Introducing the Gossamer Gear Tamarisk

I’m pleased to make the world premier of the new Gossamer Gear Tamarisk pack here on Bedrock & Paradox.

IMG_2145

I’d like to thank Gossamer Gear for allowing me to do so, and for integrating my feedback into the design, which is a very new direction for them. Named after the tenacious, ubiquitous invasive plant found throughout the American Southwest, the Tamarisk pack is meant for multi-day adventures in rugged terrain.

IMG_2150

Simple, functional, and above all durable, while also being lightweight. The primary fabric, tan to blend with the environment, is a revolutionary new heavyweight, silicon-impregnated cordura. As waterproof as traditional silnylons, as abrasion resistant as 1000 denier Ballistics nylon, and with outstanding stitch retention, this new fabric promises to set a new standard for practical lightweight backpacks.

IMG_2154

The suspension is modeled after that found in the Gorilla, adapted for highly abusive environments, and the need to eliminate as many straps and buckles as possible. A folded foam pad slots behind a fabric sleeve, and is held in place by the customary wide and durable Gossamer Gear shoulder straps. A single aluminum stay inserts through the gap in the bottom, and is held in place by a pocket on the bottom of the hipbelt.

IMG_2156

The pack can be used with or without the stay, though the single stay achieves such a remarkable combination of load transfer and flexibility few will choose to leave the stay behind. Torso collapse is minimal even at 40 pounds, while maintaining the ability to climb and bust brush.

I should also mention that all of the above is a fib. I built this pack for myself and to my own specs, and Gossamer Gear has nothing to do with it beyond providing inspiration, and they have my apologies for my mischief.

IMG_2130

After returning from Utah with holes in most of our packs it was obvious that I’d need a tough pack for multiday stuff. This one is made primarily from 1000D cordura, which is tough enough and (when purchased on closeout, as this was) fairly inexpensive. The three daisy design shown on the main panel, above, is the cleanest solution I’ve yet found to having enough attachment and compression to carry just about anything. Side panels and bottom are tapered, the former to provide a better fit, the later to lift the bottom and provide clearance when downclimbing.

IMG_2132

The inside liner is 70 denier polyurethene coated, with a stripe of 1000D at the bottom. The bottom sides are the part of the pack which get the most abuse in canyons. A double layer of fabric provides a bit of additional abrasion resistance and waterproofing, and more importantly a surface for Aquaseal bonding when patching holes.

IMG_2135

The shoulder straps needed a bit of alteration. 1 inch buckles for the straps, for better abrasion resistance. The slider buckle for the sternum strap is a point of abrasion, which I’ve seen wear through the adjustment webbing.

IMG_2136

A big grab handle is always a good idea, with lots of reinforcing bartacks. The small red loops are for the lid I’ll eventually build.

IMG_2137

The velcro patch enables use of the belt without the stay.

IMG_2140

A hydration hose port centrally located above the straps is a good idea in a desert pack.

IMG_2155

The pack is 10 inches wide at the back, six inches deep at the bottom, and 39 inches to the top of the extension collar. The belt began life as a Kifaru wraptec. I wasn’t fond of the width or the 2 inch buckle (or the crap sewing), but the cut and especially foam are excellent. Belt pockets get shredded in canyons.  The side seams are triple stitched, then felled and triple stitched again.  This final exposed stitching was coated in Aquaseal.  The bottom panel was triple stitched in, and the finished seam Aquasealed on the outside.  I built it with a single stay because I’d never built one like that before.  Initial carpet testing gives me cause for much optimism that the inflated claims above will be substantiated.

As always, questions below.

There is something about the desert

Examining my photos brings contempt. Clear dawn air shining through snow-dusted larches has been this past week filtered through a shadow of indifference. I keep looking back, in books, old things I wrote long ago, most of all in memory. I want to find it. Whatever it is.

Abbey was right. There is something about the desert.

IMG_1776Rattlesnake. About 8 inches long.

In the “Terra Incognita: Into the Maze” chapter of Desert Solitaire Abbey draws what conclusions he can at the end of his masterwork. It is the penultimate chapter, and while a central theme of the book is the lack of definitives the narrative arc leads inexorably towards something.

Through naming comes knowing: we grasp an object, mentally, by giving it a name- hension, prehension, apprehension.  And thus through language create a whole world, corresponding to the other world out there.  Or we trust that it corresponds.  Or perhaps, like a German poet, we cease to care, becoming more concerned with the naming than with the things named; the former becomes more real than the latter.  And so in the end the world is lost again.  No, the world remains- those unique, particular, incorrigibly individual junipers and sandstone monoliths- and it is we who are lost.  Again.  (p. 257; Touchstone 1990)

The act of naming is as central to understanding as it is to communicating anything with other people, Abbey concludes, and thus understanding and communication are parts of the same.  Naming and sharing that which we experience is essential to living.  It is impossible to see beyond our own eyes, but forgetting the undying mystery which is always already beyond our best vision is a source of much evil.  Abbey reinforces this several pages later by claiming, in all earnest innocence, that he and his friend are the first to walk a certain stretch of canyons since the Indians seven centuries before.

Why is this tension built into the backbone of existence more obvious in the Colorado Plateau?  It is more obvious there, this I take for granted, for reasons discussed above.  I think it must be due to the mix of the outlandish and mundane, the spectacular and the ordinary, sitting so often and so blithely side by side.  That, and the fact that you can see so far and so much, if you know how to look.  In the Colorado Plateau any even slightly enlightened mind cannot rest.

Is this a sufficient explanation?  I’m not sure.  What I am sure of is that my fears of four weeks ago have come true.  I can’t see Montana quite like I used to, and thus I must go south.

 

Hiking with Ropes

DSC03636M photo.

First: hiking with ropes in Colorado Plateau canyons is probably the most satisfying thing you can do outside. The best parts of hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and aid climbing are combined in an activity that’s hard enough to not just be fun, varied enough to not be monotonous, and technical enough to be intellectually engaging, yet with remarkably little tedium. And you get up close and very personal with the most interesting natural features on earth. There are many people who all but abandon, at least for a time, other outdoor “sports” once they’ve gone hiking with ropes in Colorado Plateau canyons.

Americans call it canyoneering. Europeans can it canyoning. I’ve always preferred the more pedestrian hiking with ropes, and canyoneering sounds a bit too grandiose for an activity which breaks stuff and stains your underwear with such regularity. The term canyoneering goes back at least into the 80s, and appears to have originally applied as much to the rugged, non-technical canyon hikes and backpacks such as the Zion Narrows and Buckskin-Pariah as the rap and squeeze fests in Zion and the Escalante.

I propose that canyoneering be seen as the logical inverse of and spiritual cousin to mountaineering.  Back before alpine climbing became a separate cultural entity, mountaineering bespoke a holistic way of traveling through and experiencing the mountains.  Trail pounding, camping, talus slogging, rock, ice, and snow climbing, ropework, and navigation were all part of the game, with pure difficulty well down the list of priorities.  The best thing about most Colorado Plateau canyons is the big hikes required to get to them.  The best thing about canyoneering is probably the ways in which aesthetics do not correlate with difficulty in any predictable manner, thus partially discouraging the climber’s disease of equating hard with better.

Canyoning can then be seen as equivalent to climbing, where kinesthetic purity and the craft of the difficult are prioritized above all other things.  Canyoning would be a better term for the hard but plain Mae West slots currently in vogue, the easy access slots in North Wash (for example), and perhaps the bolted, “sport canyons” in Zion.

IMG_2009

Canyoneering shares something with packrafting: it is both inviting of and dangerous for beginners.  In climbing and mountaineering, you need to apply skill fairly early on to get far off the ground.  In whitewater kayaking, you need to be able to keep your boat upright to get through the boogie water.  The learning curves of packrafting and canyoneering are flat enough initially, and the intrusion of problems which require graduate-level wilderness judgment abrupt enough, that it is easy for people to get themselves killed.  And in the last decade, lots of people have gotten themselves killed canyoneering, a trend which will probably continue.

A background in multi-day wilderness travel, especially in challenging environs, is thus an ideal base to learn to hike with ropes.  It’s helpful to add the skillset of a low-intermediate rock climber (i.e. able to lead difficult to protect 5.9 routes).  Given these things, canyon-specific skills follow quickly.

IMG_2108

Delightfully, the gear required for most Colorado Plateau canyons is quite modest.  The rule to keep in mind is that you’ll entering into the most abusive gear environment on the planet.  Canyons which are narrow, wet, and sandy will impart several lifetimes of normal backpacking wear in a matter of hours.

As seen above, packs will get thrashed.  At left, and in many of the photos featured in recent posts, if our trusty Cold Cold World Ozone.  It’s a simple sack with a webbing waistbelt, good shoulder straps, and 100% 1650 denier ballistics body.  As can be seen, this material is not overkill.  I used it as our big pack in Shenanigans, and put a few holes in it in the process.  Seam grip is your friend here.   The bottom of my Black and White pack, above at right, also took a beating.  Even wonder fabrics like DX40 shudder at the entrance to a slot.  This points to the fact that 4-500 denier fabrics are the starting point for a canyon pack, with heavier being better for frequent use.  Good canyoneering pack options still don’t exist, especially for multi-day stuff.  The stock Ozone torso length is a bit short for most, but if Mr. Rackliffe is still doing custom stuff that would be a good option.  Other climbing packs like the Black Diamond Demon are not bad.  Imlay Canyon Gear makes very solid canyon-specific packs, but they have too many bells and whistles, a frame which is far too heavy for the support it gives, and a one-size fits all approach which is absurd.  They are a good deal, however.  Making your own or buying cheap ones from Sierra Trading Post (and cutting stuff off) remain the best options.  Put plenty of drain grommets in the bottom.

Hardware for canyoneering is pleasantly minimal.  I bring an ATC with biner, two addition lockers (Petzl Attaches have a good shape and a locking mechanism which deals well with sand), another locker carrying two prusiks and a shoulder-length dyneema runner, and a Metolius easy daisy with yet another locker.  ATCs aren’t as smooth and adaptable as the various fancy figure 8s (e.g Petzl Pirana), but are much cheaper, last longer, and don’t twist the rope.  Prusiks are lighter, cheaper, and far more functional than the various mechanical ascenders.  You can prusik on dual strands, for instance.  The easy daisy isn’t runner strength, but I’m comfortable using it as a chicken sling for raps, and the adjustable length is very handy, especially when aiding out of stuff.  Speaking of which, I have an alpine aider, 2 Talons, an Ibis hook, potshots, and a bolt kit, but that stuff hardly ever gets taken along.  There is no reason to use anything but an Alpine Bod for canyoneering (or perhaps the fancy new Couloir, but cut off the belay loop).  They’re comfortable enough for the final rap sequence of Heaps, which is all you should ever need.  Light and cheap is right.

Wetsuits will be necessary.  A full 4 or 5mm will work for most stuff.  Capilene and fleece worn under the suit adds warmth, as does a windproof vest of some kind (neoprene is not wind resistant).  A farmer john and jacket combo is versatile, but layered neo is not as warm as the same thickness in one full layer.  Wetsuits, like everything, will get killed fast.  Buy on discount, used, etc.  My main, 9 year old suit is a womens size 14 I bought for 50 dollars.  It fits a bit odd in spots, but gets the job done.

Lastly, a comment on helmets.  It has become de rigeur to wear helmets for all technical canyon hiking.  In many instances this is a good idea, especially when pulling your ropes on big entrance raps down walls which haven’t been scoured clean by floods.  In other circumstances the need is less acute.  Canyons, even non-trade ones, tend to be pretty darn clean.  There’s certainly the possibility of falling and hitting your head, but that risk is only slightly more likely while downclimbing than while hiking around.  I prefer to simply not fall.  Of course, social hikers who do lots of downclimbing and rapping with big groups are more likely to get a water bottle dropped on them, and might do well to wear helmets more often.  Finally, many canyons are tight enough that a helmet is just one more thing to get stuck, and are thus probably more a liability than anything.

Hiking with ropes, get into it.

Ziene

IMG_2004

Zion. Western edge and crown jewel of the Colorado Plateau. Like Yosemite, but not made of inferior rock. Home to true Dark Service-style crowds and regulations, as well as the most beautiful canyons on earth.

First lesson: there is no S, the great refuge is neither plural nor possessive.
Second lesson: it is one syllable, and rhymes with a sound between nine and sign.

IMG_1982

Oddly, we’ve never spent much time there in October.  That was a mistake.  This time we hit the cottonwoods, scrub oak, and maples right at their height.

And there was much rejoicing.

IMG_2037

Technical canyon permits are Zion have gotten complicated.  Fortunately M was able to iPhone in from Hanksville, and even more fortunately we were successful in the 7-2 day out lottery and had a Mystery permit waiting for us for our first full day.

M’s a cynic about Mystery, but then again she is about most things.  Mystery Canyon doesn’t have everything, but it does have most of the good stuff arranged in a logical and swift succession which I always find satisfying, even if it is missing any of the adult elements of technical canyons.  A  big hike out of the main canyon leads to a steep scramble descent, a rough canyon floor walk, and a shortish slot with gorgeous, fluted rappels.

IMG_1984

After the slot, a bit more canyon walking leads to the landslide, which thanks to September floods had a knee-deep lake behind it.

IMG_2008

It was cold, but not as cold as one February when I busted in through snowdrifts on the approach and put on my drysuit to swim across the half-frozen lake.  Then again, M and I had left the wetsuits behind to save weight.  Mystery has a few mandatory deep pools, including a swimmer at the bottom of a 120 foot rap.  Try as I might, I couldn’t swing over or around it.  Air temps were warm enough that we did fine in soaked capilene, but we were also moving in a sufficiently focused manner that we took no pictures.

The next day Ariel (friend from undergrad) drove down from Cedar City, and we hiked Behunin Canyon.

Behunin starts almost at the West Rim, and most of that vertical back down to the main canyon is lost via rappeling.  Around 1100 feet of it.  As with most Zion technical canyons, what isn’t a big obvious tree has been bolted into submission, and thus Behunin is a fairly casual endeavor provided you keep your rope management in order.

IMG_2042

What pools exist were in fine form, and some trickery was required to keep from getting wet above the thighs.

The canyon was generally gorgeous, and with the trees roaring and perfect weather we deeply enjoyed ourselves.

The last rap sequence demands a little more tension.  A hundred foot rap leads to a 150 footer from a small stance, which is partly free hanging.  There’s a bunch of crap to get your ropes caught on, including some nasty rope grooves which weren’t there nine years ago.

IMG_2076

Ariel about to go free on the last rap.  There are two consecutive raps just as long at the start of the canyon, but those both end on slabby stances, and the rap above feels a lot more intimidating.  After a little futzing the ropes were well sorted and we were all back on solid ground, with a short scramble down to the trail remaining.

IMG_2084

The house-sized boulder hopping leads to springs, which were flowing well and in places covered in such a Goldsworthyesque carpet of leaves that I nearly stepped in the above pool before I reconsidered what I was doing.

We had big plans for our remaining days, which we easily cancelled in favor of a rest day and hanging out with Ariel and her husband Phillip.  The two previous times we had been in Zion in October involved weddings, the first a short visit right after our own, the second Ariel and Phillip’s.  They met through us (me, really), so that’s good mojo.  It seemed a day well spent to go out for breakfast and head up to the Markagunt Plateau at 10000 feet to cut firewood.

On our last day we hiked Misery Canyon.  It was originally called Fat Man’s Misery, but that feature fell apart some time ago, and Misery is left with scant reason for its name.

IMG_2118

IMG_2126

We found Misery positively delightful.  Many short sections of surprisingly deep and complex narrows alternate with wash walking.  We found the canyon almost totally full, with clear water by canyon standards.  A cold wind blew, and we use plenty of ET (extensive trickery) to avoid getting our heads wet.  On several occasions M downclimbed off my extended legs and feet to test the depth.  The final narrows has a hundred meters which would fit perfectly into Heaps, the biggest of Zion side-canyon slots: a slot downclimb enters into a belled room 40 feet in diameter, with a swimming pool at the bottom and a natural bridge on both the up and downstream ends, all streaked in black.  To top off the endeavor, you get to climb and swim past a tepid spring in the last reaches of the canyon, then wade down Parunaweap before making a rough, varied XC hike back to the road.  The technical parts of Misery are just barely outside the park, and thus you don’t need a permit.  That and the absence of long raps appeal to the masses.  No wonder the jingus anchors abounded.

Zion is full of bullshit as only a national park can be.  It was sad to see the increase in social trails and rope grooves since our last visists, and still disappointing to contrast the dumbed-down canyons with the more wild areas further east.  All of these are fairly hollow objections next to the fact that Zion holds close together an utterly unique and viciously compelling juxtapostion of sweeping grandeur and claustrophobic intimacy.  It’s hard to see the canyon as it must have been without highways, the tunnel, and crowds, but you owe it to yourself to visit many times, and try.

Shenanigans

IMG_1879

The manifold and subtle canyons of the Roost are one essential Colorado Plateau experience. The super tight slots are another. Knowing we were two days into a two week trip, and not in what one would call canyon shape, we headed south from Hanksville to North Wash, and Shenanigans.

IMG_1857

The story of how the canyon got its name is worth reading.  North Wash has good, free camping close to a paved road, and a number of scenic, easily digestable slot canyons.  Rolling in at dusk on a Saturday in October I expected a crowd, but was taken aback by the two dozen cars.  We were full of burger and fatigue, and luckily neither of us have trouble falling asleep near noisy people.  We had a warm-up canyon on the menu for tomorrow.

IMG_1861

The main fork of Leprachaun was intended to get the wheels turning and promote a smooth run through the longer Shenanigans. Instead, the physical beatdown had us rethinking our plans. M in particular, as she recalled not having been through it before, and suffered more bruising due to her bonier frame. I had my own concerns. I’d hiked Shenanigans at least twice before, probably thrice, and my first trip down had been solo. As the aforementioned story details, the crux of Shenanigans is an uncompromisingly narrow slot right at the end. You can’t turn your head once in it. I recall cruising through on previous trips, but years of backpacking had thickened my shoulders and chest, and years of office work and the sltoh it promotes had thickened my gut. I was damn close to the 180 pound limit for transit of the slot at ground level.

We walked back to camp, dried gear, ate, and took a dayhike to a swimming hole (which the recent floods had filled with sand and murky, organic soup water). Eventually, we decided to go for it. I sold M on the scenic value of the canyon, and we both felt that the opportunity of our visit should not be squandered.

DSC03710

DSC03720

We were not disappointed. In addition to the usual profusion of narrows, squeezes, and downclimbs, Shenanigans has several sections which hold your memory of it apart from other slots. Two are pictured above (M photos, both). The first is a deep, dark slot slanted right at around 25 degrees. It’s a good 12-16 inches wide, if not more, and the hard part is thus not fitting through but in the shoulder walking necessary to make progress while dragging a pack. Some tiems the floor is flat and sandy, more often it is bare rock and pinches to nothing, squishing feet as they grope blindly for purchase. On my solo descent, I recall the overhanging side being covered with spiders that ran away from the force of my exhalations as I crept along.

The second section is the grim crawl of death. Arriving, you downclimb a 20 foot, sinuous chute to a dark ledge, only to find that after a brief pause the floor vanishes into shadow, the floor barely visible 30 feet below. An awkward, and easy but intimidating crawl leads to the boulder picutred beyond me and a rappel to the ground. Another move where falling is not likely, but exposure has you contemplating all eventualities.

In between these section are some of the most radically fluted and twisted narrows I’ve ever seen, complete with a natural bridge to crawl through. How violent water must be to carve such things makes your hair stand up a bit no matter how good the forecast.

We don’t have pictues of the final slot. I made it through, but with at times disconcertingly little room to spare. Never before have I had to tilt my chest up, down and diagonally to fit through just that right spot. Focus and fear precluded stopping to get the camera out. It is the longest 150 yards I’ve ever walked (shuffled).
DSC03736

At the end the bottom drops out and a short rap leads to a tense disconnect on a greasy foothold right above a murky pool. The rest of the canyon is pretty dry (we had one armpit deep wade, and were glad to not be overheating in wetsuits), and thus a delicate traverse on slime ledges is required to keep dry. We both just made it.

DSC03749

At this point M decided that she had done this hike before, with the slime traverse of all the unique features jogging her memory.

There is an unmatched feeling, after having exited the narrow slots, of returning out of the dragon or leviathan to the land of the living. Not only does little live in these canyons, the menace of flash floods and the cloistered geometry lends them an inhuman intrigue even alpine winter cannot approach.
IMG_1905

For that reason we felt light and free as we completed the bushwacking down the stream post-rappel, and then the nasty, fourth-class gully exit. A quick fifteen minutes of walking through the sage plains and we were back at the car.

Another essential, ineffable experience in the bag.
 

The South Fork of the Roost

IMG_1706

When we lived in Utah the Robber’s Roost was one of my favorite places, and two weeks ago I was reminded that it remains so today. Driving out the sage flats as the sun sank behind the Henry Mountains I concentrated on missing rocks and not flatting our little car. Views as you traverse the massive, gradual hump of dirt and dust between the Dirty Devil and Colorado change slowly, though the few miles heading over towards Burr Pass and the Ekker ranch, from which you can see both the Henrys and La Sals, is not to be missed. I dodged ruts down off the mesa in the dark, managed to not get the car stuck, and we made camp under the moon.

IMG_1708
It takes a keen eye, or prior experience, to know just how elaborate the canyon systems hidden in the middle distance are.

First epiphany after four years in Montana: you can see everything in the Colorado Plateau.  The rising sun highlighted different detailed minute by minute, leaving little mystery if I had the where-with-all to see well.

Our “warm-up” destination was the South Fork of Robbers Roost Canyon.  In our Moab days, when the introduction of mass-market technical canyon beta spelled either the death or birth of the golden age of American canyoneering, I made a list of canyons to hike.  Only a few where left when we moved away, and the South Fork was one of those few I’ve yet to attend to in the years since.  It’s long enough, and the exits from the canyon system few enough, that it almost demands an overnight.  Back then I was still captured by the climber mentality of everything-in-a-day.  Now I embrace backpacking, and the miles of canyon walking our route necessitated was as attractive as the slot itself.

IMG_1719

A short walk from camp brought us to the South Fork spring, home to piping, old pools and game fences constructed from juniper logs, and lots of cow sign.  Another short stroll down the wash brought us to the first drop, home to some poorly placed and unnecessary bolts.  Note the rope grooves caused by anchors too far from the lip of the drop.

We built a cairn and dropped in.  The total weight of our rocks was probably 600 pounds, and the friction of the rope on the lip and proper rap technique brought the force on the anchor down to a fraction of that.  Nonetheless, I clipped in to provide M a bodyweight backup.

IMG_1724

There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of debate about canyon anchors.  The most relevant point is not the particulars in question, but the vociferation of the debate itself.  The desert is sensitive to human passage in places, but beyond all other delicate biomes it holds evidence of prior visitors, obviously.  No one hikes in remote canyons to commune with obvious ghosts, and insofar as the particulars of this debate have little environmental consequence (use trails and shit are exceptions), minimal visual impact over years should be the standard.

IMG_1735

The slot was long and gorgeous, alternating tight downclimbing challenges with soaring walk-through sections. The air stayed cold well into late morning, the sun overheard clear and uncompromising.

IMG_1749

It was fantastic.

IMG_1766

IMG_1758

Rather less fantastic was another epiphany won by time away: the canyons get a lot more traffic today.  The South Fork is not technically fierce on paper, a fact which combines with the aforementioned length to keep away most capitol C canyoneers and instead favor adventurous backpackers and trophy thrill seeakers.  I speculate that this is responsible for the sake of the anchors in the canyons, which were without exception piss poor.  We replaced webbing and re-rigged every one, and deposited a rainbow of 120+ feet of nasty webbing in the dumpster in Hanksville two days hence.

DSC03624

But even the fuckers a day ahead of us who left their golf visor, beef jerky bag, panties, and initials (with date) scratched in the rock couldn’t dent the mood.

IMG_1788

IMG_1790

Slot gave way to big walls, abundant pools, and tight meanders, which gradually widened to sand, pinnacles, and cottonwoods midway through their autumnal transition.  It was gorgeous.

IMG_1805

Late in the afternoon we had walked off our map, and were flagging a bit in the sand.  The confluence with the main fork would be obvious and a good landmark to camp by, but the chill of evening and an obvious side alcove with a spring had us set up camp in the wash what turned out to be 1/3 of a mile short.  We pitched the mid in packed sand, gathered water, made dinner, and as darkness settled fired up the new wood stove.  This was appreciated, as the temp dropped well below freezing and our bodies, light on dinner and heavy with fatigue from the foreign environment, fought to keep warm.

The full moon lit everything with a ghostly light only curiously removed from that of day.

IMG_1817

Morning camp slowly, pink light creeping across and then down the walls.  We burned a few more sticks as we ate breakfast.

The main canyon was obvious, and among other things marked by our first glimpse of tamarisk.  We followed a deer trails through the thicket and up the main fork.  Evidence of major floods from the month before were obvious everywhere: seasonal pools full of murky water, grasses tamped flat, quicksand, and a dozen species of flowers.  The air at 9am was 60 percent winter, the leaves in the trees 95 percent fall, and flowers and rich green undergrowth 75 percent spring.

IMG_1833

IMG_1837

By late morning the sun was reaching us consistently, and we tanked up on water and layered down just in time to head up and out the infamous moki step exit. We’d each done it a number of times previously, as part of day trips through the various north forks above. An easy 25 foot slab leads to an easy 20 foot 5th class wall. Not the sort of thing you’d realistically ever fall off, but with a drop emphatic enough to make you contemplate the improbable. I wasn’t ready to do it with a pack like back in the old days, but felt comfortable enough soloing it, hauling packs, and belaying M up.

IMG_1842

Only the slickrock stairmaster to the rim and a healthy road walk back in the heat of the afternoon remained.

IMG_1848

My canyon sense was and is rather rusty, and after some dumb mistakes route finding we were up on the flat, knocking off the road walk, and drinking beers at the car, looking northwest towards Hanksville and burgers at Stans, 30 straightline miles and a two hours drive away.

IMG_1855

It took quite a few more days to get into the groove of the trip and process those miles, but I can now say this was one of the most memorable trips of the year.  And yes, we’ll be moving back to Utah.

My thoughts on base layers for active adventure

I hesitated to write the footwear article I published last week, for reasons I’ve written about on several occasions, namely that I don’t want to feed the gear obsession that for many perniciously supplants actual experience.  Yet the response I got to that article, for quarters expected and not, has been positive and profuse.  So I going to do more in that idiom in the future, with an emphasis on broader overviews of important equipment issues that can be both important and complex.  I’ve been studying gear catalogues too closely since I was in third grade, and while the volume and type of my outdoor experience is not exceptional, I hope I can put forth some words in ways that folks will find illuminating.  Ergo this article. 

Base layers are, with the exception of foorwear, the most important piece of gear you’ll use outside.  Unlike footwear, the same base layers can be used year round across disciplines.  It’s a worthwhile endeavor to match your physiology and approach to outdoor adventures with your base layer choice.

Base layers exist to be a buffer between your skin and the environment.  They move sweat away from your skin (wicking) so that it can evaporate, keep the sun brush, and rough rock off you, and provide a modicum of warmth in the dry, the wet, and the states between.  An ineffective garmet will leave you damp and cold, and in the case of underwear or the interface between skin, fabric, and pack straps, allow chaffing to occur.  Good clothing and gear elsewhere can be rendered largely ineffective by a bad baselayer.

The normal debate here begins with material, namely ultrafine merino wool versus the various polyester weaves.  But first, it’s worth mentioning cotton.

Cotton is known as the death cloth in outdoor circles for its ability to retain lots of moisture and dry very slowly.  Under most conditions, this makes it totally inappropiate for any item of gear, save perhaps a bandana.  However, in serious heat, cotton can be put to good use.

And not just in Vegas.  The rather natty shirt pictured above was a Patagonia outlet purchase, and is made of a very tight, fine weave of 65% poly and 35% cotton.  It is a fantastic hot as hell base layer.  It keep the sun off (flip the collar up to protect the back of the neck, and wicks and dries just fast enough to cool without chilling.  I’ve worn it mountain biking and hiking in 90+ heat the last two summers and become a big fan.  Of course, in any conditions other than serious heat and full sun, it would become dead weight in the pack.

Most folks will wear a poly or merino base layer.  At present the stereotypes governing the two fabrics are well established and a matter of empirical and subjective consensus.  I’ll review them briefly.

Merino wool:
-Highly resistant to stink
-Softer
-Comfier/warmer when wet and damp
-Fragile
-Dries slower
-Absorbs slightly more water (the above BPL article puts it at ~20% more)

Polyesters:
-Moderately to horrendously stinky
-Lighter
-Tougher
-Dries faster, absorbs less water

I’ve yet to use or hear of a fabric that seriously breaks with any of the above.  My preferences for the last few years have been to use a wool shirt as a base layer in winter conditions, when I’ll be using a midlayer, and synthetic in three season conditions and for more active pursuits like mountain biking.

There is a bit more to the story here, and that is fabric weight.  I sweat more than most under any active circumstances, years of living in Arizona and Utah, I suppose.  I’m also a pretty warm person compared to most.  Thus I value fast wicking and drying highly.  Not only does this prejudice me towards synthetics, it leads me to only select thinner base layers, and fabric thickness plays a large role in water aborption and drying time.

Take Patagonias Capilene 2 (my favorite for the last 15 years) compared to its Wool 2.  Cap 2 fabric weighs 124 grams per square meter, while Wool 2 weighs 165 grams per square meter.  Cap 3, significantly warmer in my experience than Cap 2, is 167 grams per square meter, essentially identical to Wool 2.  One of the reasons Wool dries slower than synthetics, and why I’ve had a hard time embracing it, seems to be that the structural limitations of ultrafine merino make it difficult to make it into fabric light enough to be a truly year round base layer.  BPL has a line of merino clothing made of 115 grams per meter fabric, which seems promising.  I snagged one of the beanies they made, in a single production run, from this fabric last fall, and find it an extremely versitile hat.  Unfortunately this light merino is proportionally more fragile, enough that the product page carries a disclaimer, and that BPL is currently struggling to find a shop willing to work with the finicky fabric.

 This is Kevin Sawchuk heading up to Pentagon Pass almost exactly 365 days ago during the Parcour de Wild wilderness race.  We both wore light wool base layers (Patagonia Wool 2 for me, Ibex Woolies for him) under lighter synthetic midlayers (Patagonia for both, R1/2 hoody for me, R1 hoody for Kevin).  In the cold, wet conditions we found this system worked very well, keeping us warm even though we were damp most of the time.

In summary, pick your fabric weight carefully, and lean towards the lighter ones, especially for active uses.  Pay attention to weave as well; Cap 2 wicks and dries faster than Cap 1, even though the fabric is marginally heavier, due to the weave.  Open knits with a three dimensional structure are best.

Your base layer shirt will get worn a lot, and the lighter fabrics that get summer usage will often be the only thing on your torso.  They’ll get a lot of abuse, be it from pack straps, slot canyon walls, or mountain bike crashes.  It is in this department that merino comes up drastically short, and why I can’t see myself buying more of it.

This is me riding the then brand new Karate Monkey in Granite Basin during December of 2006.  I’m wearing a long sleeve Capilene 2 crew neck under my thrift store jersey.  I bought that crew neck in 2004.  It’s still in service today, and gets worn at least once a week.  I have two Wool 2 shirts that are 12 and 16 months old.  Both have a few small holes in them.

Beyond selecting a base layer fabric that suits your needs, getting one that fits is vital.  Fit in many respects determines function.  A good wicking layer can’t do its job if it flops away from your skin, and can’t be a comfy part of a clothing system if it forms creases and pressure points under a midlayer.  Keep the big picture in mind when making selections.

The most useful base layer is the long sleeve crew neck.  Rolled up sleeves are only mildly warmer than short sleeves, and with so many blood vessels close to the skin on the inside of the forearms, rolling down sleeves adds a surprising amount of warmth.  I’ve never found turtle neck comfortable, or zip necks especially useful, but others have different experiences.

Base layer undies are vital.   Spending 30 bucks on a pair of synthetic undies is not an exciting way to spend money, but will end up being among the best you’ll ever spend on outdoor gear.  Goodbye swamp ass.  I like boxer briefs for the balance of comfort, good wicking, and chaff prevention.

Long bottoms are useful as well.  I have a pair of Cap 2 long johns I hacked to below knee (knicker) length.  They provide complete coverage when paired with knee high socks, avoid bulky overlap under ski boot cuffs, and the additional thigh and knee coverage adds more warmth than you’d think.

Ariel, Isaac, M, me, and Phillip in the Robbers Roost during November of 2005, with a lot of old canyon anchors.  We camped out in the cold for a few weeks, did a ton of canyons, and celebrated T-day with a bitching dutch oven cook out, beer, and shooting cans with my .45.  A few days before this picture was taken Phillip and I descended an obscure fork of Upper Blue John.  M and I did an unknown, possible first descent of it a few days prior.  Phillip and I had intended to upclimb the publicized east fork into which our fork fed, but our attempt to pack toss and tent pole hook past a 25′ drop didn’t work, and we had to wade the 150 yard long, chest deep pool below.  In near freezing weather, with no sun, and no wetsuits.  I wore Cap 2 knickers and soft shell pants and was cold, but survived.  Phillip wore something similar, but the cold seemed to affect him more.  When we exited the long wade he immediately dropped his pants and shuffled back and forth giving his manhood a vigorous two-handed rewarming.  Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  We climbed a sandy 5th class ramp to escape the slot.  Lesson: know your physiology and buy clothing accordingly.

Last but not least, a good synthetic base layer headband is handy in winter.  It will keep your ears warm, disperse forehead sweat, and let heat vent out the top of your head without soaking a hat.  I made one last winter, with a double layer of Cap 1 and a single layer of Cap 2 in the back.  When the aforementioned thin wool hat would get too wet skinning uphill, but it was too cold to wear no hat at all, this little thing was amazingly useful.

In short, baselayers are important, and a matter of personal need and preference.  While there is no substitute for trial and error, and lot of money and bother can be avoided with a little research and introspection about how and where you’ll be wearing them.  I’m hopeful that a poly/wool blend (like Patagonia’s newest generation of Wool 2) will come into being soon, and will allow the anti-stink, warmth, and coziness of merion to be enjoyed in a ~120 grams per meter fabric that dries fast and is tough enough for real world, four season use.  In the meantime, I’ll keep using the boxes full of baselayers I’ve accumulated over the years, because so many of the quality synthetics just refuse to die.

Going big

The laptop is back, so beware; this will not be short.

Just for today, I did some training on the Spruce Mountain road. 1.5k of climbing, in places quite steep. I still can’t get it all in one go. 38 minutes of pain. We’ve had isolated storms moving through all afternoon, and towards the top I got a bit of what may be the last snow of the year. Driving back into town, a singular dark cloud was pouring down on Little Granite Mountain.

For dinner I had a big spinach salad, and a big steak cooked over pine coals. Our little yard sale hibache does very well, as does the national forest and free fire-control downed wood. A few Newcastles (if a person exists who can drink one Newcastle on a night with a fire and the coyotes howling, it is not me) to make the world seem perfectly in order. A perfect bike sitting well used in the garage. A truck with freshly rotated tires. A ravishing spouse off making enormous amounts of money.

Life.

And now, the Easter weekend canyon epic:

Would you trust your life to this?


We did. I came to canyoneering from climbing. In climbing you’re dealing with falling bodies, and large forces. In canyons, you’re rappelling only, and ideally facing only static forces. That, coupled with a strong desire to maintain style and eschew drilled bolts, has brought forth some creative anchor building. Piles of rocks, rocks buried in the sand, knotted webbing wedged in cracks. It’s some good technical, analogue problem solving. With penalty points.

M starting the rap from the above anchor. Yes, I suck and can’t turn pictures. (But I don’t suck, I can turn pictures, and I know his password- M)


M handlining off a tree. Note the flora; Zion has a fantastic mix of desert and alpine, you get p pines, cacti, and manzanita in the same 50 feet.


M rapping. Showcased is the short, often awkward forms water cuts. The key here is to be smooth and not shock-load the anchor, which can multiply the forces applied.

M and Phillip. Some end of the season snow.


Another typical rap. Large stones wedge, from rockfall or floods, and create debris and gravel dams, which cause drops.

All of the above are in the upper section of Corral Canyon. After ~10 raps and assorted downclimbing snow sliding, the canyon opens into a wider area. We skirted the drainage until we came to this:


~700 foot shear drop. Once you drop in and pull the ropes, you’re committed. Our directions were vague, so we took a while to find the proper tree to start the sequence. In the end, common sense and experience usually prove to be a good guide. Someone had to do it first, and they typically take the line of logic. In our case, two fat trees at 170′ and 200′ led to a nice ledge with bolts, and not-so-nice ledge with bolts, and then a big ledge and a 35′ rap of a shrub into the depths of the slot shown above. Then it was only another 4-5 short raps in a quarter mile to the narrows.

No pics hiking in the dark while tired. Being a dedicated documentarian takes a will I didn’t possess that day. Apologies to the dedicated fans. Buy me some beer in May and I’ll reconsider in the future.

M and I ensconced in the handicapped bathroom, Temple of Sinawava bus stop, ~0000. I’m psyched to have my inflated dromedary as a pillow, and that Phillip shared his space blanket. It’s also nice to not be wearing a wetsuit anymore. And laying down is good after 15 hours on the move.


Phillip was pretty stoic about the bivy, but I think he had the most clothes of the group.

Baby’s first pseudobivy went well. Better than a fire on a gravel bar. Space blankets make a big difference. Testing has confirmed their merit.

Tomorrow, whatever I forgot.

fin