Vicarious enjoyment

A few nice things to entertain and inspire. I need them; post-trip blues, mediocre weather, and a slow day at work aren’t making we want to get out of my pajamas very fast.

I have no desire to ever directly experience anything in that particular universe, but it’s nice to know that it’s out there.

Roman’s superlative guest post, on the other hand, is exactly my style. Thinking about the classic this summer, now that makes me want to get moving this AM.

Big Mountain – Apgar traverse

Friday evening I was tired.  On weeks like this past my work does not afford me much mental rest, and I despite plans to the contrary I did not have the wherewithall to pack and get out on the trail that evening.  The plan had been for me to get out in time for the roller derby bout Saturday evening, and then go do an adventure with M on Saturday.  There were many good options for a day trip, but I suspected I’d need an overnight to be satisfied.  Gear to test, silence to experience, so forth.

Eventually a plan was hatched, ice cream was consumed, books were read, my pack was packed, and I went to sleep.  M dropped me off at the base area of Big Mountain around 900, and I walked, snowshoed, postholed, and packrafted my way in Apgar in just less than 24 hours.

It was a good idea.  Both days this weekend were sunny and warm, hot by our current standards, with winds that (apparently) downed trees and telephone poles throughout western Montana, almost blew me off my feet on the summit of Big Mountain, and when they came upstream made paddling the North Fork Saturday evening a lot harder than it already was.

We’ve had a windy year generally, as evidenced by some formidable and durable cornices on this anonymous ridge overlooking Big Creek.  Those are not small trees.

Aside from the wind and excellent views, snowshoeing off the mountain and down into the lower, melted and thus civilized reaches of Big Creek was non-eventful.  I did need to drop off my fireroad and bushwack down across the creek on one occasion, which led me through the unpleasant zones of ever more rotten snow.  In the video you can see one of the fun sink-to-the-waist moments when I would hit a hollow patch.

The floatability of Big Creek had been a large question in my mind.  The volume (from driving past the mouth on Wednesday) and gradient were good, but given that the whole lower drainage had burned within the last decade I was concerned that wood would render things slow, dangerous, terrifying, or all of the above.  I had wet and cold feet when I hit dry dirt just before Hallowat Creek, so I walked a further half mile to get warm and scope the creek.  It looked good, so I bushwacked through the deadfall (the wind blew a tree over ~50 feet from me, the first of three that would fall close by that day), suited up, and put in.  The water was fast and pushy, affording no downtime and little time not maneuvering to avoid holes, logs, or to setup for ideal positioning around the next bend.  The dilemma in such creeks is that with few eddies and willow-lined banks, getting early notice of log jams is crucial.  You want to be on the outside of a bend to get first look, but in the case of partial jams that always sit on the outside right after a bend, a rapid ferry either to avoid the wood or eddy out and portage is the order of the day.

I was having fun and making excellent time in the water, but soon the portages became more numerous and their placement on the creek less generous with its room for error.  On the last one (shown in the vid) a particularly fast and narrow bend dumped me right above two nasty logs with no eddies in sight.  A Harlequin duck pair was camped on an almost totally submerged gravel bar, are were not pleased as I came screaming in to land, ripping the deck early and jumping out into knee deep water, trying to hold on to the boat, paddle, and stay upright.  I shouldered the boat, got out, and decided that Big Creek and I were done.  A larger supply of patience and nerves could have made the float work, but I’m a chicken and control freak and just wasn’t having fun any more.

Seven more miles on foot down the dirt road was good classic training.

I couldn’t walk away from my fear completely, the North Fork of the Flathead really needed to be floated to stay on schedule, and was running huge and unleashed at 12,000 cfs (last weekend it was between 3,000 and 4!).  I made sure to attach the pack to the boat, and my PFD to me, especially well before putting in.

For such a huge level, my progress downstream was not screamingly fast.  Much of this was due to the maddening, fierce upstream gusts, which caught whichever light, high side of my boat/pack was available and tried to spin me around.  Sinking a paddle blade to stay facing downstream often resulted in an annoying auto-ferry to one side or the other.  Compounding this, my Aquabound comes stock with one mild feather setting, which means the blade in the air caught massive resistance and made paddling forward strenuous enough that my elbows ached by the time I took out at the confluence with the Middle Fork.  (I’m drilling a new hole this evening to fix that issue.)

Sunday AM camp breaking yardsale.

The Flathead at such a level was truly impressive.  At all other times quite demure, this spring day the river put me in my rightly small space, in my very small-seeming boat.  Channeling around a gravel bar resulted in a formidable back-boil that sat noticeably above the level of the main channel, and when such streams reunited the roiling eddy lines seethed, alternately flattening into nothing and twisting into whirlpools with no discernible predictability.  I found it interesting, but not very relaxing (hence the almost total lack of from the boat footage).

Above one particularly legit-looking riffle I pulled off to empty the boat, re-temper, and shake some blood back into my limbs.  I thought about scouting, but that seemed silly on the North Fork.  Putting back in, I realized that this riffle was a legit rapid.  Nervous, and so concentrated on ferrying left but not too left to thread the needles between two holes (for real, holes!) I exhaled to enjoy my positioning just in time to look ahead and see a horizon line rapidly approaching.  Oops.  That was dumb.  Instinct got me off the three foot ledge drop with no problems (and thanking the packrafting ability to skim over recirculations), but when I eddied out and looked back upstream (first shot after the Big Creek and North Fork confluence in the vid) I was pissed.  My goal for the stretch had been to hit my lines, and choose the easiest and mellowest lines through all the whitewater.  I had hit my line, but chosen it badly.

As I mentioned, I’m a control freak, and the difficulty with which one imposes control on a river is disconcerting.  Two more legit rapids followed closely, and I portaged each to make a point to myself.  The first looked easy, but the last one had some big holes and standing waves, features I would not want to paddle a packraft into, even with a drysuit and small army of safety boaters to fish me out.  Fortunately for me ease with life, the river relented a bit, and I made it down to the confluence with some ferrying around big standing waves, a mandatory run through some truly weird eddylines/boils/whirlpools, and an exchange of gazes with a moose eating willows at rivers edge 30 feet away.  Three hours after I put in I took out, cold, damp, and a bit annoyed with myself, but happy.  I got moving to shake the cold, found a gorgeous camp, cooked dinner as darkness came, and fell asleep quickly.

McDonald Creek.

The sun got me up early.  I made tea and enjoyed the view, and once moving was soon on familiar territory.  I texted M, who was to meet me at Apgar, that I was ahead of schedule, and even with plenty of photo-futzing en route was sure to beat her.  Unfortunate, as I was hungry, having on purpose brought only the bare minimum of food.

The Middle Fork was running even higher than the North Fork.  The circle bridge, which I had floated under (with lots of room to spare) this past Monday, was up to within a foot of the bridge supports.  The parking area which had been dry on Wednesday afternoon was under a foot of water.  The world, which had been sitting with perfect patience through most of March and all of April, had come rushing to life with a vociferous joy sufficiently beyond the civilized human palette that it’s a bit unsettling to witness.  A reminder that the world, in the course of its moods, will occasionally sweep away our roads, homes, and orderliness with no malice or intention.

It was then quite proper that I felt small.

McDonald Creek.

Lake McDonald was quiet and windy, with businesses still closed for the season and isolated groups of tourists hunched against the chill edge taking pictures.  I used the facilities and got some water, staring into the mirror in the same bathroom where, back in September, I changed into nice clothes before driving to the interview that got me the job I’ll go to later this morning.  The most mundane places can be sentimental given context.

M arrived with hot coffee and food, and the news that she had forgotten her snowshoes, making our planned ascent to the Mount Brown lookout a matter for next weekend.  Perhaps a good thing, as I was feeling a bit hollow.

Instead, we drove up to the Polebridge Mercantile, chatted with the owners (Stuart, one half of the couple, and I share a past as employees of Missoulas homeless shelter) and ate baked goods in the yard.  We then walked up the still-closed to vehicles road to Bowman Lake flower hunting and enjoying another blue day.

Bowman Lake, mid-May, with ice.

By the time our 12 mile out and back was done I had over 40 miles on the feet in two days, and was ready to be home on the coach with food and beer.  M was nice enough to drive.

What I’m calling recovery tacos; protein maximized.  Vegetarian refried beans spread on tortillas and warmed not quite to the point of lightly toasted in the oven, steak, eggs, avocado, salsa, and potatoes.

Now it’s Monday, and raining outside, and even in the face of fatigue and the afterglow I don’t want to go to work.  After sleeping more, I’d rather be back out there.

“Be Brave, Be Strong” book review

Jill Homer, whom I am blessed to call a friend, has written a new book about her journey up to and race of the 2009 Tour Divide.  In reflecting on the 300+ page book, which I read in one sitting on Monday night, I can think of no better words to summarize it than those in the title itself: it is a very brave, very strong book indeed.

In several ways it is a simpler work than her previous book “Ghost Trails.”  The narrative arc is a straightforward chronological account of five months in 2009, beginning with Jill’s frostbite induced DNF from the Alaska Ultrasport race and ending with her arrival at the Mexican border upon completion of the Tour Divide.  The story is compact, easy to follow, and in many ways, simple.  Jill struggles with failure at the Ultrasport (failure of judgment, not of ability), the choice of leaving her job as a newspaper editor and home of Juneau, and with her longtime boyfriend breaking off their relationship of eight years.  This frequently gut-tangling story is the first part of the book.  The second is the tale of Jill journeying to Utah to visit her childhood home, train, and to rebuild enough mental fortitude to even start the Tour Divide.

I looked into his eyes; they reflected a sort of hollow exhaustion. I
wanted to tell Geoff that I didn’t know who he was. I wanted to scream that
I couldn’t be sure even he really knew who he was. But before the words
could leave my lips, I realized with a calming tremor that his explanation did
have rings of truth. Geoff and I lived in the same house in Juneau, but we
went to our separate jobs and did our separate runs and bike rides and hung
out with our different friends and co-workers. For so long, too long, we had
floated on memories and routine. There was little else to salvage. Geoff and
I hadn’t been close in a long time. But people don’t just give up eight years
like that, not like that, with hollow words in rooms lit like prison cells. I tried
to form the words to tell him that people don’t just throw away a decade of
investment in a relationship on fleeting whims. But I was again silenced by
cold realization — people do that all the time.
“So,” Geoff ’s voice cracked. “Will you still go to Utah with me?”  (p. 44)

It’s worth stopping and remembering that when she took the start in June Jill had been on crutches three months before, and while in endurance racing the mental dimension is the most important, a certain physical level is required, if for no other reason than to hold up to hours and days of effort without injury.  Jill showing up at all under extraordinarily less than ideal circumstances is the crux of the narrative, and readers may well think what I did as a race spectator back in 2009; that given her track record of tenacity once Jill began riding south a finish was fait accompli.

Thankfully for a reader it was not quite that simple, and we are treated to an intimate account of all the thrilling ups and downs of an athletic and personal feat of such magnitude.  There’s a generic pleasure here of such effective vicarious living, especially when so many of the poignant moments involve unspeakable misery.  There is also the very specific pleasure of Jill, the fearless writer, at the height of her raciocinative powers.

Eventually, my mouth became so dry that I could not swallow, so I
reached for my water valve and took large, delicious gulps, savoring the water
even more than I had the food. As I drank, I moved around my makeshift
campsite, picking up the miscellaneous objects that had been strewn like an
unkempt yard sale around my bicycle. During my apathetic delirium the night
before, I had managed to disgorge most of the contents of my bicycle bags
all over the ground, and then left them out all night at the mercy of animals
and rain. Luckily, nothing seemed to be missing, and after about fifteen
anxious minutes, I managed to put the whole damp mess back in order. With
a couple thousand calories in my belly, I felt a blast of exuberance about my
miraculous turnaround. In reality, my skull still throbbed beneath a pounding
headache and I was still deeply dehydrated, but I felt like I had ricocheted off
my own deathbed.  (p. 296)

The narrative of personal struggle leading to and then quickly beyond personal triumph is likely the first literary trope to exist in prehistory, and “Be Brave, Be Strong” falls right on a line that runs through Homer to Shackleton and beyond.  It’s a tale exceedingly well told, and yet there is more to it than just that.  When I reviewed “Ghost Trails” several years ago I wrote

The tradition in male adventure literature (which is still a redundant term) is to gloss over the mishap and moments of panic, briefly describe the solution, and move on to other things, thus endorsing the stiff-upper-lip and tacitly reinforcing one’s own mental toughness.  Jill seems to do the opposite, the terror of the Kuskokwim River waterfall and the Farewell Burn singe a reader’s memory. 

I think this has become even more true with “Be Brave, Be Strong.”  Not only does the reader get an emotional rich and honest account of the intra-race struggles, we get a marvelously sweeping and enveloping emotional contextualization of those struggles.  I do not think that readers who have not had the pleasure of knowing Jill personally will be any less inclined than me to, when reading of her failing freewheel in the Great Divide Basin, jump through the screen and give her a push and yell down the road when the shattered ratchet mechanism finally engages.

“Be Brave, Be Strong” is a book both simple and enormously complex, a story both nuanced and quick-reading, and an adventure narrative of both personal and cultural significance.  As a sequel to “Ghost Trails” it is both a spellbinding continuation of Jill’s development as a cyclist and as a person, as well as a major step forward in the integrity of her craft.  Most of all, it elevates the joy of suffering on a bike to high intrapersonal art.  Be warned, if you have any inclination towards long searching bike rides that idea will have been sunk much deeper by the time you finish this book.

Thank you Jill, for letting us so bravely inside your life for a few moments.  More than ever we now know that it is as we suspected, a challenging and thrilling place.

Talon 11 v. Talon 22 v. Hornet 24 (v. my toes)

I do love packs!  Always have.  I like feet too.

Like the photo sez (L to R): Talon 11 (circa ’09), Hornet 24 (circa ’11), Talon 22 (circa ’07).  Feet circa ’81-present, a work in progress (of ugliness, mostly).

I got the 22 in early ’08, as that was what all the cool kids had.  It has done very well.  In the spring of 2009 I gave in to pack lust and got the 11, even though I strictly didn’t need it.  It’s proven faithful for day adventures, and generally a more frequently used size than the 22, though not big enough for overnights on foot or more gear intensive adventures (winter).

The 24 is brand new, on test for BPL (packs designed for active pursuits, 20-25 liters, claimed at less than 600 grams; we found five).  It appears to be smaller than the 22, and might be, though based on stuffing both full of the same load of towels they are very close in size, closer than the photos make it seem.  It seems like an ideal amalgamation of the 11 and 22, with the best features of both.

For instance:

-both the 11 and 24 have unpadded waist belt wings, I don’t think the padding in the 22’s does anything

-the 11 and 24 have a fixed shoulder yoke, for lightness and simplicity (folks much taller than 6′ might not like this so much)

-the 24 has a less fat and protrusive booty than the 22, but is wider than the 11

-the 24 lacks the goofy inside wallet pockets, has thinner webbing, and is generally leaner

-the 24 has much better compression than both of the others.

-the 24 has better shoulder strap padding (and the narrow straps of the old Talons) than the 11 or 22 ever had as stock

Circa ’08 Talon 44 straps and yoke on my 22.  Thicker than the stock straps and with a solid center section that increases the carry comfort substantially.  Still thin like the stock ’07-’08 22 straps.

Talon 11 straps.  Wider (pointless IMO) and lacking the united center.  Ok for a small pack.

Hornet 24 straps.  Narrow, thick foam like the 44 straps, with a layer of 3D foam/mesh on the inside to spread the load.  Very nice indeed.

24 v. 22 hip belt comparo.  Note the refined design and smaller hardware and webbing on the 24.

First summary point: Osprey hit the nail on the head with the original Talon 22 concept, and I assume they’ve made bank on it.

Second summary point: the Hornet 24 is the next, substantially improved generation of the 22.

If you want to buy a used Talon 11 and 22, head over to the forums soon.

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.