The death of Purple

I’ve cracked three nalgene bottles in the past two decades.  The first was a classic 1 liter in milky plastic, before lexan invaded REI and college lecture halls.  It was ancient and wrapped in duct tape, and split radially when I dropped it in the Sylvan Lake parking lot, which was sad.  I think I was relegated to old juice jugs for the rest of that summers rock bumming.  The second was a few years later, Elephant Butte in Arches, at the flat sandstone base of the exit rap.  I got lazy, it might have been the third lap that day and the 40th that year, and let a single kink in the opposite strand rise 30 feet in the air.  I spent 10 minutes trying to huck a partially full 48oz silo through that loop, tied to the other end, before it shattered into pieces striking the rock.  The third was just the other week, when I gave Purple a stout whack on a tree, to split loose the ice which had layered inside after a 10 degree evening.  Purple cracked, and functionally, was no more.

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We found Purple on this trip seven years ago, in the midst of the talus along the west side of Norris Mountain.  Purple has been around a lot, on my first successful elk hunt, most memorably.  And this is why I’ve always like nalgene bottles.  They aren’t invincible, but they’re close enough, in the face of accidents and hot water and intentional abuse, that over the years deep memories accumulate.  Purple has the sticker from our Double Duck, and the one from that place with best coffee porter, and the stack Jamie sent me after I proofed their gorgeous map.  I don’t quite have any ideas what I’ll do with it, but I’m certainly not ready to just put it in the trash.

Without Purple, we have perhaps nine or ten nalgenes in the house.  Some are hiding in dark corners.  A few sit in the mud room and are used daily.  I believe, years ago, I bought one of them.  Another was a gift.  Several more were freebz at trade shows.  The rest, a solid majority, were found in the wild, taken home, cleaned, sterilized, restickered as needed over time, and adopted.  And for the pleasure of keeping fewer gatorade or smartwater bottles out of the wild, I’ll gladly keep hauling the ounces.

Ending tourism

“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit.  It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience.”

-David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster”

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If you are reading this essay, and have not read the essay by Mr. Wallace, you should.  Over roughly a decade, straddling the millenia, Wallace invented 21st century travel writing, with works on the Illinois state fair, cruise ships, and the Maine lobster festival (natch).   I mentioned these three work in this (chronological) order because I think they’re his best, and because reading them in that (chronological) order lays out easily his evolving theory of tourism, summarized in the epigraph, whose cynicism and incisiveness evolved sharply between 1994 and 2004.  While it could be said that, as a midwesterner, his sympathies were always primed to give the Illinois state fair a more generous treatment, I think it more accurate to draw a distinction between such a fair being an object of regional tourism, at best, if not just local routine, and the Maine lobster festival, an explicitly tourist event.

This distinction is important.

Beyond his emphasis on the distinction between local and capital T Tourism, you should read Wallace’s non-fiction because he is one of the best writers, ever.  I aspire as much to being able to mimic his use of language as tool, a breaker bar as weighty and crude as it is precise, as I do to his careful, entirely genuine use of situation and detail.  (” The corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right up to the sky’s hem.”)  The mechanics of his writing, which is to say his style, cannot be separated from his ontology, from the way he understands and thus creates his worlds.

The foundational insight which runs through most of Wallace’s books and essays is that entertainment has, by the late 20th century, become the essential question of humanity.  It is not so much that the items on the fatter end of Maslow’s pyramid have been so well provided for as to become background, though for the bourgeois they have, as it is that entertainment has veiled food, security, and human connection so well that today we struggle to understand them through any other window.  Thus the prominent place of food in all of the three aforementioned essays, and the muted, rather squishy, and distinctly uncomfortable way physical movement is incarnated in a place like a cruise ship, state fair, or destination food festival.  Entertainment is not, first and foremost, participatory, at least in the 21st century, and this passivity is why Wallace’s object lessons are so properly lugubrious, and why modern Tourism is so consistently and gratingly at odds with things like National Parks.  Abbey’s most famous chapter in Desert Solitaire was a precursor to Wallace in this, and while at first the two may seem of an awkward lineage they share an intellectual heritage which makes the comparison as coherent as it is efficacious.

To whit: if the prime mover of tourism, of travel, of physical movement beyond the familiar, is to experience aura and garner the unquantified benefits thereof, the move for Tourism to become a form of entertainment rather than experience is a shortcut to knowledge that must always be a contradiction.  Knowing a thing, be it the view over the Maze at sunrise or a sleek prize winning calf, has never been possible via anything other than process.  And process has never been built out of anything other than time.  This is why Wallace is at his most sympathetic discussing his home state fair, and at his most lyric within that essay discussing two distinct things.  First, the livestock judgings, the core functions of a fair which are only about entertainment in the best sense; a venue for one insider to communicate experience to others.  Second, the final visual sequence of the east coast interloper being hauled through elective torture on a carnival ride.  In the first case you have pure, native entertainment, any by extension people who have staked their right to the impure diversions Wallace details elsewhere in the fair.  In the second, an abject example of intrusion, of Tourism, being roughly and justly handled.  And what might happen were Tourism to take over the become the default means of being?  That answer is Infinite Jest, in whose fictional president one has a functionally endless number of chilling parallels with Donald Trump.

So; Tourism must go.  The cheap pursuit of novelty and in it the illusion of profundity has in the social media age (Facebook as The Entertainment?  Florida as the Great Concavity?) never been not only easier, but as enveloping.  If ‘gram-ing is a complete enough facsimile for experience that many of us actually believe it, the only reason to leave home at all is to keep that facade aloft.  Thank goodness then that the pandemic made doing that at least a little less respectable, for a little while, and that maybe entertainment and Tourism will each suffer and be deflated together.

 

Basal outdoor skills

A few days ago I was exploring some of the exceptional, hidden limestone cliffs we have locally, and following some mountain goat tracks up a scree slope led to option soloing up broken gullies and sticky slabs.  While liebacking off crisp solution pockets and smearing floppy shoes up sharp corrugations my mind went backwards.  To Paul Preuss, Norman Clyde, Herb and Jan Conn.  To ropes that might have broken, slippy ovals without a nose, and pre-War tennis shoes.  To pushing on and up towards that intriguing ridge, guided by experience, an eye for a line, and the necessity of being able to downclimb should those first two come up short.

There is an easy distinction between hard and soft skills in the outdoors.  Hard skills are doing things: tying knots, pitching shelters, taking a bearing.  Soft skills most commonly have to do with group dynamics and communication, but can also pertain to decision making.  Taking a bearing has limited utility if one’s group cannot agree on the best route across a valley, as does a well pitched shelter in a poorly chosen location.  This is all very well, but from an educational perspective I’ve long thought that a third class of skills underpin both the technical and heuristic, giving them both context and coherence.

It turned out that my line did not go.  The progression of ledge and slab ended around the corner in a monolithic line of pockets and implied edges.  I’ll return, some day, with the full sack of modernity, most prominently either a traverse in to a toprope anchor, or bolts.  Or maybe doubles of microcams and pink tricams, triples of small wires, helmet, and healthy fear.  Messner’s murder of the impossible has long since come to pass, with technology and the mindset of 30 years ago requiring a significant leap of imagination to consider the virtues of rock climbing as a pursuit where turnkey safety is not always an option.  The ubiquity and quality of gear has made safety an objective attribute, not entirely on or off, but often quite close to black and white.  As I turned to find a way down it did occur that a rope would have been expedient.  But in the manner of Preuss, for whom even rappelling was cheating, I poked over a series of ledges, downclimbed a tree, scratched across a hanging dirt slope, and jammed down a clean, overhanging corner to the scree slopes, creek bottom, and then the road.  For that hour in the vertical safety was under my feet, and between by eyes and the surface.  Can that smear hold my weight?  Will that flake come loose?  Can I reserve the next 5 moves, if the five after prove too much?

It is easy to view the safety brought on my kinaesthetic awareness, training, and judgment as part of the mechanical skills of climbing, outgrowth of hard skills and sibling to tying a clove hitch or placing a Stopper in an offset crack.  In this account the physical side of not falling is heads to the tails of a sound rope and protection network.  With climbing as the ultimate control sport, an activity in which the brakes are by default stomped to the floor, it is an easy assumption to make.  Whitewater boating is in many ways the opposite of climbing, where flow and the speed and rhythm imposed from without are the default.  Safety in whitewater has to do with instinct and preemption coming together and thus knowing when to stop, and when to let go.  Scouting, setting safety, and portaging can make running a rapid as painstaking and calculated as a 5 hour trad lead, and in either case the structural elements are a best set on a shaky foundation if judgement, self-knowledge, and process, what I think of as the basal outdoor skills, are not solid.

The other week, on Big Creek, we portaged a solid stretch of the crux, a decision which revolved around two burly ledge holes set 20 yards apart.  I had little faith, maybe 10%, in my ability to hit either and not flip.  I had a bit more belief in my ability to hit the precise lines through each feature, and make a big ferry between them.  There were big features both above and below, making the run in complex and the consequences of a swim significant.  I knew my skills, knew I was tired, and knew that I had doubt.  Hard skills were the past decade of paddling, reading water, practicing rescue techniques.  Soft skills were Will and I being honest with each other about our risk assessment.  The basal skills were even more invisible; me calling what part of my fear had to do with performance anxiety, and what part had to do with accumulated fatigue and the doubt over when my clouded mind would enable me to pick good lines in a timely manner.  On my scrambling excursion, hard skills were the past 27 (!) years of off and on rock climbing, especially having previously done moves of a vastly greater physical difficulty.  Soft skills were route finding, looking at the cliff and reading which ledges linked weaknesses, and which ran out in blank slabs.  The basal skills were internal; what percentage of past and current skill was available to me in each moment, how much of my desire to find the ridgetop was tempered by a realistic assessment of reversability?

Writ large, basal outdoor skills have to do with self awareness, and in adjusting goals and decision making day to day and hour to hour to keep them in tune with capacity.  This is how risk is managed on the ground and in the moment, be it the choice to run a rapid, ski a slope, or push forward with an extra 8 miles of postholing at the end of long day.  In a mundane but more pervasive and significant way, basal outdoor skills maintain the integrity of your backcountry functioning by saving mistakes.  Loosing gear, either by letting it fall out of a pocket or by leaving it behind at stops, is shockingly common, and in the case of something like a water bottle, knife, or a good chunk of your remaining food can be significantly debilitating.  Proper nutrition and hydration is both a hard and a soft skill, but the consistent and correct application is just as significant as what you packed, and a basal skill to the core in that constant adjustment to the demands of the moment is success itself.

So too with packing, unpacking, and transitions generally.  Efficiency here can save significant time in the moment, and far more time later in the ripple effect of being able to find gear easily, not forgetting anything, and having the correct items at hand for the tasks of the day.  Each transition during the Salmon River I was somewhere between 30 to 50% faster than Will and Robert.  Part of this was hard skill, experience, having done boat to hike and boat to camp transitions many times more than either of them (Robert, in fairness, was on his first multiday trip out of his kayak).  But I think the majority was basal skill, in that I’ve cultivated and practiced highly purposive transitions for a long time.  It is one thing to quickly and skillfully pack a pack with the same gear you’ve taken on similar trips for years.  It is another to adapt principal to a new range of items and have a coherent enough rig from day one.  In the case of the Salmon trip, I had never put so much inside my packraft on a previous trip, but on the first day I had the right stuff out of the boat for the day of paddling, and had the stuff inside secured and balanced enough that portages and self-rescuing after a swim both went without abnormal difficulty.

I don’t think many adventurers get far into backcountry pursuits without becoming acquainted with the importance of self-management and execution.  I do think many people, even those with considerable experience, consistently mistake both the inherent subjectivity of these skills and more importantly, the exacting moment-to-moment control that dependence on internal processes can provide.  It’s an amorphous thing to grasp, and not something concretely taught, but recognition of basal skills as an independent class which control the application of hard and soft skills will provide more consistent backcountry performance, and thus, safety.

Distance learning

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning the new, or newly rediscovered, hikers and bikers and outdoorspeople the pandemic has brought out of rooms amongst the trees.  It is logical, and I see it as an extension of the last decades trend of increased outdoor participation in profile, if not as a percentage of the US population in fact.  The OIA 2019 report is padded, as it has been for at least a decade, with activities such as jogging and rv camping which take place outdoors but are not generally associated with the wild.  This last is important because some of the recent discussion concerning outdoor newbies has been about mentoring, and learning.

Part of me wants to welcome them all.  The other part of me wants to scream how members of the tribe can possibly, when we have yet to pass beyond the immediacy of how over-socialized our world is, get things so wrong.  Especially in the age of the internet, when instructions on every mechanics is easy to find.

I spent my whole childhood in southwestern Ohio.  Whenever I’ve returned, especially in the past decade, the logic of the landscape is jarring.  I learned to climb in a gym, learned to hike on vacations and in the strings of woods which clung to creeks around town, and when things got technical I turned to books.  Basic knots from the BSA hankbook, tracks and plants from all of Tom Brown, klemheist and biner block from Freedom of the Hills.  We never got enough snow to self arrest, but by high school had one BD X-15, a drill bit glued to the hole in a claw hammer, and ancient Salewa 12 points in hiking boots and “discovered” the 25 foot vertical ice pillars which formed on the spillway in our local big woods state park.  It was equal parts this DIY period so far from anything and my poorly-acknowledged introverted nature that has kept me on the self-taught path ever since.

Not everyone has this agency growing up, to say nothing of a family system that gives both a safe neighborhood to roam and fancy, fancifully chosen gear for Christmas.  There is a lot to be said, still, for core outdoor adventure being the ultimate encapsulation of first world privilege, in all its expensive and precisely curated discomfort and challenge.  There is a bit less to be said for the high cost of entry to outdoor pursuits.  This doesn’t hold too much water in things like backpacking, where skill and fortitude and thrift stores can provide 9/10s the practicality bought in a $5000 trip to REI.  It does, sadly, in things like boating and cycling, especially the later, which in the past 15 years has seemingly doubled down on eeking more and more profit as the last bastion of unfiltered yuppism.  There is still less to be said for the meritocracy of information, as today the process of learning has never been more accessible.

There is a stupendous amount of crap information, of course, but given that we’re confining the discussion to wilderness pursuits, the judgment learned in discovering bad advice to be what it is is more valuable than the skill of pitching a tent on six feet of snow or climbing a 9 inch offwidth.  My repeated attempts to convey how mindset creates safety are so perseverative precisely because these intangibles are the most valuable and most enduring things I’ve learned from climbing, backpacking, boating, skiing, and everything else.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: features

Or; as few things as possible.

Backpack features don’t make up the majority of a packs weight, but they do make up the overwhelming majority of the weight which is easily negotiable.  There is only so much weight to be shed with material (before you sacrifice durability), only so much with suspension or frame elements (before the pack carries poorly), and for a technical backcountry pack good side pockets (and belt pockets) are mandatory.  So the design task left is to make it possible to carry all the technical goods, along with the unexpected and unexpectable, with the least material possible. 

This includes snow gear like skis, crampons and ice axe(s), and a shovel, along with water gear (PFD), and perhaps something odd like firewood or even a bike.

I’ve settled on an extension of the reinforcing layer of bottom fabric, with horizontal daisy chains 15 inches apart.  Each daisy has a second layer of fabric inside.   Not only does each bartack thus have serious resistance to the ends pulling through the fabric, but the load is transferred to the whole fabric panel, and thus 16+ inches of seam.  The sleeve is not primarily intended as a pocket, being non-dimensioned, but is open at the top and thus not a bad place to stash pesky things like paddle blades, but the first intention is to both spread the load and provide abrasion resistance. 

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Pictured above is the full deal, for a trip which involved a 12 mile hike to even reach the skiing, and ended with steep skiing (on terrible crust) at 8500 feet.  A shorty 45cm ice axe mounted, old school, to a cord loop on the lower daisy.  The shovel shaft went inside the sleeve pocket.  Skis mounted diagonal, with ski straps, and crampons went under the top cinch strap, on top of three days of gear. 

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The final piece is the top strap, which is bartacked into the middle of the top daisy chain on one end, and with the buckle directly under the upper stay pocket on the other.  When the pack is on the empty side the angle of the strap, combined with the taper of the bag, provides compression.  When the pack is full the strap pulls the load towards the suspension, transferring the load and enhancing stability. 

And that, is it. 

 

Too, much

If you haven’t read Mark Sundeen’s Car Camping, you should.  The book, from 2000, appears to be out of print but readily available, and is worthwhile as both a fable of young adult purposeless and as a snapshot of Moab before the latest flood.  Sundeen reappeared recently, with an article in Outside about the Mighty 5 (2013) tourist campaign, and just how much industrial tourism in southern Utah has changed as a result.

The preponderance of obviousness here is as suffocating as the deer flies along the San Rafael in June.  Who doesn’t know about the recent trailhead quotas to hike Angel’s Landing?  About UDOT closing Arches when the entrance road filled all the way to the highway?  About how free and easy and beat down things were on river road was before there were any campgrounds?  Abbey predicted all this, well over half a century ago.  Abbey also predicted, in a less explicit but no less compelling way, how categorical the shift would need to be if we wanted to disentangle ourselves from ourselves and resolve the paradox of wilderness, by going beyond it.

Since the 1970s, when overnight wilderness visits as a percentage of overall visitors peaked (in most parks) the NPS has done nothing systemic to grapple with this.  Quantity of visitation has been put first, with attention to quality only paid when such is necessary to maintain quantity.  The Zion shuttle remains shocking in how much of an outlier it is in the 21st US park service, and in how crowded that park can still be, with Springdale this year putting in place regimented, pay parking throughout the 2 mile strip of shops, hotels, and little houses which makes up that town.  Along with Moab, it is the ideal, simple example of how tourism is not the answer to maintaining a livable and thus sustainably wild western US.

This is what Abbey was thinking when he wrote that “growth for growths sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.”   The parks, and American in general, have yet to grapple with this.  Generalized to the upteenth degree, this question is why the US is having such a rough go of the 21st century, the growing, implicit realization that the status quo is not going to work for too much longer.  The instagramification of the outdoors has served to exaggerate this, to accelerate something like the Mighty 5 campaign beyond what that campaign might have done otherwise.  The specific problems are many.  For one, Utah parks (and indeed the whole Colorado Plateau) presents more of the weird and spectacular than any other landscape in the lower 48, if not the western hemisphere.  Who didn’t know about it before the Mighty 5 campaign?  The same people who, pre ‘gram, might well have avoided the whole stretch between Vegas and Glenwood Springs for being ugly and not having enough trees.

Information isn’t just representation in this sense, it is reification.  Billboards and social media create an image and by extension and in the memory, a thing.  People then go find that thing, ignorant perhaps for years or for ever of how much the method and the process define creation.  You can’t see anything from a car, after all.  And this is the lie of the ‘gram, showing a polished end as proof of a process, and thus of meaning, that we all inherently and necessarily assume without any evidence of existence.  It is the difference between the classical tourist and the resident, and while neither stereotype is definitive, the way the information age has pulled the gap between experience and entertainment so wide so fast merits action.

This is why Venice and Amsterdam and Queenstown are contemplating how to moderate tourism, though these days the debate too often equates quality with money.  This is why America has, in all its bumbling, hesitated to constrain the democracy of opportunity that comes (or used to come) with free and easy access to Parks by car.  Adding a reservation system, an idea Arches floated and then withdrew last year, substitutes the current meritocracy of patience for the meritocracy of planning.  This is why LNT has encouraged vague geotagging.  This is why, in my current axe, I want route databases scrubbed of maps and specifics, and all guidebook authors (including this one) to tread in each step cautious of how many years or decades or longer each footprint across the face of human experience will last.

Experience doesn’t come easily, if by experience we mean something that sticks in the mind longer than the sun will take to set.  There are no shortcuts, and I do not think it is asking too much of the NPS and others, who by rights know as much, to be the guardians of process.  As humans we’ll take shortcuts, and try to use research and record to nail the novel on the first try.  Pity the day when it becomes too easy to not fail.

 

 

Evolution of the Tamarisk; load carriage

I am delighted to report that the Tamarisk is finished.  If by finished I mean that the prototype I completed a month ago and have been testing exhaustively since requires almost no changes.  The patterns can now be set in stone, and the road towards production begin.  This may not be a short road: I’m still trying to nail down a foam supplier who will provide relatively small wholesale quantities of the exact right thickness and density; I’ve all but resigned myself to sourcing the best ladderlocks and quick release buckles from different sources; I’m using this prototype to see if this stuff might be a substitute for 500D Cordura on the pockets and suspension components.   All that and everything else might yet take months, but having the shape, features, and especially suspension where I want it to be is deeply satisfying.

The first goal for this pack, when I started working on it almost 3 years ago, was to have a ~50 liter package that would carry 50 pounds but be optimized for 20-30.  More specifically, I wanted a hipbelt and harness wouldn’t feel clumsy with a daypack type load, and would also be substantive enough that the structure of the suspension (a single stay in this) would be the limiting factor in load carriage.  To make sure that this can be checked off as mission accomplished, I’ve spent the last week and half using my workday workout time (6-7 am) to load the pack with ever increasing weight for the same 4 mile loop.  This isn’t enormously exciting, but does allow for an extended and exacting focus on just how the various elements in the pack respond to another 5 pound increase.  The last three mornings have seen this number creep above 50, this morning, in the form of a painters drop cloth in the bottom, and 26 liters of water on top.  This is a lot, enough to get me sweating even on the flats, at -10 F.  My 4 inch wide, sub 8 ounce hipbelt has been holding firm around my hips, the single stay just beginning to bounce vertically in the way I’ve to recognize as how you want to see a suspension system using aluminum start to reach its limit.

The definitive beginning to defining load carriage in a backpack remains Ryan Jordan’s 2003 article on torso collapse in packs, the thesis being that when a correctly sized pack looses a certain amount of its torso length (10% being a useful threshold) to load induced collapse, the load limit of that pack has been reached.  The other dimension of that puzzle, one which took me the better part of a decade to fully understand, is that the ability of the hipbelt to resist slipping and appropriately contour to the user must at least keep pace with the suspension.  A hanging belt with the right mix of flexible yet supportive structure is the abbreviated answer here, and leaves one with the fairly simple design challenge of optimizing vertical structure for the weight to be carried.  In this case, a single 3mm by 13mm 7075 stay.

It is the simplest suspension system I could design, because it minimizes things like the number of fabric panels and yards of thread, as well as because there are as few performance elements in action as possible.  The theoretical and practical limits of that single stay are in the Tamarisk identical, which is why I’m content that I did what I wanted.

 

A decade in the outdoors

7 things that happened in the past decade; equipment, trends, and the ways the two intersect to create human experience.

The Alpacka booty

The technological advancement of the decade is, for outdoor adventure, without question the packraft. 10 years ago the state of the art was the above. Today, boat shapes make that level of paddling accessible to intermediates. While pushing wilderness whitewater remains the future, especially in the context of landscape trips, modern packrafts are most often put to use making moderate moving water simpler and warmer, which is not a bad thing. Nonetheless, with so much of packraft energy being put into sidecountry and destination backcountry whitewater rather than technical traverses, it’s difficult to not conclude that packrafts haven’t yet justified their seed.  This next decade will tell us how much of a place packrafts, as a backcountry whitewater tool, have in the wider outdoor world.

The great bike divergence

A convergence of several trends have made the past decade an extraordinary one when it comes to bikes that will be ridden on dirt.  When I began working on this series a bit over 9 years ago there were only three “bikepacking” bag manufacturers.  Trans-Iowa was still alive and well and while that event had by 2011 birthed the ethos of modern gravel, the commercial side with pros and more saliently, specialty bikes, was in its infancy.  Allroad bikes are what road bikes for the masses should have been all along; mellow handling, a low gear down in the 20s, rock solid braking, room for a 2 inch tire.  Good on pavement, great on dirt, good enough on mild tech (or more if you’re skilled).  From the other side, these bikes can be coherently viewed as the true successors of early mountain bikes, in terms of both ability and versatility.

Mountain bikes themselves ought to better be called trail bikes, something made very clear by the last decade of development.  2014 gave us the Surly Krampus, and the rapidity with which 3 inch tires were shrunk for 650b rims, widely popularized, and then all-but discarded by the mainstream remains as impressive as it is curious.  The appeal of fat-lite is to the rider who regularly sees not-groomed off road terrain immediate.  For the groomed trail rider they are, apparently, too heavy and imprecise.  And this is I think the quick story of trail biking in the past decade; the move towards specialization, towards bike parks, towards flow trails, towards compartmentalizing and prioritizing downhill ability above all else.  I’ve read more than one commenter in the past week say that, in another 10 years, acoustic mountain bikes will be in the significant minority, especially in “destination” mountain bike spots.  Electric assists will send riders up the shuttle roads and trails, and big, heavy travel and geo will send the same bikes back down specially made gnar (or flow, which remains another word for easy-for-humans).

In short, I’m not sure I want to be a part of the next decade of mountain biking.  Shying away from the broader challenge, from trails not specialized for two wheels, from climbing as much as circumstances allow, from travel at distance across a landscape, isn’t mountain biking as I have known and loved it.  Neither is dirt (road) touring, which is plainly the growth direction for capitol B bikepacking.  If the old Dial formula that roads are for cars, trails for bikes, and off-trail for feet is currently on life support, this coming decade will determine if it survives as anything beyond the fringe of the fringe.

Skimo

A decade ago Greg Hill was just a guy in Canada with questionable music and a wife who could presumably support him financially.  Then came the year of 2 million feet and the TLT 5 boot and a bunch of local races, and today ski gear is a hell of a lot lighter and better suited to a range of backcountry skiing.  The broader ski community is even tentatively embracing human powered alpine skiing as a way to both make money and grow skiing itself.  Win/win?  There doesn’t appear to yet be a clear uptick in avalanche deaths, so perhaps not.

FKTs

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A decade ago the term FKT had only barely begun to grow beyond its use, by one man from Boulder*, to catalogue his own extensive, formidable, and occasionally bizarre ultrarunning accomplishments.  Today, the term itself has become ubiquitous, and the website which birthed it polished and host to a big list of routes and their associated fastest known times.  I continue to have existential objections to the whole project, but as the decade has come to a close my objection has become more pointed.

The internet has made publishing routes so quick, and sharing them in detail so precise, that I begin to worry about both increased traffic in fragile areas, and the poverty of imagination that so many off-the-shelf options will breed.  As crowded as our outdoor world can occasionally be, inspiration and imagination remain the limiting factors.  A good thing and a bad one wrapped into one.

Clothing that breaths

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A decade ago active insulation wasn’t a thing, and 120 grams/meter wool was state of the art.  Today, we have the Nano Air (since July 2014), Alpha Direct, Polartec High Efficiency (above), light poly baselayers, and windshirts like the Alpine Start.  In other areas (shoes) development has been frustratingly circular, but the clothing we have day to day for the outdoors is exponentially better than 10 years ago.

The Neoair

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Comfort has long been, and remains, my least favorite word in the backpacking lexicon.  As a concept it is not only subjective, it is monumentally lame.

But the Neoair sure is comfortable.  By moving the bar on how much loft and comfort one could get from a given set of ounces, Thermarest reinvented the sleeping pad in the most significant fashion since their original inflatable.  A Neoair, and the various competitors and clones, allows side sleepers with hips at-home comfort, and allows those less picky to get away with sleeping on slickrock, wooden decking, and generally careless site selection.  Winter pack size shrinks a small but potentially crucial amount.  Like advances in clothing, the ripple effects are significant, and also like the above advances in sleeping pads stand out in the decade in which other sleeping gear was largely staid.

Laminate fabrics

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As a cuben skeptic I’m not going to give too much credit to DCF for providing much actual performance value, but with its enhanced sex appeal cuben has done more visible work than xpac in moving the conversation about performance fabrics and fabric performance shockingly close to the mainstream.  The need for laminate fabrics is currently vastly overstated in the mind of the enthusiast; for example I see no point in using them over PU in something like a fanny pack with a top zipper, the functional increase in weatherproofing just doesn’t exist.  Even for extreme use cases the value of a laminate pack fabric over good ole Cordura is far less than the overall value brought on in the past decade by the general increase in fabric awareness.  MSR completely revisited their tent fabrics, for instance, while PU/sil blends have become common.  Enthusiastic-level backpackers might actually know the difference between robic and nylon 6.6.  Once some of the fashion talk dies out or moves on I’m tentatively optimistic that a more sophisticated market, with more functional options, will remain.

Which is a nice concluding point to the decade as a whole.

 

*Bonus points to Mr. Burrell, associate of Mr. Bakwin, for writing the dumbest paragraph of the decade, as follows:

Packrafts. Ever since these were invented I’ve been avoiding them. They’re costly, heavy, and while some respectable adventurers use them, I’ve always thought they sort of looked like dorks. Like wearing rubber galoshes on a trail run. Like carrying a plastic lunch box with little bunnies on it during an ultra (OK, that one would actually be very cool). Kayaks and Stand Up Paddleboards are sleek and slender, paradigms of hydraulic efficiency, are great sports I really like, but packrafts are basically glorified pool toys.

 

Shit that works: the Rocketbox

Our Yakima Rocketbox turns 20 this year.  Over that time, few other items have been as consistently useful when it comes to outdoor adventure.

The US is set up for cars, with the overwhelming majority of prospective destinations not lending themselves to non-private motorized transportation.  If in places like Alaska the wilderness can make hard to get to the wilderness, in the lower 48 the great ocean that is rural America usually makes it hard to get anywhere else.  For this reason some places can feel very remote indeed, even if you’re only a few miles beyond the trailhead; Big Sandy in the Winds, for instance, or Choprock in Escalante.  Add winter weather, and even pavement can be drafted into the wilderness.  During several long drives home from the east side of Glacier and the Bob, riding on the teeth of a storm, unpredictable whiteouts have reduced me to 30 mph with right tires firmly planted the rumble strip, for security when visibility suddenly plunged from 100 meters to 2.

It is logical to get a car big enough to fit all your stuff inside, for security, protection for the elements, and aerodynamics, until you do the math on the dimensions of some of those items, how often you’ll need so much space, and, as important as any other reason, how stinky much of that stuff often is.  A roof box solves all three of these issues.  It should be easily removed and stowed in a garage.  It should be long enough to fit (for instance) 210cm classic skis, and other things which don’t stow well in all but the largest vehicles.  And a roof box is necessarily separate from the passenger space, making it an ideal location for soggy clothing, ripe wetsuits, and muddy boating gear.  The gear itself, and the interior of the cargo box, can be hosed out when convenient and then dried quickly in the sun.

The Rocketbox was essential for organization when M and I were living out of Xterra.  It held all of our trekking, camping, and climbing gear securely and out of the way.  With creativity and a few mods we were able to fit the box and three bikes on the roof (with 48 inch cargo bars).  The box was merely convenient when we lived in a house in Arizona with the same Xterra as primary vehicle, mostly because gear dried so fast in the southwest, and we didn’t do much skiing.  The box, on the same vehicle and with the same living setup, was more important once we moved to Montana, and has become absolutely vital since adding a hatchback and first one and then two children to the mix.  Today, we’ve had enough practice that we can do a week on the road, camping exclusively, with climbing and packrafting gear in tow, and fit everyone in a small (by US standards) car.  With summer sleeping bags there is even space to see out the back window.

(Rocketbox visible at far right.)

In 1999 Yakima made three cargo boxes.  Today they make 9, with only two being comparable (long enough to hold skis, narrow enough for multiple bikes or a boat additionally on the roof).  Wider, shorter boxes seem the fashion, and the worry-free tailgate clearance they provide seems to me a poor choice given their limitations in all other areas.  The other lamentable development is in dual-side opening, the hardwear for which takes up considerable interior space.  Back in the day, the most popular box (the Rocketbox) was available in left or right opening, the other two in right only, which seems like the pragmatic choice anywhere other than New Zealand and Britain.  If the original weren’t still going strong, minus a bit of sun fading, I’d be tempted to look on the used market.

As is, I can’t imagine living without one.  It is the primary car accessory for almost any outdoor activity.

Shit that works week: the return

The original series has remained amongst my most-read posts throughout the nearly five years since it was published.  This is because, in the end, backcountry gear is not as complicated as we are inclined to think, and because the online world (concerning outdoor adventure and generally) has become ever more fake.

Let us discuss.

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The identity politics of outdoor “recreation” continue to not baffle, but frustrate me.  Frustrate because of the self-defeating circularity.  People who should know better remain, at least implicitly, convinced that backpacker, or ultralight backpacker, or climber, or sport climber or alpine climber or boulderer, is something you are rather than something you do.  Looking at things in the world as the later has the benefit or empowerment and self-actualization; climbed 100 pitches this year? or slept 30 nights in the woods?  You’re a climber or a backpacker.  Engaged in intentional, reflexive packing for a backcountry trip and challenged yourself to not pack too many insecurities?  You’re an ultralight backpacker.  Engaged in a bunch of prevarication online and spent more time worrying about what you might do, when, and with what stuff than actually doing it?

Time to get off your ass.

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Outdoor adventure is the ideal blend of democratic and meritocratic.  You can legally do as much as and close to whatever you want, provided you build the skills.  Want to climb 5.12, paddle class IV in the wilderness, ski across a range, or become truly comfortable sleeping by yourself way back in the woods?  Make a plan, do stuff, fail, learn.  Make due with used, substandard stuff, and be confident in your learning.  Want to embrace and then be subsumed in the Big Wild Places by living on their doorstep?  Move.  Soon.  Sacrifices will be made.  In the former case, months and years spent flailing in the snow, ripping flappers in the gym, sleeplessly waking for each midnight squirrel fart gets old.  It is worth it?  Ideally not because of where the process with take you, though the fluidity of mastery is the best reward, but because the newness of learning has a clarity not found elsewhere.  In the later case, you’ll probably either make less money, spend more on food and housing, or most likely both, but what price living?  To repeat last years installment of this series; “…my problem with the new, third or fourth wave lifestyle outdoor brands; that they’ve making shiny crap that is good for the coffee shop and the hike to Delicate Arch, and whose lack of seriousness is predicated on the rare devotee who will graduate to the more core brands when necessary.”  And as the years pass and my understanding hopefully continues to be complicated, I remain convinced that the somnolent dayhikers all, in some fashion, want to have the skill and mind to go that way, for a week, on their own, and come out on the other side.

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And yes, I have a problem with outdoor media and industry assuming incompetence in the name of inclusivity.  And I celebrate brands (and hopefully by extension ideas) which die a quick and sudden death because they were, in the end, just plain crappy.  Last month Max wrote “Nowadays, few outdoor media outlets provide the critical cross-category analysis that is necessary to help us get the best thing for our needs. Most reviews are optimized for google search rank and are designed to provide advice within the category you are looking for.”  His whole post is worth reading.  Designing gear for not-the-Himalayas is one thing.  Making lame stuff because most folks won’t care after they get the gram is another.  At the same time, there are many beautiful and passionate people in the outdoor industry who have made beautiful, intense things.  The best, as discussed previously in this series, endures year on year and works well across seasons and activities.

In the coming days, I’ll discuss a few more examples.