Anorak finished!

Grey fabric is OWFInc Epic polyester ripstop, 2.8ish oz/yrd. Blue and neon (underarm panels) fabric is Pertex Equilibrium. Pink flare is the nylon from the old anorak that got sacrificed as a pattern.

That was me showing what I think of making clothes.  It’s hard, finicky work.

There were plenty of head-scratching moments, some seam ripping, and there are and will remain quite a few uglyass seams, but everything is solid and the fit is what I wanted it to be.  Testing to begin shortly.

What I wore this past Saturday

As has been acknowledged here and most everywhere else, dressing for ski touring is a challenge.  Strenuous, slow ups, fast and cold downs, and rapidly changing exposure to sun and shade and calm and wind make maintaining a safe level of warmth without sweating quite the puzzle.  I had a pretty good setup going this weekend, as follows from the bottom up:

-Scarpa T2 plastic double boots, Darn Tough socks

For a multiday trip I’d wear vapor barriers to keep the liners dry.  My boots have plenty of toe room, and are super warm  No issues with the feet all day.

-Midweight stretch polyester pants, Powerstretch boxer-briefs

There was little wind in the forecast, but the possibility of daytime lows in the high single digits up high.  The boxers kept the crucial areas warm, while the pants blocked wind and snow while breathing very well.  I also have shock cord instep straps sewn into the pants, which keeps them locked down and snow out of my boots.  These pants are closest to the current Patagonia Simple Guide pants.

-Capilene 1 sleeveless, Capilene 2 LS crewneck, Patagonia Traverse pullover, OR Omni gloves

For reasons discussed a week or so ago, the Traverse is a foundation of my winter layering.  It balances wind and snow protection with breathability in an exemplary fashion.  The cap 1 sleeveless might seem redundant, but the tight fitting, fast wicking fabric adds a noticable edge to both moisture transport and warmth.  All these layers get damp throughout the day, and I rely on their fast drying capacity to keep me comfy.

-Patagonia Houdini

I put this on for the down hills.  It adds just enough wind and snow resistance without causing the overheating that a bigger jacket would.  It also continues the venting and drying process, even as I ski down.  Had it been windier I would’ve wanted a burlier layer that better resists pumping out heat by fabric flapping.

-Capilene magic hat, Montrail headband

My hat system is where I’ve made the most refinements this year, with great success.  The magic hat is a skull cap made of variable weights of capilene, a double layer of capilene 1 wrapping from the front across the ears almost to the back, and a single layer of capilene 2 at the back of the head, and across the top of the hat.  The double cap 1 is warmer and moves moisture fast, while the single layer cap 2 vents super quick and provides less warmth where you don’t need it.  This hat looks ugly, but is absolutely ass kickingly effective.  I can wear it going uphill and it acts as a sweatband to keep my glasses unfogged, and it will dry fast enough to not suck out heat when I top out.  Worlds better than wool in this application.

The Montrail headband is a wool/acrylic blend hat I got in my prize package at the Grizzly Man race back in the spring but never wore because it was too shallow and didn’t cover my ears.  A few weeks ago, in a flash of inspiration, I cut the top 4 inches off and made a big, turbo headband or topless hat.  I throw this on for extra warmth on the down, which is very effective.  You don’t need warmth on top of your head, at least if you have as much hair as I do.  The knit it very stretchy and stays put even while cartwheeling and faceplanting in deep snow.

-Patagonia DAS parka, OR Endeavor mitts

A synthetic belay parka is absolutely essential for winter endeavors.  The Primaloft One insulation and high density 100% poly shell and liner don’t mind moisture, and dry super fast.  They keep the heat generated on the up locked in for the down.  When  I top out I immediately put on the Houdini, then the DAS, perhaps keeping them unzipped for a bit to vent some moisture.  I adore this coat, as it is simply perfect for this application.

The Endeavor mitts are the second layer of hand defense.  I only used them for the snowmobile tow, given how calm the day was.

-Fleece vest and mittens

Emergency clothes carried deep in the pack, along with firestarters and emergency bivvy.  Rarely used.

 

In the winter dance of warm and cold, this system delivers.  Some parts, specifically the light soft shells, synthetic hat layers, and belay parka are both key to comfort and very dialed.  Hope this might help some of you still seeking answers.

A note for those looking to MYOG with respect to hats: the Patagonia Outlets and the online web specials often have XXL capilene shirts for super-cheap.  I buy them specifically to rip apart and make gear.

The Ultimate Trip and Gearlist(s)

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

We Americans must look odd, sometimes.

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

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

1) Lhasa-Dharmsala Trek

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

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

That’d be cool.

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

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

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

3) Spring Bob Marshall traverse

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Hendrik, it’s going to be good.

A tale of two windshirts (thoughts on winter clothes)

After a week of steady snow and temperatures in town flitting around the freezing mark, winter emphatically arrived last night.  Up in the foothills (West Glacier ) evening lows are forecasted solidly into the negative single digits.  Might it be time to go camping?

The skiing up on Big Mountain has been excellent this week, though the visibility has not.  Heading down the north side in flat light yesterday morning I stuff a tip into a ‘cat rut and yardsaled pretty hard.  Aside from a mildly rung bell I didn’t notice any ill effects until we were drinking Guinness in the Great Northern in Whitefish last night (before seeing Harry Potter).  My neck is fine so long as I don’t look down or sideways too fast.  My legs are also worked: getting into ski shape is always a process: there just isn’t anything else quite like it.  And that’s a good thing.

Clothing systems for backcountry skiing are among the hardest to figure out.  They must accommodate the extreme exertion and lack of air movement that characterize hiking hard uphill, as well as protect against forced air circulation at a level equal or greater to mountain biking downhill.  Doing all this in single digits temps, when you’ll be in and out of exposure to strong winds, and the stakes can go well beyond the merely uncomfortable.  Your clothing needs to wick, vent and dry quickly, and with minimal fuss also cinch down thoroughly and be quite to very windproof.

Yesterday morning was a good example.  It was pretty warm at the base, and moderately windy the first time I crested the summit.  The balance between being cool enough to not sweat too much (the only way to not sweat at all is to slow down, which I consider untenable) and not loosing more heat than can be regained through exertion and a belay coat was tenuous.  I wore a cap 2 shirt, Omni gloves, a very thin merino beanie, and my Patagonia Traverse pullover.  For the descent I zipped everything up, added a Houdini, and goggles.

For the second trip up, the wind had picked up quite a bit, and it was snowing.  I shed the goggles, but nothing else, and went back and forth between everything unzipped and the Houdini all cinched up.  Once I crested the summit ridge the wind was fierce, and I was only just warm huffing up a 20 degree slope with everything cinched.  At the summit I dumped my pack, pulled on my belay coat, shed skins, put on goggles, stuffed the coat in the pack, and headed down (enjoying stellar powder in the upper bowl).  Everything but my hat was dry when I got back to the truck, I had a good ice beard started, and the shoulders, hood and arms of the Houdini were crusty with frozen moisture.  80 percent from me, 20 percent from the ski, I’d reckon.

Aside from the merino hat, which just doesn’t wick and dry fast enough, this is a pretty good system.  It’s built around two pieces of gear, which seem to overlap significantly, are among my favorites, and neither of whom I can see easily doing without.

I’ve written about the wonders of the Houdini before.  It is simply one of the most useful pieces of outdoor clothing invented.  I’ve recently learned (through BPL, of course) that part of the Houdini’s magic (good wind resistance for such a light fabric, astoundingly fast dry time) exists on an almost molecular level.  The nylon ripstop is impregnated with the DWR, in the same process used on Epic fabrics.  The Houdini is structurally incapable of soaking up much water.  Though the thin fabric will wet through fairly easily, it doesn’t retain moisture.

The Traverse pullover is quite different.  4.7 oz/yard fabric, compared to the Houdini’s 1.1.  The Traverse is also polyester rather than nylon, significant because poly absorbs much less water than nylon.  Estimates vary, but most seem to put nylons at around 4x that of polyester.  Interestingly, the moisture retention of these two fabrics might be very close.  I may have to test this myself.  Because of the more open weave of the fabric, the Traverse has tested to be about twice as air permeable as the Houdini.  The Traverse also lacks a hood (and I removed the chest pocket).

All of this creates some interesting differences between the two; for instance, the Traverse is warmer, but the Houdini more wind and water-resistant.  The Houdini dries faster, bu the Traverse disperses perspiration faster.  The ultimate result is that over a broad range of conditions (anything between bright warm sun and full on rain) these two windshirts have an intricately overlapping range of situations in which one is more appropriate than the other.  They can also work well in tandem.  Given that windshirts are the most versatile of garments, having two isn’t a bad thing at all.

The problem is, I want a third windshirt.  The full rational and thought process is displayed in this BPL thread, but in summary I want a burlier, heavier windshirt with more wind and water resistance, as well as different feature set than either the Houdini or Traverse.  For winter, I actually see the new anorak complementing the very breathable Traverse well.  Case in point, the Traverse/Houdini combo was only just windproof enough skinning up the summit ridge yesterday.  And it’s going to be way colder than that on many ski days this winter.

Construction on the new windshirt should begin shortly after Thanksgiving.

PS: Watch the ski video linked to in my tweet from yesterday.  The bro-bra aesthetic is lamentable, but the skiing (and fishing!) are top notch.  The February B-day trip I want to do in SoUt is getting crowded.

Memory

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

Acting on desire

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

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

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

The possibilities of snow

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

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

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

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

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

The certainty of wet feet

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

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

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

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

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

Broken bindings, broken routes

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

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

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

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

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

Ending before the beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This video might still be my favorite.

Postscript

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

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

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

All Pack, version 4

There are few things that will get more mileage, if you’re a regular adventurer outside, than a stout 40-50 liter pack. Enough room for technical day trips or short backpacks, not big enough to be a nuisance on a dayhike, tough enough to beat on for years.

My version of this do-most-things pack has evolved considerably since I built the first version 20 months ago.  My skill set has evolved, my preferences have changed, the fabrics I use and my designs have grown more sophisticated.  After the North Fork Pack was such a success, another All Pack redesign was inevitable.

I finished this latest one up just in time for last weekends traverse in Glacier NP, and can report that the revisions performed admirably.

Central to this are the bellowed side pockets, with burly 1/4″ shock cord running through a sleeve on the curved edge, with grommets on either end.  The cord is adjustable and replaceable should it wear out.

The pockets hold a lot of stuff securely, fold pretty flat when not in use, and stuff can be extracted and inserted with one hand without removing the pack!  Here in Montana I typically bring just one water bottle, and refill water often from little streams.  Side pockets are essential for making this approach efficient.

The bottom and back panel, as well as front and sides of the wrap around pocket, are Ballistics nylon.  Heavy, and absorbs water, but very abrasion resistant.  The inner layer of the double bottom, and the black inner fabric, is Dimension Polyant VX-21.  The VX-21 is lighter and very waterproof (200 psi). As a result, it aborbs very little water.

The hipbelt design I’m quite proud of.  The outermost wings are Osprey Talon 11 belt pockets/wings, while the inner belt is VX-21.  It’s bartacked to the middle of the back panel, and to the side wings (that also serve to attach the shoulder straps).  Two gussets shape the belt midway between the attachment points (the gussets are bartacks sewn into the belt to take up fabric).  The result is a light, unpadded belt that carries weight well and does a remarkably job moving with me during climbing and bushwacking.

This shows the belts attachment to the side wings, as well as the drain slot in the bottom of the side pockets.

I modified the stock hip belt buckle rig for two reasons after this weekends trip.  First, having two buckles for adjustment seemed excessive.  I also wanted to replace the fancy Osprey buckle with this more conventional black one.  The male end of the Osprey buckle doesn’t have much space for snow to exit when you close it, and is thus surprisingly prone to icing up.  This should solve that issue.

It’s rather impossible to give a complete sense of all the design details.  Do feel free to ask questions.  The only pieces which have been apart of every revision up to the present are the shoulder harness, extension collar, and back pocket daisy chain assemblage.  The overall dimensions have also changed.  This version is shorter than past versions, as I have a big pack for serious gear, and fatter.  A pack worn while cycling can only be so tall (it hits your helmet), and I wanted a better pack for bike-rafting.  In the first photo I have my packraft, paddle, PDF, drysuit, and a days accessories all loaded in.

It’s been a fun journey.

Fear and Trembling (in praise of the off-season)

“He had faith by virtue of the absurd, for all human calculation ceased long ago.”
-Soren Kierkegaard

Glacier National Park was called the Alps of the Americas not only to lure rich easterners away from Europe, but because the high peaks that make up the crown of the continent hold forth with a singular aesthetic.  Unlike the taller mountains of the Colorado Rockies, Sierras, or Wind Rivers, Glacier’s mountains are not only the icing on the cake of larger massifs.  They, like the Tetons, rise straight from the plains, foothills utterly absent, abrupt in a way that “go west young man” stereotypes would have midwestern children believe all mountains do.  Unlike the comparably small Tetons, which as a singular ridge constitute an isolated if craggy geologic exception, the mountains of Glacier National Park are at once unified and expansive.  There are many high peaks possessed of that singular, Matterhornian architecture which makes for such good photos.  There are also many appropriately deep and dark valleys, and said valleys are spread amongst and between the peaks such that it is possible to get well and truly situated in the depths of the range, something not possible in the Tetons, where any high vantage provides a view of either the Wyoming or Idaho plains.

All of which is to say that the mountains of Glacier are classical mountains, with all the proper metaphysical and mystical connotations.  There be dragons, indeed.

And that is in turn to say that religious inclinations are the right and proper outgrowth of time spent in Glacier, especially during the off-season, when the mountains wake from the soporific heat of summer (which is in Glacier de facto 2 months long at most) and really stretch their legs.

Triple Divide Pass, looking north into the Hudson Bay Creek drainage.  Note the bear tracks in the lower right hand corner. 

Soren Kierkegaard** was a Danish philosopher who wrote about religion and about faith.  He stands aside Plato and Nietzsche and Chuang Tzu as thinkers whose profundities are equalled by their stylist sophistication and beauty.  In Fear and Trembling he discusses the sacrifice of Abraham, and how the faith evinced therein rests on a belief in the absurd, that is, in something categorically beyond human comprehension.  Because Keirkegaard was post-Cartesian, he knew the power cogito ergo sum* held over human understanding (and thus, existence), and thus knew that placing a central tenet of religious existence beyond the reaches of human thought was at least doubly paradoxical.  As he wrote “To exist in such a way that my contrast to existence constantly expresses itself as the most beautiful and secure harmony with it- this I cannot do.  And yet, I repeatedly say, it must be wonderful to get the princess.”  This gorgeous reality has selectively reared its head in the century and half since, notably (and almost always overlooked) in the work of Edward Abbey, from which this blog takes its title and mission.

This past weekend I loaded snowshoes, two days of thin rations, and fall clothing into a newly completed pack (the umpteenth All-Pack revision) and headed through the heart of Glacier for 60 miles, on the latest of many such solo athletic and spiritual journeys.  Turning my mind off has always been a challenge; as a child I could never fall asleep without reading.  It is thus especially notable that, in 2010, I’ve weened myself off backcountry reading material, and been able to (normally) sleep just fine.  Nothing turns off the mind like the beat of walking for hours and hours in the woods, and as Kierkegaard wrote, “…faith begins precisely where thought stops…”

M graciously woke up at 630 on Saturday morning, and by 900 I was walking through the gated campground at Two Medicine, admiring abundant clouds and clean light.  It didn’t begin raining until just below the south side of Pitamakin Pass, which was amazingly snow free.  I put on my snowshoes at the summit, and full shell gear a mile down the north side.  I had pondered the necessity of bringing either, but would come to dearly rely on the presence of both.  My weather for the weekend substantially overdelivered on the forecasted 50% chance of rain, and the non-south facing passes of the second day would make the ‘shoes invaluable.

The miles between Pitamakin and the ascent to Triple Divide Pass are lost to memory and the violence it suffers at the zen hands of hiking.  The ascent of that pass is noteworthy however, as it has no switchbacks, just one 3+ mile long switch up the cirque wall.  A few of the deeper alcoves had a more easterly aspect, and these were reliably drifted full and packed with snow at a steep angle.  It was still raining, and the saturated snow made kicking steps with soft shoes easy.  I could even sink my trekking poles to the handles for self-belays, something I’d do again on similar sections going up Gunsight the next day.  In both cases steep snow (60-65 degrees, measured with an inclometer) and a 4th class runout (ie probably death in a fall) would have made harder snow a trip-stopper without an axe, alpine boots and crampons.  Those sections, perhaps 6 in all, were attention getting.

I had 31 miles to make my intended campsite on St Mary Lake, which meant I’d be night hiking.  I do that with dis-ease in Griz country, given that a startled hyperphasic bear is statistically the most dangerous to a hiker.  I saw no live bears, but lots of nearly live tracks, both black and Griz.  Some, as in the above photo, in rather unlikely places.  My off-season hiking this year has given me a ground truth understanding of what work animals do to find food.  Given the track depth, it seems Glacier bears favor night or early morning pass crossings.  So I strode along yelling “Hey ____! (bear, moose, elk, stick, mud, stump, vole, rock, etc) and singing old French camp songs.  Or what little I remember of them.

Camp was gorgeous.  On the flat rock beach of a glacial lake, it had stopped raining an hour ago, and the stars were out!  It was also gusting to 60 mph, making the fire burn fast (good for a quick dinner) and necessitating a post-dinner shelter re-pitching, complete with a lengthy quest for the heaviest drift logs and rocks I could carry.  The Trailstar is super burly once all the anchor points are guyed out, but establishing those guy points can be tricky.  The bivy sack, which I had thought about bringing days before the trip, turned out to the unlikely but best option (had I had it along).  I didn’t get the sleep until 1130, but slept well one I realized the shelter wasn’t going to blow away, just flap a lot.  The MLD guy points are burly.

I awoke at 740 and got going fast, after fetching my bear bag and crawling back into my bag to make coffee.  The trail was up in the trees 50-100 feet above the lake, so I walked the rock beach for a mile so I could fully enjoy the sunrise.

My legs and feet were creaky, and I knew the day would not be short, but M was meeting me at Lake McDonald Lodge at dark, and I had miles to make.  Fortunately, though my muscular and cardio specific conditioning is lacking right now, I’ve banked the experience to make up for it.

I needed all the help I can get.  The upper reaches of Gunsight were fogged in, breaks in the clouds and rain revealed steep, stark wall on all sides and one wet point-release avalanche that slide at the ground and ran a few hundred feet, covering a line of goat tracks.  The upper mile of trail was barely distinguishable, and making it up efficiently and away from avy terrain required all of my not inconsiderable skill at micro-route finding.  When I saw the hut at the apex of the pass and went inside to make ramen with my last esbit cube, I felt like I had very much succeeded in turning aside from human calculation, and in the process completed a Masters practical examination in wilderness travel.  The traverse around the side of Lake Ellen Wilson was tough and slow, snow conditions being as abysmal as they were, but even though the pass over to the Sperry drainage was not without its thought-provoking moments, the crux had been overcome and the trip was, sore feet and quads aside, a foregone conclusion.

I was over an hour late to meet M, but she had seen my microscopic Spot progress and delayed her arrival accordingly.  The last 1.8 miles, down hard dirt trail in the dark and drizzle with failing quads, was comical for even me to witness.  My safety call had morphed from Hey Bear to cursing the trail, errant rocks, deceptive shadows, my own knackered legs, and the extravagant number of feet in a mile.  All of which was absurd.  The nearer I felt to the world, the more intimate my notice of its details, the further I was drawn into a situation in which I was cursing exactly those things I was not only powerless to change, but would never truly desire to alter.  Whatever the state of my existence during those last miles, I was exactingly aware of it.

M was waiting, light on in the cab of the truck, in the parking lot of the lodge, the white truck seeming unusually clean against the wet asphalt into which all light vanished.  I threw my pack in the back, pulled off my rain jacket and my shoes, and let my damp socks stink in the air as I enjoyed a moist, warm, quiet ride back home.  My absurd, paradoxical existence, my coexistent separateness from and dependence upon the world at large, and my enthusiastic if occasional embrace of all that uncertainty instantly made the smallest details of my marriage, employment, and quiet daily life more beautiful and more secure than they had been 36 hours previously.

No matter how sore my feet were, and 24 hours later, still are.

*I think, therefore I am.
**All quotations/citations from the 1983 Hong and Hong translation.

All-Pack, finalized

Back in April, I put together a pack almost from scratch, which was to be an all sport and all conditions multi-day and/or technical pack. It still represents my finest design and sewing work to date. Although the larger canvas makes execution a lot easier than with frame packs or clothing.
It’s been on two backpacking trips and a bunch of day training and testing stuff since, and the other week I pulled a few seams apart to make some tweaks.
The beavertail flaps top buckle got moved lower down, and the pocket itself shortened.
The extension collar got shortened.
The lower drawcord where the orange silnylon met the ballistics was done away with.
I removed the internal pad sleeve entirely.
I moved the load lifter attachment down almost two inches.
I took in the back panel seams above the shoulder harness, thus reducing the overall circumference of the top part of the packbag and biasing the weight closer to my shoulders.
All that said, things still just weren’t quite right.
Over the summer I became a devotee of placing a rolled up foam mat inside the pack, letting it unfurl, then stuffing all contents inside it like a burrito. It provides great structure and load control, and another layer of insulation against abrasion (useful in canyoneering and bushwacking). The pad I had been using was a rather stiff, generic bit of 48″ by 21.5″ by 5/8″ foam.
Yesterday I bought a short (48″ by 20″) Ridgerest, and the pack was transformed. The Ridgerest provides the exactly right balance of structure and flexibility. It allows better use of the compression straps, and does a much better job of hugging my back.

It’s very interesting comparing the above with the pictures from the earlier post. I can’t wait to take this thing ski touring. I’m actually hatching a January (pre Camp Lynda, ideally) trip that will fulfill my long time ambition to do the Narrows in the dead of winter, with some flair added.
I’ll get dropped off on Highway 14 a bit above 9000′, ski through the lovely aspens along the east side of Black Mountain, descend down west of Aspen Lake and enter Deep Creek right above O’Neill Gulch. Then take the skis and ski boots off, put the drysuit and neo socks on, and tromp down Deep Creek. Camp somewhere, and finish up down the Narrows, carrying skis to the Temple bus stop.
You’d need touring skis, boots, poles (for both sections), drysuit etc, and likely instep crampons. Should be a hoot.
In any case, I was sufficiently pleased with my design that I went down to the basement this morning and made it all permanent by seam sealing all the major seams and bar tacks. I like the liquidy, REI brand seam sealer for this job. Lends both durability and a bit of waterproofness.
The whole pack, including the removable snack pouch on the belt, weighs 20 oz. on the nose (without the 8.5 oz Ridgerest). Not bad for a pack made of 16 oz/yard fabric, with a double bottom and 3/4″ grommets for draining. I’m quite confident in it’s overkilledness. Its already been hung as a bearbag.
Hydration port, a mandatory feature. As efficient as using bottles and constantly refilling in streams is around here, I like hoses more.
One benefit of the beavertail pocket (pulled, as Eric noted many moons ago, from the Dana Designs packs) is that it makes packing a bike workable. Pull all the straps, put the seat tube in the bottom of the pocket, lay the pocket around the frame and cinch down all the straps. Driveside out, right pedal up and next to the pack, an extra strap holding the fork to the triangle so it’s immobile. Wheels off and strapped on after. I may be putting this feature to a more exhaustive test than I care to contemplate soon.
Gets me thinking about a lighter SS frame for easier carrying.