Testing (testing)

My mission to ski the Nyack-Coal loop failed, but most everything else was a success.  In short, bad snow and improperly broken-in boot liners conspired to make for a slow pace and painful feet, so I turned around.  I still got to see Glacier, covered in snow but fast melting out, which can never been done often enough.

One commentator on a post of Jill’s the other week elicited this response from the author herself:  “Only difference between me and most people who everything always seems to go right for, is that I actually own up to my mistakes. And I really do make an effort not to make them again.”  And in that spirit I own mine: even well baked liners with toe caps need some shorter outing to settle in properly.

That said, the TLT 1000s did well at the job for which they were built.  The snow on Saturday was soft and punchy, and overnight it froze up, hard.  I crashed twice on the ice in the 100 yards going from my camp to where I hung my food today.  I needed every bit of the control plastic soled boots provide.  The intuitions liners rubbed my ankles badly on a test mission last Wednesday, so I substituted (and cut down) these Raleigh liners.  With a few tweaks and some breaking in these boots will be a winner.  That they’re waterproof to 6″ is a nice feature in spring.

I broke my poor, decade old BD trekking poles for the third time today.  I fell backwards and fully weighted a pole stuck 2 feet in the snow, it didn’t have a chance.  That is a lower of the two flicklocks on each pole.  Not sure any pole could’ve survived the fall, and at least I could pry the broken piece out and make the pole workable.

The bears are awake, and about.  During one fall today the bear spray, which I secure to the side of my pack with a bungee, fell off.  I didn’t notice for quite a while.  Lesson: secure your bear spray more effectively.

I’ve owned my Bushbuddy stove for almost two months, and hadn’t used it until yesterday.  I wanted it for exactly this situation, when 5 feet of snow on the ground make a proper fire impractical.  Bonus is how quickly and easily the bushie fires up with only modest attention paid to tindering, and how much juice you get from a very small amount of wood.  All that, and it is a work of spot welding art.  Very cool.

The MLD simple poncho-tarp in tarp mode.  Not much to say here, it works just fine, and I like the color.

A method for carrying skis on the raft: lash skis and poles to back of pack, then lash pack sideways on raft with skis forward.  Stable, weight balanced, not good for running tight gaps.  I was able to float the last 1/2 mile of Nyack on the way out, with plenty of water.  The 5 miles down from the lower camp will probably be in good boating shape very soon, and promise to make for a very good, mellow float.  The upper reaches look spicier.

Mount Stimpson in postcard mode.  There be dragons.

Gear combos not often seen.  Having the packraft to access across the Middle Fork open many options.  Oddly, I followed days-old ski tracks the whole way, someone had been out using a patrol cabin (for science, I assume?).  Even without those tracks following the trail was dead easy.  There are even some bare patches, and the recent sun made several partially-collapsed creek crossings rather interesting.

The North Fork pack did it’s job very well.  Great carrying pack for big loads.

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was getting out (and being picked up by wonderful shuttle driver M) early enough to have brunch and beers at the Belton Chalet.  They do not fuck around with their corn beef and hash with poached eggs, toast and gravy.

I even got a good workout out of the trip.  Lunging to save when your fishscales cut loose on hidden ice is a burly core exercise.

Western Montana: A seasonal guide for outdoor recreation

The seasons dictate what we do outside and how we do it.  Outdoor recreation is at it’s best when the intersection of equipment, terrain and weather come together to provide an experience which is aesthetically interesting and spiritually satisfying.  Hauling a bike through unrideable powder or peanut butter mud does neither, nor does skiing micro-patches of summer snow or  your bases on rocks and stumps.  There are, in short, proper seasons for proper activities, and it’s a good idea to embrace them, rather than looking forward to the next, longer for thing that won’t actually come into shape for a month or more.  (Human though that urge is.)

On the other hand, there is a certain pleasure to be had in defying conventional wisdom, or at the very least in finding its ground truth for yourself.  All advice is after all a mere guide for being there yourself.  With that in mind, I present my own opinions and suggestions about what activities are best suited for the 12 months of the year, if you happen in be west of the Continental Divide in Montana.

January

Powder skiing.   Ski touring. 

February

Powder skiing.  Ski touring.  Low altitude skiing.

March

BC skiing (low altitude pack beginning to dissipate).   Bring out the bike, to ride the road.  Streams start to thaw and come up.

April

Skiing runs the gamut from corn to pow, stable to hazardous.  Good, cold boating and fishing.  First dry trails, but the biking won’t be good for a while yet.

May

Sleeper powder days, t-shirt skiing.  Dry trails below 5-k (maybe).  Rivers huge by months end.

June

Flowers, bugs, high altitude skiing.   Great boating, hiking, and biking.  Enjoy life without crowds if you’re willing to posthole.

July

Many more bugs and flowers, mountains officially “open.”  Tail end of runoff means small streams clear and floatable.  Big hikes and rides in the mountains.  Hand up the skis, the action is elsewhere.

August

High season.  Climb the mountains without snow.  Dodge crowds.  Fish high lakes, ride at altitude.

September

First snow up high, gorgeous weather at other times.  Crystalline hiking, cycling, and fishing.  Good, slow boating.

October

Winter comes to the mountains, with varied ferocity.  Bring the snowshoes and enjoy sans humans (except hunters).  The best low country mountain biking.  Fantastic fishing on warm afternoons.  Skiing will not be as good as you think, so don’t yet bother.

November

Sure to have more of all the other seasons than any single month.  In a good year the skiing will be great by months ends, in a bad year it will be -15 on Thanksgiving.  The country usually closes out, though that could be delayed until early December.

December

Cold, dark, winter.  Some of the best snow of the year, if/when it comes.

In short, Montana is coming up upon the season of all possibilities, and I am excited for it.

5 great packrafting videos

I’m getting psyched for boating, and right now, these are my favorites.  In no particular order.
 

I’m really looking forward to getting back into the South Fork valley. The wilderness scale and packraft-friendly terrain would seem to make it the float in the lower 48.

The long-form Chris and Al have been hiding. Awesome trip.

Still one of my favorites in the sport boating department. Great looking water and bon equipe.

The classic, and ahead of its time in several ways.

Another, newer, classic.

Lots to look forward to this year.

2011: Spring and Summer plans

Lac Superieur.

Now that a plane ticket has been purchased, I can present my racing/hard trips plan through the end of summer.

April 2: Whitefish Pole-Pedal-Paddle

-I plan to ride to the start with skis and packraft, be DFL at the end of the boating leg, ride up to Big Mountain with all my gear, lock to bike, skin the mountain with the boat, ski down, drink a beer, and ride home.

April 23: Grizzlyman Adventure race

-I’m hoping to not slow Bill down too much, and to try as hard as possible to win what is sure to be a competitive category.  Looking forward to another extremely well-run race, and to whatever Josh has up his sleeve to make it long and hard.

mid-May: Bob Marshall traverse

-I hope to do skiing, packrafting, and hiking on this trip, making the timing somewhat dependent on the weather.  Yet I need to get off the fence and arrange the time off work.  The linked-to route is my best present idea.  I’d be aiming for 4 days.

mid-June: The North Fork 100+

-I want to do a variation of the super-fun trip I did last July, but with the variation of going down the Kintla valley and traversing Mounts Cleveland and Kintla along the way.

June 25: Old Gabe 50k

-This race is supposed to be fun, Danni is doing it, and it is run by the same awesome folks that put on the Devils Backbone 50 miler.

July 17: Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

-The year’s A race.  I plan to do the “normal” route shown in Roman’s video, and to do as much as I safely can to contend for the win.

late-August: Wonderland Trail circumnavigation

-In one push, or close to it.  I’ve wanted to do it for years, and this and the Classic should sort out my resume so I can enter the Hardrock lottery this winter.  Not to say I’m looking to beat it, but the unsupported record is soft.  Hopefully Danni will bail on Cascade Crest and do this with me instead.

 

Unfortunately, due to time off work and $$, southern Utah will be pushed til autumn.  There are numerous other goals (mostly skiing) that will get folded into all this.  Looking at it, I’ll need to take advantage of weekends while I can.

The trajectory of these goals is not an accident.  The next two months of shorter stuff is put in place to build speed (a relative concept here) before the next two months of building endurance at that speed.  Then I just have to go to Alaska and destroy myself.

I wanna ski like Luc

Luc Mehl, of the Selway packraft trip and awesome ski videos, has written an article for BPL disclosing many of the secrets of winning the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic.  One of the better reasons to pay BPL money I’ve yet to come across.

Timely too, as the first thaw of the year has come to the Flathead Valley.  The best skiing of the year is almost certainly ahead of us, but many other and very different things are, as well.

Melted snow is pretty nice.  (Both photos from the S Fork Flathead, not far below it’s creation at the confluence of Danaher and Youngs Creeks: a place I must visit several times this year.)

I’ve had plenty of time to think about such things, as my ski accident the weekend before last has combined with colonoscopy prep today (read: no energy during the day and staying within 10 meters of the toilet all evening) to make the last two weeks a wash as far as training goes.

But psyche has been rapidly building, to be discharged once my leg is all the way back.

Luc’s article and my free time got me started on a new project last night: cold weather touring boots for mileage-oriented ski trips.  I took the old T2s, removed the tongue, ground down the back ridge to nothing (I cut the lean lock assemblage off last winter), cut the uppermost heel tab off the inside, and glued some sticky foam into the top of the heel pocket.  I also shoe gooed some waterproof fabric over the front opening, and replaced the lower strap/buckle (one was broken) with units from a pair of Supercomps (thanks again B).  These buckles tighten much more than the stock ones, vital given my skinny foot and the lack of bulk resulting from the lack of a tongue.

The liners are Intuition snowboard boot liners, remolded for these boots.

I’m not sure about the weight, our scale has gone missing since the move up here last fall. Most relevant is the massive degree of forward motion, pretty good rearward motion, warmth, and waterproofness.  They’re not meant to ski downhill well, with the total lack of forward support, though I imagine I’ll use them for that anyway.

Most exciting of all, a potentially very useful piece of gear sprung to life for zero dollars and a few hours of fiddling.  Very exciting.  Given that I plan to do the Ski Classic over a year from now, it is not too early to start getting things in order.

Backwards range of motion is key for an efficient stride.

You can see the cuts made to take off the tab at the top of the heel pocket.  This restricted range of motion quite a bit.  The tacky foam is to ensure maximum heel retention, and thus fight blisters.

Putting the bike in bikerafting

The bicycle and the packraft: both marvelous human-powered vehicles that allow unique explorations of the extraordinary hidden in backyards near you.  Example above, the lovely miles of braids of islands downstream from the Old Steel Bridge over the Flathead (before it sloughs out and losses all current).  Exploring it any other way would require contrivance (car shuttles, etc) that would dwarf the subtle wonder.  Instead, I rode to the fishing access, put in, paddled until I was sick of flat, still water, paddled some more until I found a good exit, and rode home.  Once I was 100 meters from the fishing access I saw two other people (fishing from a powerboat), and while I saw evidence of people aplenty, nonetheless felt impressively far removed from normal society.

Carrying packrafting gear on a bike is not hard, provided that you have a fat backpack that rides a bit low.  It’s more than most like to have on their back while riding, but that can be trained.  Attaching the bike to the raft is a bit more complex.

You need a reasonably compact load that doesn’t drag in the water, doesn’t constrict your paddle stroke, and is reasonably balanced side to side.  Taking both wheels off seems to be a necessity.  That done, I’ve used both bottom bracket towards paddler and bb away rigs.  Both are ok, though both constricted by stroke a little bit, and I’ve never gotten things perfectly balanced.  Next time I’ll try a bb sideways rig and see how that goes.

I’d add that had Llama rather than a Yak I’d have a few more inches of room to play with, at the expense of not fitting quite as tightly and thus having less precision when maneuvering in whitewater.  I should also add that I’ve yet to trial flip a raft with a bike strapped on.  Given the weight imbalance, I’m not even sure how possible it would be to right in deep water, but I have to find out.

Most bikerafting trips involve mellow water for exactly that reason, the weight and size on your bow impede speed and (perhaps) safety.  A bike on the bow has to make a flip more likely.  But limiting the terrain limits your routes and speed on them.  A case in point would be what I still consider as the obvious winning route for Le Parcour de Wild through the Bob: ride the highway, ride up Monture Creek, carry the bike down to Youngs, and float Youngs and the South Fork down to the road, then pedal and hike and pedal to Marias.  A few of the larger riffles around Black Bear are very much like rapids, even at low flows, and Youngs would push maneuvering under load even more.  All of which begs the question: what is the ideal bike for bikerafting?

As little bike as you can get away with, to a large extent.  Light, obviously, and as compact as possible.  I’m not sure that the breakdown frame of the Ibis Tranny would be all that much of an advantage, but a sick-light 26″ rigid bike is probably ideal.  Packing wheels with disks is tough, so maybe rim brakes are worth the performance compromise.  For the route enumerated above a cross bike would probably get the job done.  Not that I’m about to get a bike specifically for bikerafting, but it does get one thinking.

Your perfect bikerafting bike?

The 5 reasons to buy gear

Allow me to begin here at the end: gear should be a means to an end. And not just any end, but a good end. Ryan Jordan has recently written a superlative post on just this point, building on his interpretation of what a good end should be.  I agree with him, I’ve written here on several occasions that insofar as humans are basically social critters, outdoor adventures ought to be used to enhance our relations with others (perhaps most directly through enhancing the vessel, our selves).

Gear is good because it lets you go on trips and see Pitcher Plants in bogs.  Isle Royale 2010.

In practice the distinctions are much finer, and in the gear store principles are much harder to put into practice.  So then, let us discuss a few reason why you might buy some gear, and in particular examine the problematic distinctions between these motives.

1: Replacing the broken

Simple and straightforward; an existing piece of gear breaks and/or wears out, so you replace it.  Problem is that modern gear tends to be well put together, and when well selected does not break easily or wear out fast.  The exception is semi-disposable items like bike chains and ski wax, which unless you’re a serious speed-weenie are purchases requiring neither excitement nor nuance.  Thus, many purchases made under the guise of this category are probably more accurate handled by the second:

2: Upgraditis

Newer = better, yes?!  Well.  Defining better isn’t an exact art, or even an especially possible one, so it’s safe to say that novelty (not necessarily in a pejorative sense) is at the core here at least as often as functionality.  The waters here are muddied in turn when upgrading co-mingels with our next category..

3: New stuff for new pursuits

Want to take up packrafting?  Gotta get a packraft, no way around it.  (Joy!)  Better get a (good?) paddle, PFD, helmet, throw bag, drysuit, wetsuits, etc, etc while we’re at it.  Oh the bankers do love people taking up new pursuits, seldom is more money spent on gear in so short a time and with less compunction.  Of course, outside observers find it hard to see that another pair of skis, or a bike with a cumulative 3″ more travel and 1.5 degree difference in geometry, constitute anything new.  See #2.

4: Aesthetic appreciation

Some things are just cool.   I think this is a fairly noble end, provided that said items make it out on a regular basis, to have their appearance further enhanced with scratches, tears, solar fading, and soot.  Something which is highly aesthetic, tough, and (theoretically) useful goes a long way towards excusing, at least in my mind, purchases and acquisitions which may not be strictly utilitarian.

5: Experience by proxy

Gear you wish you had the impetus/courage/time/inclination to take out, but instead sits unused.  In my opinion, far and away that most sinister item on this list, though it/they can provide a catalyst for problem solving.  All that winter gear gathering dust with the tags still on?  Better go snow camping, or just let that idea go and become content with sitting around a fire in the lodge with a beer.  You’ll buy a lot of them with all those ebay proceeds.

 

There have been few days in the past decade when I haven’t had a certain gear question to turn over in my mind.  Like it or not, the curse of the thinking practitioner seems to be a near constant meditation on some combination of #2 and #3, with some #1 and occasional run ins with #4 as well.  #5 I’ve been lucky enough to avoid for the most part, though my un-sold off climbing gear might be more of #5 and less of financial prudence than I prefer to pretend.

For most of this winter it has been skis, more specifically, what ski and binding combo will I purchase for next winter?  This has been a good and healthy question.  The time frame and scope of the purchase are closely defined, and the contemplation is reinforced by weekly feedback sessions which ideally will maximize the utility and longevity of the hypothetical items in question.  (The crash yesterday gave a serious bump to releasable bindings, weight be damned.)

Growing up as a post-grad school adult has been a very good influence on this process of gear purchase contemplation.  I have student loans to pay down, a process which does not promise to go away soon, as well as a modest income which does not promise to increase substantially in the near future.  My budget for gear purchases is thus both small and well-defined.  It is as much as I need, but not enough for me to get greedy.  Because one important piece of my life with gear, something which has become increasingly clear as I’ve become older and a bit more self-aware, is the paradoxically coexisting appreciation and loathing I have for my gear.  I have a refined appreciation for what gear can do for me, bred in no small part from my penchant for doing more with less (you cannot appreciate a suspension fork until you’ve spent a year riding actual rough terrain without one).  In the same instance and via the same process, I know exactly how much easier technology can make things, and I’m not always ok with that.

Experience is paramount, as Jill has pointed out with her usual eloquence, and given the current state of our lives quality experience (read: difficult) must be manufactured.  One way to create a sufficient state of challenge is to go out in bad conditions, easy to do if you live here in Montana.  Another way is to add 5 miles (if backpacking) or 30 miles (if mtn biking) beyond your comfort/experience zone.  And yet another way is to monkey with the gear.  Take just enough clothing.  Bring only a large scale map.  Don’t do exhaustive internet research.  Just don’t let gear get in the way, because fun, insofar as it makes the lives of those around us better, is very serious business.

Exit questions:

-What categories did I overlook?

-What is the proper place of gear in your life?

Tiny cuben drysack

The smallest of MLDs cuben ditty bags.  Seam sealed, with the cord removed and the buckle glued on.  Made for holding the most basic of fire starting and repair gear in the pocket of my PFD or coat, should I become separated from my packraft and/or pack.  The bulk of the webbing may make the seal less than ideal, at least without a full bag to hold pressure against it.

Cost/Benefit

The question which is, when attached to outdoor gear, the most relevant (and certainly most interesting) of all. Is item X worth it?

The first photo ever posted on Bedrock & Paradox: me riding my old Gunnar Rockhound on Mt Elden, AZ in the summer of 2006.  It’s a good point of departure. wondering if the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on bike stuff in the years since has been well spent.  Most of the stuff pictured is no longer in my possesion: the helmet was busted the next summer, the shoes and shorts worn out, the frame, fork, wheels, and tires sold or given away when that winter I switched to 29ers.  The non-driveside crankarm is still in use, as is the  30t Surly chainring.  The 140mm Salsa stem and red Titec bars on on M’s mountain bike.  The blue Capilene 2 tshirt is still going strong.

Even with clipless pedals, full suspension, and a few years more experience I rode that roller with much less fluidity and confidence.  I also rode with much more fluidity on my spendy Lenz, and with much more confidence and speed.  My original question can thus be cut into two:  1) is the cost of advanced, new technology worth the performance and fun benefits?  2) is the benefit of improving via technological acquisition worth the cost of making the learning process easier?

In two years of long rides on the rocky trails of Utah and Arizona I went from the above bike to two 29ers, one a rigid SS which save the wheelsize, front disk brake, and clipless pedals is very similar to the Gunnar, and a geared full suspension wonderbike.  The full suspension bike (the Lenzsport Leviathan) remains the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought that wasn’t a motor vehicle or a student loan.

New and unblemished.

Insofar as question 2 is concerned, this bike (and especially the suspension fork to go on it) was absolutely worth it, as the path I was going down (riding rigid bikes on long rocky rides) would have (for me) led to nerve damage in my hands.  That lack of pain helped increase the fun factor, very important.  Finally, the benefits of suspension gave me the confidence to ride much closer to my limit than I ever would have otherwise, which in turn made me a better rider on the rigid bike.  I smile everything I see it (every though it hasn’t been ridden since October), and have no desire to replace it.

On other gear items, the questions are simpler.  Alpackas are still the only packrafts that can hope to get the job done (the job including a bit of whitewater and the full spectrum of weather), thus the only choices are: whether you need one, what size to get, and what color.

But the subject which brought these musing to the fore is skiing.  Ski gear is expensive.  For those like me, unenlivened by bro deals, a skins/skis/boots/dynafits setup would run 1600-2000 dollars (100/5-800/6-1000/3-500).  Somehow, I hesitate to spend that on a ski rig, moreso than on a bike frame.  Part of it having less money (due to student loans).  Part of it is having bought out three current skis rigs less than 1000 total, skins and bindings included.  Part of it is that skiing is such a harsh task master, and I suspect that my abilities have much further to go, and while different equipment might help, I’d almost prefer to keep life simple and the learning curve harsher.

Money is of course only money, and hearses do not have luggage racks.  But a new pair of AT boots is a round trip plane ticket to Alaska, and experience continues to fill one up long after gear has been worn out and replaced.  In summary, I like gear, in general.  Some pieces of gear I more than like, their beauty and elegance combine with the way they embody memory and possibility to become the very best of what material objects can be: practical, personal works of art.  I am also, increasingly, suspicious of my own preoccupations with gear.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that, after so many miles and so much learning, my simple rigid Karate Monkey remains my favorite bike.

The Karate Monkey at Granite Basin, back in the flat pedal days.  Nostalgia.  I’ve tried to go back to riding flats on real mountain biking terrain, and can hardly imagine how I used to do it.

Future plans

Bill Hatcher photo; the legendary Dial-Tobin-Adkins Alaska Range bike traverse.  Look at that tiny pack!

The past weekend of fun and the extensive germ exposure of my job caught up to me, and I’ve spent the past two days feeling achey and sluggish, trying to not get any more ill.  Hopefully it works.

Life up here in the Flathead can feel claustrophobic.  The ever present (unless it’s below zero) fog from Flathead Reservoir is the number one factor, how I ended up living somewhere so not like the desert southwest in terms of sun exposure is a matter of some speculation.  We’re also two hours from the interstate (my parents found out there’s a surcharge to mail stuff here v. Missoula), which makes a hypothetical escape all the slower.  Beyond that, this is a forgotten corner of the world, an attribute made very evident at my job.  Folks move here because they want to get away, and somehow the not inconsequential concentration of people and the consequent trappings of civilization (Super Walmart, mini-malls, ski resorts) only serves to make more obvious the extent to which the normal denizon of the Flathead is a few standard deviations removed from any broader standard of normalcy.

It’s also been since July of ’09 and the Markagunt epic since we’ve been down to canyon country.  Far, far too long. I’d like to go soon, and fulfill some longstanding plans in the process.  First on the list involves biking and packrafting.  Doing, in essence, Doom’s route with minor variations, and doing it faster.  Moab to Escalante, or vice versa.  So, I have two questions:

-Who has a bike and raft and wants to go with?

-What are you, my rabid readers, dreaming of for the coming year?