(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.

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.

Summer Vacation (1.0)

It was a very nice long weekend, with more to come.

I’m tired. Not just muscle tired, though that is most present this evening; I’m tired in my soul. I dug deep, squeezed out a great ride Saturday, and now I’m ready to rest and rebuild. I want to go camping, wake up, drink coffee and read in the camp chair, and do yoga in the pine needles.

The story of the KMC was all about endurance and experience, using a mind much stronger than last year to keep the pedal pushed, but not too far. It was good.

The morning started cold! I built a fire around 430 to ease the discomfort, though that helped continue the tradition of starting late. Only 10 minutes this time. I felt horrid for the first hour, as usual, with frozen hands and feet clumsy until things loosened up. Chad was lacking a map or much of a clue, and I was glad to have him stick close for the first 80 miles. I didn’t hesitate to stop or get ahead, as usual Chad can diesel back up no problem. Halfway through the Rainbow Rim, I looked back on a switchbacked section and saw that he wasn’t there. Should I wait? Slow down? Leave his sorry ass to get lost? I split the difference, pushing on and having fun through the singletrack, then sitting down under a tree at the end to eat an orange and some cheese. He was about four minutes behind me.

The climb up to the route’s highpoint was tough, though having a ton of water made it merely a nuisance. The store was most welcome. I grabbed a couple sodas, an ice cream bar, fritos, and a danish. Chad and I got a bag of ice, and I chowed. As I was stuffing my dromedary and bottles with ice, Nathan pulled up (as we had been expecting for a while). He was pretty cooked. Neither he nor Chad were eating much, a sign I could relate to from last year. I was feeling pretty good, and when Chad teamed up with Nathan I jumped at the chance to run off guilt-free. Riding with company is awesome, and can be the most efficient way to ride, but I knew that on that day, I would push much harder solo. I plugged into the iPod and headed out for the last (and hardest) third of the route.

It took most of the first five miles of rolling gravel to get my food settled. I felt slow at first, but once the fuel kicked in and the sweet singletrack started, I was on fire. I reigned myself in on some of the loose, golfballlimestonerock strewned climb, saving the matches for later. On and on, down into gorgeous meadows, up into the woods (usually off the bike a bit), along through the aspens and pines, and back down again. Brilliant riding.

Soon enough, the smallest most delicate aspen grove yet came, and forest road 213. The moment of truth, and no hesitation. I was finishing today. I did drop part of my danish as I tried to eat on the bike and crank along as fast as possible, which was sad. I continued trying to stuff down food, looking forward to the big descent.

The descent was quite rowdy, plenty of rubble and chunk. The Leviathan rules the endurance roost in these moments. That evening Brian remarked that the washboard took it’s toll on him and his Moots hardtail. It was only on the worst parts that I evened noticed it. Very soon, I was at the East Side Game road. The antipenultimate stretch. I stopped for a few minutes in what seemed like the last bit of pine-shade, to kill a bottle and my fritos. I wanted to keep the granny cranking ability around as long as possible.

The game road was what I expected: tough, especially at the beginning. It’s rough and 4×4 rocky, and hugs every drainage as it contours along the base of the biggest level of the Kaibab upwarp. The first couple were by far the biggest. Bomb down, granny back out, repeat. Only one short bit I found unrideable, but plenty of slow moving.

I did get a bit annoyed that the big climb took so long in coming, but the Pinon-Juniper skeleton forest, flowers, and debris flows from the Warm Fire were entertaining, and I wasn’t feeling bad, just tired and hot. My ass did hurt, and I was if nothing else looking forward to hiking for it’s relief.

I got my wish soon enough. Nice, hard, mindless. Push up, look ahead occasionally to pick the best footing, keep pushing. I hopped back on to ride in a few sections, but for the most part doing anything but walking would’ve been a waste. I was quite calm at this point. The climb wasn’t that long, the nine miles after were mostly downhill, and I was going to finish in less than 14 hours unless something stupid happened.

And nothing did really. The wetter spring, which had provided some amazing green all day, caused even more profligate overgrowth, making an already faint AZT worse. I had to stop once and backtrack to find the damn thing, and managed to loose the trail on the road even earlier than last year. Maybe next year I’ll pre-ride and mark, though the last half of the AZT is consistently downhill such that I don’t think the road is much of a shortcut, if at all. Alas, I just wanted to be done. And soon I was.

My legs hurt. Andy gave me a beer, which was very welcome. Eventually I motivated, got up, changed, and ate some stuff. Felt more like a human, talked, laughed, soaked it in, slept like the dead.

The next day saw a late rise of 0600, a two hour breakfast, hanging out, and a journey down to the North Rim lodge by M, Chad and I. Pints of Hefe, a pizza, and the nice new chairs on the porch, with one of the world’s best views. Heaven.

Later that day we tracked down our friends Phillip and Ariel in St. George. They had spent the day making wedding plans, and we got to help them test out some catering at Famous Dave’s BBQ, which was very welcome for my constantly hungry self. Laughs, memories, happiness. Old friends I hadn’t seen in many months, we felt right at home, like no time had passed at all. Back to their place in Cedar City, for Guinness drinking and a game of Texas Hold ’em.

The next morning Phillip was off to work, counting birds and such for the Forest Service. Ariel and I went to a kickass, ass-kicking yoga class, taught by an anatomy prof from Southern Utah University. A good combination. I’ve let my core work lapse, a lot. Ouchy on the core, but my legs felt wonderful for the rest of the day. Wooooonnnnderful. Best yoga class ever. I went home, woke M up, and we spent the rest of the day until Ariel got off work, hanging out and doing very little. That afternoon the three of us went to the park, killed a pint of Ben and Jerry’s each, and played Bocce. Ahh, recovery.

M and I headed off to Zion to do Mystery Canyon Tuesday. It was hot. M’s fickle stomach, and the heat, were a bad combo. She bailed, and I pushed up to get through one of my favorite canyons without too much imposition on M. Back in the day I’d soloed in, car to car in the Weeping Rock lot, in less than five hours. This was in February, with postholing down the steep hill initially, and drysuit-cold water at the end. This time, I logged 2:10 from the head of the canyon to ropes-pulled in the Narrows, with rusty rope work. I think sub-4 Weeping Rock to Sinawava is very doable.

It was hot, but I’m pretty used to it now, drank tons of water, and had fun. Rapping into the swimmer that is the spring on the penultimate rap was heaven, and I got a round of applause for making it down the last rap from the hungry tourist hordes in the Narrows. I forget occasionally how many damn people come to Zion in the summer.

Fortunately, we’ll be back October 17th for the wedding.

It was too hot to sleep low. We got Pizza n’ Noodle in town, and fled back to the Kaibab to sleep. Up, and back home. My legs hurt, and I was getting cranky as the morning wore on and the heat grew. M took over, and I got a Slurpy, and made it home. Barely.

And tomorrow, it’s time to flee to the high Sierra, and then Zion again, for more than a week.

I’ll be back, eventually. There is a reason I scheduled vacation at this time in the year.