Glacier is deep

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I’ve got an important history with this place, going back into my childhood, so it was a particular pleasure to see the most remote corner with someone who had only been around a time or two.

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The secret is that on the western edges Glacier starts at 3500′, and while the corridor of sub-alpine possibility is between 6 and 8 thousand feet, it doesn’t take much for any intervening valley to dip well below the brush line.  Spaces aren’t big just due to miles, or to vertical drop, but because of how unfathomably irksome it might well be to get over there.

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That being the case, it can still be shocking just how hard and time consuming it can be to get over there.  Most of the details I laid out two years ago, and all of the time estimates, I still believe, but we did not nail all the details, which put 100 hours beyond us.  I may also revise my statement that the southern half will prove tougher than the northern, at a later date.

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Somehow it seems appropriate to leave the Glacier Divide Route unfinished, for now.

Sneaking the Guardhouse

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Andrew Skurka is a more meticulous navigator than I am. This isn’t saying much, as after identifying an area of interest and a plausible route through it postulating details bores me quickly. Thus I put off his amazement, and seeming discombobulation, at the depth and immediacy of the traverse around Thunderbird Peak and The Guardhouse as fitting given the environment and his fresh eyes for it. This route is massive and intimate at the same time, twisting a big S that goes almost 180 degrees around first one mountain and then the other, over the course of shockingly few straight-line miles. The traveler here is simultaneously stuck in with nose grinding to the intimate rocky folds, least you slip and roll the 4000′ to the forest below, and looking the full ultramarine length of lakes which took hours to walk along the day before. It was only after a weeks’ mind’s worth of walking in 12 hours to a meadow camp between rock folds that he noticed the line on the map. Which denoted that the right half, and all of the previous one, on which we had virtually crawled that day, were drawn in 80 foot contour intervals, rather than 40. I’d never seen nor heard of such a thing, and it tells a lot about both Andrew’s disorientation, and the lengths to which cartographers were forced when they reduced those bowls and shelves and little lakes to 1:24,000 scale.

Ascending out of the basin NW of The Guardhouse was particularly improbable from distance.  The pass leading into Valentine Creek, the largest untrailed drainage in Glacier National Park, was the supposed end of our worst difficulties, both for the day and for the whole trip.  The high goat trail was draped with snowfields, bent by a cool early summer into improbable angles, and the pass itself plugged with a 15 foot vertical cornice which admitted no ambiguity.  Our line involved several rock chimneys and multiple wormhole passages under melting snowfields, and the most unlikely of which required substantial ice removal before a human could fit through, avoiding steep and exposed step cutting I really didn’t want to do.  I’ve been up and down longer, and more technically difficult, exits, but none quite so intricate, unique, and unlikely.

Our grand traverse was cut short, by a pace which may have pushed the number of days I had available and an achilles tendon which flared so suddenly I lost hours of sleep the third night.  The full story must wait, because among other reasons Andrew is (as I type wearing shorts in a dark room) still out there.  But we had a heck of backcountry blind date, and found that the walk through Glacier’s most remote ridges is wild and unrelenting.

The worst best trail

No question, the Highline is the worst of the very best trails in Glacier. On the one hand it’s extraordinary scenic, cutting a bold traverse right along treeline through one of the steeper walls in the park. You almost always have complex, 5th class crags above you, and steep green slopes (and the road) below you. On the other hand the popular part of the Highline is, when down out to Granite Park chalet and down to The Loop, as we did, almost all downhill, and with easy access comes lots of people. Lots of people; M counted over 40 in view early on, and I bet close to a thousand hike at least the first few miles on any sunny summer day. Passing is a nuisance, and the miles beat you with unexpected rapidity, as most of the dirt is hard as asphalt. The Highline is the alpine sacrificial lamb of Glacier National Park, as it may be the furthest many folks every get from a road in the alpine, and hopefully the noise and visual pollution are justified by the visual and inspirational value the experience provides.

I have fond memories of first hiking it when I was 9, when the last mile across the final basin to the chalet seemed very long indeed.  Had we been more clever we would have done the route backwards, or gotten a very early or late start, but instead we went along with the hordes,  and M saved the day by hitching back up to get our car, rather than rely on the very overburdened shuttle.  First time visitors to the area should by all means do this hike, but should not make the mistake of thinking it will be a lonely experience, or that the extent to which the frontcountry crowds here extend from the road is replicated many other places in the The Park.

2015 Alpacka Yukon Yak review

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A year ago exactly I had a very good week; at the beginning of it I won a new raft at the Packraft Roundup, at the end of it Little Bear was born.  After a year of intermittent use I’ve finally gotten a good enough grasp of the new boat to say something meaningful about it.

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My 2015 Yukon Yak has a cargo fly and whitewater deck.  Before I ever put it in the water I glued in points for thigh straps, and rear attachments for skis.  I use a length of 5/8″ polypro webbing for a rear grab handle.  Before I go further, I should say that the dual loop ski lash points are the way to go, as they totally eliminate flop.  I’d also like to see Alpacka make thigh strap lash points a factory option.  Basic straps are an almost mandatory mod for whitewater, even the moderate whitewater I paddle, and while gluing these in yourself isn’t complicated (and is good repair practice) it does take time as well as expensive and nasty smelling glue.

My perspective on packrafting is that I do it as a wilderness activity, usually solo, and usually as a means to the end of a multiday traverse.  With time out limited by work and kiddo, I rarely choose to do a day packrafting trip, and it has been years since I took my packraft on a car-shuttled, “sidecountry” float.  I don’t have particularly developed whitewater skills, and due to the context I usually boat in I maintain a large safety buffer on moving water. All of this heavily influences what I want from a packraft.

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The 2015 Yak is heavier, and more significantly bulkier, than my 2010 Yak, and than I would prefer it to be.  The cargo zipper, extra material involved in the longer boat, and tubing which builds the combing of the whitewater deck all take up a lot of space.  More boat means a larger pack, which is heavier, gets hung up more easily, and so forth.  The advance of packraft performance has a substantial cost associated with it, something which is too infrequently highlighted.

That said, the performance improvements of the 2015 boat over the 2010 boat are enormous, and they apply in almost all circumstances.  It is hard to say they’re not worth the added weight, bulk, and indeed cost.

The longer boat is much faster than the old boat, both in a straight line and when accelerating.  Flatwater paddling and whitewater maneuvering are both massively improved.  The long stern vastly increases stability and hole-punching ability.  I saw all of these first hand, the flatwater speed was obvious in the 2012 Wilderness Classic when Luc Mehl and Josh Mumm easily pulled away from me on the lower Tasnuna, and the value of the long stern was plain when Spencer had a much easier time with the bucking waves of the North Fork of the Blackfoot two years ago.  Having these advantages on my side has been very welcome, and it would have been worth it a few years ago to sell my old boat and pay the difference to upgrade.

The whitewater deck is similarly functional, with reservations.  It’s a lot drier, and a lot warmer, than the cruiser deck.  The added warmth alone justifies the irritation associated with packing the pipes.  It was also nice to see that the deck is seam taped, which was my major complaint about the old deck.  Rigging the whitewater deck takes more time, and getting the skirt around the combing can be a pain with cold fingers, and the skirt does leak a bit and pool water occasionally, but overall it just plain works.

The cargo fly was a greater subject of my skepticism, but I have mostly been converted.  No question, arriving at the takeout with your pack not soaked is very nice, especially on a cold day.  It saves weight too.  Having the weight low and centered improves maneuverability in whitewater, and makes room for skis or a bike.  It is important, especially in more difficult whitewater or if you’ll be doing any portaging at all, to secure the cargo within the tubes so it can’t flop around.  The buckles on the Alpacka dry bags are well thought out in this respect, and with the Seek Outside Divide the bachelor buckles can be hooked to the webbing loops inside the boat.

On the other hand, the zipper does introduce a rather massive point of failure, and in spite of careful and proactive care I’m not at all convinced it won’t wear out well before other parts of the boat.  Whether that happens at all close to the time I’ll want to upgrade, I cannot say.  My zipper did develop a pinhole leak, which was easily fixed, but does not necessarily inspire confidence.

Rather then repeat my request for a ~4.5 pound all up decked boat for light wilderness stuff, I’ll thank Alpacka for making such a capable product.  It was almost startling a few days ago just how much easier the 2015 Yak made the more technical rapids.  That so much performance can be had out of such a light and small package is quite amazing, and while the packraft continues to mature as a product we users should not allow ourselves to forget how revolutionary (for reals) the original implementation of a durable, packable one person boat really, really was.

24 hours on the Middle Fork of the Flathead

  • 530pm: It takes right around 90 minutes to drive from Whitefish to the Morrison Creek trailhead.  Delays and shenanigans associated with buying a car had me rushing to leave and forgetting a bunch of food I hadn’t packed, but I won’t find that out for hours, and our new-to-us Xterra hums along paved curves and makes washboard disappear in a delightfully familiar and comforting manner.  I get to the trailhead, which is empty except for two horse trailer and a half-dozen ground squirrels, and in five minutes change shoes, put a few more things in my pack, and get walking.
  • 630pm: This is the seventh time I’ve been down Morrison Creek, though one of those times was on skis and the old growth in this upper section was eight feet deep in snow.  Whether I choose six or seven it is enough times for real familiarity; I shot a squirrel out of that tree two years ago, a grouse off that log three years ago, this creek was knee deep yet warmer five years ago.  The trail is well used and a bit muddy, but my shoes have new tread and the miles disappear easily.
  • 900pm: Pushing into the night comes with issues, and today that is a very large, blond black bear at 50 yards, clearly wanting to use the same trail I am, in the opposite direction.  Were it a griz or a mom with cubs I’ll haul up the steep hill and let it have the path while taking the long way round, but this bear is plainly trepidatious and I am tired so I yell and fire my .410 which gets it up the hill into the bushes.  As I walk by I thank it, out loud, for being courteous, and for coming upon me at a place where my not-too-alert self could see it far off.  In the further 40 minutes it takes me to get to and wade across the river and my gravel bar camp I make a point to be awake and always looking around.
  • 100am: Rain starts to fall on my face through the open door of the BT2.  I zip it shut and fall asleep before my arm is back in my bag.
  • 430am: My nightly piss has in the past five months become inexorably associated with Little Bears usual diaper change, and though I don’t have to pee too badly (bit dehydrated on the fast walk) I get up anyway and walk out onto the gravel in bare feet.  The rain and clouds have passed, a decently strong hint of the milky way is visible straight up, and the shadows of sunrise are already making and eastern horizon light.  I go back to sleep, adjusting my PFD pillow.
  • 630am: I’m awake, under a well lit and pink sky, and hungry enough that going back under is not possible.  Unfortunately I have one ramen cube,two snickers, and 4 100 calorie granola bars in my food bag.  And I also forgot my spoon.  I eat watery ramen with a stick, and one of the snickers.  At least I remembered coffee, and can rely on the double Via to make the morning normal.
  • 800am: On the water and well underway I get to the first proper rapid in the Three Forks sections.  Three Forks doesn’t make sense; the gradient and angle aren’t far different from the immediately downstream and more mellow Lodgepole-Granite section, and it isn’t really a canyon at all, but there are just enough big rocks, steep bits, and rocky intrusions to make some gorgeous and at higher water I imagine challenging sections.  I love the mellow whitewater and utter clarity of the very end of runoff, and while in an ideal world I could do with a bit more flow this section, in these conditions, is simply my favorite float, anywhere.
  • 1000am: Things just keep getting better.  This being my third run through Three Forks combines with the vastly more stable and precise 2015 Yukon Yak to make everything fairly casual-seeming read and run.  Stimulating without begin in the least scary.
  • 1230pm: I barely make it to the far side of 25 Mile Creek and get out of my boat before I piss myself.  I am no longer dehydrated.  I am hungry, and down to two granola bars for the 12-16 mile hike out.  I extend my tenkara rod and tie on a size 8 stimulator, a reliable option for this time of year, and easy to see.  I land a few 6 inchers before hitting a slow drift across a calm pocket right between the sundry channels of the 25 Mile as it crashes into the Middle Fork.  The stiff, 13 meter Daiwa takes a good bend, and I carefully exhaust, land, and thump a fat cutthroat that will be lunch.  Cut in half it just fits in the Windboiler.
  • 300pm: The cost/benefit of the added hiking miles up 25 Mile, relative to the floating you add by going below Granite Creek, is seeming questionable.  The trail goes from narrow and steeply side hilled, coated in deadfall, to muddy and chest high in thimbleberry.  The upper third turns to an old logging road, with only a narrow path through brush and alder overgrowth, obviously more maintained by moose and bears than people.  More entertaining than the wide horse paths of Morrison and Granite, but also more fatiguing.
  • 430pm: I chickened out of the first shortcut because bushwacking uphill in a decade-old clearcut seemed stupid, but I can see the Granite Creek parking lot below, and the Morrison Creek road beyond.  Only a horizontal mile, and 1400 vertical feet of loss, to the former so I dive off the road and try to only fall softly as I repeatedly loose my feet, invisible down in the brush.  The lower 2/3 of the schwack is under the timber and less thick, and the vague mile only takes 35 minutes.
  • 600pm: I was pleased with the bushwack speed, but even more pleased to pop out on the Granite trail right were it widens to old road.  Which is where Kevin and I stopped on the last morning of my very first Bob traverse, in 2009, to string a line between sapling and dry gear.  It seems I can hardly go anywhere in the Bob any more without stumbling upon nostalgia.  I am most pleased when I follow my nose and find the horse trail shortcutting up to the main road, cutting off two miles of road walking in the process.  I run 40 minutes over my 24 hour allowance, but roughly 17 miles of floating and 27 of walking during that time, along with over eight hours of quality sleep, I am quite beyond pleased to get home quickly.  But first I need a soda and cheeseburger at the Snowslip, to cure a bit of sticky mouth and light head.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead is nothing short of one of my favorite trips, ever.  Oddly, I’ve floated big section of the South Fork on more than a dozen occasions, twice the number of times I’ve been on the Middle Fork.  Logistics are simpler for the Middle Fork, at least the lower half, and while the technical challenges are both more sustained and more severe packrafts allow for low water runs which take much of sting out of the legend.  The Morrison-Granite circuit is easy for one car and gives you the very best floating, but is short and has a lot of less than stellar hiking.  I cannot report that 25 Mile changes that very much.

The best options remain to use two cars and do the easy shuttle between Bear Creek and Morrison Creek, suck it up and do the 20 mile ride between the two (half paved, on a highway with a small shoulder), or get creative and do a ridge hike and bushwack from Bear Creek to Schafer.  The Big River trail, which parallels the lower half of the Middle Fork, is more scenic and interesting than the trails along the South Fork, and is more likely to be covered in bear crap than horse crap, so that really isn’t a bad option either.  Best of all, and with a correspondingly big driving penalty, would be to shuttle to Swift Reservoir and hike in through the limestone teeth of the Sawtooth Range.  I still haven’t figured out the lowest decent flow for the much mellower half of the Middle Fork above Schafer, so getting good floating in that part without Three Forks being too gnar to packraft remains mysterious.

The BD Hot Forge Hoody is awesome

I’m highlighting this medium-light down jacket both because it provides a great example of how to do such a thing well, and because persistent shoppers can still find it well under 200 dollars in certain sizes and colors, which is a bargain.

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Black Diamond declines to specific the amount of fill in the Hot Forge hoody, which is a shame.  Fill weight is not a definitive statement of comparative warmth, and chasing ones tail over subtle variation in clo is a poor use of energy, but more information is usually better and almost anything to help dispel the voodoo behind “how warm is my jacket” is welcome.  The Hot Forge is a pound in men’s medium, which puts it on the very upper edge of lightweight.  Thankfully it is quite warm, warm enough to easily distinguish it from the many 10-12 ouncers.  As will be discussed the Hot Forge spends weight well on features, but that is only justifiable because the warmth/weight is very good.

The Hot Forge also distinguishes itself by having a full compliment of alpine-style features, many of which are usually only found on much warmer coats.  I own and have owned such coats, and don’t find myself using them often.  For one, it just doesn’t get that cold very often.  For another, I’ve found that two insulating layers provides more versatility and therefore functional warmth than one really big jacket.  That said, a big hood which cinches down well over many layers (up to and including a helmet) is nice when the storm is in full effect, which can happen in mid-summer during a windy evening.  As pictured above, the Hot Forge has a hood which is plenty big, and cinches thoroughly via two side cords, and one back of the hood cord.  It is not perfectly done; the placement of the cords create an odd runnel which in a rain coat would be unacceptable, and I still an baffled by cinch cords whose ends terminate inside the hood.  It has always seemed to me that the cinching tight of a hood is most desired precisely when unzipping to find the damn cord ends is least convenient.  Anyone with an answer to this, do let me know.

The other uncommon feature of the Hot Forge is a pair of internal drop pockets, for the storage of damp gloves and other oddments.  The drying function and general convenience these provide I’ve always found invaluable, especially while skiing, and it’s especially welcome to find them on a lighter jacket.  BD did these particularly well, by integrating the sleeve of the hand pocket into the back (user side) of the drop pockets.  Minimal extra fabric, and maximal exposure to body heat for the pocket contents.

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Other niceties include a smooth #5 main zipper, chest pocket insulated on both sides, exceptionally long arms and torso, and slick stretch fabric cuffs, which are both secure and low-fuss.  Overall, the detailing and finish is what one would expect from a piece which retails for 350 dollars.  BD hasn’t been in the clothing game long, and they still struggle with inconsistent sizing and are hit or miss on certain details (e.g. hoods), but the quality of their materials and build is as good or better than any outdoor clothing you can buy, anywhere.

Lastly, the Hot Forge is insulated with Primaloft Gold, a down/synthetic blend.  I was cynical about this technology when it first appeared, assuming it was largely a way to use less down and thus save money while keeping prices static as the cost of down climbed.  Initial use of the Hot Forge suggests the blend is not just hype.  My issue with down has always been the extent to which it struggles with internal moisture.  Put a down coat on over a few sweaty layers, and watch it wilt.  My limited experience with DWR down has been that the treatment delays this saturation, but does not prevent it, nor does much to accelerate dry time.  The Primaloft Gold seems to resist saturation to a noticeably greater extent than straight treated down, and if it continues to perform like this I will be very, very pleased.

Historically my backcountry trips don’t involve much stationary time outside my sleeping bag, which has made in-camp insulation a low priority.  With the kid, this is going to change significantly, which along with the desire for a warmer and still light layer for glassing (while hunting) drove the purchase of the Hot Forge.  Thus far, it does exactly what I want it to do.

Bear aware, maybe

Last week a Forest Service law enforcement officer, Flathead native, and longtime recreator in bear country was killed by a bear near West Glacier.  According to rumor, and the local paper,  the bear was probably a Grizzly, and the gentleman collided with the bear while going quite fast down a gentle, tightly forested descent on his mountain bike.  The bear reacted out of surprise and fear, and the injuries were quickly fatal.

DSC00601Grizzly sow and cub, center right, a comfortable 3/4 mile away.  M photo.

There is a longstanding and vigorous campaign around here, and in the Yellowstone area, to be “bear aware.”  As presented in the handouts you’ll get in national parks, the signs you’ll see on forest service land, on the posters you’ll see in local stores, being bear aware means carrying bear spray, hiking in groups, storing ones food wisely, sleeping away from said food storage, and being careful when hiking near food sources or in noisy areas.  As a matter of public policy it is important to have a soundbite-friendly version of this to which neophytes are likely to pay attention, but I cringe 50 times a summer when I see folks sauntering around with spray clipped to their packs, out of reach and available for accidental triggering.  Spray certainly deters attacks, and for every such attack surely gives 100 hikers the poise necessary to not panic during a close encounter.  Incidental, indoor discharge is also responsible for the temporary evacuation of a building or two every summer, and while its effects aren’t deadly, bear spray is nonetheless a potent weapon carried around with a carelessness unacceptable in any other context.

Frankly, while it is unrealistic to expect the millions of tourists who roll through the Crown Ecosystem to undertake sufficient research to form their own opinions of what being prudent in bear country entails, anyone who spends a lot of time in the bear woods without plenty of research is doing themselves a disservice.

Living here, and being in those woods on a daily basis, one is almost obligated to become inured to the hazard.  This past Saturday, on a routine 2 hour hike with Little Bear, on a trail I’ve biked in the past, we came upon a black bear off in the bushes at 30 yards.  Another black bear was right behind it.  I watched them, for less time than I would have had I been without a child in a backpack, and then yelled a little to scare them off.  And they complied by disappearing in the opposite direction.  Bears probably aren’t common in this area, Grizzlies especially, but it is 10 minutes from home, and 300 yards from a group of houses.  Bears don’t easily live among us, but they live far closer far more often than most people imagine.  Grizzlies included.  Certain activities, like mountain biking, are no doubt more probable than others to produce a bad encounter, but more time spent out there increases the likelihood of running across the wrong bear, in the wrong place, and at the wrong time.  When it happens, as it did last week, neither bear nor human may be doing anything miscreant and incorrect.

R0010682Sow griz and two cubs, at a comfortable 1.5 miles.  I later saw them at a less comfy 120 yards.

So the first thing for proper bear awareness is the admission that bears kill humans, and not always when they are a sow with cubs or protecting a kill.  The probability is low, but it is possible that while you are out in the woods a bear might kill you through no fault of your own.

Next, admit that certain activities are less safe than others.  Anything high velocity, quiet, off trail, in the fall during hyperphagia, and in a group of less than four increases the probability of a bad injurious or fatal encounter.  Read Herrero’s Bear Attacks, and all the great data kept by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, and decide for yourself, but in my mind the evidence here in overwhelming.  That said, at least 50% of the time I am personally out in Grizzly country I’m doing at least two of these things at once, and not infrequently all of them simultaneously.

I’ve reconciled myself with that because my reading of the research tells me that the most significant factor in keeping bear encounters from turning wrong is not doing anything stupid.  Be aware of the area you’re moving through, read the situation when you do encounter a bear, and act with cold rationality.  Most of the time all this entails is not getting any closer, acting confident but non-threatening, and allowing the bear to figure out what you are.  My closest sustained encounter with a Griz was during the 2012 Bob Open, hiking through Pretty Prairie around dusk.  I was on high alert, because dusk is good time for bears, especially in the long days of spring, and that area is a good place for spring bears, with big south facing meadows and lots of deer and elk.  True to expectation, I came upon a bear as I emerged into meadow.  It took a good minute or more doing a quarter circle of me at 30 yards, standing to better look and smell several times, before winding me and running off, quickly.  I did nothing but stand still, made possible by not panicking, as I was on bear alert.  It’s worth noting that these days I would probably not hike so late into the night, alone, in that particular place at that particular time of year.  Bears can be almost anywhere at the most unlikely time, but fear evenly applied across settings sucks focus from when it can be best put to use.

Beyond this, bring spray if you want to.  It has a good track record, so long as it isn’t too windy or raining hard.  I still find the fragility of the nozzle disconcerting, and believe that 80% of folks who carry spray are putting themselves at net greater risk, due to the frequency of accidental discharge (spray on shoulder strap, alder pulls trigger, spray in face, blind hike out).  Also bring a firearms if you want to, provided you’ve trained the hell out of it.  Plenty of incidents in Alaska where a good shot saved someone from a good mauling.  That said, 75% of the rafters I saw on the South Fork of the Flathead in early August two years ago had 3-5 pound revolvers in chest rigs, and I’m very skeptical that many would have been able to shoot them well enough to do any good under duress.

IMG_0782Griz print in the Almost-a-Dog chimney, Norris Traverse.  Bears go where they want, often in very improbably places.

In summary, being bear aware is mostly about being self-aware, though having a decent knowledge of what bears do at different times is also important.  A good nights sleep in bear country shouldn’t be the result of ignorance, or even worse, a bunch of Tylenol PM.  It should be earned, over time, and while that doesn’t help the policy makers much, concerned as they must be with greatest good for greatest number, proper knowledge built on a body of experience is nonetheless the only way to really get there.  No shortcuts.