Retirement

A few months ago I spent a day snowboarding.  It did not go as I had hoped.   The reversion to being a kid, and flailing on and off the lift and down the hill, was immediate.  I slid into trees, off on slope angles to where I did not want to go, caught an edge and crashed off of tiny rocks, and had the liftie run over and ask if I was ok, twice.  Whatever I’ve learned over the past 3 decades of mountain biking, climbing, skiing, boating, and backpacking blunted the fear of novelty and let me be aware of exactly how and why I was struggling in the moment, but it did not accelerate the learning process, at least not on day one.  Perhaps I’ve watched too many Jeremy Jones movies.  After a few days contemplation I made the decisive, and I think not hasty, call to retire from snowboarding after one day.  It took me long enough to feel competent skiing, and I am not exactly swimming in free time.   And for me, abundant time has always been requisite for learning any physical pursuit.

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I made the snowboard into a lawn couch, using some skis, cedar 2x4s from an old fence, and some juniper logs.  I’ve become especially enamored with the tight, kaleidoscopic grain of the Rocky Mountain Junipers which dot the ponderosa forests around here, and whose sandy, recalcitrant poise so easily echoes the same trees and their cousins, the Utah Juniper, down on the Colorado Plateau.  For aesthetic reasons, and because I was short plain boards that were long enough, I split one particularly tall and straight juniper log in half and built it into a shelf which now sits in the renovated mudroom, and holds a stack of totes which in turn hold the vital parts of our gear arsenal: climbing hardwear, ropes, and cooking kit in three bins on the floor, then a bin each for tents, pads, drysuits and bags, and then two bins each crammed with backpacks, before a final row of larger backpacks up against the ceiling.  It’s proved a expedient arrangement; get home from a trip, explode gear to dry and clean in the aisle between the shelves and the shoe bench, then put it all away without taking more than half a step.

I belabor this because, especially now as a family, we have a lot of interests, which means a lot of things which in the interest of efficiency need to stay separate but interlocking.  Car camping requires much of the same stuff as a week long backpack hunt; an overnight float trip many of the same things as a chilly afternoon at the bike park.  Flailing to find the right drybags is bad enough prepping for a solo trip.  If the small people are reluctant enough to get out the door, spending 20 minutes to find that tiny pair of black rainpants is simply not acceptable.  Time then isn’t just given over the skill building within the activity itself, the organization and logistics which make all of those activities possible requires a considerable, and ongoing, investment.  In this world new things do not come cheap, and the money to buy the stuff is, measured over years, the least of the concerns.

My mom recently retired, in the conventional sense, from over 40 years of being a psychotherapist.  They also recently closed on a house down the road, and are deep into conversations about what boat(s) will be required for this next phase of life.   It has been quite a few years since this trip, and my postscript summary has not changed; given the combination of ideal scenery, challenge, and execution, I cannot expect to ever have a better backpacking trip.  I could likely replicate the route, or the satisfaction, even the seamless experience on such all-encompassing terrain, and I have done all of those, quite a few times, but I don’t expect to outright exceed it.  At the time I wondered, rather idly, if I might retire from backpacking with satisfaction.  I’ve reached similar positions in climbing, mountain biking, and canyoneering, with a much reduced degree of mastery, and have been content to let them go.  In outdoor pursuits knowledge and experience persist, but fitness and the sharp edge which comes with submersion do not remain.

Perhaps it is that backpacking is the ur skill for all backcountry disciplines.  Perhaps it is that walking is so basic, and physically the area in which I am most gifted.  Perhaps it is the gift of circumstance, that in the Northern Rockies backpacking is the best thing to do, particular when skiing or packrafting or hunting are spread on top.  Most likely it is that backpacking is the most fun of all of these, not in the whoop adrenaline sense of gravity power, but in the less common, enduring sense of variation beyond human determination that, for this reason, is never subject to boredom.  Having gone beyond mastery, and to a large degree beyond novelty, I find myself as much concerned with style and with monitoring the passage of time, revisiting old favorites, as I do with anything else.  And of course I have people around who need to see certain things.

I can’t imagine retiring.

The B&P mentoring program

Donald Trump has shown, more starkly than almost anything else one could imagine, how deeply structural racial bias and discrimination has been and is, and how it remains in many or even most cases the pivot point for social power in the United States. After the past four years we know more about this, which is to say more about ourselves, than we would under any other circumstances.  Structural bias will in many cases erode away in the face of history, but very slowly, and with the potential for retrograde progress.  It is our responsibility to bend the curve of history, to help social justice along, in consistency and speed.

I’ve been guilty, for a long time, of thinking about wilderness ahistorically, as something which is a precondition for social justice.  I still think this is true, but all too often my assumptions have jumped from wilderness and wild pursuits being physically democratic, insofar as accessibility is concerned, to that accessibility being literally effective.  I grew up spending time outside with my family, going hiking and boating from a very early age.  It wasn’t until I started rock climbing at 12 that I felt ownership over my own learning in the outdoors, and that experience, supported by my family background (read; privilege) allowed me to move on and teach myself canyoneering, mountain biking, hunting, skiing, packrafting, and so forth.  Making the venue and information of and for a given wilderness pursuit accessible is one thing.  Making the self-certainty necessary to teach oneself out there in the wild is another.

That matter is something I would like to help address.

So I’m looking for mentees in 2021, for a small handful of people with aspirations for the backcountry whose background and situation will make achieving those goals more complicated than would be the case for someone like me.  I’m not placing definitive restrictions on the race, orientation, class, or ethnicity who I hope to work with here, but white men are not it.  Yes there has been a lot of attention given to minorities in the outdoors and to social justice within the industry, and a lot of that verbiage has been monolithic and cliched, but the broader point about social justice, that we are neither the agent or architects of the more profound influences on our lives, stands intact.  My hope and intention is to use my experience, something both created and expedited by the circumstances of my birth, to provide an analogous bit of assistance for folks whose place in history would not do the same.

What will this look like?  I don’t know, but am eager to go on a journey with a few folks and find out.  I envision folks having significant and extensive access to my time, over the phone or via Zoom, regarding their hopes, goals, and the personal and skill development they’ll need to get there.  If someone wants to climb the Grand Teton, for example, or packraft the Middle Fork of the Flathead, it is easy to write up a list of hard skills they’ll need to master.  It is less simple to even define the mental aspects and less tangible skills that will be equally essential.  Things like dealing with loneliness and fear; managing layers and bedding during a 48 hour rainstorm; finding a layering system that works to your tastes and physiology.  I envision my roll as having more to do with helping people figure out the most important questions, rather than the more basic process of defining answers.  Perhaps, schedules and COVID concerns allowing, some combination of us might be able to go on a trip, or a few.  If you are based in the vicinity of Helena, Montana, that convenience would allow for more instructional options.

So, if you fit the above criteria and have some adventure goals you think might dovetail well with my knowledge base, send an email to dave at bedrockandparadox dawt com, with Mentorship Application in the subject line, and tell me what your hopes are and how you think I would be effective in assisting you.  This last part is important.  Any reader who has been around a while should be quite familiar with my style, and I think I can assure everyone that my writing does a decent job of representing who I am as a person.  Like any teaching relationship, the person to person dynamic is as important as any more direct factor, and neither of us should waste each others time if it doesn’t seem like we would be a good fit.  That said, in applying I ask for no commitment save to me reading and you writing your words, each with care.

I have no basis for evaluating the interest, but I don’t envision the application period being open for long.  I will update in this post, and notify everyone via email.

Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody

I’ve written an enormous amount about windshirts over the past decade, their importance in a layering system, and the associated subtleties.   To recap; outdoor clothing in general and wind layers in particular have over the past decade explored the range of breathability and overall weather protection in a comprehensive fashion.  Specific to windshirts, the frontier over the past few years has been in making a breathable fabric which is both acceptably light and acceptably tough, and most significantly does not suck up and retain too much moisture.  This last has been the primary liability of the otherwise category defining Alpine Start since in was introduced in 2014.

My 5 year old Alpine Start was getting long in the tooth, with the stock DWR all but gone and a few rips and holes.  I wanted to try something different, perhaps from a company with less evil/capitalist overtones.  The STP (Stretch Terre Planing) hoody is made from 90 grams/meter polyester, with a 4 way mechanical stretch.  Compared to the Alpine Start, which has an 80 grams/meter 93/7 nylon/spandex fabric.  7% spandex is a lot, and all things being equal, poly should absorb much less water than nylon, while potentially (all thing being equal, which they never are) being less abrasion resistant.  Dry time and moisture retention was my priority in a windshirt, so the STP fabric had my attention.

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Virtues of the fabric put aside for a moment (and it is a really good fabric), the STP hoody has a bunch of virtues that well suit backcountry activities, and a few major caveats.  The first and by far most significant downside is the torso volume, which as discussed here is positively huge for the size.  I don’t think I could live with the STP without modifying this, making it a big caveat for folks who can’t or don’t care to cut up their new 125 dollar shell.  The other caveat is the pockets, which sit right under a hipbelt.  They are nice pockets, with the interior side being mesh and the zippers well anchored and smooth running.  They are useful any time one is not wearing a pack, and I both don’t find them a problem under a hipbelt (so long as they’re empty) and don’t mind not having pockets on a windshell when I’m using a big pack.  Around town, skiing, day hiking, or biking the pockets are useful and useable, so there is the argument for that, and it is a good one.

Otherwise the fit and detailing are excellent.  The torso and arm length are both above average.  The minimal cuff detailing, with just a little bit of elastic sewn in, leans in to the strength of the fabric being fast drying.  The little cord thumb loops, unlike so many shirts, are actually big enough to fit over a (gloved!) thumb, and due to this and sleeve length are both useful and easy to ignore when you want to.  The hood is big (not helmet big), and while it lacks a rear draw cord the patterning and soft fabric work to keep it out of your eyes, and the drawcords are external and easy to cinch.  The cords are non-stretch ribbon, and the cord locks anchored bits of neoprene.  They are not easy to loosen, requiring two hands, but the whole interface is secure, and very low profile.  A similar system on a hardshell might go a long way towards solving the dreaded blizzard induced cord end to the face.

Anecdotally the STP fabric has been very fast drying.  On colder but not frigid, humid days I get a bit of bogginess in the Alpine Start which has never been ideal.  My first attempt at quantifying this difference did not endorse my intuitive conclusion, so I’ll be using the STP as a platform for further investigations there.  My assumption is that I’ll use it a ton this spring and summer, and report back.

The counter argument is that pricey, esoteric windshirts like this are chasing minute performance gains which may or may not exist, and that something like the standby, nylon windshirt is the more versatile option and better investment.  And it is hard to argue against that.  No question, something like the Windveil (or Patagonia Houdini) get too sweaty for a lot of activities, particularly winter activities, when the balance between enough protection to not get chilled but not too much is very fine indeed.  On the other hand, when the Windveil gets wet it doesn’t suck up too much water, dries fast, and still blocks the wind.  My sense is still that a more breathable option better fits into the performance sweet spot, but there is also no arguing that most if not all of my windshirt acquisitions over the last half decade have been about geekery, rather than strictly about function.  My aspiration this spring is to make that idea more objective.

Windshirt dry times mini-study

A crucial attribute of windshirts, particularly for backcountry (which is to say, multiday) use is moisture retention and drying speed.  If the most common, indeed only criticism of windshirts as a concept is that they can be viewed as redundant relative to a waterproof hardshell, the rejoinder to that criticism is that unlike a hardshell, a windshirt can be left on almost all the time.  A good windshirt will have an ideal blend of breathability and weatherproofing for the given user and use case.  Drying quickly nicely accompanies breathability where garment utility is concerned, and minimal moisture retention reduced the penalty of using the windshirt as an extra layer when true waterproof protection is required.

My benchmark for a number of years has been a static soak and dry test.  In this case, I took four windshirts I regularly use, immersed them in a sink of water, vigorously kneeded them to ensure total saturation, then allowed them to sit drapped over a metal rack in a 62 degree (F) house for 3 hours.  Weight, dry, soaked, and at one hour intervals post soaking, was taken to the nearest 10th of an ounce.   The test subjects were: a Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody, new three months ago, with significant potions of fabric removed from each side to bring in the torso diameter; a 2014 Black Diamond Alpine Start hoody, heavily used; a 2016 Rab Windveil, extensively used but with a good DWR still active; and a 2018 Patagonia Airshed pullover cut down to a vest, and with the chest pocket removed.

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Dry time and moisture retention are, as will be discussed shortly, closely related but not the same thing.  Similarly, this test is not reflective of common field conditions, and ignores the more realistic metric of dry time while under the influence of body heat (i.e. while worn).  Years ago I ran the same test with both static and dynamic (worn) dry times, and found that while wearing the windshirt significantly accelerated dry times it did so at rates which hewed closely to those observed under static conditions.  Variations in the heat an individual can put out in a given situation, be that due to variances in metabolism, weather, or circumstances (i.e. how tired and depleted they might be) are going to be more relevant here than anything else.  A static test, such as this one, is more comfortable, less time consuming, and in my experience provides just as much actionable data.

On the face of it each of the four windshirts behaved similarly, soaking up a significant amount of water weight before taking 3 hours to become almost totally dry.  There are a few significant aberrations, the first one being that the Airshed gains significantly more than the other three when taken as a percentage of dry weight.  The Airshed gained 140% (2 oz up to 4.8), while the rest were in the 75-80% range.  This is surprising, and the difference cannot be entirely blamed on the double layer of stretch fabric at the back hem, which as the dry test went on stayed drastically wetter longer than the main Airshed fabric.  Indeed, the .4 oz from dry  at the 2 hour mark was by feel due entirely due to this strip of fabric.  So I need to replace this bit soon, and maybe that extra ~60% of gain was due to this little detail.

The other noteworthy variation is how much slower the STP hoody dried at hour 2, relative to the Alpine Start.  Judging by feel, this was due to the more elaborate detailing, namely the two lower hand pockets and associated layers of fabric, zipper, flaps, and so forth.  My biggest take away, or reminder, from this little project was that under those rare field conditions when things are getting soaked and resoaked, details like cuffs, hem complexity, and the number of pockets and flaps add up to make a big difference in dry time, and thus, warmth and overall functionality.  The project also taught me that advancements or changes in fabrics may have not amounted to substantive improvements in this area.  The Airshed fabric, on its own, may perhaps dry faster than similarly light fabrics, but I do not have the data to say so.  And while intuitively the STP fabric seems to retain less moisture in use than the Alpine Start, I need more information before I can say that is anything other than confirmation bias.

Seems like I need to do more laps around the block with drenched clothing.

Jailhouse Ruin

This has to be what fear looks like.  

Walking down Bullet Canyon things would have opened up, a wide sandy plain thick with fat pinon and juniper trees, a tight band of tall cottonwoods and willows snaking along the dry wash.  The north wall opens into a series of budding side canyons, that run back for perhaps half a mile before you are up at the end of the slickrock and talus against 400 foot cliffs.  These canyons have deep overhangs at their heads, bays whose bottoms are never touched by rain or snow, and hardly by the wind, but face south and are high enough to be flooded by sun on even the shortest day of the year.  An ideal place to spend the winter.  

The point between two of those bays has a particularly deep set of ledges bedded into weaknesses at the base of the cliffs.  The apex of the turn from one canyon to another has an obvious stone and mortar wall tucked into it, an ancient stick poking straight out downcanyon, hinting at a far more elaborate and transitory structure during its prime almost 1000 years ago.  Closer examination reveals a gap between that wall and the cliff, through which a human can crawl, and access the walls beyond.  The jailhouse itself sits below these ledge rooms, invisible while you are seated above.  Small, oblong, slanted windows break the ledge walls at regular intervals, providing a narrow view of the rock slabs leading to the jailhouse.  Can we call them anything other than arrow slits?  They’re aimed with rude, jarring immediacy down to the approach slopes, places anyone wanting to approach (or leave) the jailhouse would have no choice but to cross.  And as if to further argue back against any thesis that this was not a defensive, defendable structure, you have the face.

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Painted at the height of a standing modern human’s head, the face (and the swirling, multicolored disc 20 feet to the left) are pointed such that anyone walking down the canyon could never miss them.  I struggle to grasp a plainer message of watchfulness, defensiveness, perhaps of hostility.

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Further down canyon, in Grand Gulch proper, I had seen many ruins built up in near impossible locations.  Rooms set into ledges, like the one at jailhouse, but high up near the canyon top.  Places built with rocks and mortar, places easy to see but difficult to get to, and impossible to sneak towards, places whose approach today would seemingly demand a rope or ladder.  Places where you wonder how on earth they gathered the water mixing mortar would have required.  Places whose effort, or both construction and getting to and from, would have made them rather less then friendly to everyday life, when that life involved tending corn in floodplains and stalking bighorns and deer with stone arrowheads.  

Today we know, or think we know, that these canyons were the late fringe of the civilization that blossomed in more logical places, like Mesa Verde, closer to the mountains, to more predictable water and presumably to more consistent hunting.  These people were also linked to the less logical, from a subsistence perspective, Chaco Canyon.  The historical weight and, from a modern perspective, mystery of Chaco and its inhabitants still vibrates the air when you visit.  Relative to the harsh, innocuous environment the buildings seems massive.  The rockwork, a millenia later, is still fine.  Do some study and you learn that the great kivas were roofed with timbers that must have weighed hundreds of pounds and had to have been carried 50 or more miles from the nearest such forests.  We also know, or think we know, that this civilization dispersed and fell apart in violence.  Our vague modern certainty is that survivors fled to places like Cedar Mesa, and brought their scars and paranoia with them.  It makes for a colored, if compelling, reading of a place like jailhouse ruin.

 

Grand Juan Honaker logistics

This is a logical extension of classic loop we traveled five years ago; down the Honaker trail, packraft the San Juan River to Grand Gulch, and hike that and some association of side canyons back to the mesa top.  Riding a bike from any of those trailheads down the highway and Moki dugway to the Honaker trailhead is an enjoyable and expeditious way to shuttle with only one car.  In my case, I left my bike at the Bullet Canyon trailhead, which made for a 26 mile bike shuttle.

You need two separate permits for this loop; one for the river, and one for Grand Gulch.  Between November 1 and February 28 the later are unlimited and self-serve at trailhead kiosks.  During the warmer parts of spring and fall there is a 20 quota per trailhead, per day.  These can be reserved, online, 90 days out.  Looking through March and April of this year, availability is widespread, save for Kane Gulch and Bullet Canyon on April weekends.  San Juan permits are unlimited outside the lottery season, April 15 through May 15.  I had ~670 cfs (at Bluff) for this recent trip, which for a packraft was more than adequate, if notably slow once morning headwinds kicked up.  Looking at historic averages, I think this part of the San Juan is floatable year round, though isolated evidence of shelf ice suggests it might start to freeze up during the coldest depths of winter.

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The top of Cedar Mesa is above 6000 feet, making snow in the upper sections not uncommon and potentially problematic, especially on north facing aspects.  Pictured above is the “crux” of Bullet Canyon, after 2 inches of snow fell the night before.  I went through around 3pm, after the midday sun had melted things down, and before the snow refroze and ceased to be sticky.  A few hours earlier or later would have made the going trickier, as the people and dog (!) ahead of me seemed to have found (zoom in for the flail tracks).  It is certainly possible that sections like this would have enough snow to be impassable without a rope and/or specialized experience.   That said, the river straddles 4000 feet and overall daytime temperatures during November and February are usually quite pleasant.  I did bring a drysuit, which made floating during 3 hours of steady rain tolerable.

At low flows the San Juan is mellow and accessible for almost any level of skill and any boat.  I brought my small boat to save weight on the hiking, which was a good choice.  The character of the river does change notably below Slickhorn Canyon, transitioning from a muddy mountain stream, with a gravel and cobble bottom and sequential riffle where you’d expect, to a true desert river with a sticky sand bottom.  Much like with the Dirty Devil or Little Missouri, the San Juan could be 50 yards wide with only a small floatable channel right against either bank.  I’ve long since passed the point where negotiating such things have novelty.

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Grand Gulch itself is a unique canyon, and a somewhat odd companion to its neighbor, Slickhorn.  Slickhorn climbs steeply and moves through its phases fast; Grand Gulch is at least 4 times as long, climbs gradually (save at the very start and very end), and has a spectacular number of bends and abandoned meanders.  For varieties sake I couldn’t help climbing out the northern fork of Water Canyon and walking the plateau over to the Government Trail, which I took back into the canyon.  This was a highlight, both the rugged route finding and big views up top (one can see the Bear’s Ears, Monument Valley, Navajo mountain, and Mount Ellen all at once).  Grand Gulch from the Government Trail up to Bullet is remarkably uniform, with a 10 foot wide sand bottom windy between brushy banks with almost no breaks or obstacles.  There is a lot of cool canyon architecture and rock art to see in this stretch, but the scenery and walking impressed with their uniformity and general turgidity.  My legs were heavy after the Water Canyon excursion, and the day after, going past Dripping and Step Canyons, I had a struggle keeping in the moment and a generally positive mindset.

It is also worth highlighting that, due to limited visibility down amongst the trees and the lack of outstanding features, keeping track of your location/progress is more nuanced than usual in canyon country (that is, assuming I’m not the only backpacker left who avoids GPS).

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I did find the scenery and walking up Bullet to be exceptional, a fitting highlight on which to end the trip.  The history here, to be addressed later, is absolutely something to return to, even if the additional floating and walking of Grand Gulch, relative to Slickhorn, does not make it the highest quality of additions.

Essential skills: garment side seams

A wee bit of sewing know-how is handy in the outdoor realm.  And not just for fixing stuff, though that is a subject I will get to over the next month, but for the slightly more advanced (conceptually, if not always skills-wise) realm of modifying gear.  Today we will confine ourselves to the introductory topic of altering the torso size of jackets and vests by taking in and (bonus points!) expanding the side seams.

Garment fit is not a matter to be taken lightly.  Sub-optimal fit makes pieces less thermally efficient, less cohesive while layering, and more annoying (flapping in the wind. etc).  If you have a body type or fit preferences which fall outside the norm, your are generally stuck with either just getting by, or perhaps shopping around to find a company whose patterning might better suit you, a potentially protracted and expensive procedure which is by no means a sure thing.  Modifying garment fit is a surefire way to address this issue.   I don’t have this problem, as I generally fit just fine in anything labeled medium, though sleeve length and hood size are both often a bit lacking.  My favorite application of altering torso fit is, rather, to alter garments which aren’t my size that I have managed to purchase for cheap.  In either case techniques are the same.

For the past few months I’ve been exploring a Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody as a replacement for my BD Alpine Start windshell.  The Terre has promise in this area, with one glaring flaw in the voluminous torso size.  Mid-waist circumference (in medium) is 3.5 inches more than the Alpine Start, which is itself on the generous side of something meant to go over a midlayer or two, but not allow too much heat loss via flappage.  The Terre is meant for ocean sports, and presumably the added volume is to fit over a kiteboarding harness, but given the otherwise excellent fit (long arms and torso, excellent hood) something needed to be done.  Thankfully the Terre has what most jackets and vest have; vertical seams up the center of each side right under the nadir of the underarm.

The mod is basic: measure (several times), do your math right, turn the jacket inside out, sew a vertical seam up parallel to each existing seam to take the desired amount in (taper up to the arm pit in the last ~2″), trim the excess (to a 1/2″ to 3/8″ seam allowance), singe the fabric edges, then turn the garment back right side out, fold the seam over, the fell (i.e. sew flat) parallel to your new seam to hold the excess in place and add strength.  The Terre fabric is thinnish and stretchy, with this later characteristic making stress on individual seam holes more acute as I’m sewing with non-stretch thread.  Felling the seam is a good call with such fabrics, or with fabrics like fleece who often don’t hold on to seams as well as more unified products.  The end result, shown at top, doesn’t need to be super pretty or exact, just straight enough, and tight.  Get the fit right and you’ll forget about the mod and go about your outdoor life.

Extra effort is in order when things like hem cinch cords have to be relocated.  If the cord tunnel goes all around the hem, you’ll have to pull that seam out, do the above, then resew the tunnel without sewing the cord into the seam or anything similarly silly.  In the case of the Terre to tunnel ended at the middle seam, so I felled it forward (towards the zipper) to make things easier.  I had to relocate the little anchor loop for the cord lock, something I put off until I was felling the seam.  With the seam locked in it was easy to just stuff a little fabric loop into the fell and triple pass along the way.

It is less probable that you’ll want to take a whole jacket in all the way up the sleeves, but the same procedure can in theory be used here.  It is more complex, as cuffs are usually more complicated to take apart and put back together, and sleeve patterning is less likely to feature a straight seam off which to benchmark.  I am much more likely to pin when taking in a sleeve, as the amount you’ll be reducing tends to vary, and the margin for error is far less (as a percentage of the whole).

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Adding girth is more complicated, but possible via essentially the same process.  My favorite example is this early 90s ish Patagonia vest I found 2 years ago in a Butte thrift store for 50 cents.  It’s a small, and I while I could technically wear it function and style demanded it be big enough to layer over something like a heavy fleece.  The tricky parts were color matching the salmon fleece inside the collar (came close after 40 minutes in Joannes), splitting the sides in a non-messy way (the outer shell is some kind of monolithic poly WPB laminate, with ~80 grams/meter Polarguard and a taffeta liner), and dealing with the drawcord cinch around the arms holes.  In this case I sewed the whole sandwich of materials shut, then sewed the fleece strips to each before felling as mentioned above.  I punted on extending the cinch sleeves across the fleece panels, as that wasn’t really necessary to preserve function.  A nice bonus here is that a pair of jacket sleeves always has enough length to make side panel additions.  A few years ago I found a woman’s large Nano Air jacket for $10, older, but in very fine shape.  This one I could not really wear at all, so after a bit of playing around I cut off the sleeves, sewed the arm holes shut, and added 4″ wide panels to each side, giving me a functional vest for 10 bucks and 45 minutes of enjoyable futzing.

Most importantly, modifying (and repairing) things feels more satisfying in this transient, hyper-consumerist age.

Black Diamond Hilight review

I’ve used the 2 person Hilight quite a bit in the last year, with performance quite as I expected it to be, perhaps one or two things surprising. This makes for something of a dull write up; it is a quality tent, well conceived, with defined limits. There a few things that could be done better, but so long as one chooses it wisely, the Hilight will make for a good shelter.

Dimensions are the first concern, and really the only area where I think Black Diamond went wrong in the design. 82 inches is simply too short for anyone of average (5’8″ or more) height. I fit in the Hilight, sleeping diagonally when using it as a solo tent, which is how I imagine 90+ of people use it. That is fine, but I think it would make more sense to stretch it a bit, while making it narrower, perhaps even symmetrical. Rather than being 82 inches long, 42 inches wide at the foot, and 50 inches wide at the head, give it the 87 inch length of the Eldorado, and a uniform 48, 46, or even 44 inch width. Two people are going to be in full bivy/alpine mode using the Hilight anyway, so going halfway to providing comfortable room doesn’t seem logical, when a longer and narrower footprint would only be better for both a duo and a soloist.

I’ve been quite pleased with the performance of the Hilight. Snowshedding is a natural strength of little wedge tents like this one, with the near vertical lower walls, and while I (somewhat annoyingly) avoided big snow storms on trips this past, modest snowfalls sluff off unnoticed. I anticipate performance in heavier snows to be more than acceptable. Performance in wind is a bigger question with wedge, and with the Hilight especially, given the wing pole over the doors. In sustained 30-40 mph winds the Hilight has proven very stable, especially when the side guy points are used. It is a very quiet tent under these conditions, with impressively little movement. I look forward to testing it, the wing pole especially, in harsher conditions, but realistically those don’t happen very often. I’d currently take the Hilight most anywhere, anytime in the mountains and be comfortable that with reasonable sight selection and prep I’d do fine.

Ventilation and condensation, and mild weather performance generally, has been an area of unexpected strength and satisfaction. Seeking ease of pitch and total bug protection I took the Hilight on a weeklong packraft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, as well as on an early September elk hunting trip on the prairie badlands of eastern Montana. The former trip ended up being quite warm, somewhat rainy, and had a huge number of ticks. It was really nice to zip into my tent after an evening when I pulled half a dozen or more bloodsuckers off me, and nicer still to have good venting for a whole rainy evening and wake up with almost no condensation. The Middle Fork isn’t a humid environment, but on a permitted river tip one often camps out of necessity closer to the water than ideal moisture management would dictate, and in the Hilight this just wasn’t an issue, due to both the generous venting and the fabric. It was very warm on the elk hunt, and still buggy, which had me appreciating a full tent rather than a tarp, with a full panel of mesh I could leave open to the wind on nights that barely got into the 50s.

Because the venting is so effective, and because resewing and sealing will be a bit of a job, I have yet to get around to cutting the top tunnel vent out. I remain convinced the big, dual flaps make it redundant, but have yet to actually conduct that experiment. Even if I can drop 6 ounces from the canopy, the Hilight is never going to be the choice for truly light and fast trips, unless they involve multiple nights camped on deep snow. Being able to stomp a platform, then use your poles to anchor one side and your skis the other makes this type of tent the clear choice for deep snow camping and ski mountaineering. I would like the corner stake loops to be just a hair bigger. The 104mm wide tails of my spring skis just barely do not fit, though adding cord loops is no big deal.

The accessorizing of the Hilight is something I appreciated every time I used it this past year. As mentioned in the initial post, the stakes are excellent. It is nice to not have to replace, or augment, the stock stakes of a new $400 tent. The guyline is also high quality, and reflective, something I appreciated deeply on the second night of the elk hunt, when darkness and a final futile stalk caught me 3 miles from my tent on a very dark night. I had pitched it atop a knoll precisely to manage this eventuality, but with no moon each knob and ridge becomes like the others, and in my very tired state I was really psyched when my headlamp picked up glowing cord across the coulee, especially as my stash of food and water was inside. In gnarly conditions one could use more cord, but one might well go years with the stock amount being entirely adequate.

There are a lot of lighter, in some cases drastically lighter, double wall tents newly on the market which pencil out as functionally very close to the Hilight. For a lot of users those options, with less robust fabrics, fussier pitches, and worse weather resistance, are probably a better option. I just like the Hilight, added weight be damned, because it is both (surprisingly) versatile, and because it has every appearance of lasting a decade or more. Shelter options are interesting, but I don’t find them especially sexy, and having the Hilight available to tick every non-family tent box I require is both a practical and aesthetic virtue.

The next year

I did not much miss travel this past year.  Or, to be more precise, I was more than content with staying in Montana (two trips excepted), and ran out of both energy and creativity before I ran out of options.  As I think about 2021, my eye keeps coming back to the home state, and the many places I would still like to go, and the ways I might fit those trips into the next 12 months.  My resolution from the beginning of the pandemic has only grown stronger, after a summer of a few intensely memorable trips within a couple hundred miles of home.

So why not do more of those?

There is a mountain range near to town, which tends to hide in plain sight, and has some truly exceptional canyons and trails that very few human eyes ever see.  I’ve done a few trips there, each one having been exceptional, and while I’ve yet to settle on the exact route, something a little more extensive in early summer will be a priority.  I’ve made a reservation to spur me along towards that end.  I’ll share impressions when it happens, but never details, there being enough knows out in the world as is.

There are also a lot of rivers in Montana, with many hiding in plain sight once they put the mountains below the horizon.  Again I have no definitive plans, but with the smaller child getting big enough that backpacking will become ever more difficult, the boating phase of family development should be in full force this year.  We bought a canoe this past year, and have another packraft on the way in a few weeks, so we should use them a bunch.  On that note, a full Escalante float really ought to happen this year.

And on the subject of packrafting, there are still two major creeks in Glacier I have yet to float.  And I’m pretty certain that both of them will be very worthwhile.  Restrictions in the park this past year took both off the table, so there is a special urgency and poignancy to being able to get into those pieces of backcountry, one of whom is amongst the handful of named drainages in the park into which I have never set foot.  And on the subject of packrafting, a year with minimal socialization has me contemplating the privilege of being around likeminded folks.  Spending the summer solstice in the center of the universe with the relevant folks and as much beer as we dare to carry is an idea that won’t quite leave my head.

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I am also hopeful of, finally, having some more packs go out the door.  Tamarisk 0.2, above, is headed out the door tomorrow.  While I did not intend to put a full year of testing into version 0.1, having the confidence that it both works so well across applications and that the individual components hold up so well is an unexpected luxury.  Mark 0.2 is a wee bit bigger (as requested) than 0.1, and than the production model will be.  It scales nicely, looks good, and carries (with the final alterations to the hipbelt) even better.

On that commercial note, I should mention that stock of gold packraft straps has grown quite thin after the holiday surge. 3 pairs, to be exact. Anyone who has been wedded to that color but not moved to act ought to do so now. Anyone with thoughts about what color should appear next, to compliment the rainbow (which will be stocked perpetually), do comment.

Progression 2020

If 2020 was a merciless device which distilled everything already there, into a cold cutting clear hypnotic as overnight ice on an alpine lake, what I learned in the past 12 months was that I did not lack for time. I lack for energy, and for the headspace to use what time I have as well as I would like. This has only accelerated in the last 5 years, as life has filled up with responsibility. Freedom without boundary flows in all directions and disappears as a quick rain in the desert. Build choice into a frame, four lines of duty, obligation, scarcity, and immanence, and coherence comes fast, making freedom comprehensible.

18 months ago I had enduring questions about what my place in adventure would be, given the shortcomings limited days in the field would inevitably bring. When backpacking big miles, there is no substitute for time on feet, and out in wild, technical terrain presence of mind equals safety. How much would my wild mind dull, as years pass and big trips became ever less frequent? A few traverses that summer, and especially the Isle Royale trip that fall, did much to put my fears to ground. In the woods my purpose was clearer and more accessible, moment to moment, than ever before, and any slowness desk hours had put into my legs were more than compensated by confidence and better planning.

I flowed through the swamps and ridges of Isle Royale, and when mid-May opened this year, the virus loomed a little less unknown, and Will invited me on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the timing seemed ideal. It was a difficult trip, the most sustained difficult whitewater I’d ever paddled on that blurringly full first day, but the space between the challenges and what I was able to welcome had never been thinner. The stillness which lingered has lasted to this day, and ran through what was the most technically challenging and accomplished season of paddling I’ve had yet.

The process aspects of pursuits and skills have in the past been circumstantial. I’ve learned to ski and to paddle whitewater because wanted to go places and be on journeys that required these tools and techniques. This past summer of packrafting was the coalescing point for a new mindset built not just around the process of any given trip, whose better embrace is another story, but on the immediacy of the skills in question. This spring, big lonely storms amidst the height of lockdown had me avoiding objective hazard, and provided ideal conditions for getting better at flowing one turn into another on powder through the trees. This summer I read lines and placed my paddle better than ever, because that had become the first goal, and in many cases because I was paddling close enough to my limit that anything less led to some bruising swims. And this fall, with both kids obsessed with biking, I’ve looked forward to hours at the bike park, just trying to hit a berm better.

All of which sounds, when I writer it in retrospect, rather trite and obvious. Was I really so preoccupied with so much other stuff, so much external stuff, so many goals, for so long?

The answer has to simply be yes, and the trip which pushed me firmly over the line to admitting this, out loud to myself was the prairie elk hunt this September. It was on a scenically detailed bit of ground, but with the elk so legion exploration had nothing to do with getting from A to B, and everything with where along that path a bull was likely to be bedded. On the one hand that hunt was a dismal process failure, insofar as my shooting skills let me down on at least several occasions that I’ll forever regard as should-have-been-certains. On the other it was a raging success, in that opportunities were rife and I failed so close to a dead elk so many times, and was thus bludgeoned over the head with all the things I was as a hunter doing properly.

My other goals for hunting in 2020 were to kill some grouse, and put some time into being selective about a big mule deer in the local mountains. I did kill some grouse, which were tasty, and had a lot of fun days within an hour of home hiking around our northerly desert-forests looking for and at mule deer. My explicit goal, for the first time, concerned antler size, because in each year past for I can’t recall how many running I have seen one particularly large antlered and magical buck after I had filled my tag. From the perspective of inches I never saw that deer, and the one I shot was a disappointment. From the perspective of experience the kill, butchering, and walk out were everything exactly as I like about hunting, and this and the elk hunt put together clarified the blend of practice and location which makes hunting distinct from every other form of knowing in the outdoors.

It all, in short, gives me a lot of hope and interest for what might happen this year.