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.

Batman.

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!

(re)Defining Lightweight Backpacking

The difference between lightweight backpacking and ‘normal’ backpacking is obviously the gear.

Winter has reached that point where we talk about summer. After a long weekend of rain, a bunch of us found ourselves in the Northern in Whitefish after an avy meeting last night, discussing not skiing and snow, but sunshine and fly fishing (Amber is a fish biologist, inside beta!). Pre-emptive nostalgia, if you will.

Shoshone Lake, YNP

Of course, it snowed heavily this afternoon, and the first race of 2011 is on skis and taking place tomorrow morning.  So carpe diem, for the moment.

Thinking of summer gets me thinking about backpacking.  Snow travel is still a mystery to me, at least insofar as the snow-shrouded landscape is for me more hostile and less predictable, less friendly, than that of bare earth and rock.  I want to do a lot of backpacking this year.

Yardsale, White River terminus, Bob Marshall Wilderness

I’m not really certain that I’m much of a backpacker in the way most folks use the term.  I’ve been backpacking since I was around 3, and after working wilderness therapy (the best paid pro backpacking gig around) merely walking in the woods with a sack of gear has little appeal.  Add a twist, a remote fishing hole, snow covered pass, rivers to packraft, or an absurd loop to do in a weekend, and my interest returns.  This mindset, this wilderness ADHD, this preoccupation with the more egregious forms of human-powered wilderness travel, colors my understanding of backpacking completely.

Which is why I think Phil Turner, quoted in this posts epigraph, is quite wrong.  Hendrik got the ball rolling with a provocative post (which engendered the quoted comment) about contemporary weight-weenieism.  In the post and the resultant discussion all relevant terrain is covered, save one issue.

A “traditional” backpacker carries a heavy (30+ lbs) pack.  The weight of the gear necessitates a heavy pack, the load dictates a slow pace, the pace requires more food, and the circle continues.  Use less/lighter stuff, move faster, be happier.  Simple equation, one applicable to both the dawn-dusk 30 mile a day camp, and the lolligagin’, 8 mile a day field guides, camera tripods, and reading books crew.

But are less and lighter the same?  Yes and no.  Different in that less means reducing redundancy (no extra undies), the same in that lighter often means reducing the psychological margin of redundancy and error (my Dana will last 50 years of egregious abuse!).  The point is, going lighter and bringing less is at root a mental rather than physical process.

Wilderness is the ultimate form of the Other.  I.e.; that which is outside us, our self, our comprehension.  The Other reminds us, in literal and metaphysical ways, that our state of being in the world is fragile and transient.   When backpacking, gear serves to insulate us from that fear.  Some of the insulation is literal; without protection from the elements, food, and water we will die.  However, the majority of backpacking gear is for metaphysical, rather than literal, protection from the elements.

Witness Luc Mehl’s pack for an overnight technical packrafting descent (Selway River, Sept 2010).  Luc has thin synthetic puffy layers, paddling shells, shorts, and a baselayers shirt.  He slept around the fire, and kept warm by paddling stronger than Forrest and me.

Gear is good, but by focusing on it too much and in an excessively literal manner we ignore the more interesting reasons for going out into the woods in the first place.  At our (spiritual) peril.

On my agenda for this spring and summer are some trips without a sleeping bag or tarp/tent.  Bracing how the very idea flies against conventional wisdom and “safety.”

2010: in review

Running through all these Christmases is the sense of an emotional cadenza at the end of the year, a braiding of feelings like hope, renewal, nostalgia, love, joy and exhaustion. Yet in the stories about this holiday, it’s surprising how often we’re reminded of a darker life, full of isolation, penury, greed, despair and the fear that traps emotion within us.

-The NY Times editorial page, today

2010 will stand out in my mind for many things; I finished my masters, got a good job, raised my gear making and photography to a new level, met many great people, and achieved a paradigm shift in how I view outdoor adventuring.  But above all, 2010 was the year in which I finally became an adult.

About time, eh?

In my post-MSW world, there is no longer some hypothetical future achievement which can (abstractly) be expected to categorically alter my life.  What I have and am now can reasonably be expected to be, with subtle variations, what I have and am in the future.  Reflecting on this has gone well with the expected, end of year, seasonal introspection of which the Times speaks.  It has been the cause of both satisfaction and angst.  And while there are many thing with which I am not satisfyied and which I hope to change in an enduring fashion, there are also many things of which I am proud.  Examining the first 29.8 years of my life is, from this comfy chair on this quiet morning, majorily a fulfilling experience.

This year I learned, primarily through school, that there are still important things that I’m quite bad at, that there are things in life that I thought I might be that I will not be doing, and that choices I’ve made in the past have already limited choices I can make in the future.  Most importantly, I’ve learned to embrace this more accurate, full, realistic poirtrate of my existence.

This year I learned that cultivating friends and partners, for today and for days in the future, is essential.  Finishing up the second video this morning was an emphatic reminder of this.

This year a long dormant in interest in artistic expression and the sharing it allows was reawakened.  I’m very pleased with the photography, videography, and writing I’ve done in the past 12 months, and the responses it has engendered.  Thanks to all of you for being a part of that.

This year I learned that day trips are, to be blunt, bullshit.  18 months ago I was still quite uneasy with overnight trips.  This year I sought out that uncertainty and looked at it right up close.  And while I’m still afraid of solitude, I’m longer afraid of that fear.  If I were to seriously ruminate upon and draw up a futile list of the 10 most significant outdoor adventures of my life, I think that half of them would have taken place this year.  And while some of the packraft trips may have been more sublime, there is no question that the Thorofare trip in May was the greatest outdoor adventure of my life to date.  It is just not possible to drink as deeply of the wilderness if you don’t spend the night.  When I plan trips now, the ones which capture my interest the most are days long.  When I write this essay a decade from now, I’m certain that adventures will be categorized as pre or post Thorofare.

This year I learned that making gear and sewing can be deeply satisfying, and that while I may come up short on detail work, I both enjoy and excell at big picture design work.  I think about gear design and fabric science in categorically different ways today.

And this year I learned that packrafting rules.  I’m not doing a list of best gear items, because there is the packraft, and then everything else.  Get a raft, but at your peril: you will never look at outdoor adventures the same.

I expect great things from myself in the year to come.  My job suits me perfectly, and I have no reason to suspect anything but better things as I continue to learn.  But it is the vast wilderness complex to the east that really inflames my imagination.  Winter is still something I’m working on and learning about, but come spring and summer, my confidence is large and my plans grandiose.  After almost 30 years of walking in the woods my summer skillset is nearing completion, and I am very much looking forward to exercising it to the fullest extent.  I suppose that, having found maturity at last, I am enjoying its benefits.  2011 should be a good year.

Perhaps this weekend?

Trip planning is an equisite art. The mechanical side has, and continues to be, revolutionized by technology. Six years ago M and I lived in Moab, and quickly stockpiled USGS quads because they were the only source for detailed topographic information about most of Utahs backcountry canyons.

That is no longer the case.

Travis from BPL turned me on to Wikimapia less than an hour ago, more than enough time for to appreciate the finely presented satellite images and the clean, intuitive features.  The level of detail on Google Terrain will still have the prudent reaching for paper (or another resource) in some situations, though many of those situations (I’m thinking SoUt slots) also push up against the boundaries of what paper can hope to articulate, 20 ft counter intervals or not.

And that is in the end why maps and trip planning are both such fun, because eventually you’ll stumble across an idea which, once opened up on a map, promises to show so much more once you’re actually out in its folds.  I’ve been looking at the big paper map of Glacier on our wall for weeks, trying to sort out an idea as good as the last one (that being the Two Medicine-Lake McDonald trip).  I finally found one.

Here.

In summer this would be an interesting route with major flaws, chiefly the amount of road walking and the near mile long packraft crossing of a lake full of powerboats.  But now, with the Hungry Horse reservoir roads gated, Jewel Basin’s trails covered in snow, and ice lapping at the shores, things change quite a bit.  I am concerned about avalanche terrain on this route, especially going over the first pass.  I may well put this project off for at least a weekend, to get out a bit more and gain more data points about the snowpack.  On the other hand, temps are moderate this weekend, and wind looks to be low.  And adventure calls.

 

More interesting off-season trips:

A ski-canyoneering adventure in Cedar Breaks.  How many raps in Ashdown, Phillip?

Perhaps the ultimate shuttle trip: the complete Deep Creek and the Narrows trip.  In winter, of course.  Skis, drysuit, crampons, 3 days.  No rope work on this one, but best bring a bit anyway.  Winter does odd things to canyons.  How could you go wrong?

 

LaSportiva Crossleather review

ExecSum: The shoe marries aggressive, sticky tread with a flexible, low profile midsole and a very durable leather upper, creating a combination unique amongst current trail running and hiking shoes. It does so by increasing the weight relative to mesh shoes, by decreasing the draining speed, and by substantially increasing the drying time.

Review: Back in August I purchased a pair of LaSportiva Crosslites. They’d been on my radar a while, and after I had decided that the Fireblade tread was too shallow and the MT100 upper too fragile, it seemed like a good choice. It was, and for the first 50 miles of hiking (plus another 60 sitting in a packraft) they seemed perfect. Until this rip appeared.

A comparable but smaller tear had appeared on the other shoe, and in my frustration I returned them to REI (who were very nice as always) and exchanged them for some Crossleathers. The Crosslites and Crossleathers are identical save two things: the toe cap is a different color, and the sides of the later are a thin leather rather than the mesh and synthetic reinforcements of the former. I wear a 45 in both, and the fit is wonderful for me. I can wear a single pair of thin socks without my feet slipping, or a thick combo of wool and vapor barrier socks without restricting blood flow. I have wideish but very low volume feet. If your feet are clubish and/or very wide, the Crossleathers (and Sportiva shoes in general) probably aren’t a good choice.

I made three modifications to the shoes before wearing them outside. I cut the silly lower lace guard off with scissors (dead easy), as it interfered with using gaiters. I glued a 2″ square patch of velcro to the back of the heel for Dirty Girl adhesion, which I do to all my hiking shoes. I also treated the leather with two thick coatings of beeswax, warming the leather before and after each coat by placing them on the open oven door (with the oven on 200 or so). I was concerned that the many, many wet-dry cycles to which my shoes are subjected would cause the leather to dry and crack.

This has turned out to not be a problem. Weather the leather treatment was essential I cannot say, but I’d certainly recommend it.  Doing it with pristine leather is much more effective.  As you can see from the above picture, the shoes have held up very well.  They don’t have a massive amount of miles from the last three months, but many of those miles have been bushwacking, snow slogging, stream wading, and talus running and scrambling.  The leather is scuffed in the usual spots, but there are no significant gouges, and (with the possible exception of the old synthetic leather Vitesse) no other trail shoes I’ve owned would have done so well with such difficult terrain.

The downside is in weight, draining, and drying time.  If my memory is correct (our scale is still in a box from moving), the Crossleathers are 14 oz a shoe as they sit modified by me, in size 45.  That’s 1.5 oz heavier (per shoe) than the Crosslites, and fairly porky compared to the modern crop of light trail runners.  My Mt100s were 8.2 oz a shoe in the same size.  However, given the expense of shoes, and how well this last fits me, I’m willing to take the weight penalty.

The draining issue is a more multifaceted one.  On the one hand, a slow draining shoe holds heavy water longer, and lets your foot dry much slower.  On the other hand, a slow draining shoe creates something of a wetsuit effect, and is all things equal warmer than a fast draining shoe.  I’d rather have a fast draining shoe, but every truly fast drainer I’ve owned has suffered from either a fragile upper and/or an upper which let in tons of dirt, dust, and sand.  The Sportiva Exum River sorta avoided that trap, but had other issues which led to its exit from the market.  Point being, this is a problem which could be solved my existing technology if designers took it seriously.   For the moment, slightly wetter feet aren’t a big deal, and in light of the Crossleathers strengths I don’t care so much.

Dry time on the Crossleather is quite bad.  The Crosslite dried very quickly, almost as quickly as the MT100 (the fastest drying shoe I’ve very owned, bar none).  I’d expect the Crossleather, if it and the Crosslite were soaked and let sit in a breezy, warm, shady spot, to take between 3 and 4 times as long to dry out completely.  Less if a catalyst like body heat were introduced.  This is a pain because it makes an already heavy shoe heavier in real world use.  Theoretically it will freeze up a lot more solidly when you overnight with a wet shoe, though bizarrely I’ve managed to avoid that thus far (the night on St. Mary lake last month was preternaturally warm given the wind and season).  I mind this the most of all the downsides, but am prepared to live with it for all the aforementioned reasons.

The heart and soul of the Crossleather/lite is the sole, and for Montana hiking (or anywhere that mud and loose gravel and scree are the norm) I cannot fathom a better tread pattern and rubber compound.  It’s the trail running equivalent of a Continental Mountain King tire, big sticky lugs, widely spaced to both grip in the loose and shed mud quickly, that are somehow arranged such that they don’t feel draggy and slow.  When descending a steep, slick trail this sole is worth quite a lot of quad energy saved.  I say again: insofar as my vision reaches today, this sole is perfect.

The rubber has worn quite fast, especially the softer gray compound.  I don’t see this as a bit deal, as given the current rate of wear the midsole will be shot around the time the tread is gone.  Rubber compound is a compromise between hard wearing and traction, and I think LaSportiva hit the balance well here.

One downside of this sole design is that on bare rock, friction is much diminished due to the relatively small percentage of the sole in actual contact with the rock.  This isn’t the shoe for 4th class slickrock scrambling in Zion, and there have been times I’ve noticed this shortcoming when scouting or portaging the packraft.  Such terrain is a small percentage of miles traveled, and thus for me not a big deal.

Fit is at once the most important thing about a shoe, and the one which is impossible to review.  I find the fit ideal for my peculiar feet.  As I wrote a few days ago, my transition to more minimal shoes has wrought a substantial change in my feet, such that now, I find even the minimal arch support of the stock midsoles to be obnoxious and excessive.   I’m planning on replacing them with yoga mat insoles this evening, with perhaps less than full coverage on the inside of the instep.

On the whole this shoe has been tough, the fit excellent, and the sole design extraordinary.  Most significant of all, this shoe has been very comfortable.  Part of that is the synergy of all of the above, especially the good fit which lets me lace them looser than I’m typically able, thus allowing more room for swelling.  I also theorize that the soft rubber lugs being against the ground, with a reasonably good rock plate above, causes a lot of the impact of walking to be dissipated and absorbed across the whole foot.  Typically the balls of my feet get sore before anything else, and I think the combination of extraordinary traction and good impact management has helped abrogate this significantly.

In the sysiphian quest for the ideal shoe, this is one worth considering.

Minimal footwear and the reshaping of feet

Since last spring I’ve been transitioning into less structured and supportive sorts of shoes, first for hiking and secondly, for everything else.  It’s been a hugely beneficial process, but I’ve found that once you make the switch, you can’t go back.

This year especially, I’ve noticed that my feet have been shortening, my arch growing more pronounced.  This has resulted in stronger feet which are much more capable of putting in long miles in comfort, as well as feet who can no longer tolerate arch support.  In most of my shoes I’ve removed the stock insoles, either leaving them out entirely or more often replacing them with insoles cut from closed cell foam or yoga mat.  (I need these flat insoles both for insulation and because top to bottom my feet are very low volume, and absent insoles of some kind most shoes don’t fit me.) 

Doing this in my ski boots has been a little more complicated.  The volume issue is in my old T2s especially acute, so I have yoga mat glued to the bottom of the boots, and running shoe insoles inside the liners, with the inside of the arch/instep cut out.  The arch built into the plastic boot, when combined with a stock insole, was comfy last winter, but thus far this year the changes in my foot have made that arch pressure intolerable.  I could likely get the insole ground down by a shop, but my simpler solution has thus far worked well. 

I do think that to a certain extent, minimal footwear, usually marked by flexible soles, comes into conflict with more technical boots.  Skiing is one obvious case, where the boot must provide rigid structure, and fit the foot very closely.  Climbing, off trail hiking, and snow travel are more ambiguous cases, where flexible shoes may have their limits.  At least one BPL poster has reported nerve/connective tissue inflamation from especially rough off trail travel in flexible shoes. 

I think that a minimal level of sole rigidity for the given activity, combined with well fitting shoes/boots and little or no arch “support” may prove an effective approach.

For myself, given the improvements in comfort and performance I’ve seen over the last 18 months transitioning from a Montrail Hardrock to a LaSportiva Crossleather (review to come soon), I wonder how much further I can push the trend.  As it is, I see upper durability and traction as being limiting factors, as most minimalist shoes shave weight with tiny tread and very light uppers. 

Anyone with Innov8 experience care to comment on the uppers found on their lighter offerings?

The Ultimate Trip and Gearlist(s)

It’s 2F outside as I sit here in the comfy chair, sipping coffee from the 28 oz Yellowstone NP trout mug. Our neighbor two house down just, as he does whenever snow gives him the chance, cruised by in the process of snowblowing the entire sidewalk on this side of the street. He greated/accosted me as I was leaving Sunday morning, bundled up, pack on, snowshoes in one hand, inflated packraft in the other. Just like when we lived in Moab and the neighbors could never figure out why in a desert you’d constantly have wetsuits drying on the front porch railing: we’re a bit odd. Anyway, our neighbors a Bobcat fan (Montana State, Bozeman), while as I’m a alumnus I’m presumed to be a Griz fan. The Griz lost the annual “brawl of the wild” Sunday due to some apparantly humiliating fumbles. If I were in charge, I’d do away with the football team, their scholarships and gratis private tutors, and put that money towards bringing the undergrad graduation rate up (only about half manage it within 5 years of matriculating).

We Americans must look odd, sometimes.

On that note of international adventural cooperation, I’m taking Hendrik’s Goof-off Tuseday challenge. I’m not yet at work, and as the minutes pass it’s looking less and less likely that drifting snow last night will have closed the office. Upstairs in the case management bullpen we were all a bit squirrely and goofy, enlivened by the extreme weather and distracted by the short week.  Bit irrespective of the weather I’ll have to make my way up to Columbia Falls for some home visits late this afternoon, and into the office tomorrow to finish some reports before we drive down to Missoula to fly to Des Moines, via Denver.

Visiting Des Moines isn’t my idea of an Ultimate Trip.  In fact, deciding on just one seems like a more substantive act of intellectual parsimony than I care to undertake this morning, so I’ll list and discuss a few different trips, in order from the most esoteric and theoretical (in implementation) to the least.

1) Lhasa-Dharmsala Trek

A reenactment of the Dalai Lamas trek walk into exile, and a way to see some amazing high desert and mountains at the same time.  Requires suspension of geopolitical disbelief.  Start in Lhasa (in making this up from looking at Google sat) walk a bit north then west.  Avoid roads, visit villages, check out those lakes and isolated sub-ranges.   Got to be some packrafting.  Reup and repsyche in Ngari before crossing the Himalaya and ending in Dharmsala, which my sister tells me is a lovely place to relax and spend some time.

I imagine you’d want to do this in high summer, and even so that it’d be rather cold and dry.  So a good down sleeping bag, or perhaps a down and Pertex quilt from Nuntak would be in order.  A hooded Shaka as well, for the cold nights.  Fleece gear, neo socks, and paddling pants for the cold waters of the Himalaya.  Maybe I’ll make that version of the MLD Thing I’ve been thinking about, and bring it along.  My Yukon Yak of course, and a new all-carbon, 200 cm, four piece Werner Sho-gun paddle.  I’d bring my Trailstar, my North Fork pack, Sportiva Crossleathers, and other odds and ends.

That’d be cool.

2) The Arctic 1000 route, with packrafting and a food drop

This is where I start with trips that I hope to do fairly soon.  The arctic sounds fantastic, new, and the Arctic 1000 route sound the same, so long as I get to packraft and not carry 40 lbs of food at the start.  In June, before the bugs and after the snow, of course.  With whatever deviations Roman recommends to maximize stellar walking and fun boating.

I’ll bring the Yak, homemade PFD, Werner paddle (Forrest’s was sooo sweet), North Fork pack, Trailstar, paddling pants, and fleece gear.  My standard kit with a few blingy refinements, really.

3) Spring Bob Marshall traverse

This is a trip I plan to do over a three day weekend in May, as wilderness classic training. It will require the right combo of water coming up, but snow still hanging around.

Start in Benchmark, float and then trek up and over White River pass, float the White River and then the South Fork almost to the reservoir.  Trek over into Long Creek, down to the Middle Fork, float down to West Glacier and have a burger while waiting to be picked up.

The gear list for this one will be fast and light, and what I actually expect to take.

Yukon Yak, Aquabound Shred paddle, inflateable PFD, helmet.  All-pack, ridgerest pad, emergency bivy sack.  Paddling pants, NRS Expedition socks, homemade Epic/Pertex anorak, pile pants, pile jacket (I want a Patagonia Los Lobos).  Snowpeak 600 mug, food.  I’ll sleep Mehl-style, around the fire, and be moving 20+ hours a day.  I’ll also need my fast shoes and adjustable poles for snow travel, and perhaps some Hillsound Trail crampons as well.

Other dream trips that will happen this year include a winter descent of The Narrows in Zion, and years of creek to raft in Glacier and the Bob.

Thanks Hendrik, it’s going to be good.

Memory

This is an article I wrote about my May trip across Yellowstone.  Initials inquiries have not panned out, so I’m turning it loose.  It is not short.  I might send it off somewhere else, so anyone who makes it to the end, please leave any feedback you might have.

Acting on desire

A faint textured swath of snow snaked off into the distance, promising a smooth path onward. Remnants of an animals’ passage, a fluke of wind or of water, I’d been seeing similar windings paths for the last hour, and they’d proven to be islands of safe passage from the rain-saturated, rotten, bottomless snow. Following past precedent, I skied along the edge of the raised, slightly grey snow. For 20 feet I kicked and glided with ease, making forward progress tantalizingly fast, until I fully weighted my left ski at the apex of one stride and it punched through. Instantly my left leg dropped two feet. In the next instant the snow under my heel collapsed further and the ski slid backwards. My front foot became my rear foot in short order as I stabbed both poles into the snow for balance to fight the instant lunge I’d been obliged to execute. Coming to rest a half second after the mess started, I reset my right foot and began the vigorous kicks necessary to unbury my left ski. Once a big enough hole had been created I leaned forward, swung the ski up, out and back in front of me, and begin striding forward. Four feet later, my right foot punched through and the whole thing happened all over again. This time, I paused in my lunge to ask the question that every backpacker asks at least once on any big trip: what the hell am I doing here?

The idea that brought me to the meadows of rotten snow on Atlantic Creek, south of Yellowstone National Park, had come about simply enough. Starting in June of 2009 I had decided to visit the park at least once a month for the next 12. On that late June backpack, sitting on a sandy beach next to the Yellowstone River with my wife, such a project seemed like a grand idea. And for the most part the routine of driving 5 hours from Missoula to Yellowstone became enjoyable. The expected hazards of cold, crap weather did not materialize; my October visit was much colder than my January trip. What did materialize was the occasionally titanic stress of my last year in graduate school. More than one trip seemed like it would create more pressure than it would resolve, and while February and March proved to be great ski trips undertaken with my wife’s encouragement, I did have to give April a miss. All of which is to say that by early May I was staring down two major life events: graduation, and the end of my yellowstone project.

The two had evolved in concert, and the logistical and emotional investment I had in both was formidable. I devised a plan to unite them, in a trip whose intensity and solitude would give me distance from grad school and intimacy with Yellowstone. All year, circumstance and commitments had kept me from doing a trip in Yellowstone any longer than an overnight, and what knowledge I had gained of the park only served to highlight the superficial dimension of such short trips. A solo traverse of the park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem seemed like just the thing.

The possibilities of snow

The trip had to be in mid-May, in the small window between graduation festivities and the necessity of employment. May is spring in Yellowstone, but the way in which this corner of the earth understands spring is at best idiosyncratic compared to other places. I could expect snowstorms, snowpack, rain, and high streams along with migratory birds, green shoots, animals on the move, and temps not too far below freezing. While spring meant a lighter physical pack, with a 20 oz synthetic quilt in place of a 40 oz down sleeping bag, it meant a heavier mental pack, in the form of big unknowns. How much snow would I find up high? Would the creeks be wadable, or require swimming? How much snow would I find down low? Would the bears be more or less interested in their first human of a new year? How much snow would I find in the trees?

Snow is in many ways what creates Yellowstone. The Snake River originates along the park’s southern edge, and the generous plain it creates as it wends southwest in Idaho serves as a prodigious funnel for winter moisture. Yellowstone gets a lot of snow, the melting of which not only makes it a summer magnate for migratory animals, but fuels the rivers and geysers. Yellowstone is late June is amazingly green, the critters abundant, relaxed, and occupied with eating. Geysers, springs, and pools that in late autumn merely fix and sputter roil and spew when infused with spring runoff. Snow also guards the park during winter, turning the disneyland of summer into the emptiness of winter. While groomed roads, snow coaches, and snow machines leave the park far from empty, the added difficulty of cold and snow vastly expand the backcountry.

The full complement of pre-Columbian megavertebrates, the largest collection of geothermal features on earth, and the expanse of Yellowstone’s wildness are all enabled by snow, so it made sense that snow was the primary obstacles when I pulled out the maps and set about route planning. I owned snowshoes and skis, and thus had options for dealing with snow. Some were just less desirable (heavier and/or slower) than others.

I soon realized that bears were a more immediate problem. Not the necessity of traveling, cooking, and camping smart in grizzly country; the rules for which I had in the last year become quite familiar. The difficulty rather lay in the 16 bear management areas that carpet choice areas of the park. Beginning in 1983 the park service sought to minimize backpacker-bear conflicts by barring hikers from certain areas during certain times of year. Several of these were highly relevant to my plans. Pelican Valley, just north of Yellowstone Lake, provides a natural access point to the upper Lamar Valley, over the gentle (and quick to melt out) Mist Creek Pass. Because it is so low, sunny, and therefore lush, Pelican Valley is very popular with many of the parks animals during the spring. It is closed to human traffic from April 1 to July 4, and thus the Mist Creek to Lamar route was off the table.

I dealt with the snow problem by purchasing a short pair of downhill skis at a ski swap, carving out a fishscale base with a dremel tool, and manufacturing bindings that would allow me to ski in my trail runners. Ideally, I would be able to ski (faster than snowshoeing) or hike with equal effectiveness. I dealt with the bear problem by taking the path of least resistance. I would start in Turpin Meadows on the outskirts of Teton National Park, hike up the Buffalo Fork drainage, over a low pass into the Yellowstone River drainage, and follow the Yellowstone out of the park, detouring around the rugged Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by skiing over Mount Washburn. The first half of my route was a traditional elk migration corridor, and the second had been used by Euro-Americans since they first laid ski tracks in the park during the 19th century. It is remarkable that a river valley as broad, gentle and scenic as the Yellowstone south of the lake exists road free. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the segments from Yellowstone Lake to north of Washburn. For 11 miles I’d be just across the river from the road, and even over Washburn the road would be fairly close by. I decided to embrace that aspect of the route as giving me the full range of the modern park experience. Besides, I had little choice.

The certainty of wet feet

Difficult snow stayed with me all the way down into Two Ocean Pass, then only got more deeply rotten as I gradually lost elevation down Atlantic Creek towards the Yellowstone River. Two Ocean Pass is a peculiar place. Well eroded by generous snowfall, it barely resembles a pass at all. It is a broad valley running east-west, and in it’s mile-long apex sits a extensive bog, out of which Pacific Creek flows west, and Atlantic Creek flows east. All of this was frozen under 2-8 feet of snow, and I snapped a picture of the trail sign before moving on over the Continental Divide. I knew that if snow conditions did not improve, I was in for a long day. I was already making around a mile an hour under hard effort, and had no reason to expect any different until I got under the snow line.

What haunted me was the thought of ski-necessitating snow down in the Yellowstone River valley, on the Thorofare trail. I had been mostly hiking on the Buffalo Fork trail the day before. Though treed sections had plenty of postholing, the south facing sections had been snow-free, even at 8000 feet. It was only in the upper reaches, when it curved to the east, that the skis had come out. Around noon I was crossing the Two Ocean, and my energy began to flag. I pulled over under a old Whitebark Pine, to eat my breakfast cereal and brew coffee on my esbit stove. I relaxed under the shelter of the tangled tree, as it had begun to rain here at over 8000 feet, and pulled out the maps. The Thorofare was mostly as low or lower than the snow-free reaches of the Buffalo Fork, and the trail looked to be primarily out of the trees and of a favorable, south facing aspect. Sitting out of the rain, with a full belly and sipping hot coffee, I could allow myself a reasonable amount of comfort. My slow trudge would not last forever, and this really was a pretty cool spot. I was better off than the postholing moose and grizzly I had followed over the pass from the Buffalo Fork. In numerous places the moose had sunk its leg five feet deep, leaving belly troughs as it wallowed along. Besides, the moose had no coffee, hot or cold. I packed up and continued, cheerfully resigned to my fate, however miserable it might be.

A key to success on backpacking trips in tough conditions is knowing how to effectively manipulate yourself, and my swing in mood was largely due to a technique Kevin Sawchuck and I had discovered during Le Parcour de Wild wilderness race across the Bob Marshall the previous fall. On cold mornings eating breakfast in camp is no fun. Better to pack up quick and scarf snacks on the go, then stop for brunch in the late morning. Resting the feet after 5 hours on the go is expedient for both mind and body, and lets you sit and relax in warmer conditions. I also get a thrill out of breakfasting on Reese Cups and Halvah, something I couldn’t justify under any other circumstances.

The other key to success on shoulder season trips is happy feet. Conventional footwear systems, light or heavy, would not have excelled as I headed down Atlantic Creek. For expedience I made several knee-deep stream crossings with skis on. In addition to insta-lunging through the wet snow, on several occasions while skiing I broke through a rotten layer of snow into overflow, the peculiar phenomena where a stream in its impatience flows over a winters worth of ice on its way to warmer and faster waters. Again, being knee deep in frigid water while wearing skis was a not uncommon experience, and because of my footwear I was able to savor it for the peculiar circumstance that is was.

I wore New Balance MT100 trail runners, a very light and fast draining shoe, and two pairs of socks: first a very liner, then NRS Hydroskins. Hydroskins are a thin neoprene sock with a fuzzy lining laminated to the inside. They provide the warmth retention of neoprene, so long as your feet are creating heat, with the flexibility and low-bulk necessary to function blister-free with conventional trail shoes. To complete the system, I wore low-cut spandura gaiters, affixed to the shoes with a lace hook and a generous (2″ by 2″) patch of velcro on the heel. Together with quick-drying stretch polyester pants and pertex windpants, I was able to tackle the wet snow and thigh-deep creek crossings without concern or hesitation. A few of the colder creek crossings, like Mountain Creek early on day three, did engender ice cream headaches, but with this footwear and dry sleep socks my feet were remarkably comfortable the whole trip.

Broken bindings, broken routes

That is not to say that all went according to plan. Early on day two I noticed that the screws on the right ski binding had loosened quite a lot. Should have used locktite, I thought, as I pulled out the allen wrench and cranked them back down. This happened twice more, and the third time I noticed that one of the T-nuts I had installed into the skis had been pushed down and out, lost somewhere in the snow. Should have use better epoxy, I thought blandly. When tightened the two remaining bolts held the binding fine, but through my effort-glazed eyes I could see that things were starting to unravel with my homemade bindings.  Shortly thereafter my right heel began to drift, a breakdown in tracking that heretofore had signaled a loose screw. This time, inspection revealed that the screws were tight, but the epoxied plastic layers that gave the binding structure and let me control the skis on side hills had cracked laterally, right behind the mounting screws. Not good.

There was nothing to be done about that besides continue slogging through rotten snow and overflow, across creeks, through willow thickets, and around tree wells melted six feet deep in the forest. Progress remained slow, and got even slower an hour later when the stress of thrashing through a particularly bottomless section of snow broke my left binding in a manner identical to what my right had already suffered. By then I had already descended the last significant hill on the Atlantic Creek trail, had seen dry ground in the distance, and knew it was only a matter of time before I could get the accursed skis back on my pack where they belonged.

The Thorofare is a truly tremendous place, an apt reward for so much work. The Yellowstone flowed by the trail, monolithic and impassive. I was glad I had a bridge to cross it. A hundred yards across a meadow a bear interrupted its rooting to stand up and stare, trying to figure out what I was. With skis sticking up above my head I imagined I might resemble a strange elk, and it wasn’t until the bear got my wind that he figured out I was a human and took off at a full run. I had been quite worried about bears prior to the trip, enough to purchase my first ever can of pepper spray, but all three bears I saw turned and ran as soon as they figured out who I was. I can only presume I was the first human any of them had seen since waking up that spring.

It remained cold as I hiked north towards the Thorofare trail, and as I had all day, I kept my rain gear and wool hat on. It must have been just warm enough for the many melt-water fed ponds and bogs to not freeze, and I had plenty of time to get used to the knee deep wades that would occur every 30 minutes or so for most of the rest of the hike. Coming out of one especially deep and long and cold seasonal pond, I noticed a post in the distance. I knew what this meant, and revealed in the ability to accelerate against dry ground and rush towards my intermediate destination. I had made it into Yellowstone National Park the best way, on my own feet. I set up my camera on my pack and took pictures with the self timer to celebrate. Not only had I passed through the crux of my route with only isolated equipment failure and vivid memories to show for it, I had made it into the park which had, over the course of a year’s exploring and contemplation, started to feel very much like home.

I was also starting to think that given how poorly my broken bindings functioned over anything but utterly flat snow, the rest of my trip might need to be altered or cut short. Other concerns were more immediate, as it was highly unlikely that I’d be able to hike fast enough now to make the camp near Mountain Creek that was on my permit. I wasn’t concerned with getting a ticket for using another site, but I did want to make miles such that I could make it to Park Point to camp tomorrow evening, as I had been assured that it was a camp not to be missed. My other concern lay less than a mile ahead, the first of at least two major stream crossings: Thorofare Creek.

Ending before the beginning

Every trip into the backcountry has two distinction endings, perhaps only distantly related. The first is the physical end of the trip, stepping out into the trailhead and the world of beer and pizza. The second is the ineffable moment when physical and psychological progress along the route moves beyond the halfway point. Suddenly unknowns become invigorating rather than intimidating, and the trip itself becomes a fait accompli, the execution of which can be savored, not looked upon with trepidation. On the Thorofare trip, that moment came three minutes after the ford of Thorofare Creek, when walking had finally faded the cold from my feet and brain enough to realize that, even in the worst case scenario, I would see pavement in 36 hours. It’s something of a sad testament to realize how reassuring signs of civilization can be, and the power those signs hold for me on trips whose purpose hinges around being as distant from civilization as is possible. This returns to the love/hate dynamic which so often governs wilderness travel, I love it precisely because it can be so stressful.

Prior to the start of the trip I had planned on crossing Thorofare and Mountain Creeks rigged for a swim, and even after I had scouted what appeared to be a solid crossing of Thorofare I still made sure my dry bags were well sealed, my pack was well cinched, and put firestarter, food, and my Spot unit in the pocket of my anorak. This all seemed comical as I cruised diagonally downstream across three braids of the creek, with the only section deeper than my knees coming right against the far bank. As I postholed at top speed (to get feeling back in my feet) through the wooded section towards the juncture with the Thorofare trail, I knew that I had seen, assessed, and dealt with all the route’s major hazards. The snow had been about as bad as could be imagined, and did little besides slow me down and break some gear. Inconvenient, but far from debilitating. I had seen two bears, and more bear sign than I ever had before, and not yet been eaten. I had crossed the biggest creek on the route, and had no reason to suppose that the other crossings would be anything but well within the range of my past experience. In short, baring bad luck or flagrant stupidity, I was going to make it. This thought made me very happy.

The first two days had been enjoyable, but with an edge of toil and uncertainty. The last two, though still featuring sore feet, plenty of postholing, and a rather intense sleet storm, were much more relaxed, and two of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever spent in the woods. My second nights camp had a warm fire, tasty food (not a particular distinguishing comment given my hunger), and my shelter pitched on the edge of a pine grove with a tremendous view back up the Thorofare valley from whence I had come. The morning of day three dawned clear and frost-rimmed, and the scenery did not disappoint. The Thorofare trail along the Yellowstone River is superlative in every respect, and it was here that Yellowstone’s role as “America’s serengeti” seemed well earned. The profusion of waterfowl stood out in contrast to the unfriendly, snowy mountains on all sides, and even absent the herds on herbivores that had not yet migrated in the valley seemed to be teeming with life. On several occasions a pair of Sandhill Cranes objected to my presence with sufficient vociferation and abruptness that I jumped further than I ever have during any bear encounter.

Once I came out of the Yellowstone River valley and drew even with the lake the trail did retreat into the thick spruce, which made for plenty of shade and thus lots of postholing, though thankfully the drifts were irregular and intermittent enough that the skis and their dreadful bindings stayed on the pack. Observing the various animal tracks in the snow, including the amusingly duck footed waddle of the Griz, kept my sense of wonder operational, and soon enough I was in the Columbine Creek drainage, whose thermal soils not only changed the flora significantly, but made things as snow free as they’d been since the trip began, 48 hours and one long eternity before.

By that point I had decided that my trip would end at the road. I have a near pathological need to catalogue successes in my life, born out of my high achieving family and the early death of my father. The sense of my own mortality I carry daily is most effectively satiated by taking carpe diem to the extreme, and historically stopping to smell the roses has not fit into that approach. This used to make stopping or shortening a trip a non0starter, irrespective of conditions, extenuating circumstances, or the wisdom of lingering in lovely places. I’ve slowly gotten older and wiser, enough to realize that road walking over Mount Washburn on the first weekend it was open to cars would not make for a fun or satisfying trip.

This decision was made all the more easy as I neared Park Point, and what would now be my final camp. The trail disappeared as it entered a vast meadow, and a quarter mile away, imperturbably feed on spring grass, was the trips’ first bison. Over the year I’d grown enthralled with bison and their role in Yellowstone, both as a crucial part of the ecosystem and as the primary symbol of the park as ecological island. Moreso even than wolves and bears, bison would have ceased to exist as a wild species had it not been for Yellowstone. Even though the mountain bison of Yellowstone are not representative of how the vast majority of their ancestors lived two centuries ago, their direct genetic and spiritual link with the wild bison of the past have made bison, in my mind, uniquely special. I took this bison as a good omen for my trips’ final night.

Another lone male bison greeted me as I exited the tress onto the shore of Yellowstone Lake, and came out into one of the most spectacular campsites I’ve ever seen. The still frozen lake spread out towards the horizon, the low sun reflecting off its corrugated surface. The mountains of Yellowstone and further off the Grand Teton stood clearly against the clear sky. As I made camp and drank tea around my fire, hiding from the cold 40 mph wind behind a huge old log, I could not help thinking about the past. I’d grown up backpacking, before transitioning to climbing as a teenager. I had been chased off the summit of the Grand Teton by lightening seven years before, an ascent that was one of the pinnacles of my climbing career. Yet all of that had been a prolegomena to this trip. For all the physical difficulties of this spring Thorofare traverse, and essential training had been the confidence built over decades in the woods. I may have had the physical abilities and technical knowledge to do this trip years ago, but until I believed that I could do it, the idea would never have come. The essential work was done well before the trip, in the mind. Once I dared to think up the route, and had the confidence in myself to plan for and start out on it, the traverse itself was almost a foregone conclusion.


This video might still be my favorite.

Postscript

Everything that happened on day 4 was a coming down from that tremendous evening sitting fireside with my soul open besides Yellowstone Lake. I woke, packed, made coffee, ate breakfast, and walked six miles to the road. The snowdrifts were frozen solid and supported body weight after what had been the coldest night of the trip by a significant margin, cold enough that I donned my rain jacket around midnight to stay warm. Streams and puddles were frozen with a 1/4″ skim of ice, but my mind and feet had grown so used to such terrain that soaked feet with weather below freezing seemed entirely unremarkable. The final miles of trail curved and meandered through a burned area, and I slowed to a saunter, admiring the collective edifice that thousands of dead and limbless trees formed against the cloudy sky. Once again I was wearing a hat and all my shell clothing, and as the sound of cars filtered through the forest I began to wonder just how peculiar and frightening I looked, and what my prospects for hitching might be.

The hitchhiking might be the most remarkable part of the whole trip. I thought that with luck I might make it to West Yellowstone, Gardiner, or perhaps even Livingston in a few rides, where I could call Meredith, my wife, and assess my options. I could hole up in a hotel until she had time to fetch me, or if I made it to the interstate 90 corridor I could take the Greyhound bus back to Missoula.

Instead, the trip continued to exceed expectations. I walked most of the way to Fishing Bridge along the park road, smiling with my thumb out as pickup after clean pickup with out-of-west plates and two inhabitants passed me while assiduously avoiding eye contact. Ascribe what motive you like, but the fact that the average American tourist does not look kindly upon hitchhikers cannot be argued. In the end a park employee birding on his day off saved me the last few miles of walking to the Fishing Bridge gas station, where I immediately got a ride all the way home to Missoula with four guys from Miami, Florida, driving an RV to Anchorage, Alaska. They were zig zagging widely across the lower 48, taking in as many Major League Baseball games as they could, and on top of that insisted on fitting Yellowstone into their tight schedule. I lectured on park zoology, weather, and geology, and played tour guide at Old Faithful, which in keeping with my luck all week erupted 10 minutes after our arrival. For the next five hours we five ate BBQ ribs, chatted about everything under the sun, and delivered me to my wife’s work (I had no house key) almost before she saw the message that I would be arriving. I drove home, unpacked, showered, and was in bed with tea and cookies before dark, marveling at how all outward traces of my trip had been erased with such efficiency. The inward traces were, of course, indelible.