Bob Marshall Wilderness Open: 2012 official unofficial report

Compiled and written by Dave Chenault
For a comprehensive set of links to trip narratives, please see below.

This report is available on Google, as well.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Open (BMWO) was devised as a test of wilderness savvy, to be held over Memorial Day weekend each year.  Choosing to traverse the Bob Marshall wilderness complex at this time of year maximizes the ambiguity of conditions on the ground and thus places a premium on the heuristic skills of participants.  The guidelines, inspired by the 30 year-old tradition of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, are simple: participants start and finish at designated points on the borders of the complex, and must be entirely self-contained while traveling a route of their choosing between the two points.  No linear travel on the 5 paved highways bounding the complex is permitted.  All other human powered means of transit are fair game.

Conditions for this, the first annual BMWO, were challenging even by the standards of late May.  Warm temperatures starting a month previous had thinned the average snowpack at low and mid elevations, with rivers and streams running on the low end of normal.  The days before departure saw substantial snowfall across the Bob, with preciptation continuing through the days of the event itself.

Seven participants lined up under snow squalls at the Teton-Bellview bridge the morning of the 26th: Dan Durston from British Columbia, John St. Laurent from Washington State, Cyrus Dietz from Minneapolis, Greg Gedney from Colorado, and Jeff Metsky, Casey Dunn, and myself, all from Kalispell, MT.  All save Gedney headed over Headquarters Pass and down to the North Fork of the Sun River.  Gedney planned a crafty route south through the prairie to Deep Creek, Gibson Reservoir, and the South and West Forks of the Sun, thus minimizing his exposure to snowy  elevations.  Durston and I led the pack up and over Headquarters, finding an impressive amount of windblown fresh snow over a hard crust.  Dunn and Metsky were close behind us, with St. Laurent and Dietz a number of hours back by the top of the pass.  All struggled with occasionally slick conditions on the ascent and spindrift gusts pushing 70 mph on the descent.

Once Durston and I reached the North Fork, we parted ways, with him heading up Rock Creek over Larch Hill to the White River, and me inflating my Alpacka raft to float down to the South/West Fork and White River pass.  The conditions up high, and the continuous light precipitation throughout the day, had me planning on going over Stadler pass into the Danaher Valley rather than risk the steeper and higher White River pass.  However a nagging flu made it impossible for me to eat much without becoming nauseous, and after a five hour bivvy near the South and West Fork confluence resulted in still further decreased energy I walked out to Benchmark and bailed by hitching a ride into Augusta.  Durston made, almost immediately after our parting, a serious but innocuous wrong turn, heading six miles up Red Shale Creek until he realized and corrected his error, burning five hours in the process.  When he awoke at 0430 the next morning, having slept a mere four hours, Durston realized that in his haste to run down the trail and get back on course he had stressed his right IT band, a nagging injury whose inflammation would haunt him for the next 36 hours.  He followed Dunn and Metsky’s track up and over the confusing Larch Hill Pass, where a substantial snowpack and poor visibility had all three take a mistaken detour down the very headwaters of Juliet Creek.  Durston finally arrived at the confluence of the South and North Forks of the White at 2030, having made 24 painful miles in 16 hours.

Meanwhile St. Laurent had left Dietz behind in the upper reaches of Headquarters Creek,  accelerating in order to warm up after crossing back down into the trees.  He made camp at Gates Park around 2200, concerned that the food supply and miles math was already against him.  Waking up to several inches of fresh, low elevation snow made up his mind, freeing St. Laurent to enjoy the superlative walk down the North Fork valley and along Gibson Reservoir.  As expected the trailhead was deserted, but St. Laurent enjoyed mixed luck and unmixed Montanan hospitality, being put up for the night in a cabin, getting a ride into Augusta, spending 5 unsuccessful hours hitching south before being picked up by the Bardwell’s, outfitters based in Choteau who had showed at the start to wish us luck.  St. Laurent got another night’s lodgings and a ride back to his car in Condon the next day as a reward for his patience.

At the same time that Durston was grinding out the crux of his route, and St. Laurent was proving discretion the better part of valor, Gedney was enjoying the fruits of low elevation, though not before getting boxed out walking up the streambed in Deep Creek.  He hiked through the night along Gibson Reservoir and crossed through the K-L Ranch at 0600.  The rest of the day, and his intended route up through Pearl Basin and over Camp Creek Pass, went less smoothly, as snow-caused route finding difficulties had him bivvying through the night around a fire at 6300’, waiting for a snowstorm to pass.  By this point in the weekend 2 feet of new snow had accumulated at this modest elevation.  Gedney, like myself but in contrast to the others, had not brought a sleeping bag.  The next morning necessity proved the mother of improvisation as Gedney threaded the needle through a 7900’ pass north of Junction Peak, dodging wet slides as the day warmed by staying on westerly aspects down the length of the South Fork of the White.  This must have made for laborious and stressful snowshoing, evidenced by the late hour Gedney reached floatable water on the Main Fork of the White.  He inflated his Alpacka raft and floated down to the South Fork of the Flathead, arriving at dusk and mistakenly taking out on an island rather than the west bank.  Not wanting to raft the river or ferry the far channel in the dark, he enjoyed another bivvy around a fire.

Dunn and Metsky had reached the Flathead first, detouring south to cross at the Big Prairie pack bridge.  This 12 mile round trip had Metsky and Durston coming back together on the west bank trail between Holbrook and Salmon Forks after an extraordinary set of events.  Dunn and Metsky were expected back at work on Tuesday, and didn’t like the look of the snowy high country up in the Swan.  Additionally, the carbide spikes in Metsky’s Salomon Spikecross shoes were causing serious pressure points, at worst slowing him to 1 mph on hard-packed trail.  The pair elected to hike the 32 miles (from Big Prairie) north to the Spotted Bear ranger station, where friends were on staff who could deliver them back home. Durston had been hours behind, and after rising at 0500 after 8 hours of sleep Sunday night and hobbling at 1.5 mph down to White River park, made up that time by swimming the South Fork.  Wisely selecting a channel which was deep on the near side but shallow at the far, and choosing to swim in raingear with his pack on, Durston estimates the actual swim took 10-20 seconds, during which he traveled twice as far downstream as he did across.  Though the weekend’s cold snap had dropped the South Fork to around 5000 cfs that day downstream at Twin Creek, Durston was still dealing with around 3000 cfs of snowmelt river with no space for second thoughts or rescue should he come up short.

Perhaps even more extraordinary, Durston eschewed the temptation to bail north on predictable, dry trail once he ran into Metsky, electing to continue up Big Salmon Creek and over Pendant Pass to Upper Holland Lake, Holland Lake, and the finish at the Hungry Bear Steakhouse.  Enjoying a improved knee, Durston made good time through the deadfall and snow, reaching Upper Holland shortly after dark and the Hungry Bear parking lot at 0335, having done 106 miles in 66 hours and 20 minutes.  Durston reckons that a clean run with better conditions and perhaps a packraft could shave a full day off this route.  Metsky continued to struggle with his shoes, making it to the Meadow Creek trailhead and a waiting truck about the same time Durston was finishing up in Condon.

Gedney used the same route through the Swan as Durston, starting up Big Salmon roughly 15 hours behind at 0630 on Tuesday morning.  Deadfall, fatigue, and tweaked feet from the miles of rough snowshoing slowed Gedney, who bivvied one final time in the upper reaches of Pendant Creek, waiting until 0200 for cold to solidify the snow and make the hated ‘shoes not necessary.  Gedney made the Hungry Bear in time for a late lunch a little after 1400, having traveled around 113 miles in a marathon 101 hours and 14 minutes.  The final seven miles of dirt and paved road took his wrecked feet over five hours.

Most participants have already expressed interest in the 2013 BMWO, which will be held on Memorial Day weekend, with similar start and end points, and perhaps less road walking.  Though the completion rate this year was quite modest, the level of adventure and personal satisfaction was both high and universal.

The BMWO home page:
John St. Laurent’s report:
Greg Gedney’s report:
Dan Durston’s report:
Dave Chenault’s report:
Casey Dunn is currently working on a story about the Open which will run in Montana Magazine.

The Belly of the Chief

I have a new goal for the summer; becoming a better trip partner. This won’t entirely supercede training for the Wilderness Classic in the way I did last year, but given my mediocre physical condition one month out, and more importantly my different sorts of present motivations, my approach in Alaska will be different than last year.

And so be it, because M and I had a fantastic trip in the Belly river country this weekend.

The plan was to hike up Lee Ridge, stash gear at the trail junction, summit Chief, and reverse down to the ranger station. The next day we’d packraft out to the border and hike the swath to the highway. As usual, a nice UL backpacking load was ruined by 20+ pounds of packrafting and snow climbing gear.

Maybe it was finally being on the trail fully un-sick. Maybe it was being out at all after a week of bittersweet contemplation: psyched to read about Dan and Greg’s trips, yet sad to have cut my own short. In any case, my enjoyment of the trail only grew as we wound through the young pine forest, up through a bit of snow and out onto a stunning alpine ridge.

M had perhaps the largest pack she’s ever hauled. She wanted to hike and raft in her new Pace Glove shoes, so brought boots along for potential crampon use on the mountain.

There are a lot of places like this in Glacier, stark meadows with huge views of the sort which add rather than take away hours and days from your life allotment.  That Lee Ridge abuts against the great plains, feels far from the road and is yet easily accessible, makes it unique.  The faint, obviously infrequently used trail tread going up made it seem hidden in plain sight.

Above treeline no tread has been cut, merely enough rocks piled to put hikers on the right path. A nice act of discretion.

The snow was soft in the early afternoon, but with enough of a nasty runout in spots to make our axes not dead weight.

We followed abundant goat tracks through the snow past Gable Pass, and traversed over to the base of Chief on the south side.  The route finding isn’t especially complex, but the talus changes consistency as you go east, with progressively slicker limestone making for ever more difficult going.  M was close to tapped out by the base of the talus slope which leads most of the way to the summit.  As her pace slowed going up it became obvious that fatigue was not the only story, with a headache pointing more and more towards altitude sickness.  That and a rain storm rolling towards us made turning around an easy choice.  M had to dig pretty deep on the way back, and was cold by the time we made it back to our gear cache under a large boulder near the trail junction.

We layered up and made soup as I repacked, then got moving when the wind and rain made hanging around untenable.  Shortly after restarting, M vomited up a bit of soup, but absent any other recourse kept rolling down the alpine ridge, fully layered against the wind.  The camera stayed tucked away, but the terrain, even through high clouds, was spectacular.  We lost the trail briefly, as almost always happens, when we dropped into the first trees in 4-5 feet of snow, but made sure to stay right of what was reasonable before cutting left and finding the trail.  The snow band was quite short, and soon we were threading steeply down through mixed spruce and aspen groves.  The rain stopped, the sun came back out, birds sang, neat flowers were photographed, and while M’s lack of calories had the pace dropping we made the ranger station with plenty of daylight left, ate dinner, chatted with fellow campers, and went to bed.

In northern Montana this time if year it’s barely dark for 6 hours.  I had time enough to wake up at first light, go back to sleep, make coffee, eat breakfast, and go fishing before coming back to rouse M for the sunny packraft out.  Slugs had crawled into the tent to avoid the sun, and one was perched on M’s sleeping bag inches below her chin.  I’d never heard her squeak like that.

We had perfect conditions for boating; strong sun and little wind.  The Belly should prove to be one of the classic packrafting trips in Glacier, especially in early summer.  From the hiker bridge to the border the river is consistently interesting but mostly easy, with minor riffles, and a fair bit of wood to keep an eye on.  We portaged three river-wide jams, only the last of which truly had no way through.  M did great paddling with first-descent eyes, and we made the border in about 3 hours.

Vintage packrafting: flooded moose trail willow portage.

In retrospect our plan to hike the swath straight to the road was pretty stupid.  Once underway I thought about cutting through the woods to meet the regular trail shortly before the parking lot, but in the unlikely event we were seen doing so that would look more suspicious.

The swath is well maintained and very convenient.  It also straddles a juridical line which in these suspicious days is not the most prudent place to be.  We popped out on the highway, right between the two checkpoint stations, sweaty and the object of bemusement.  The Canadians wasted no time in calling us over and admonishing us, a state of affairs exacerbated by M having no ID whatsoever.  They did not arrest us, nor did the American agents, who sent us along with minimal fuss and a bemused smile.

So, future packrafters should probably take out a bit before the swath, and perhaps backtrack along the river to hike the trail out.  The swath is tempting, but even if you do have your passport on you the hassle is likely not worth it.  In any case, this is a trip worth repeating.

They’re not kidding.

The ultimate partner

How to do adventures outside with your SO; a subject I’ve thought of writing about for years, and under implicit prompting from Geargal Jill I’m taking a crack at it today.  It’s a desire many have, for good reason.  Building a lifetime partnership and outdoor adventures both rank high on the life list of anyone reading this, so why not combine them?  Rarely does it seem to be so simple.

That most of us take both things so seriously is the obviously hidden reason their combination often goes awry.  As valued as my more platonic outdoor partnerships are, adventuring with M is much more high-stakes precisely because I so dearly want it to work well.  Naturally this often leads things astray, and having it not do so is for me still very much a work in progress.

Secondly, most romantic outdoor partnerships start from a position of inequality.  Our marriage is I presume rather typical, in that M had never slept in a tent before she started hanging around with me, and for better and worse I’ve been the primary instructor in climbing, hiking, backpacking, camping, canyoneering, mountain biking, boating, and so forth.  There are obvious cultural factors which make this patriarchal state of affairs more likely than not, and which adds a potentially complicating overtone to the whole process.  I want to be a good teacher, and I want to eventually have an equal partner, but the heightened stakes of both failure and success and the inscrutable dynamic of marriage often has me generally short of patience and not teaching especially well.  The mishaps here are as innumerable as they are embarrassing.

M passing Packrafting 105 on McDonald Creek.

I do think that achieving some kind of parity in our interests in the outdoors will be essential for long-term happiness and equanimity.  That I have a two decade head-start makes this a bit complicated.  Like most of us M isn’t very fond of being “that guy,” a task which I don’t make especially easy, and her doing outdoor stuff almost exclusively in my company has given her a distorted sense of normal.  It’s important to like each other, and like the outdoors. Independently, and together.  Otherwise adventures become, emotionally, too big to fail.  Which means they probably will.

At this point my hope is that this evolving process will continue to make things easier.  In our case it’s made a lot more complicated by M’s extensive bearanoia; I’m quite comfortable going solo but she has a limited desire to go hiking by herself on days I have to work.  We’ve cut backpacking trips short on a few occasions because she just wasn’t sleeping much.  Compromise goes both ways, and the burden falls on me to take us on our trips, not my trips.  Doing this well centers on recognizing how different someone else experiences the world.  Understanding bearanoia is one thing I’ve learned among many.  Trying to understand just how much colder M can get is another, along with the seemingly categorically different rules by which her body produces heat.  It’s both a work in progress and an increasingly necessary part of my finding outdoor adventures fulfilling.

I’d value your experiences here immensely.

A prince of denmark

Over half my life ago I was a teenager learning to trad climb, and my friend Adam and I were down in the Red River Gorge looking for easy leads to build our skills. We both had several years of gym fitness under our belts, just enough to be pretty dangerous. At some point on that trip I found myself up in the belly of Chimney’s Direct, the second and essentially totally unprotected pitch of an easy climb first done decades before. I was stemmed out in a solid position, looking up at an awkward transition into a short squeeze chimney, and down at a bare loop of rope leading to Adam, on a big ledge ~50 feet below. It occurred to me, rapidly, that the only thing standing between me and a big splat was the skills and fitness I’d built over the previous years, and most of all the mental wherewithal to apply them, right then.

It was a Hamlet moment which I’ve carried with me every living moment since.

I’m not sure if other people learn to recruit their full resources in a single epiphany, as I did, or gradually. What I am quite certain of is that this kind of education, this certitude, this understanding of how vital for personal safety the application of skill and will, is an essential part of any adventurers repertoire. Climbing is a good teacher because of how stark and obvious the lesson is, but an identical process occurs on a bike dodging a sudden, limb threatening rock, and in the water coming around a corner to encounter an unexpected and deadly sweeper. Cultivating the raw skills to deal with these hazards is not a quick process, but it also isn’t especially complex. Applying those skills without hesitation or ambiguity is more mysterious, and more than any single thing what will keep the adventurer alive.

I’m grateful I learned this lesson so thoroughly and well early on, and so I ask; what and when was your Hamlet moment?

Back up there

Climber-neck. Mphoto.

A few days ago M and I did something we haven’t done for too many years; went cragging outside.  That it’s been seven years since that happened with any sort of regularity is something I never thought I’d write.  I started climbing, in the gym on my Ohio hometown, when I was 12.  Its prominence in my maturation cannot be overstated, for reasons which rose hesitantly out of the grave as I made a shambles of a 5.7 on my first lead since I can’t recall when.

The muscle memory of climbing has been seemingly permanently ingrained in me by thousands of hours of practice.  It’s remarkable the extent to which many of the more exacting subtleties had returned by the afternoon’s second route.  I was even surprised by how much of my present fitness, which is excellent by my standards but hardly climbing specific, translated over.  Compared to the Dave of a decade ago pounds of muscle mass have migrated from arms and back to my legs.  The most disturbing evidence of this is the increasingly frequent trouble I’ve had in the last two years opening jars, which was never, ever an issue back in my climbing heyday.

Most significant of all was the lack of all but the wispy traces of the mental game I used to pride myself on.  I could keep up with a number of partners because I could out think them when it came to route reading and maximizing my resources, and runout face routes used to be my speciality.  But I thrutched and quivered on the first lead, chalking every other move, foot tapping, missing holds and feeling incompetent.  It took the airy (ha!) 5.8 crux 40 feet up on our next route, gripped on flat quartize edges looking for footholds, bolt at my ankle, to remember subconsciously to breath, drop my heels, and not try to squeeze juice out of the handholds.  I got bouted on a much harder route at the end of the day, but did all the moves and was left with the feeling that all hope was not lost, and that we might be able to pull back to an acceptable level.

We went climbing because we want to summit a few mountains this summer, and while dusting off the technical skills is a good idea for the alpine, putting our climbing heads back on is imperative.  The things I’ve been doing since climbing dropped off (canyoneering, then mountain biking, ultras, and wilderness trekking) all ask similar questions.  They all ask you to parse fear of injury from fear of failure.  The former is an essential guide for avoiding objective hazards and situations beyond your mental and physical capacities.  The latter is an excuse for not looking your potential in the eye.  I’ve yet to experience anything which comes anywhere near climbing in how direct this question is asked.  Some people are a lot more afraid of heights than others, but everyone is and this combination of primal terror and the static minutes to enjoy it gives climbing its power.  You can’t hit the pause button so easily with gravity sports like mountain biking, skiing and boating.  This contemplative aspect is probably why climbing literature so far outstrips most other outdoor genres, and is above all why I’m excited to be back up there.

Gender, grading, and the mental game

My idea was to promote this new sport by challenging climbers to improve their technical skills to the point they were capable of  “bouldering level” difficulty, but discourage the degeneration of bouldering itself into a numbers-chase.

John Gill, on his invention of the first rating system for bouldering

The logical follow up to Gill’s statement is to question why attention to grades in bouldering is undesirable.  The answer is basic: bouldering is the most democratic branch of the worlds most democratic sport.  Running may, for example, at heart require only a pair of shoes (if that), but performing meaningfully at the top level requires participation in meets and races.  Competition remains a thriving aspect of climbing, but the most hallowed achievements will remain ascents of climbs outside.  Bouldering requires the least gear and least technical knowledge, which no doubt explains its status in the last 15 years as the most popular discipline in climbing.  It is not only possible for a complete unknown, more often than not from a climbing backwater, to burst on to the public scene with world-class ascents, it is common place and to be expected.  Even more since the proliferation of climbing gyms.  As is the case with most sports, the top practitioners today are likely but not necessarily better than the best 50 years ago, because the genetic pool is bigger and competition is fiercer.  This is not to say, for reasons I’ll come to presently, that had Gill or Robbins been climbing today they would have been even better.

They may have a silly name, but Louder Than 11 does excellent work.  The following is their best to date.

My theory—again, likely to be unpopular with the ladies—is that women in general lack something that seems to be more common in men: not muscles, not wingspan, and not any of the other oft-cited reasons you hear for why the ladies are a few grades behind the guys. Rather what they lack is that particular brand of male arrogance that causes us to go out on our own and conquer unknown terrain. More specifically, women lack the belief that they can do things that haven’t already been done (usually by other women).

Andrew Bisharat

I don’t find Bisharat’s thesis enormously compelling, but I do wholeheartedly agree with the underlying premise that mental attitude has much more to do with climbing performance than is usually admitted.  While competition can spur an athlete on to greater things, the presence of peers is just as likely to predefine a limit of the possible.  A mental construct which becomes a physical reality with startlingly definitive ease.  Gill is a perfect example.  Almost without exception his greatest achievements in climbing were done effectively in total isolation from a significant peer group, and often in obscure areas with little other climbing traffic (living in an Air Force Force base in central Montana, training without other climbers present, and driving long hours to climb the Thimble).

I like Sasha’s climbing because she is both strong and skilled.

This is why the preoccupation with grades in bouldering is so unfortunate, an irony only compounded when the fact that the V system was invented at the behest of a publisher is considered. Grades make more sense in the context of the commitment inherent in climbs taller than 30 feet. More people would climb better if they were able to decide whether or not a problem was possible only after having tried it, rather than after looking at a guidebook two weeks before the start of a roadtrip.

Why i might be full of shit

or: Credibility and experience in blogging 

The Black Hole of White Canyon, January 1, 2007.

Blogging has irrevocably changed the face of writing about outdoor adventure, in almost all respects for the better.  The chief problem today, perhaps different from days previous in scale only, is how to allot proper credence amongst the sea of voices.

As a global society we’ve outgrown the cliche of being unable to trust anything on the internet, and if/when I return to teaching I’ll need to take a more nuanced approach to internet citation (though I will loath APA forever).  There’s no parallel to academic citation when discussion trips and gear, and with its grassroots mechanics blogging merely highlights the conventions by which credibility has been driven in outdoor writing for centuries: personal reputation.  Not entirely unlike academia, the authority of an individual casts a strong aura over their work; yet very unlike academia, in outdoor writing and now blogging, little other ground for authority exists.

Cleanup after the first Rim Ride Moab.

The problem here is that it is pretty easy to look a lot cooler and more experienced on the internet then you actually are, be it through intentional or unintentional filtering of content, or via the mundane bias of distance and unfamiliarity.  I know nothing about the places Joery hikes, skis and rafts, but he writes well, takes great photos, and his stuff generally seems pretty gnar to me so I listen when he speaks because I generally assume he has some pretty serious wilderness chops.  Guitar Ted, on the other hand, lives in Iowa (where I’ve also lived and ridden) and writes with wild hyperbole about the difficulties of trails in an obscure corner of Texas, so I don’t take what he has to say about equipment for technical mountain biking very seriously.  Andrew Badenoch is still putting his bike together weeks after his trip was supposed to start, one of several reason I give him a less than 20% of finishing said trip.  I could be quite mistaken about all of these things, and indeed about anything I write here.  Often I worry that the internet has me thinking I’m cooler than I in reality am.

On the face of it Hendrik’s formula of no trip reports equals no credibility seems both correct and straightforward.  There are ample reasons, both historic and recent, to take Roman’s word for just about anything packrafting.  On the other hand, geographic prejudice need not rule credibility completely, and there is a lot to be said for the union of passion in practice and keen powers of observation, though the utter absence of the former makes me suspicious.  You can’t understand it if you haven’t been there yourself, at least a little.

Craters 2012.

In total, I’d like to see more mindfulness abroad in the outdoor blogging world precisely because it holds so much potential of a sort particularly dear to my heart.  The potential to bypass lowest-common-denominator magazine editorship, promote as-it-happens adventure storytelling, and bring together international perspectives in a way never before possible.

As I pointed out a while back, if a blog seems more motivated in selling things and an image than inspiring action, view it with skepticism.

If a blogger seems to have little experience relevant to topics discussed, doubt is in order.

If a reviewer’s mastery of the gear discussed is in doubt, or their review output is especially high, view it with suspicion.

Most importantly, look for growth.  The great advantage of blogging as a medium is the journey which the reader is able to accompany.  Opinions unchanged over years of practice is a sure sign of someone not paying attention.


Preliminary data

Fleece, synthetic fill, and down: the big three insulators for outdoor garments since before I can remember. Synthetic’s have come on strong from the back of the pack in the last 15 years, down fill powers have crept higher, and fleece has undergone myriad transformations in an attempt to address the three reasons why so many people spend more money on the other two (lack of compressibility, wind resistance, and poor warmth to weight ratio).  The stereotypes concerning the three have remained largely unchanged over recent decades.  Down has the best warmth to weight ratio, but does poorly when exposed to moisture.  Synthetic fills remain warm(er) when wet, are more compressible than fleece but less than down, and degrades over time.  Fleece is cheap, durable, warmest when wet, but takes up a ton of space and is the least warm for the weight.

So how well does conventional wisdom stack up against empirical and experiential testing?

I’m beginning what will be a very extensive BackpackingLight investigation into this question, and some bathtub saturation testing recently produced some noteworthy results. Both graphs are drawn from the same data, and show three garments with comparable insulative values and feature sets.   The key numbers in the below graph are the dry weights of each.

Drying conditions were controlled, and not favorable for quick moisture evaporation.  There is a lot more to come with this project, but one of my initial hypotheses is that conventional wisdom may not be well based on people actually getting their insulation soaked in the backcountry.

Part 1 of my BPL sub-8 oz waterproof-breathable jacket state of the market report went up earlier this week, and the second part, containing the discussions of each of the ten jackets and anoraks, will go up next.  In summary, I found that fabric quality seems to matter (in several respects) more than mere weight, and that the benefits of jackets heavier than 8 oz are for most users likely illusory.  I also found that a disconcertingly large number of gear makers can’t get hood design right, which is as silly as it is discouraging.

There are no first de(a)scents

M and Isaac playing in the mud, Robbers Roost, November 2005.

In 2005 we found ourselves, during the course of an extended road trip out west, spending a long Thanksgiving holiday camped out in the Robbers Roost in southern Utah.  We did a lot of great, cold hiking with ropes (aka canyoneering), cooked a spectacular dutch oven chicken for T-day dinner, and generally enjoyed an especially fulfilling time in a life which has been I like to think rather full of them.  Among the many canyons we hiked, rapped, scrambled, slid, swam, squeezed, and oozed down was the one pictured above.  It’s the only canyon descent which has ever taken me two attempts to complete.

Prior to our trips, a well publicized hiker did a well publicized descent, and was equivocal about the difficultly and general aesthetic worth.  But it’s located in a drainage cirque with a high pedigree and some really cool exits, and we assumed it make for a good day.  Absent wetsuits, we found deep cold water and nasty mud, as well as at least one rather problematic keeper pothole.  We came back later with more gear (and to collect Phillip’s shoes, which no one least of all him realized he had left by the parking area), got out of the ‘hole with the aid of a bag toss and a lot of muddy roadrunner-footed scrabbling, and enjoyed the subsequent long slanted downclimb, atmospheric exit rappel, and varied hike back out to the road.

Keeper potholes are but the most photogenic of a number of features in Colorado Plateau sandstone slots that remind a hiker of the limits of the conventional human imagination.   We humans like to think, understandably, that a lifetime of experience walking in a primarily linear world of sidewalks, trails, and trees can be effectively generalized to the rest of the planet.  Moving water will complicate that assumption significantly, a real snowpack will blunt it, lava fields and glacial moraines will stand it on its head (and drive home the governing centrality of gravity-driven erosion in how we make sense of the world).  The genius of slot canyons is that they’ll take flowing water and downward erosion, forces we may think we understand, and unveil their most impossible artistry.  Aside from keepers, the highlights include bombay slots, labyrinthe diagonal and horizontal bends and corkscrews, and 100 foot deep sections too skinny for a human to pass through.  Things which cannot be pictured, let alone believed, until you see them firsthand.

Canyons on the Colorado Plateau should inspire humility, for the reasons mentioned above, as well their general inscrutability.  Unlike a conventional one, these inverted mountains give away few secrets to distant inspection, topo maps, and satellite photos.  It can be hard enough to ascertain where a given canyon is, let alone what conditions may exist down in it.  Looking at things like this will help you understand.  Canyons are the vulvic answer to the phallic because-they’re-there peaks, with many of the appropriate cultural stereotypes.

Hiking in sandstone canyons with ropes was the thing which finally broke rock climbing’s hold on my consciousness, and as an ex-climber I of course regard cragging and peak bagging as the crafts of unsubtle dilettantes, those unable to engage with the land without sitting on top of it, unable to grasp the larger things without seeing them all at once.  The experiential-landscape equivalent of CliffsNotes (ha!).  It is then to be expected that the accompanying obsession with first ascents is prominent, and often phallic rhetoric around being first to the top thick and fierce.

Canyon hiking inspires similarly craven, ravenous conduct, though of a more secretive kind.  It drives otherwise sane people to move to Hanksville, and many more to obsess about doing “all the canyons” in a metaphysically infinite country.  Claims about first ascents in climbing have their historical value, but are all too often absurd on a factual level.  No one watches the cliffs, writing down all who pass a certain way.  This is even more the case in slot canyons, because they’re so directly and violently subject to the erasure of all signs of human passage.  Additionally, even the nastiest Mae West slot has technical demands of an exceedingly modest nature compared to climbing and alpinism.  That’s why it’s hiking with ropes: it’s easy.

But beyond the factual impossibility of claiming a first descent or ascent, the very mental move of doing so is rarely a gesture of more than ego.  Even Steve Allen (see video, above) is not immune.  In a day when canyon guidebooks have begun to proliferate like cragging ones, it speaks better for the focus of human achievement to make your own first or second or third or fourth descent.  Today you can choose to research a challenging objective exhaustively, or ignore the record and walk out with fresh eyes.  Experience will show which is of greater quality.

There are no first descents.  Beyond being factually impossible, such a claim is spiritually the most healthy.  Which is the only way in which such a silly use of free time is culturally justifiable.

The Black Bean

I’ve been fighting a head cold this week: just enough to make me tired, but not enough to not be bored in the process of resting. So, in no small part inspired by the comments earlier this week, I’ve been watching a lot of climbing videos.

This is a good one.

Be sure to stick with it to see the huge whipper at the very end. Petit was one of the leading sport climbers in the early 90s, and it’s neat to see him, at age 40, coming around to pursue the more holistic, mental side of climbing.

It’s also rewarding to see high-level trad being practiced on limestone. In the 90s and oughts, it seemed like the trad and sport debate had reached a point of equilibrium, with rock type (linked inextricably to the heritage of the area) dictating the approach. Trad was the law of the land on crack systems, and on face routes where the rock lent itself to horizontal breaks (Gunks, Looking Glass in NC, T-Wall). Most limestone and many sandstone areas seemed to be bolted as a matter of course. There’s an argument to be made, though not I still think a very good one, for entirely bolting routes which would otherwise take only a few pieces of gear. This was widespread at areas like the New and Red River Gorges. I also got a surprisingly amount of pushback at the Red for several all-trad face first ascents, and some older routes in the same genre I climbed and subsequently recommended. Some folks didn’t see the point in turning what could be a bolted 5.8 into a tough 5.10 R just because it could be climbed on gear (hunting out which pockets would take a bomber cam on the onsight caused the grade bump, I can recall a few 60 foot routes which took an hour to lead ground up). By the time I moved to Iowa for college I had largely given up proselytizing, and contented myself with climbing many of the routes at Iowas small limestone crags on gear, from fully bolted routes at Wild Iowa to obscure ground up first ascents at Pictured Rocks and Palisades-Kepler. It never occurred to most climbers that you could get good gear on that rock, and in the view of the majority limestone climbing continued to equal sport climbing, only.

Which is why it’s great to see one of the standard bearers at the height of sport climbing leading the charge to trad climb a hard route in the single most iconic sport crag on the planet. And even better to see him speculate, albeit briefly, about what it would have been like had the first ascentionists not defaulted to bolts with no apparent self-examination. Anyone who has done first ascents at popular areas knows, or should know, that there contributions are enduring, and that laziness can have a lasting impact.

It is also worth recalling that Verm, way back in 1995, had it right.