Framed (North Fork pack update)

Over the six months since I posted it my North Fork pack video has been quietly creeping along, steadily accumulating views, and quickly becoming my most viewed video that hasn’t been posted on Jill’s blog.

It’s been on day and overnight trips aplenty this winter: skiing, snowshoeing, packrafting and combinations.  It carries very well.  But all of those trips have been with fairly light loads.  Winter insulation and even packrafting gear is not especially dense, and even in winter you rarely have to carry much water around here.  That changed this past weekend; I had a moderate amount of insulation, almost all our food, snowshoes, and 5+ liters of water.  The heavy, dense, and smaller load challenged my normal carry system, where I fold my ridgerest against the back panel and place everything else in after, dense and heavy stuff in the middle.  Part of the problem was that I didn’t bother to reattach the bottom compression strap, which let the pack get too fat, but the main issue was inadequate structure allowing the torso length to collapse too much.  Shorter torso length equals more weight forced on the shoulders, which typically is not so comfortable.  I found it lacking.

Research has shown that only a minimal level of torso length collapse is acceptable, and that the amount of structure in a pack to fight against collapse needs to be proportional to the weight carried.  I’d add, based on experience, that ideally structure and weight would be closely matched.  Excessive structure for the weight results in a pack which is just as uncomfortable as the inverse, merely for different reasons.

With that in mind, before our Craters trip was over I set about designing modular improvements to the North Fork pack which would potentially allow me to carry some fairly heavy loads.  After all, its straps and belt are quite substantial.

I bought a 3mm by 30mm aluminum stay at the hardware store, cut it to length, rounded the edges, and sewed quadruple layer ballistics nylon pockets for each end.  I laminated those pockets to the blue foam, inserted the stay, then laminated the whole thing together with contact cement (nasty stuff).

I then sewed this double-Y strap into the interior of the pack.  While this is made to the dimensions of the framed pad (11″ by 23″), I can also use it to immobilize lesser foam pads when I need less pack structure, or potentially not use it at all (the black webbing is removable).  Basement tests with a good load suggest this will work well, but field testing is required to know for sure.

As can be obliquely seen in the video, I started with cinch straps connecting the dark gray side patch with the hip belt.  Unfortunately, poor design visualization resulted in the strap sitting in the hip belt cut out, which mitigated effectiveness and rubbed my hip bone.  It also wasn’t the secure yet dynamic design I’ve come to prefer.  So I fixed it.

Work arounds of this type, when the pack is already made, are quiet difficult.  If for no other reason than that fitting the desired area into the sewing machine is rarely easy, or especially doable with only two hands.  I’m glad I found a non-compromise way to do this that was at all feasible.

In short, we’ll see how these new designs work out.

In terms of the original design, I’m very pleased with how it has worked out.  The suspension components are excellent, the fabric continues to fulfill its promise (though it isn’t massively abrasion resistant, I have a few interior cuts from forcing packraft paddle shafts into an already tightly loaded pack), and the back and side pocket system has proved superlatively useful.

In short, I’m quite pleased with myself.  Using gear you designed and made is rewarding.

Backpacking on the Moon

Amazing, amazing trip this weekend.  Since we first visited back in 2005 M and I have wanted to return and explore Craters of the Moon National Monument in greater depth.  To say that its vast lava flows and extinct cinder craters are a unique landscape to travel in is quite the understatement.  The obvious obstacles are twofold: the terrain is rough and travel is slow so you’ll need to spend the night, and there are few or no reliable water sources where you want them to be.  The obvious solution is to go in the spring, when snow lingers and provides a vast in situ reservoir.

We were obliged to make our trip a bit earlier than would have been optimal (as can be seen by the snowshoes we had to bring along).  Spring weekends are starting to fill up.  In my mind it was absolutely worth it, though the nasty sage fields, isothermal snowfields, and cumulative slog factor had us pushing hard on Saturday, at 12 hours camp to car.

In general, words fail.  I thought we’d be able to get a good cross section of the monuments zeitgeist in a strong weekend; instead we’re planning what to do when we go back next.

If you do go, and you really ought to, try for mid-late spring so you won’t need poles or snowshoes.  Bring a wind stable shelter, but no stakes, as they don’t hold in the cinder-dirt at all, and perversely most of the volcanic rocks are super light for their size (we tied guy lines to the center of poles and snowshoes and piled on lots of rocks).  Plenty of fuel for snow melting, but as light as load as you can manage to make the going as easy as possible.  Light shoes with tacky rubber and strong legs are most vital of all.  Second most vital is some sort of wind layer.   Third most important, if you plan to seek out some of the various caves and bridges marked on the topo, is a GPS.  We’ve uncovered various accounts of magnetic rocks messing with compasses out there, and while I can’t confirm that happened to us, we did spend a lot of time futzing with bearings off buttes which never seemd to quite work out properly.  If you’re just out to walk and see that piece of the world, the various cones and buttes provide dead-easy landmarks, unless you get fogged in.  I went for a very cool day hike in dense and icy November fog back six years ago, and having that roll in when you were far out on the lava with a wonky compass bearing is alarming.

In any case, a legendary weekend, in the making.


A virtual cookie to whomever knows what this is.

An actual truckload of virtual cookies to whomever guesses why it’s set up in my backyard right now.

Testing (testing)

My mission to ski the Nyack-Coal loop failed, but most everything else was a success.  In short, bad snow and improperly broken-in boot liners conspired to make for a slow pace and painful feet, so I turned around.  I still got to see Glacier, covered in snow but fast melting out, which can never been done often enough.

One commentator on a post of Jill’s the other week elicited this response from the author herself:  “Only difference between me and most people who everything always seems to go right for, is that I actually own up to my mistakes. And I really do make an effort not to make them again.”  And in that spirit I own mine: even well baked liners with toe caps need some shorter outing to settle in properly.

That said, the TLT 1000s did well at the job for which they were built.  The snow on Saturday was soft and punchy, and overnight it froze up, hard.  I crashed twice on the ice in the 100 yards going from my camp to where I hung my food today.  I needed every bit of the control plastic soled boots provide.  The intuitions liners rubbed my ankles badly on a test mission last Wednesday, so I substituted (and cut down) these Raleigh liners.  With a few tweaks and some breaking in these boots will be a winner.  That they’re waterproof to 6″ is a nice feature in spring.

I broke my poor, decade old BD trekking poles for the third time today.  I fell backwards and fully weighted a pole stuck 2 feet in the snow, it didn’t have a chance.  That is a lower of the two flicklocks on each pole.  Not sure any pole could’ve survived the fall, and at least I could pry the broken piece out and make the pole workable.

The bears are awake, and about.  During one fall today the bear spray, which I secure to the side of my pack with a bungee, fell off.  I didn’t notice for quite a while.  Lesson: secure your bear spray more effectively.

I’ve owned my Bushbuddy stove for almost two months, and hadn’t used it until yesterday.  I wanted it for exactly this situation, when 5 feet of snow on the ground make a proper fire impractical.  Bonus is how quickly and easily the bushie fires up with only modest attention paid to tindering, and how much juice you get from a very small amount of wood.  All that, and it is a work of spot welding art.  Very cool.

The MLD simple poncho-tarp in tarp mode.  Not much to say here, it works just fine, and I like the color.

A method for carrying skis on the raft: lash skis and poles to back of pack, then lash pack sideways on raft with skis forward.  Stable, weight balanced, not good for running tight gaps.  I was able to float the last 1/2 mile of Nyack on the way out, with plenty of water.  The 5 miles down from the lower camp will probably be in good boating shape very soon, and promise to make for a very good, mellow float.  The upper reaches look spicier.

Mount Stimpson in postcard mode.  There be dragons.

Gear combos not often seen.  Having the packraft to access across the Middle Fork open many options.  Oddly, I followed days-old ski tracks the whole way, someone had been out using a patrol cabin (for science, I assume?).  Even without those tracks following the trail was dead easy.  There are even some bare patches, and the recent sun made several partially-collapsed creek crossings rather interesting.

The North Fork pack did it’s job very well.  Great carrying pack for big loads.

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was getting out (and being picked up by wonderful shuttle driver M) early enough to have brunch and beers at the Belton Chalet.  They do not fuck around with their corn beef and hash with poached eggs, toast and gravy.

I even got a good workout out of the trip.  Lunging to save when your fishscales cut loose on hidden ice is a burly core exercise.

3 Photos of 2 packs

Packing for a trip this weekend, and M thought is amusing to see the cavernous North Fork at full extension.

Not so huge when cinched down, but huge for an overnight.  Packraft, ski stuff, synthetic insulation.  The plan: Nyack Creek and Coal Creek in Glacier.  Spot link. Should be fun.

Some new gear arrived this afternoon.  It won’t fit a packraft inside, but may well be the shiz for ultralight and fast hikes come summer.

Initial impression: slick.  Very slick.

Western Montana: A seasonal guide for outdoor recreation

The seasons dictate what we do outside and how we do it.  Outdoor recreation is at it’s best when the intersection of equipment, terrain and weather come together to provide an experience which is aesthetically interesting and spiritually satisfying.  Hauling a bike through unrideable powder or peanut butter mud does neither, nor does skiing micro-patches of summer snow or  your bases on rocks and stumps.  There are, in short, proper seasons for proper activities, and it’s a good idea to embrace them, rather than looking forward to the next, longer for thing that won’t actually come into shape for a month or more.  (Human though that urge is.)

On the other hand, there is a certain pleasure to be had in defying conventional wisdom, or at the very least in finding its ground truth for yourself.  All advice is after all a mere guide for being there yourself.  With that in mind, I present my own opinions and suggestions about what activities are best suited for the 12 months of the year, if you happen in be west of the Continental Divide in Montana.


Powder skiing.   Ski touring. 


Powder skiing.  Ski touring.  Low altitude skiing.


BC skiing (low altitude pack beginning to dissipate).   Bring out the bike, to ride the road.  Streams start to thaw and come up.


Skiing runs the gamut from corn to pow, stable to hazardous.  Good, cold boating and fishing.  First dry trails, but the biking won’t be good for a while yet.


Sleeper powder days, t-shirt skiing.  Dry trails below 5-k (maybe).  Rivers huge by months end.


Flowers, bugs, high altitude skiing.   Great boating, hiking, and biking.  Enjoy life without crowds if you’re willing to posthole.


Many more bugs and flowers, mountains officially “open.”  Tail end of runoff means small streams clear and floatable.  Big hikes and rides in the mountains.  Hand up the skis, the action is elsewhere.


High season.  Climb the mountains without snow.  Dodge crowds.  Fish high lakes, ride at altitude.


First snow up high, gorgeous weather at other times.  Crystalline hiking, cycling, and fishing.  Good, slow boating.


Winter comes to the mountains, with varied ferocity.  Bring the snowshoes and enjoy sans humans (except hunters).  The best low country mountain biking.  Fantastic fishing on warm afternoons.  Skiing will not be as good as you think, so don’t yet bother.


Sure to have more of all the other seasons than any single month.  In a good year the skiing will be great by months ends, in a bad year it will be -15 on Thanksgiving.  The country usually closes out, though that could be delayed until early December.


Cold, dark, winter.  Some of the best snow of the year, if/when it comes.

In short, Montana is coming up upon the season of all possibilities, and I am excited for it.

2011: Spring and Summer plans

Lac Superieur.

Now that a plane ticket has been purchased, I can present my racing/hard trips plan through the end of summer.

April 2: Whitefish Pole-Pedal-Paddle

-I plan to ride to the start with skis and packraft, be DFL at the end of the boating leg, ride up to Big Mountain with all my gear, lock to bike, skin the mountain with the boat, ski down, drink a beer, and ride home.

April 23: Grizzlyman Adventure race

-I’m hoping to not slow Bill down too much, and to try as hard as possible to win what is sure to be a competitive category.  Looking forward to another extremely well-run race, and to whatever Josh has up his sleeve to make it long and hard.

mid-May: Bob Marshall traverse

-I hope to do skiing, packrafting, and hiking on this trip, making the timing somewhat dependent on the weather.  Yet I need to get off the fence and arrange the time off work.  The linked-to route is my best present idea.  I’d be aiming for 4 days.

mid-June: The North Fork 100+

-I want to do a variation of the super-fun trip I did last July, but with the variation of going down the Kintla valley and traversing Mounts Cleveland and Kintla along the way.

June 25: Old Gabe 50k

-This race is supposed to be fun, Danni is doing it, and it is run by the same awesome folks that put on the Devils Backbone 50 miler.

July 17: Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

-The year’s A race.  I plan to do the “normal” route shown in Roman’s video, and to do as much as I safely can to contend for the win.

late-August: Wonderland Trail circumnavigation

-In one push, or close to it.  I’ve wanted to do it for years, and this and the Classic should sort out my resume so I can enter the Hardrock lottery this winter.  Not to say I’m looking to beat it, but the unsupported record is soft.  Hopefully Danni will bail on Cascade Crest and do this with me instead.


Unfortunately, due to time off work and $$, southern Utah will be pushed til autumn.  There are numerous other goals (mostly skiing) that will get folded into all this.  Looking at it, I’ll need to take advantage of weekends while I can.

The trajectory of these goals is not an accident.  The next two months of shorter stuff is put in place to build speed (a relative concept here) before the next two months of building endurance at that speed.  Then I just have to go to Alaska and destroy myself.

The 5 reasons to buy gear

Allow me to begin here at the end: gear should be a means to an end. And not just any end, but a good end. Ryan Jordan has recently written a superlative post on just this point, building on his interpretation of what a good end should be.  I agree with him, I’ve written here on several occasions that insofar as humans are basically social critters, outdoor adventures ought to be used to enhance our relations with others (perhaps most directly through enhancing the vessel, our selves).

Gear is good because it lets you go on trips and see Pitcher Plants in bogs.  Isle Royale 2010.

In practice the distinctions are much finer, and in the gear store principles are much harder to put into practice.  So then, let us discuss a few reason why you might buy some gear, and in particular examine the problematic distinctions between these motives.

1: Replacing the broken

Simple and straightforward; an existing piece of gear breaks and/or wears out, so you replace it.  Problem is that modern gear tends to be well put together, and when well selected does not break easily or wear out fast.  The exception is semi-disposable items like bike chains and ski wax, which unless you’re a serious speed-weenie are purchases requiring neither excitement nor nuance.  Thus, many purchases made under the guise of this category are probably more accurate handled by the second:

2: Upgraditis

Newer = better, yes?!  Well.  Defining better isn’t an exact art, or even an especially possible one, so it’s safe to say that novelty (not necessarily in a pejorative sense) is at the core here at least as often as functionality.  The waters here are muddied in turn when upgrading co-mingels with our next category..

3: New stuff for new pursuits

Want to take up packrafting?  Gotta get a packraft, no way around it.  (Joy!)  Better get a (good?) paddle, PFD, helmet, throw bag, drysuit, wetsuits, etc, etc while we’re at it.  Oh the bankers do love people taking up new pursuits, seldom is more money spent on gear in so short a time and with less compunction.  Of course, outside observers find it hard to see that another pair of skis, or a bike with a cumulative 3″ more travel and 1.5 degree difference in geometry, constitute anything new.  See #2.

4: Aesthetic appreciation

Some things are just cool.   I think this is a fairly noble end, provided that said items make it out on a regular basis, to have their appearance further enhanced with scratches, tears, solar fading, and soot.  Something which is highly aesthetic, tough, and (theoretically) useful goes a long way towards excusing, at least in my mind, purchases and acquisitions which may not be strictly utilitarian.

5: Experience by proxy

Gear you wish you had the impetus/courage/time/inclination to take out, but instead sits unused.  In my opinion, far and away that most sinister item on this list, though it/they can provide a catalyst for problem solving.  All that winter gear gathering dust with the tags still on?  Better go snow camping, or just let that idea go and become content with sitting around a fire in the lodge with a beer.  You’ll buy a lot of them with all those ebay proceeds.


There have been few days in the past decade when I haven’t had a certain gear question to turn over in my mind.  Like it or not, the curse of the thinking practitioner seems to be a near constant meditation on some combination of #2 and #3, with some #1 and occasional run ins with #4 as well.  #5 I’ve been lucky enough to avoid for the most part, though my un-sold off climbing gear might be more of #5 and less of financial prudence than I prefer to pretend.

For most of this winter it has been skis, more specifically, what ski and binding combo will I purchase for next winter?  This has been a good and healthy question.  The time frame and scope of the purchase are closely defined, and the contemplation is reinforced by weekly feedback sessions which ideally will maximize the utility and longevity of the hypothetical items in question.  (The crash yesterday gave a serious bump to releasable bindings, weight be damned.)

Growing up as a post-grad school adult has been a very good influence on this process of gear purchase contemplation.  I have student loans to pay down, a process which does not promise to go away soon, as well as a modest income which does not promise to increase substantially in the near future.  My budget for gear purchases is thus both small and well-defined.  It is as much as I need, but not enough for me to get greedy.  Because one important piece of my life with gear, something which has become increasingly clear as I’ve become older and a bit more self-aware, is the paradoxically coexisting appreciation and loathing I have for my gear.  I have a refined appreciation for what gear can do for me, bred in no small part from my penchant for doing more with less (you cannot appreciate a suspension fork until you’ve spent a year riding actual rough terrain without one).  In the same instance and via the same process, I know exactly how much easier technology can make things, and I’m not always ok with that.

Experience is paramount, as Jill has pointed out with her usual eloquence, and given the current state of our lives quality experience (read: difficult) must be manufactured.  One way to create a sufficient state of challenge is to go out in bad conditions, easy to do if you live here in Montana.  Another way is to add 5 miles (if backpacking) or 30 miles (if mtn biking) beyond your comfort/experience zone.  And yet another way is to monkey with the gear.  Take just enough clothing.  Bring only a large scale map.  Don’t do exhaustive internet research.  Just don’t let gear get in the way, because fun, insofar as it makes the lives of those around us better, is very serious business.

Exit questions:

-What categories did I overlook?

-What is the proper place of gear in your life?

Emm Ell Dee!!

Silnylon Simple Poncho. Stealth olive brown.  Large.


I’ll probably use it more as a tarp than as a poncho, but an Epic shell and poncho approach to rain gear will be worth trying, too.  One more awesome thing, only the hood needs to be seam sealed, as there are no other seams!