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.

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?

A few things in winter

M in the snow last weekend.

The larger context.  This little zone has a good view (Missions in background, right).

1) Danni is competing in the Susitna 100 this weekend.  Follow her here.  Cheer on Jill and Beat (also foot), and Woodchuck (bike), too.

2) Backcountry Magazine reviewed fat waxless skis.  They’re shitty little reviews (do they really think skiers shopping for those skis have such short attention spans, and so unsubtle demands for knowledge?!) but they’re the first on snow report I’ve heard on the new Fischer S-bound 112.  A guide with a 3mm wider tip, tip rocker, and more solid edges sounds like an amazingly useful ski.  Too bad BCmag didn’t get a rocker pic!  Boooo!!  Suck it BCmag!

3) The aurora borealis is supposed to be visible in the northernmost reaches of the lower 48 tonight.  Too bad we’re socked in here in the Flathead.  Maybe the Bozeman crew will have better luck.


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.

Cki Team weekend roundup (Whitefish Whiteout race report)

Sunset over Lake McDonald and the Apgar Range, today.

Rando racing (skimo) is hard.  Best analogy I can make is doing an XC mountain bike race with no flat and very technical descents on a rigid singlespeed.  Analogy only as I’ve never done an XC-length bike race.  And in all fairness, the skiing might be a bit less white knuckle if I were more skilled.  Which brings me to skimo race revelation two: I am slow.  I don’t say this because I did the first ascent in 45 minutes while the winners did it in 28.  I don’t say this because I took 2:45 to finish and the winners took 1:45 (ish).  I say this because that first ascent felt on the rivet, the second and third ascents felt about the same, and while the fourth and final ascent was painful, I still could have kept going at the finish (though I really didn’t want to).  From the second transition onward I played cat and mouse with three other folks, a fellow men’s telehead, a splitboarder (no female knuckledraggers in either division) and a female AT’er.  I kept pace with them on ascents two and three, transitioned much faster, descended much slower, had it all fall apart on the last descent (I ran into a tree, not on purpose), and dropped them all on the last climb.

In summary, the race was too short.  I seemed to have trained myself to keep a depth of reserve which, at least on Saturday, I was unable to tap.  Which is not to say that I wasn’t totally thrashed afterwards.  I was not about to let any of those three catch me, and jumped to third in race tele as a result, rather than fourth and DFL.  I was able to eat a grilled cheese in the summit house after, and a Coke was mana from the almighty, but at slightly reduced pace I reckon I could have gone on a good bit longer.

The course itself was awesome.  Click through for a description and maps that don’t do it justice.  Much more ascent than descent, which I knew would suit me.  Lots of tough off-piste skiing, which did not.  The surprise was the technicality of the skinning.  The course was not closed, and Saturday lift lines were a mob scene up there, so even though the leaders surely set us a nice skin track on the ungroomed sections, plenty of folks bombed down in the long minutes between and made experience in steep track setting very important.  A few folks were utterly undone by the initial ascent up Haskill’s.  Ditto the approach to North Bowl Chute; folks in my neck of the pack had to start booting a hundred vertical feet or so before the leaders, as the tracked out pow over hardpack gave us nothing to work with.  The booter itself was steep, the first time I’ve gone up something that steep on snow without an ice axe.  Had the tele guy and splitter ahead of me (who I purposefully let lead and set steps) cut loose, I would’ve taken a long and rough ride.

In summary: do this race next year!  It’s a very authentic alpine experience for being entirely within a ski resort.

Mount Brown is up there somewhere.

Saturday was an action-packed day by Flathead valley standards.  We played host to our second roller derby bout, which was rougher and more entertaining than the last one.  October’s commentator is due some redress for my prior excoriation, as his strengths were yesterday evening highlighted by their absence.  He may have been annoying, and occasionally mistaken, but he was at least audible and attempted to explain the oftentimes not obvious (due to speed and subtlety) events of the bout.  I’m still not sure how Missoula got that last point to win after the buzzer.

Still feeling frisky(ish) Amber (who won women’s rec tele) and I headed into the park today to have a go at skiing from the Mount Brown lookout.  Our crack of noon start was not quite adequate, but we made it higher than I made it last time, and enjoyed some high altitude cold smoke, mid altitude cream, and low altitude fluff over ice combat skiing (which the Marquettes make E Z).  We were also treated to graupel, thin flakes, fat flakes, sunshine, and clouds in rapid succession, a level of meteorological indecision which Glacier does better (and by better I mean beautifully) than anywhere else I’ve been.

It was, in short, a very good weekend.  Which we were, especially in the skiing department, due after last weekend’s unconscionable liquid precip.

(re)Defining Lightweight Backpacking

The difference between lightweight backpacking and ‘normal’ backpacking is obviously the gear.

Winter has reached that point where we talk about summer. After a long weekend of rain, a bunch of us found ourselves in the Northern in Whitefish after an avy meeting last night, discussing not skiing and snow, but sunshine and fly fishing (Amber is a fish biologist, inside beta!). Pre-emptive nostalgia, if you will.

Shoshone Lake, YNP

Of course, it snowed heavily this afternoon, and the first race of 2011 is on skis and taking place tomorrow morning.  So carpe diem, for the moment.

Thinking of summer gets me thinking about backpacking.  Snow travel is still a mystery to me, at least insofar as the snow-shrouded landscape is for me more hostile and less predictable, less friendly, than that of bare earth and rock.  I want to do a lot of backpacking this year.

Yardsale, White River terminus, Bob Marshall Wilderness

I’m not really certain that I’m much of a backpacker in the way most folks use the term.  I’ve been backpacking since I was around 3, and after working wilderness therapy (the best paid pro backpacking gig around) merely walking in the woods with a sack of gear has little appeal.  Add a twist, a remote fishing hole, snow covered pass, rivers to packraft, or an absurd loop to do in a weekend, and my interest returns.  This mindset, this wilderness ADHD, this preoccupation with the more egregious forms of human-powered wilderness travel, colors my understanding of backpacking completely.

Which is why I think Phil Turner, quoted in this posts epigraph, is quite wrong.  Hendrik got the ball rolling with a provocative post (which engendered the quoted comment) about contemporary weight-weenieism.  In the post and the resultant discussion all relevant terrain is covered, save one issue.

A “traditional” backpacker carries a heavy (30+ lbs) pack.  The weight of the gear necessitates a heavy pack, the load dictates a slow pace, the pace requires more food, and the circle continues.  Use less/lighter stuff, move faster, be happier.  Simple equation, one applicable to both the dawn-dusk 30 mile a day camp, and the lolligagin’, 8 mile a day field guides, camera tripods, and reading books crew.

But are less and lighter the same?  Yes and no.  Different in that less means reducing redundancy (no extra undies), the same in that lighter often means reducing the psychological margin of redundancy and error (my Dana will last 50 years of egregious abuse!).  The point is, going lighter and bringing less is at root a mental rather than physical process.

Wilderness is the ultimate form of the Other.  I.e.; that which is outside us, our self, our comprehension.  The Other reminds us, in literal and metaphysical ways, that our state of being in the world is fragile and transient.   When backpacking, gear serves to insulate us from that fear.  Some of the insulation is literal; without protection from the elements, food, and water we will die.  However, the majority of backpacking gear is for metaphysical, rather than literal, protection from the elements.

Witness Luc Mehl’s pack for an overnight technical packrafting descent (Selway River, Sept 2010).  Luc has thin synthetic puffy layers, paddling shells, shorts, and a baselayers shirt.  He slept around the fire, and kept warm by paddling stronger than Forrest and me.

Gear is good, but by focusing on it too much and in an excessively literal manner we ignore the more interesting reasons for going out into the woods in the first place.  At our (spiritual) peril.

On my agenda for this spring and summer are some trips without a sleeping bag or tarp/tent.  Bracing how the very idea flies against conventional wisdom and “safety.”

2010: in review

Running through all these Christmases is the sense of an emotional cadenza at the end of the year, a braiding of feelings like hope, renewal, nostalgia, love, joy and exhaustion. Yet in the stories about this holiday, it’s surprising how often we’re reminded of a darker life, full of isolation, penury, greed, despair and the fear that traps emotion within us.

-The NY Times editorial page, today

2010 will stand out in my mind for many things; I finished my masters, got a good job, raised my gear making and photography to a new level, met many great people, and achieved a paradigm shift in how I view outdoor adventuring.  But above all, 2010 was the year in which I finally became an adult.

About time, eh?

In my post-MSW world, there is no longer some hypothetical future achievement which can (abstractly) be expected to categorically alter my life.  What I have and am now can reasonably be expected to be, with subtle variations, what I have and am in the future.  Reflecting on this has gone well with the expected, end of year, seasonal introspection of which the Times speaks.  It has been the cause of both satisfaction and angst.  And while there are many thing with which I am not satisfyied and which I hope to change in an enduring fashion, there are also many things of which I am proud.  Examining the first 29.8 years of my life is, from this comfy chair on this quiet morning, majorily a fulfilling experience.

This year I learned, primarily through school, that there are still important things that I’m quite bad at, that there are things in life that I thought I might be that I will not be doing, and that choices I’ve made in the past have already limited choices I can make in the future.  Most importantly, I’ve learned to embrace this more accurate, full, realistic poirtrate of my existence.

This year I learned that cultivating friends and partners, for today and for days in the future, is essential.  Finishing up the second video this morning was an emphatic reminder of this.

This year a long dormant in interest in artistic expression and the sharing it allows was reawakened.  I’m very pleased with the photography, videography, and writing I’ve done in the past 12 months, and the responses it has engendered.  Thanks to all of you for being a part of that.

This year I learned that day trips are, to be blunt, bullshit.  18 months ago I was still quite uneasy with overnight trips.  This year I sought out that uncertainty and looked at it right up close.  And while I’m still afraid of solitude, I’m longer afraid of that fear.  If I were to seriously ruminate upon and draw up a futile list of the 10 most significant outdoor adventures of my life, I think that half of them would have taken place this year.  And while some of the packraft trips may have been more sublime, there is no question that the Thorofare trip in May was the greatest outdoor adventure of my life to date.  It is just not possible to drink as deeply of the wilderness if you don’t spend the night.  When I plan trips now, the ones which capture my interest the most are days long.  When I write this essay a decade from now, I’m certain that adventures will be categorized as pre or post Thorofare.

This year I learned that making gear and sewing can be deeply satisfying, and that while I may come up short on detail work, I both enjoy and excell at big picture design work.  I think about gear design and fabric science in categorically different ways today.

And this year I learned that packrafting rules.  I’m not doing a list of best gear items, because there is the packraft, and then everything else.  Get a raft, but at your peril: you will never look at outdoor adventures the same.

I expect great things from myself in the year to come.  My job suits me perfectly, and I have no reason to suspect anything but better things as I continue to learn.  But it is the vast wilderness complex to the east that really inflames my imagination.  Winter is still something I’m working on and learning about, but come spring and summer, my confidence is large and my plans grandiose.  After almost 30 years of walking in the woods my summer skillset is nearing completion, and I am very much looking forward to exercising it to the fullest extent.  I suppose that, having found maturity at last, I am enjoying its benefits.  2011 should be a good year.