,000 acres would have to give out 2 free access permits per 1,000 acres each hunting season.  This last is of course a long way off.

It goes without saying that raffle tags, Governor’s tags, and anything of that sort will disappear never to be seen again.  State wildlife agency funding will be divorced from tag revenue.  Again, how do we live in a country which does this?  (Answer; Lehmen Brothers, Goldman Sachs, the demise of Glass-Steagall, etc.)

Third, abolish for-profit guiding on public lands, and any requirement that a non-resident must have a guide to hunt certain species (AK and WY, you should be ashamed).  I have no issue with the disabled hiring logistical assistance, but guiding in modern American has come to mean, more than anything, that folks with lots of money can buy their way into better opportunity.  If you want to hunt wilderness the only honest way to earn it is with skill and work, things which can be cultivated largely apart from economic opportunity.

IMG_0836Let the cost of the camera and spotting scope be determined by a truly free market, and the cost of the walk in to and out with a goat be divorced from anything but sweat as far as is possible.

The big picture here, and the reason why so many people find these ideas so offensive, is that American capitalism has for it’s whole life equated monetary success with merit.  If you make a lot of money you must be a good person.  Good people deserve more hunting (etc) opportunities, ergo tags and hunts which cost a lot are fine, in fact probably a good thing for society.  As Abbey said of those engineers staking out the Arches entrance road; this is a powerful and historically weighted argument with centuries of cultural inertia behind it.  It is also utterly insane.  Anyone who looks at the last twenty years of American history and sees a direct correlation between virtue and affluence, does not see wealth in adulthood as given mostly by historical privilege, who does not in short see many compelling reasons for a 100 percent estate tax on wealth beyond a few hundred thousand dollars (certain businesses excepted), is a fool, a willfully, blind, fool.

Outdoor recreation, including hunting, is as good a metaphor as any for the health of our nation moving towards the twenty-second century.  The way we will generate spiritual, intellectual, and economic capital will have everything to do with the things beyond humanity we managed to not screw up, and little to do with GNP and the CPI.  Put another way, we’ll finally figure out that happiness is only created by money insofar as basic needs plus 20% are met, and given all the potentially happy things left in this country, hopefully as a culture we won’t figure it out too late.

The 12 best miles of 2014

Not the best hikes, skis, or floats, but the best single isolated miles of travel.  The ones which are worth a lot of potentially frustrating work to find.  Presented in chronological order, with one photo and one mile for each month of 2014.  For organizational and review purposes; January was a long time ago, and big and small memories both are worth recalling in detail.

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My favorite mile of January was the frozen ice in the middle of the middle of Lake Sherburne, as M and I were headed back out after our overnight in Many Glacier.  The ice was corrogated and cracked, coated at random with sastrugi, deep black, blue and white in alternate patches, and the wind was maching at a steady 60 mph.  Fast enough to push us along at 3-10 mph, depending on the ice surface.  M understandably found the experience disconcerting, so she rode her edges pretty hard, and thus found it tiring.  Having done this sort of thing before, and being a more experienced skier, I enjoyed the free ride and the ability to sit back and relax in a setting and experience which is quite rare.

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The best mile of February was the ridge east of Whitefish Mountain Resort on the long loop Amber, Lauren and I did out from the hill and back again.  Perfect fresh powder, and a clear, blue, cold, and calm day made for fantastic skiing and a gorgeous skinning as we farmed the fingers of the ridge for turns.

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March makes for both an easy and a hard choice; it is an obvious contest between the Redwall slots in 150 Mile Canyon and Scotty’s Hollow, but which?  I’ll go with the meat of Scotty’s because the higher temperatures and exertion of the many fun obstacles to climb made the constant wetness comfortable, while in 150 we were on the edge of being cold the whole time.  This is the prettiest and most fun section of slot canyon I’ve ever seen.

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Come late April the ski hill shuts down, thanks to environmental regulations built into their lease from the Forest Service.  The ski area makes our little town what it is, good and bad inextricable, but I like that this yearly event reminds them that their hegemony over the local economy and our public lands is not complete.  It’s all the sweeter in a year like 2014, when the snowpack lingers deep and solid well into May, and April storms bring flawless powder laid out on empty slopes with huge views east into Glacier.  One late, late April storm in particular brought together the best of winter and spring all at once, and the last bit of the hike up and descent down was my favorite mile of the month.

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I have a lot of good memories tied up in Granite Park Chalet, and a quiet, solo visit via bike and skis in May is a favorite trip each year.  A good way to guarantee you won’t see anyone the whole day is to go on a weekend where valley rain turns into mountain snow not long after you leave your bike and start the hike and skin up.  It was a wet and chilly day, especially the bike descent, but the skiing was fantastic and ambiance of the spring landscape caught in the grip of one last snowstorm made the last mile up to the chalet the most memorable of the month.

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The best part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open is always going somewhere you, and just about anyone else, would never go otherwise.  Seeing the most remote parts of the Bob when they’re just shaking off the mantel of winter has become one of my most cherished experiences, and crossing Badger Pass on snowshoes fit the bill early this June.  I’d never been their before, and with any hint at the trail (and indeed the creek) hidden under 10+ feet of snow, the crossing felt truly wild.  These experiences are the closest we 21st century hikers can get to pre-Lewis and Clark wilderness, and those miles are thus always particularly precious.

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I’d be hard pressed to pick and exact mile (and I don’t have a good photo of it), but my favorite mile of July was floating below Burnt Park down to the White River with M, Spencer, and Luke.  We had survived our run-in with that log on that rapid in Burnt, the day was getting nice and warm, and the river was clear, fast, and perfectly gorgeous.  At the midpoint of our loop we were just about as far from a road as one can get in the Bob, and doing so in ideal style.  Floating the upper South Fork on a warm day at 5000 cfs is as good as being outdoors gets.

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I’m cheating a little by counting the mile across the Sperry Glacier with my mom as August rather than September, but it was close and the combination of the rugged, otherworldly terrain, harsh weather, being having my mom along makes it a must-pick.  More than anything, it was a world I had long wanted to show her, and doing so at last was satisfying.

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Part of the reason I have to stretch the previous entry is that the first mile of the packout on my September deer hunt in the Bob is the most obvious answer to this question for any month the whole year.  The terrain was tough, but not egregious, and the scenery was excellent, but not exceptional.  What made that mile stick out so thoroughly was the satisfaction of bringing such a long project to completion, combined with the entirely new sensation of carrying a really heavy pack through tough terrain.  The later miles, mostly on trail, hurt, but that mile I was so focused on the intricacy of moving up steep grass slopes without slipping, and down through talus and small cliffs without falling, that the weight would have gone unnoticed had it not been for how much that 80 pounds altered by gait and balance.  It’s something I look forward to getting reacquainted with, and soon.

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Picking one mile out of October is easy; the labyrinth that is the Tapeats Creek narrows upstream from Thunder River.  The novelty, the cold clear water so out of place, and the dizzying bends make it utterly unique in my experience.  Sometimes things just plain stand out, no matter how many miles you’ve hiked, and this was absolutely one of them.

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I didn’t stop to take a picture of what has become my secret deer spot down in the Blackfoot, but I shot this doe a few hours after leaving the ridge and saddle where I’ve seen different huge bucks the last two years running (both times with my buck tag already filled).  From a hiker’s eye it’s not an exceptional place, but as a hunter you can see that the ridge along the top of the short, steep, rugged, densely forested hills makes for an ideal hiding spot.  Deer can take a short evening journey into the neighboring fields to get fat on wheat (I got a pint of pure lard off the back fat of this doe), and then retreat come morning to a sunny bed with both plenty of cover and very good views of most approach angles.  I have other designs on my general season tag next year, but look forward to eventually drawing this doe tag again and returning to hunt a subtle, plain, but very cool spot.  The center of that ridge is my favorite mile from November.

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December hasn’t been a very active month, making the choice of the last mile up to upper Holland Lake with Casey and Travis another easy choice.  The snow wasn’t quite there yet in volumes ideal for skiing, but the winter ambiance was in full effect.  Looking back at the whole year, most of my favorite miles had a lot in common with this one; a combination of a spectacular big context with rich, fulfilling details, and a satisfying back-story.  I’m looking forward to next year.

 

 

First steps towards 2015

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December north of the 45th parallel wants to be a quiet time, and in the last six years I’ve learned to let it be just that. So in the three weeks after hunting season I did only as much of anything as I wanted to, which added up to a few hikes and snowbike rides and ski trips, a fair amount of sewing, a lot of sitting around, and quite a bit of going to bed well before 9pm. Rest and recharge is a good use for 15 hour nights.

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But the foundation for next year is built right now, so last week I used the inevitable less-busy time at work to start regular training.  As of ten days ago I was not un-fit, but I wasn’t anywhere close to fit either, and a bit on the heavy side as well.  Both things that are easily fixed, and the best cure to be found around here is laps up and down the local ski hill.  2000′ of vertical in a short stretch with weights on each foot (4+ pounds a foot all in, even with my fairly light gear) will sort your hiking fitness out fast if you do it regularly for a few months.  It is not a coincidence that the best hiking shape of my life, for the Classic in 2011, came after the biggest and best winter in over a decade.

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The key at this stage of the game is consistency.  If a training outing needs to be cut short (windchill yesterday morning) or moved (windchill today, went out in the afternoon) that is not a problem, so long as you’re getting out and putting lots of vertical into the legs regularly.

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With goals and priorities months down the road, fine tuning and rigor will come along in due time.  But even with a base of fitness both deep and wide, you’ll get burned if you try to shortcut the foundation.

The above were on the first outing of my new camera, a Ricoh GR, which will I think work out nicely.  All functions can be easily manipulated with gloves on, a unprecedented thing for a digital, and quite welcome when it’s -5F.

The full suspension spectrum

Today, it’s safe to say that there are more backpack options available for the outdoorsperson than at any other time.  Most of this is due to the ugly inevitability of population growth and the capitalist hegemony, but some of it has to do with a unique diversity of influences on pack design.  As I’ve detailed elsewhere the Jardine thesis concerning lightweight backpacking has been assimilated such that most “serious” backpackers have a hard time looking back beyond it.  Sub 2-pound packs with sub 400 denier fabrics and slim, flexible harness components are expected.  At the other end of the spectrum, human-powered backcountry hunters have spured a revolution in lighter packs which can still carry very heavy loads through rugged country.  Companies like Stone Glacier and Paradox Packs have made it definitive that there are few compelling excuses for any pack to be heavier than four pounds.

IMG_1110The Arc’teryx Altra 62, above at right, is over-engineered with tons of largely purposeless padding, overly complex pockets and straps, and a heavy hipbelt connection, and it is still under 5 pounds thanks to modern materials and sensibilities.

Identity marketing is all the rage, as manufacturers use it to define a niche within a fractured and diverse market.  In order to fight back against the hype it’s useful to examine the full range of backpack suspensions available, take a stab at dividing them into rough categories, and talk about why each category exists, it’s strengths and weaknesses, and the application to which each is best suited.  It’s also worth pointing out how, without fail, every boundary between suspension categories has been blurred and eroded by innovative builders.  It is a good time to be a pack geek.

Backpacks must do a simple job well in rigorous and varied environments, and it is precisely the huge number of hours we spend with packs on our backs which makes that job seem so complicated.

First, a pack must maintain vertical structure under a given load.  This is most commonly and usefully expressed as maintaining torso length.  By resisting collapse which would shorten the distance between the hipbelt and shoulder straps, a pack maintains the ability of the user to adjust weight between these two points as she sees fit.  Collapse in torso length leads to discomfort in very short order, with anything more than low single digits being unacceptable.  To make this possible the supportive components in a pack’s suspension must be sufficiently rigid, and the various connecting points within the design must have minimal ability to flex, twist, and stretch.  As will be discussed below, there are a number of popular packs whose carry capacity is not limited by their frame, but by the poor connection between the frame and the harness components.

IMG_1270Osprey Variants loaded with a lot of beer and packrafting gear.  These packs feature durable fabrics, a ton of features, and a suspension system which is heavier than it needs to be, and they’re still around 3.5 pounds.  If you’re not an obsessive gram-counter there are a lot of good, and cheap, options around today.

Second, a pack must enable comfortable transfer of said weight to the wearer via a hipbelt and shoulder straps.  20 years ago these were often made from thick, stiff padding encased in packcloth.  Fortunately the industry has moved towards thinner, wider, softer, more conforming harness components, as a change in mentality (and a drive to save weight) has prompted ever better foams and laminates.  This is still an area for development, if for no other reason than that it is pretty basic to make a pack which will have no torso collapse whatsoever, making the harness/user interface the sole limiting factor.  80 pound loads are a trial for a hipbelt, and ruthlessly expose any shortcomings.  As above, many packs are limited not by the integrity of their frame, but by the weight at which the hipbelt will cease to be comfortable (usually by slipping down).

There are an infinite number of minor factors which go into making a good pack, but these two are the colossi.  Without them, everything else is just pretty frosting on a shit cookie.

mountain-laurel-designs-exodus-backpack-review-3The MLD Exodus, photo from BPL.

There are remarkably few truly frameless packs still on the market.  I define a frameless pack as one without any provision for a frame structure whatsoever, including a sleeve for a foam pad.  The keystone frameless packs in the recent past are the Golite Breeze, Gust, and first generation Jam.  The best examples currently available are the Mountain Laurel Designs series, Burn through Ark, and the ULA CDT.  The CDT has elastic pad holders, which keep the included foam pad in place, but unlike the packs discussed below this system doesn’t add much of anything to the quality of the load carry.  Frameless packs are of course the lightest, simplest option, and when packed well with a modestly light backpacking load can carry very well up towards 30 pounds, but necessitate careful packing and suffer from a lack of versatility.  With no integral padding or bulky stuff to provide structure a frameless pack isn’t going to carry too well with a wad of cams on board or skis strapped on.  They’ll remain a niche item and continue to be marginalized as the systems discuss below continue to get lighter.

IMG_0464This pack, which I discussed here, is built to accept a folded 3/8″ foam pad in an internal, velcro-d sleeve.  Not the lightest arrangement, but a very versatile one.

For this reason, frameless packs with a pad sleeve are far more common and popular.  Even though packs like the Cilogear 30 liter worksack rely on a 1/4″ sheet of stiff foam folded in half and nothing more, they often represent just enough non-discriminatory support to work well enough in most situations.  Stiff foam well contained with a good hipbelt can carry a lot of weight.  Just as with truly frameless packs, when packed well such that the load forms a sort of frame the weak point of the system will often be the belt-user interface.  Without contour to the back of the pack, there are often gaps which reduce the ability of the hipbelt to work properly.  Under ideal circumstances these packs can approach or even exceed the 30 pound mark, but often circumstances are not ideal, making these packs suited to either plain backpacking, as discussed above, or to varied activities with far lighter loads.  My pack pictured here is almost always used with weights less than 20 pounds.

I have a number of ideas on how to make a hipbelt work more efficiently with such packs, but given how effective and light true frames currently are, I can’t see myself prioritizing these projects any time soon.

OHM_2-0_Backpack_MainVersion 1 of the ULA Ohm, photo from the NOC.

The logical extension of using a foam pad in a pocket to enhance load carry is to use very light frame components to do the same job for less weight.  A stiffer foam pad is multi-use, but the pad and associated fabric and velcro can easily add six ounces.  Lightly framed packs try to maintain a weight close to that of frameless packs, but with more effective load transfer which works with a wider variety of loads and load shapes.  My favorite example here is the original version of the ULA Ohm, pictured above.  The Ohm added a bit of size, load lifters and a carbon hoop along the perimeter of the back panel to the CDT, at the cost of 8 ounces  (18 to 26).  Though it was replaced by the Ohm 2.0, which added a much larger and heavier (5 oz) belt, the original Ohm has remained an enduring classic because not because it’s raw upper carry limit was so high, but because it carried so well across a variety of weights and settings.

There are many such packs on the market, and they’re justifiably popular because they provide a good blend of light weight and forgiving load carry.  The most effective system will depend on variations in anatomy to a large extent, and is a question too large to address well today.  Rather, the more relevant question is when to distinguish between a lightly framed pack and a fully framed, traditional internal.  Over at BPL a number of years ago Will Rietveld proposed that this distinction be made by stating that internal frame packs have a direct connection between the frame (usually stays) and the hipbelt.  It’s a useful idea, but one with enough grey area that as a diagnostic tool it’s almost useless.

hunting_frameKifaru Duplex frame, from Kifaru, International.

The best example of the classic internal frame is the Kifaru Duplex frame, shown here.  Two stays, shaped to the users back, insert into sleeves from the bottom and are held in place by pockets sewn into the base of the removable hipbelt.  The shoulder straps adjust for length via webbing and a buckle which run parallel to the stays.  A comprehensive pictorial overview of the system can be found here.  With only enough fabric to hold the stays in place and enough foam to prevent point pressure between the user and the stays, the Kifaru suspension is almost as direct as is possible

Of course, many good designs use a mediated version of this system for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the extra weight and complication added by Kifaru’s hinged lumbar pad.  The classic Dana Designs internals used a single aluminium stay which inserted from the top and ran into the lumbar pad, behind which the hipbelt attached via velcro.  Hyperlight Mountain Gear, a lighter and more relevant example of an internal frame pack, uses two thin stays which insert from the top into two sleeves inside the pack.  The sleeves are stitching through padding into the non-removable belt (aside from the Ice Pack).  The lack of direct connection in the HMG system has proven to be a limiting factor, and saw the addition of a framesheet in the 4400 series of packs to better stabilize things (at the cost of ~6 ounces).

IMG_3550The Unaweep from Paradox Packs.

The material and padding required to optimize the connection between the hipbelt and the stays of an internal frame pack are a liability, and amount to weight which only serves one purpose.  Oddly enough, a far simpler and lighter system has been around for decades, the full wrap belt bolted directly to the frame which has been a haulmark of external frame packs ever since the original Keltys.

Externals died out just about everywhere aside from moose hauling a long time ago, due to fashion and the bulky, often lurch-prone frames (often 15 inches wide and close to 30 tall).  Their belt system is still the best available, and when Seek Outside figured out how to shrink the frame and introduce flexibility into the system without degrading load transfer, they invented something I’ve been very excited about for the last 15 months.  The Paradox Packs really aren’t internals, and really aren’t externals either, but rather a hybrid of both, and simply put, a major evolutionary step in pack design which goes a long way towards making internal frames irrelevant.

IMG_1306My current project pack; making the Paradox system as light and sleek as possible.  When suspension this robust adds less weight than most internal frames, there is no downside.

I think the most interesting developments in packs during the years to come will be in the areas between the old categories.  How do you make a pack which is almost as light and simple as a frameless pack, but offers better and more versatile load carrying abilities?  (Not yet answered.)  How do you get a pack which will carry anything you can, and do it while being sleek, flexible with light loads, and less than 4 pounds?  (Buy a Unaweep.)  Because of new technologies and the diverse range of influences and demands, pack development is enjoying a golden age at present, and we get to be around to see it.

MLD Solomid review

The Mountain Laurel Designs Solomid is an easy shelter to review, it’s been around a long time, but more significantly MLD’s specs and declared use are dead-on. The Solomid is a well-built, dependable shelter for the solo hiker who wants something which can be pitched very fast in a small spot, and provides excellent weatherproofing. The tradeoff is a modest amount of headroom and potentially very bad condensation.

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The Solomid is available in sil or cuben. The sil version currently costs 195 bucks, and weighs a bit under a pound before seam sealing or adding guylines. It is 8.75 feet long, 3.5 feet wide, and a little over 4 feet tall when pitched to the ground. It can be pitched with one pole substantially offset, but is better with two in an inverted V. Said two pole arrangement requires two trekking or ski poles a little over 140cm long.  The footprint is a perfect rectangle, which along with the small size makes the Solomid one of the fastest and easiest-pitching shelters around.  With a little practice, zero to done in well under a minute is very realistic.

The modest size of the Solomid creates it’s major strengths and it’s major liabilities.  The biggest strength, after the easy of setup, is wind resistance.  The low, shark-fin like shape and perfectly- executed cat curves on the main seams makes the Solo slice through strong winds (from all five directions), and allows it to be very quiet while doing so.  The inverted V pole setup provides additional support along the long side panels, which is welcome for snow and an asset in wind, though the design already deals well with both.

A small shelter is a small shelter, and that has virtues and downsides.  The virtues have already been mentioned, the downsides are enhanced problems with condensation and low headroom.  Condensation is a problem in any enclosed space, and gets worse the more people are packed into a given square footage.  The reason the Solomid is particularly bad here is that other than raised the pitch a bit there’s no way to get more ventilation while still keeping rain out, and condensation is of course worst when humidity is high.  This is an inherent issue with mids, and the Solo is simply worse due to size.  The overhead clearance in the Solo is fine for a 6 footer in a 20 degree sleeping bag, but doesn’t leave much room for sag.  Add a moderate amount of snow and you run a real risk of waking up with the mid all but on your head.  MLD added an XL version this year, which is a hair longer and taller, and a fair bit wider, but I think these downsides will never be entirely separated from this design.

The other major downside of the Solomid is the cat curve along the long edges, which makes it quite impossible to truly seal them from wind against the ground.  As will be discussed below, this runs counter to the major strength of the Solomid and is thus particularly vexatious.

The obvious application for the Solomid is the solo hiker in alpine environments during the nicer 6-8 months of the year.  Space for gear is less of an issue here than during winter, and the concern for maintaining headspace when it snows less regular.  The quick pitch, small footprint, and excellent wind resistance are all major assets here.  The Solomid is less ideal when it’s darn cold, because of the side gaps, and during warmer, milder weather, due to the limited ventilation options.

After using it all year, I recently sold my Solomid.  I was quite pleased with the shelter, and valued it’s virtues, but in the end the somewhat narrow window of ideal use put me off.  My tarp always won out over the summer, and when winter begins to make an entrance I want something bigger and more easily sealed.  The Solomid would have likely still claimed a place in the quiver had it not been so bulky.  For a shelter from a ultralight specialist company the Solo is quite feature-heavy and even overbuilt.  The zipper has two snaps at mid-height, and a snap and small buckle at the bottom.  These, along with the sticky, waterproof #5 zipper are slow to use and bulky.  The top vent, which is quite large, also adds a lot of material, which quite frankly I do not think does very much at all.  The Seek Outside BT2, which could completely envelope a pitched Solomid, is only 9 ounces heavier once sealed, and takes up the same amount of space in a stuff sack.

In short, I think the Solomid is an eminently well-built and designed shelter, but not the most weight-efficient or versatile.  It certainly has a place, and with MLD making a full half-dozen rectangular mids, to say nothing of other companies, there are plenty of other choices which folks might find more suitable.

The 8 best campsites of 2014

Presented in chronological order, with no gesture made towards the impossible task of assigning preference.

IMG_2623February; upper St. Mary River, Glacier National Park

If you’ve hiked the trail between Gunsight Lake and St. Mary Falls you’ve passed right by this little meadow, probably without noticing the clearing in which I pitched the Lil’ Bug Out on this snowy, windy ski trip.  There are big views the opposite direction thanks to the river, though I chose this spot because it gave access to water and kept me away from the abundant deadfall in the old growth spruce forest which envelops the whole valley.  I knew a big storm was brewing, but the one I got exceeded expectations, and is probably the most severe weather I’ve ever camped in.  It didn’t make for big views, but I’ve seen those before, and the sensation of hunkering down as the rain, snow and wind lashed all right was gratifying and, ultimately, cozy.  I even slept well, and the freshly felled, huge tree 150 yards down the trail the next morning convinced me that camping amongst the windbreaks is not always the smart choice.

IMG_2951March; Olo Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park

Brendan and I were at the end of a long and trying second day of our week long figure-eight, and to our distress did not find water in the gravel of Olo when we finally picked a route down to the floor.  We had enough to make due for the night, but I knew we’d do much better in the hard days to come if we could truly rehydrate, refuel, and relax.  I walked to the edge of the house-sized chockstone which forms the first, 100 foot freehanging rap into the initial slot and saw water, so down we went.  Brendan had done his first canyoneering rappel the day before, and this one was as intimidating as they get for the size.  Plus I got the pullcord hung up on a flake, which after much yanking thankfully pulled off, rather than requiring me to prusik the rope in the gathering darkness.  With flawlessly clear weather we ended up camped on the gravel in a 15 foot wide, 200 foot deep, polished limestone slot next to a nice pool of clear water.  The stars, the still air, and the owls who came by later all made it the best camp of a trip full of fantastic, memorable spots.  Brendan has a more descriptive shot here, of breakfast the next morning.

IMG_3397April; North Fork of the Sun River, Bob Marshall Wilderness

I was eager to get after an early bear hunt, too early as it turned out, as I saw no bear sign whatsoever on this muddy trip.  Too cold yet for the fresh green vegetation which forms the majority of Bob Marshall bear diets, I assume.  I did get myself a gorgeous, clear, and very windy two days watching critters in the magic meadows of the Sun, including a successful wolf hunt on elk which took place in the background of the above photo about 20 minutes after I packed up the Solomid.  Seeing that is rare enough, seeing it 10 miles from the road was a privilege indeed.

IMG_0133June; Stoney Indian Lake, Glacier National Park

I hiked all day, through rain and mostly over snow, to get up to the campground which sits just of the sight to the left, at the foot of the lake.  The campground was still under 5-7 feet of snow, and I was left with the task of arranging my tarp out of the driving wind on the flattest piece of snow I could find.  I slept on my deflated packraft and stuck my empty pack into one end of the tarp to keep the rain out when the wind shifted, and took a long time to fall asleep with my body heat slowly drying damp clothes.  I was greeted the next morning with warm sun, a brilliant crampon crossing of Stoney Indian Pass, and the rare sight of Stoney Indian Lake full of avalanche.

DSC06000July; Danaher Creek, Bob Marshall Wilderness

Somehow between M and I the best photo we have of a truly great camp on Danaher Creek is this one, of the LBO and the stacked rocks necessary to pitch it.  After a long first day of hot hiking and fun rafting M, Luke, Spencer, and I were close to the confluence with Youngs Creek.  Ryan Jordan and Scouts had been down days earlier, and thanks to sat blogging we knew to expect a big wood portage.  We found it late, right before we lost the sun and the cold set in.  It had plenty of flat sand camping, good water, firewood, and a few fishing spots all close at hand.  When I roosted a big bull Moose out of the willows scoping the place out I knew we had good mojo, and called it a day.  I caught 4 fish with my first six casts, and we had a fantastic night roasting and eating them around the fire.  This trip, sharing a great loop in the Bob with folks mostly new to wilderness rafting, was one of my favorite trips of the year, and this camp was equal to all the good stuff which came before and after.

IMG_0580 2August; South Fork of the Flathead, Bob Marshall Wilderness

After I decided to cut my Bob traverse into just a South Fork trip, I had permission to fish all the good spots I had never stopped to fish, and camp in all the places I had always wanted to camp.  At the top of the list was this little sliver of sand between Bear Creek and Mid Creek, and I got to it just as a massive evening rainstorm moved in.  I let my fire tend to itself and retreated to my tarp, laying back and listening to rain pound down on the vegetation and water.  It relented eventually, and I was able to fry and eat my trout, sleep long and well to the music of the river, and move on the next day with one more thing checked off the list.

IMG_0829September; Big Horn Peak, Gallatin Mountains

It’s possible for a normal (read: not rich, and not lucky) hunter to go a lifetime without hunting sheep.  The pursuit has become fetishized, driving guiding rates to absurd levels and draw odds well below 1% just about everywhere.  Thankfully Montana still maintains a handful of districts around Yellowstone with a quota and (relatively) cheap over-the-counter tags.  Buying one was one of the better decisions I made this year.  Sheep hunting is venerated first because of it’s rarity (a vicious circle), and second because sheep tend to live in very cool country.  The huge, high volcanic mountains I hunted for those 2.5 days were quite unlike anything else I walked through in 2014.  Take my second camp as an example.  10 feet behind the Solomid is the Yellowstone Park boundary.  15 feet behind my back is a 2000 foot cliff.  The view from atop that cliff revealed mountain goats, elk, and eventually even a few sheep (ewes).  The sunrise on that utterly clear weekend was simply perfect, and the 10,000 foot meadow I camped in one of the most memorable places I’ve ever sunk a tent stake.

IMG_1097October; Crazy Jug Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park

I was nervous before this trip, having spent a lot of time and thought selecting a route which would give my mom a taste of true Grand Canyon backcountry without being excessively demanding.  Correctly extrapolating the abilities of others is not an easy thing to do when route planning, and I’ve missed the mark many times, but on this trip I nailed it.  The first day had been long and tough and went into darkness, but this patio had appeared by headlamp and I knew we had our ideal spot.  Running spring water, a flat surface, and clear sky, and tired folks made for lots of good sleep, and a great keystone image for a great trip.

2015 is close, so raise your beverage to all the great sites to come.

Silicone seam sealing

Silicone-impregnated (read: coated on both sides) nylon is one the of most significant outdoor gear innovations of the last 15 years. Previously polyurethene (PU) coated fabrics were the only game in town. PU tends to be heavier, and degrades significantly when exposed to UV light and abrasion. Floor delamination was a common cause of tent retirement, often happening when everything else was still in good shape. Silnylon has a much longer service life, is lighter, and is relatively inexpensive.

One major downside is that no one has yet invented a tape which can be used to waterproof the seams of a silnylon shelter, so you’ll have to do it yourself. The following technique is in my opinion by far the best, and as discussed has other uses beyond seam sealing.

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Pictured above is everything you’ll need aside from the shelter in question: mineral spirits, clear silicone sealer, a small glass jar with a lid, and a small foam paint brush.  You must use traditional mineral spirits.  The idea here is that the spirits dissolve the silicone, it is painted into the seam in suspension, and becomes part of the shelter as the spirits evaporate.  I bought non-toxic pseudo-spirits once, and they did not dissolve the silicone.  Same story with various forms of alcohol.

The first step is to squeeze out a good dollop of silicone into the jar, then add mineral spirits  (I use a 1:5 ratio, approximately), close the lid, and shake vigorously for a few minutes until the silicone is completely dissolved.

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The result should look like this, an opaque liquid which is a fair bit thicker than water, but still far from being a paste or gel.  Once this is achieved, simply paint the mixture into the seams with a foam brush.  A little goes a long way, but use a bit of pressure and back and forth to work it into the stitches and folds in the seam.

Obviously, you want to do this on the outside of the shelter.

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Once you’ve gone over the seam and it’s had ~10 minutes to dry, it should look like this.  The sealer will cure to the touch in a few hours, and completely within 24.  By that time the sealing will be all but invisible.  This technique adds far less weight, and is far faster and cleaner than using the Silnet sealer sold in outdoor stores.  If your shelter came with Silnet you can thin it down using this procedure, just use a bit less mineral spirits.

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Seam sealing in winter comes with a few challenges.  First, silicone cures best in warmer temperatures, so even if you have a clear day to work outside it’s best to do it indoors unless it’s quite warm.  You want dry air and temps above 60F.  Second, the fumes here are not too noxious, but it’s ideal to have a heated yet well-ventilated space like a garage or basement with a large door.  Third, you need to figure out a way to keep the seams hanging free of folds for their full length while they cure.  Setting up the shelter properly with full tension can make things easier, but is not necessary.

Lastly, this technique can be used to enhance to rebuild the waterproofing of a silnylon shelter.  The silicone coating will degrade over time, faster with heavy use, and it’s conceivable that well-traveled shelters, especially those seeing lots of the UV exposure and even more especially those made from lesser quality sil will mist under heavy, windblown precipitation.  Misting is of course a polite term for diffuse leaking, which is not desirable.  Not all silnylons are the same, and without diving into the miasma which is hydrostatic head figures, it is fair to say that some companies charge more for their product because they use better materials.  Feel the material; the waxier, thicker, more substantial coatings of good silnylon is easy to recognize.  The more crinkly the fabric, the worse it probably is in this respect.  Thankfully, if you bought a shelter with less-than-ideal materials you can easily bring it up to snuff by using the above method to make a lot of formula, and painting the whole shelter.

Have fun.

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