2018 Bob Open unofficially official report

The 2018 Open took place on a long course, and during extraordinary conditions.  A record winter saw the entire Bob complex at over 150% of normal snowfall, with certain areas in the Scapegoat exceeding 200%.  At 2.5 weeks until the start the road to the scheduled start at the Indian Meadows TH was still snowed in for 9 miles, dictating a switch to the North Fork of the Blackfoot.  This precaution ended up being unnecessary, as consistently warm and very sunny weather for two continuous weeks vaporized mid-elevation snow and brought rivers and creeks up to record levels by Memorial Day weekend.  The South Fork of the Flathead exceeded 20,000 cfs, and the South Fork of the Sun 4,000.  Participants saw normally inconsequential creeks become major obstacles, and packrafting was a dodgy prospect on all but the flattest of waterways.

yCAVuFCPhoto courtesy Mike Moore.

16 hikers, including one woman, took the start.  Everyone shared the initial miles to the confluence of the North and Dry Forks of the Blackfoot, with two stock bridges moderating the massive (and as of last fall ungauged) river.  Almost everyone continued to share miles up the Dry Fork and into Danaher Meadows and down to The Basin, where several passes (Stadler being the obvious, and most popular choice) led over to the Atlantic side and the relatively straightforward terrain of the North Fork of the Sun and Sun River Pass.  Perennial Open protagonist Dan Durston continued his penchant for unique routes and headed north to pass the Scapegoat massif on the eastern flank, walking lots of snow down into the Green Fork and Straight Creek, which was well flooded and eventually made for fast but intimidating rafting down to the South Fork of the Sun.  Durston portaged a more severe section of the South Fork, camping in the process, before finishing the float to Sun River Butte on his second morning.

Will Blum and Adrian Swanson led the pack through Danaher Meadows, linking up to float a very large Danaher Creek and South Fork of the Flathead, and making it to Big Salmon Creek by 10pm for a 50+ mile first day.  They put back on early in the morning, with the narrowed channel transforming the floating experience substantially.  In Blum’s words: “Just after salmon park the river got spicier, with big (and incredibly fun) standing waves, nasty holes, and complicated hydraulics with counter currents ready to grab you if one of the many diagonal waves pushed you out of the main flow. ”  The pair took out at Black Bear Creek, and Will portaged down to Harrison Creek and floated to Lower Twin Creek, while Swanson headed up Harrison Creek.  Blum took Twin Creek over the divide and down to Bradley Lake, on well consolidated snow, and made it to the Middle Fork of the Flathead at dusk.  Blum hiked a ways downstream, found a good place to packraft across and, mistakenly thinking he had passed Granite Creek, turned right and hiked upstream in the dark, making the lower crossing of Lodgepole Creek by boat, and swimming one of the upper crossings.  A long push until around 330am put him to within a few miles of the Morrison Creek TH, where he bivvied under a tree.  This nearly 70 mile day is one of the more impressive pushes in Open history.

Swanson struggled with horrible deadfall linking Harrison into Corporal Creek, loosing the trail and suffering some gear failures.  In his words; “…all frustrations together with the thought of an easy (ha) float to the reservoir was too much to overcome at the time, so I pulled the plug.”  Swanson did just that the next day, floating the Spotted Bear back to the South Fork, though not without incident.  2 bends in and early in the morning big waves and a hole caused a flip, which a quick mid-river re-entry made unproblematic, and he made the South Fork without further incident.  As Swanson wrote; “I’m not sure why, but I assumed that I could have a relative pool-toy float to the reservoir at this point. I was very wrong. The SF below spotted bear was just as fear-inducing as the narrow channel I swam in the morning. The wide river took a lot of energy and hard-paddling to cross between the inside of the turns. The alternative was to hit the huge 5′ waves at the edge of the bedrock walls.”

On his second day Durston took the west side up the North Fork of the Sun, enjoying shorter miles than the east but suffering from several big creeks and lots of deadfall on the poorly maintained trail north of Gates Park.  A scary swim into a strainer at Moose Creek had Durston using his boat four times that day, at Rock Creek, Lick Creek, the North Fork, and Strawberry Creek.  He made camp at 1030pm on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Flathead, floating the relatively flat miles to Schafer Meadows the next morning and portaging the Three Forks section of rapids before putting back in.  The Middle Fork between Lodgepole and Granite Creeks is quite different than above Schafer, and Durston fell victim to the fast and pushy water, getting swept into a hole and flipped.  As with Swanson, a quick re-entry kept a potentially serious situation from developing further.  The miles up Granite were plagued by deadfall, but Durston ground out the miles to the finish, making the Marias obelisk by 720pm, for a 59 and a half hour finish.

Blum had arrived at the obelisk 4 hours earlier, recovering from his massive day two push and only 90 minutes of sleep to not only make the walk out, but add a traverse over the Continental Divide including Elkcalf Mountain to the mix.  As Blum wrote: “It was actually a pretty easy decision. For one, I didn’t relish finishing the route by roadway because the road had been so much more painful than the trail. On a deeper level, I already felt somewhat disappointed in myself up to that point, despite having made great time. I felt like I had wimped out of running black bear for no reason, and like I had let myself lose track of the reason I come to the wilderness to begin with. I figured there would be no better way to reconnect to that reason than to end the trip with giant commanding views into Glacier, which might be my favorite place on earth. Plus my body felt surprisingly good aside from the foot/tibialis issue.”

Blum and Durston would prove to be the only people to complete the course.  The Helena-based team of Mike, John, and Andrew made their way up the east side of the North Fork Sun River valley, experiencing creek crossings consistently above expectations.  Crossings like Biggs and Route Creeks, ordinarily barely knee deep even in the throes of spring, being major obstacles.  This trio elected to take Wrong Creek over into the West Fork of the Teton on their fourth day, rather than push on in slow conditions and tangle with even worse potential crossings further north.  Kyle Pucko distinguished himself with a long alternate route, walking the Danaher down to the South Fork, and using the Big Prairie pack bridge to facilitate a safe crossing and exit up Gordon Creek and over the Holland Gap to lower Holland Lake.  All other participants took the obvious, shortest exits at Benchmark or Gibson.

With water conditions as difficult as they are ever likely to be, the saving grace of the 2018 Open was warm days and coolish nights (for the fourth year running) which made for both kind temps and snow set up well enough that snowshoes were not needed.  Most importantly, good prep and decision making saw everyone survive the difficult conditions relatively unscathed.

Holy snow

Central-western Montana has had an extraordinary winter, which is necessarily leading to an extraordinary spring.  Massive amounts of snow means massive amounts of water, and in the last month temps have yet to get too warm (which is nice, as upper 60s feels stifling at the moment), and have been punctuated with big storms which have been more than cold enough to snow up high.  The grass I planted is growing in our yard, and we’ve had flood advisories for the past week solid, with plenty more snow waiting for true warmth.  Copper Camp Snotel, near the start of the Bob Open this year, is today reading an even six feet of snow at 6900 feet.  Which is a lot, especially on a wide open, south facing slope.

Little Bear and I took a walk yesterday to investigate, among other things, if the proposed TH for the Bob Open was in fact accessible.  It isn’t, and due to parking and camping issues I’m moving the start a ways east, to the North Fork of the Blackfoot River.

We found abundant snow at very low elevations (4400′ in the above photo), with the earliest flowers and forbs just starting to emerge.  A winter like the one we’re just exiting can seem oppressive, but gives many things.  The many elk, mule and whitetail deer, and the handful of trumpeter swans we saw were doing well, and seemed to appreciate the flooded meadows and tall creeks.  Little Bear got to practice important things like postholing, not getting smacked in the face by willows, and eating ramen with a stick.

It will be an interesting trip across the Bob in a few weeks.

Pack materials for 2018

This post and the follow-up a year later have remained among my most popular works, and with 2018 coming into focus they are at last worth updating.  Not too much has changed in the world of backpack fabrics, but time has allowed for enough clarification that a few things are worth saying again.  There are even some new trends to highlight.

Context matters.  I’ve taken plenty of flack over the years for denigrating trail and thru hiking as a useful design metric for backpacks.  This is a statement I still endorse, but do not mistake holding something up as a metric as equivalent to it being the most frequent or likely use.  Plenty of people get along just fine with fabrics I dislike, and unless you really want to count grams current technology makes producing a good, light, functional trail pack simple.  My own interest has always been, putting the outlier of canyoneering aside, in making and using packs which are as light and functional as the best modern packs, and tough enough for trips like this.

R0010199Nylon ripstop on the Gossamer Gear Type 2 (above) and Osprey Rev 18 (below).  Relatively cheap, certainly light, and for small packs durable for years of reasonable use.  Lighter packs carry lighter loads, can thus usually expect more careful handling, and thus can often get away with lighter fabrics, even if they are used most often.

IMG_3948

Pack fabrics can still be separated into two categories depending upon what waterproof coating they have stuck to their backs.  Polyurethene remains the most common, by far, and provides predictable and in many cases quite satisfactory performance.  The strengths of PU coated fabrics are lower prices, a more supple hand, and a lower amount of weight given over to the coating itself.  The downsides are the eventual degradation of the coating, the fact that most PU fabrics are waterproof to a degree which can be reliably if not commonly exceeded in field conditions, and that applying the coating weakens the fabric.  No one is complaining about the tear strength of something like 330D cordura, but I do believe that attribute of hot-application coatings is why they’re not more liberally applied (which would solve the waterproofing issue).  The quality of PU coating varied drastically, from very good to utter crap, which muddies things for both the home maker and the person just wanting to buy a good pack in the shops.

Laminate fabrics such a hybrid cubens and the various Dimension-Polyant fabrics are the second option.  If I were making a canyoneering pack I’d pick a PU fabric like 1000D cordura without hesitation, as the added weight and waterproofing given by a laminate just doesn’t make sense, especially in the face of no current laminate fabric being adequately durable for such use.  I used several test packs made from X51 (500/1000D cordura) last year, including for this two day excursion and even with careful packing 2 days and five canyons had the X51 on the edge of destruction.  For mountain backpacking, especially outside summer, the added waterproofing and weight of laminate fabrics makes them justifiable.

R0021333Cold and knackered along the Escalante in January.  Canyons beat up packs like little else. Laminate fabrics dedicate a greater percentage of their weights to the waterproofing layer, relative to PU fabrics.  I think the later makes more sense in the desert, for this reason.

Why aren’t many (any?) more commercial packs available in laminate fabrics?  First, the fabrics are more expensive, and needle holes which don’t self heal is I still assume a burden in mass production.  Second, D-P laminates face fabrics they don’t themselves produce in in the US, which means that a Chinese or Korean made cordura would be woven on one side of the Pacific, laminated on another, then shipped back again to be cut and sewn into packs.  Last, and most obviously why the first two hurdles haven’t been overcome, it is more difficult to articulate to the masses how your pack is more waterproof than other supposedly waterproof packs, and yet still is not submersible.  Plenty of people are trying to change these dynamics, and 2018 has the best chance yet of one succeeding.

IMG_2859

Abrasion in 1.3 oz pure cuben (above) and 150D hybrid cuben and VX42 (below).  Pure cuben isn’t reasonable for use in a pack, and the above photo show how easily the strong reinforcing fibers and weak mylar film are easily separated from each other.  The pack below is almost 4 years old, and has been a good test for how the two wear.  The cuben body is fine, but keeping it that way has taken lots of tape and aquaseal.

img_5772

Years have only reinforced my conviction that Cuben/DCF is in backpacks mostly hype.  Yes the 150D hybrid is a very good product.  Yes, good packs are made out of it.  But the face fabric itself is still relatively weak in the face of abrasion, and while the laminate itself is without question stronger in every respect than either PU or any PET I’ve seen, using weight and dollars to put strength there continues to not make sense to me.  200-300D nylon face with a thinner cuben film?  Sounds higher performance in every respect.  Since Cuben was purchased by DSM product development and availability has become decidedly less transparent, so while probably the greatest potential resides there in terms of pure pack fabric technology, I don’t expect anything new, one way or the other.

This leaves us with D-P products, which have become more diverse and vastly more widely available.  Rockywoods, for instance, currently sells 10 variants which could be suitable for backpacks, with more commonly available elsewhere.  Much to their credit, D-P has stuck with their fabric nomenclature, which initially seems obtuse but make discussion and differentiation simple.  For our purposes all fabrics have an inner PET laminate (the waterproof part) and an outer woven face fabric.  The V designation means there is an inner fabric laminated to the PET (easily seen by the white inner), while the X designation means the signature x shaped grid of reinforcing fibers is present, laminated within the PET.  Recent trends have gone away from the V layer, something of which I do not generally approve.  In heavier and especially darker face fabrics this results in a very shadowy interior which makes finding things a pain.  In the lighter fabrics, I’m thinking of X21 in particular, the lack of interior scrim takes away a good deal of stiffness, making an already oddly cut prone fabric considerably moreso.  3 years I was already less than fond of VX21, thinking that VX07 punched better given the weight, and that for me VX42 was almost always preferable.  This is not to say that X21 isn’t a good light pack fabric, just that I put it in the sides of a framebag a year ago, and have grown tired of little nicks appearing for no particular reason.

My particular favorites remain the cordura faces on X33 and X50, though VX42 and X42 are very nice.  The slicker face of the 420D plain weave used the latter does very well in brush and sticks, while cordura is better when dragged over rocks.  VX42 has proven difficult enough to put holes in that I’d use it for anything short of the slot canyon abuse shown above, content that I’d be patching holes and nicks infrequently.  X51 ought to be better than X50, but the difference in size between the warp and weft fibers make it a thorough disappointment.  Here my recommendation has not changed in recent years: VX07 for light trail duty, X33 for most things, and VX42 or X50 for abusive applications.

IMG_5567X50 significantly rubbed by 12 miles hauling an elk rack out of the wilderness.  Not overkill in this application.  This also illustrates the way the X grid accelerates abrasion.

A number of areas for improvement are available.  First, more Vspecific fabric options which omit the X grid.  Anyone who has put D-P fabrics to a good test has seen the grid be a major point of abrasion, such that the fabrics would without question last longer without it.  D-P has admitted that branding is at work here, but I also think that packs have become a large enough part of their portfolio that they will shortly be more malleable.   More broadly, it would be swell to see pack fabrics with some manner of durable surface coating that kept them from being saturated under gnarly conditions.  Arc’teryx has done this on a limited basis, so the potential certain exists.

This points to the real future of pack fabrics, which long term is probably in some manner of heavier non-woven.  The woven Dyneema used by Cilogear, HMG, and a few others is impressive, and points towards the way advanced textiles allow traditional fabrics to bend the rules as we know them.  My hope is that fabrics like the Liteskin line from D-P (a non-woven poly face with a woven nylon backer) will out perform traditional fabrics for the same weight, while being less expensive to produce at small and moderate scales than the various dyneema products.

Shit that works week; again

We’re back!

In the season of flash sales and emails, where impulse purchases push companies into the black and fill our closets with things that aren’t strictly necessary, it behooves us to step back and take a break. As I wrote three years ago:  “A lot of gear upgrading is malarkey, born of boredom or fashion or envy or lust or some other vaguely protestant shortcoming. Buying new stuff is fun, usually harmless in that postmodern capitalist headinthesand way, and sometimes even justified, but most often little substantive reward is gained… Thankfully, there are areas where this is simply not the case, and one can invest in richly made tools and toys which both function so much better and give immense aesthetic pleasure. It is good to live in a world, suffused in money that it is, in which such things are still possible. Where buying a given item will legitimately spur you to get better at a given activity.”  Analytics tell me that the original had and continues to have resonance.

It also pleases me that my regard and affection for the original list has not changed at all since late 2014.  The same Werner Shuna still gets me psyched to paddle every time I snap it together.  I’m still using the same Gossamer Gear grips on my trekking poles, though they are certainly showing their age.  A trip down to the local gear store every 6 weeks or so for Aquaseal remains a staple event.  I wear my Suunto Observer every day.  I still use a flat tarp often.  My Prolite XS died this spring, in circumstances that were not really its fault.  Brightly colored socks, gloves, and hats remain a favorite whose value was emphasized this fall when my favorite (and black) hat went missing.  Many other bits of gear have come and gone since, but all of the above items are either still hanging around providing good service, or died a glorious and inevitable death in the field.

Clothing generally is tough to put on a list like this, it being equally open to boredom and whimsy.  But with rare exceptions technology doesn’t push ahead that fast, so in the list which follows I’m going to mention a few stalwart pieces of apparel along with the more usual, underappreciated basics, and some big ticket items whose utility will prove enduring.  We like gear for a good reason, it not only makes it easier to do important things, items become companions and after the fact become soaked in memories.  The best pieces of gear wind up being as evocative as any photo on the wall or bauble on the shelf.

Thermarest Ridgerest

IMG_5498

Inflatable sleeping pads pop, eventually.  All of them, in fact, though heavier car camping mats can safely double as mild-use pool toys.  My beloved Prolite XS fell victim to the hot Utah sun, but the compelling circumstances of its death failed to make it more comfortable to sleep on.

IMG_5499

If you have to or want to sleep on closed cell foam, and enjoy the light weight, bulk, and thin cushion in equal parts, the Thermarest Ridgerest is the pad you want.  It provides the best mix of comfort, light weight, longevity, and good insulation value.  Shown above are a 5ish year old Ridgerest Solite, and a brand new Ridgerest Solar.  The later is 5mm thicker and .9 higher R value.  The least expensive Ridgerest recently made a comeback, the so-called Ridgerest Classic in all-black.  My Solite was either the first or second year Thermarest added the aluminized coating, and as can be seen (the coated side is up in both photos) it does not last all that long.  Then again, I wasn’t aware of quite how packed out my Ridgerest was until I picked up the new one, so if the coating does have value it at least doesn’t far too fall short of the useful life of the Ridgerest generally.

Coal Frena beanie

R0012998

Wise backcountry folks know that when nasty conditions really get going one cannot have too many hats.  Three hats and two hoods is for me not an unusual rig when I’m nice and cold and hunkered down packrafting, glassing, or dead tired and walking into the teeth of a snowstorm.  The warmer of the two insulated hats I usually bring along needs to dry fast, be comfortable enough to wear 24 hours or more straight, stretchy enough to fit over a bunch of other stuff, yet tight enough that while asleep it won’t wander too far.  The Coal Frena does this, with a jaunty range of solids and color blocks available, generally for less than 20 dollars.

IMG_5501

The acrylic at work here is not fancy or nuanced, just on the thick and dense side, which is the large part of the genius here: no seams to restrict stretch, and no panels or liners or reinforcements to trap moisture.  Eventually the material does stretch out a bit (5 year old hat at right, versus 3 year old hat at left) but the lifespan would seem to be more than acceptable.

An Alpacka raft

R0023755

Packrafts have the potential to become more popular than canoes, kayaks, or all the permutations of rafts.  They speak to why SUPs have spread so quickly, being easy to transport and making any little backyard bit of water fun, and infuse that with genuine technical prowess and the sort of beginner and intermediate friendliness that only rockered skis and modern, big wheeled suspension mountain bikes have imitated.  They do this all while being one of the most potent tool for real wilderness exploration this side of rubber soled shoes.

So what is not to like?

R0023112

Well, they are expensive, and Alpacka rafts in particular have kept pace with and perhaps even outstripped inflation.  But now that Kokopelli rafts are available through REI they’ll be subject to sales and discounts and will count towards your dividend, and just as with SUPs and snowshoes and gravel bikes this will do more than anything short of a government subsidy to push them towards ubiquity.  From a management perspective, as well as that of a misanthrope, I worry about folks with bad judgement unintentionally trying to kill themselves as well as precious places becoming more tramped upon.  But packrafting has given me and more recently the whole family so much joy that I just cannot begrudge them and it to anyone.

R0023551

It also warms my heart that with a tool so basic yet sophisticated there remains an option which is both grassroots and cutting edge.  Seeing the 2017 offerings from Alpacka, Aire, and Kokopelli (left to right) side by side this summer just brought home how much better Alpacka rafts are in every way.  Kokopelli clearly chooses not to compete directly in terms of material quality, but it baffles me that they can’t be at least a bit more forward thinking in terms of design, something overseas manufacturing should not inhibit.  The Nirvana is about 4 years behind Alpacka when it comes to nuance.

Yes, with Alpacka boats you are to a certain extent rolling the dice as to where you’ll have a welding irregularity and when you’ll need to glue some seam tape back down, but big picture Alpacka build quality remains adequate or far better, and the designs paddle ridiculously good.  You’ll pay 1.5 to 2 times what you might for a Kokopelli, but a comparable jump in quality and performance in mountain bikes will cost you considerably more.  $1575 is a lot of money (it’s what I’d spend if I were to buy a new boat today; a Gnarwhal self bailer in custom multicolor), but relative to what you get I still think it is one of the best deals in premium outdoor gear around.

A Western Mountaineering sleeping bag

Before Little Bear came along to complicate the picture M and I happily did reams of trips all over with only three sleeping bags, two of which (an Ultralite and an Antelope MF) are from the big WM.  If they were children we’d be worried about pimples and birth control; the Ultralite is a bit over 12 years old, the Antelope 14.  Until the Ultralite suffered an unfortunate burning at the hands of a hot wood stove this past January (and the subsequent drastic patch job) both were essentially brand new, having presumably lost a tiny and difficult to quantify amount of loft over the hundreds of nights they’d been used.

Beyond the basic quality of construction and longevity of premium down insulation, I recommend WM bags because they’re warm, warm in a way the current quilt fad just isn’t going to match.  Increasingly convoluted designs (c.f. Zenbivy) seem to dance with ever growing fervor around the fact that you’ll always be warmer if you are genuinely surrounded by warmth.

For instance, the Antelope MF (which is almost unchanged since we bought ours) has a 62″ shoulder girth, 26 oz of fill in 6′ length, a class leading draft color and hood, and weighs 2 pounds 7 ounces.  The Katabatic Grenadier, also rated to 5 degrees F, has 20 ounces of fill and weighs 1 pound, 14 ounces.  Comparing quilt and bag circumference is never perfect, but the two are pretty close in this regard.  Would you have to spend the 9 ounce difference making the Grenadier as functionally warm as the Antelope?  I would say so.  Katabatic’s Crestone hood is 2 ounces, and the extra 7 get eaten up by the energy spent rolling over with precision and making darn sure you don’t pop that seal between hood and neck baffle.

R0023009

Sleeping bags that are true to their temp rating and air tight enough to be boosted 30 degrees lower are shit that just works.  So too are boats that can be beaten up for years without caring, kept in a daypack, and work almost anywhere (so long as the headwind is mild).  There are a few things I almost added to this list; the Nano Air Light hoody (haven’t had it long enough), the MSR Windburner (use it on every trip, could be lighter), the Seek Outside LBO (dimensions are a little funny, too many stakes, beak panel needs cat cut to kill flapping), the BD Alpine Start (sucks up just too much water).  For those there is always next year, and the many trips it should entail.  Start planning, and consider the apocryphal Chouinard quotation: “Buy plane tickets, not gear.”

Hydration for multiday backcountry pursuits

15 years ago the hydration system revolution was in full swing.  Hoses and bladders were ubiquitous for day hiking, mountain bikers, backpackers, and even runners.  Bladder tech has only gotten better since; after holding out for years against more gadgets I must admit that the quick disconnect that came with the latest Osprey is darn handy, if not altogether foolproof.  For multiday backcountry pursuits (aka backpacking and its variations) bladders have big issues: they’re clumsy to fill on the go, they often don’t play well with a full pack, and they can break and leak (which often goes undetected until too late).  But the argument bladders made is incontrovertible; that while backpacking a significant amount of water needs to be accessible all the time, ideally with one handed access and removal.  Pack makers of all stripes have had to up their game, and side pockets are much better than they used to be.  Side pocket bottles aren’t always the best solution for the backcountry, but when they are done well they’re preferred 95% of the time.

(The big exception being toting 3+ liters, like below, where bladders are much more compact and you want that weight closer than side pockets can achieve.  Hoses are also largely backwash-proof, handy for toddlers and their disgusting drinking habits.)

DSC09947

Recently there has been a push-back against “overhydration” and the marketing language (hydrate or die!) with which the hydration pack industry has flourished.  While I think many of the particulars of this criticism have merit, on the whole it is profoundly misguided, especially when it comes to multiday backcountry pursuits.

First, the hydration pack industry is indeed a bit much.  Charging 150 bucks for a “technical daypack” isn’t the most utilitarian development the outdoor industry has cooked up, but like with puffy coats the technology bleeds over and the cash keeps companies and retail stores afloat.  For dayhikers who think water purification is a survival necessity, chic 25 liter bags with a 100 ounce bladder makes sense.

Second, the term overhydration isn’t really accurate.  Hyponatremia is about excessively low blood sodium.  It is very easy, especially in decent heat, to drink enough while taking in too few electrolytes, which if taken too far can lead to some pretty bizarre symptoms, and death.  It is only slightly less easy to drink much faster than your gut can absorb, which only results in lots of pissing.  I have no doubt that many, many people have and will continue to drink more water than their body can absorb (1 liter/hour for a 150 pound person, under ideal conditions), and that only some of them could have put most of that water to actual use with better nutrition, but I am certain that to this day many more still drink too little and cruise around dehydrated and underperforming, all other factors considered equally.  Overhydration and hyponatremia are simply never the same thing.

Third, “drink when you’re thirsty” is not inherently inaccurate but doesn’t begin to tell the whole picture, and for the multiday backcountry athlete (meaning someone who works hard and tends to sweat on their trips) is a principal incomplete enough to be actively dishonest.  While you may only be able to process a half liter an hour while hiking hard, you could lose 3-6 times that amount during the same time, through perspiration and respiration.  Do that math; 2 liters of loss average over 14 hours on the move is 28 liters.  Cut that in half for a less severe hypothetical; when and how are you going to replace over 3 gallons of fluid during a 24 hour period, especially when you’re asleep for a third of it?  Drinking when thirsty is unlikely to get the job done.

The vital point here, and the reason why the often cited literature from Noakes et al is of little utility for backpackers, is that day to day recovery and maintenance has to be entirely self contained.  Even a tough, slow marathon is perhaps equivalent to one full on days backpacking effort, and virtually no one running Fog City or Whiskey Row has to hydrate and eat with an eye towards doing the same thing for the following five days.  Even a longer race like the much researched Comrades Ultra doesn’t generalize to multiday backcountry particularly well due to the recovery aspect.  Not everyone backpacks like this, but lots of people stepping out on more severe trips, especially in hot areas like the Grand Canyon or Colorado Plateau get slapped down after the first two days, and my personal experience has led me to believe that many if not most of these folks would do and feel better with a more aggressive and holistic hydration and nutrition strategy.

ak-mountain-wilderness-classic-10Food for the 2011 Wilderness Classic.

I wrote some detailed guidelines for food planning for a backpack a few years ago, but for the purposes of this post it is illustrative to look at the food I brought on the Wilderness Classic six years ago.  That was a ~150 mile effort that ended up taking 3.5 days, with weather that trended more towards cold and wet than warm and dry.  Lots of chocolate and cheese and nuts was geared towards the cold weather aspect, as well as calorie/oz maximization, but I also had lots of salty and easy to digest foods along, the kinds of things (Pringle’s, licorice, Paydays) I usually bring on warmer weather trips, but also take on more strenuous outings.  Simple soups and hot cereals are not only psychologically beneficial, but seem to help get nutrients and especially fluids on board, not only in the stomach but into the blood stream.  The food above ended up being just about perfect, I even had a few extra Snickers to share with Paige, but some drink mixes and/or electrolyte supplements would have been an ideal addition.

It’s common for the uninitiated to look at food lists like the above and see little other than junk food.  That is true, but what is also true is that things like Pringle’s and chocolate and Halvah are well suited to the demands of multiday backcountry outings, especially strenuous ones.  Rules still apply, but they are very different ones.

The 2017 Bob Open

One of the best, if not the best, thing about the Bob Open is that it isn’t about me or anyone else. It’s about everyone, going out and battling with their demons and desires on their own terms and hopefully learning what they wanted. The Bob itself is just a canvas, though not all canvas’s are equal.

I’ve written these summary reports each year because they’re a fun exercise and provide a convenient reference for the future.  They certainly don’t even begin to get at any of the important stuff that took place.  Most info used below can be found here.
R0023534
The 2017 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open ran from the West Fork of the Teton River to the north end of Lake Inez, and took place after a big snow winter and under sunny and warm conditions.  Saturday, Sunday and Monday all saw temperatures in the 80s at lower elevations, though mostly clear nights kept the abundant snow well frozen until late in the morning. Rivers were high, with the South Fork of the Flathead about 10,000 cfs all weekend.

18 men took the start.  Everyone headed west into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Sun, almost everyone over the Olney/Nesbit pass, whose north side is burned and gains elevation quickly, with a forested south side that sidehills in dense timber and holds snow lower than one would think.  Between the snow and unusually abundant deadfall many folks where starting to feel the burn by the time they reached the Sun in the late morning or early afternoon.  Taking the North Fork valley all the way south to the South Fork of the Sun was the fastest initial option, with one party packrafting and several walking this stretch, and both enjoying good travel conditions.  The next decision point was to take White River pass and trade a higher crossing and potentially tough ford of the West Fork of the Sun for quicker access to the pack bridge at Big Prairie, or to stick to the lowest route at take Stadler Pass into Danaher Creek, avoiding any potentially problematic crossings.  One party discarded the longer and faster Sun River option and headed up Rock Creek to cross Larch Hill pass into the White River valley.  Lastly, the first Bob Open ski participant took the northernmost route; over Washboard Reef, Switchback pass, and Wall Creek pass into the White River drainage.

Big stream crossings were a major theme.  The Spotted Bear River at Pentagon Creek proved challenging, as did the West Fork of the Sun at Indian Creek, with the later providing at least one short ride.  The southernmost ford of the White River near Brushy Park is often big and fast, and this year it was especially so, but one of the larger cruxes of the whole Open proved to be Gordon Creek, whose big basin had plenty of snow for the warm temperatures to melt.  One party declined to cross Gordon and headed out over the Holland Gap instead, while all those who did cross reported a high level of concern, and at least one person took a wee swim.  Noteable is one group coming out of the Danaher that was split up by an impromptu crossing of the South Fork on a recently downed Cottonwood.

Once across the South Fork crossing the Swan Range was still ahead, and was always going to be the crux of any route in such a big snow year.  The one packrafter this year floated the White and South Fork down to Big Salmon, and took Pendant Pass down to Upper Holland Lake.  This is a long and scenic route with a lot of higher altitude, north facing terrain, and as has been the case in the past delivered some tough going.  The penalty for choosing the relatively easy option of the Holland Gap was double digit miles to make it south to Lake Inez, which was always going to be annoying mindnumbing, and this year proved quite mosquito infested as well.  Of the two parties who came over the Holland Gap, one made the official finish, while one demurred and hitched a ride for the final dozen or so miles.  The rest of the crew headed up Youngs and choose either Babcock Creek or Pyramid Pass as their final obstacle.  The former was the shorter route, but the “trail” in upper Babcock is now even more buried in blowdown than in past years, and the going was tough.  Connective tissue problems, fatigue, and general discretion and sanity had several participants pull up short mere miles from the finish, rather than endure a painful stretch of dirt road walking.

The end result is the largest number of starters ever, as well as the largest number (though not largest percentage) of DNFs ever.  In some respects the conditions were ideal, in others they were exceedingly difficult, and the relentless and back-ended routes proved an ideal test of those who made it that far.  The quality of storytelling certainly did not suffer.

Bob Open 2017; midterm analysis

Add:  The stories are piling up over on the BPL forums.   As ever some fantastic stuff, with maybe a bigger dose of happy suffering than usual.  Massively inspired; thanks everyone.

 

With 18 starters we did set a record for participants this year, and beyond that we certainly set a record for the number of kids, dogs, and significant others camping the night before, which given that the confluence of the North and West Forks of the Teton is one of my favorite places was fun to see.  Plenty of folks asked me if I had regrets at not doing the hike myself, which I didn’t and don’t.  For one, I was and am still quite tired and was glad to spend two nights in a cabin hanging out.  For another, I’ve crossed the Bob over a dozen times now, which makes it ever harder to find routes where I haven’t majorily done.  For yet another, the weather and conditions took a drastic turn for the better which removed some of the novelty from the particular course.  But most important I was able to step back, chat (when I wasn’t chasing the kid), and see everyone’s eyes as they were getting ready.  Which was really fun.

R0023500

Participants in the 2017 Bob Open are making their way west towards the Clearwater River this morning.  Some may finish today, but it is looking like 3 days and change will be the mean for this longer and tougher course.

Mike M spent last night near Basin Creek along the Danaher, and has been moving well this morning and indeed all weekend.  Especially with the rivers being on the large side, how to get across the South Fork of the Flathead is far and away the biggest pinch point.  Only one person I know of brought a packraft this year, and I assume almost everyone if not everyone else will use the Big Prairie pack bridge.  Depending on what route he chooses over the Swan Crest, expect Mike to cross the river late this morning and camp up high this evening.  His route down the North Fork of the Sun and over Stadler Pass is a bit longer than a few other options, but by far the surest in terms of minimizing miles on snow

Dan Durston started with ski gear and not much else, and a bold plan to match, hoping for ~50% of his miles on snow and a 48 hour finish.  Early yesterday afternoon he was at Big Prairie and his 48 hour aspiration seemed within reach, provided he avoided significant errors skiing up and over the Swan.  Instead, due to injury, fatigue from his first 36 hours, or snow conditions less than expected, he continued hiking south along Youngs Creek and took a ~6 hour camp this past night.  Dan started with only 6000 calories, and a sleeping bag but no shelter of any kind, so he has to be feeling fairly well out there this morning.  Depending on how hard the climb over the crest into Grizzly Basin proves, he ought to finish mid to late afternoon today.  And I would imagine be quite hungry.  He and his wife are starting the Great Divide Trail Thursday, and for that reason he declared Friday evening that he couldn’t get too beat up on this traverse.  I don’t think he succeeded.

It appears that Chase, and ones assumes his partner Derek, bailed out Benchmark late yesterday.  They were going well Saturday, camping near the forks of the Sun, but it seems that something went wrong yesterday afternoon.

Tyler, Jon, and Justin (of Missoula) have left a track with sparse points, but what evidence we have suggests they’ve been going quite well.  The first day saw them make the patrol cabin up Rock Creek, a solid day with a long and rather monotonous push up from Gates Park.  One assumes they tackled the scenic and on a snow year like this quite difficult crossing of Larch Hill Pass yesterday, and this morning they were closing in on Big Prairie.  Provided all goes well a finish later this evening seems quite possible.
R0023505
The weather east of the Continental Divide has this weekend been exceptional.  Friday had a hard freeze, which should have made for good snow conditions, and the past three days have been sunny, mildly windy, and if anything a little too hot.  The sunny days brought rivers up a bit, but not as much as might have been expected.  I expect most folks will have had a pleasant time out, at least insofar as conditions are concerned.

The absence of any outstandingly fast time this year I put off partly to Dan having taken a route gamble and lost, but mostly on only one packrafter, and a route which avoids big stretches on the South Fork.  For me the likely fastest route certainly involved floating the North Fork of the Sun, which probably would have gone from Wrong Creek to the takeout near Sun Butte in around 4 hours, as well as either the White River or Danaher Creek.  I meant for the finishing stretch to present the most difficult route choice, and on that front it will be interesting to see how folks do on their various routes this afternoon and tomorrow.

R0023460

Many people have asked what is next for the Open, and when if every it might travel beyond the Bob complex?  It is time for that to happen, but options that provide comparable diversity and wilderness character are hard to find.  Two of the best options I’ve all but discarded for legal obstacles; the Greater Yellowstone due to the impracticality of going across a national park, and the Colorado Plateau due to the difficulty of both including bikes and making a bike non-essential without all but asking everyone to break the law (you can’t possess a bike off trail in Glen Canyon Rec Area, though it is done often).  I need to know more about the Selway-Frank, and other places in the northern Rockies I worry about being too roaded.  Introducing some variety while maintaining the same character, will be my big challenge for next year.  An earlier Open in the Bob certainly would not be out of the question.

Not that, hard

It is easy for me to remember the night before my first Grand Canyon Double Crossing (aka Rim-Rim-Rim). Early December of 2005, living out of our Xterra, driven south and west by cold and the Grand Canyon as our last stop before the true lowlands of Vegas, Death Valley, and J Tree. We slept outside the park and it was cold, which made it hard to not bring too many clothes on what ended up being a 45 mile, 15 hour hike. A corroded battery terminal kept our home stuck at the South Kaibab TH and with me, unable to walk, we spent the night in the El Tovar, which checked that off the list before I knew enough for it to get very long.

Before that day I had never walked 40 miles in a day; very possibly I had never walked much beyond 30. It was long, mentally, and it was hard, physically, and the recollection of the rim lights appearing out of the dark as I ascended the final switchbacks of the Bright Angel hours after sunset still comes instantly to mind. It was my introduction to the world of ultraendurance, my first best lesson on exactly why and how long pushes in the mountains are difficult. It has also inculcated in me a virulent and abiding dislike of accounts which willfully portray ultraendurance as hyperbolically difficult, or that only scrape the surface of just how a 14 hour continuous effort is hard.

REIs “A Walk in the Park” is a good example of storytelling which tries to lean on and exaggerate the weaker parts of interest. 46 miles of road biking on a flat bike path is not that hard. Climbing (hiking) Teewinot isn’t that hard either, though it is a big hill with a telegenic summit. Open water swimming is probably pretty tough; having never done it I couldn’t really say. What is without question quite brutal is turning left when you finally get back to the Lupine Meadows TH and hiking back along Jenny Lake only to swim across it, rather than staying straight and walking the ~mile of road back to your bike.

This isn’t to say that the physical aspects of this Teton Triathlon aren’t hard, it is to say that the extent to which they are or are not within the capacities of the “average” person is irrelevant. The hard part about being about in the woods and exerting yourself for 12+ hours straight is keeping present, eating and drinking, and directing your mind to relish everything in the moment, even the blisters and lactic acid. This is especially tough when, like this Teton Triathlon, the route is contrived and has easy bail points. WZRD et al get into that in the final minutes, but the hyperbole which permeates the first half takes the edge far off.

Giving the mental struggle full credit is not an easy thing to do in any medium, and making a film that keeps backpacking interesting for 17 minutes is just as hard, which is why I was so happy to see that Dean Leslie and pro skier come stinky Instagram sex kitten Kalen Thorien did both in their film on backpacking the Sierra High Route. Leslie is, quite simply, the best adventure filmmaker working today, and Thorien’s dedication to self-filming in the difficult and boring moments provided him with ideal material. It takes a lot of perspective to realize and say that backpacking and endurance stuff in the wood doesn’t teach you anything, it just provides a still enough mirror, and that while out there fear almost never has anything to do with bears or lightening or running out of food or how difficult that next pass is. Difficulty has to do with what you expect of yourself, and how willing you are to bend your will to make that happen.

You are all going to die

Nothing is certain and a lot can change in three weeks, but right now conditions for the Bob Open are shaping up to be as or more challenging than they’ve been, for any years of the formal event or for the two years prior when I did solo trips that weekend.

IMG_3592

Compared to three weeks ago the Badger Pass Snotel hasn’t moved down much, in spite of some fairly sunny weather.  It does seem to have topped off a good bit lower than 2014, when on the ground conditions (though not weather) were the toughest of any year between 2010 and 2016.  Depending on daily temps the next three weeks, I expect mid-altitude snow cover to be anything from truly extensive to merely abundant.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 9.21.05 AM

What ground me down so thoroughly the first day in 2014 was the many miles of slowish, ankle and leg stretching snow.  Temps weren’t high enough during the night to rot it out and make postholing a huge issue, but they were warm enough in the day (with a good rainstorm the first afternoon) to turn the top 2-5 inches slushy, which snowshoes or not is like walking on a slippery beach.

The bigger news is that those warmish temps the past few weeks have made the rivers absolutely massive for this time of year.  Sunday morning the South Fork of the Flathead dipped above 14,000 cfs for a few hours, which was an all time record and higher than it ever got in 2016.  Earlier that same morning the North Fork of the Sun bumped above 2,300 cfs, which for that small river is a lot.  In either case you see seams, boils, and instawhirlpools like those shown in the above video, as well as logs and other detritus magically rising and falling within the water column.  They are, in short, flows I find quite scary.

In either case there is more than enough snow left to keep and under the right conditions exceed those flows later this month.  The potential exists for both floating and stream crossing conditions to be quite hazardous.  It all comes down to daily temperatures in the next three weeks.

The final variable is weather.  We haven’t had truly bad weather on Memorial day weekend sine 2012, though those who were out past day 4 in 2015 would disagree.  Rain, and especially snow, will make things colder and potentially influence both navigation and route selection (due to avy hazard) in the later half of this years course.  The die is set, with the probability of genuinely easy conditions almost nonexistent, but there is still plenty of potential for variation.  You have to show up to know for sure.

2017 Bob Open, planning from afar

As things stand today, the family and I will almost certainly be at the start of the 2017 Bob Open, if for no other reason than we rented the (superlatively gorgeous) forest service cabin at the start for the nights of the 26th and 27th.  I’m less certain I’ll actually start the course, but knowing what the obvious routes are and what an extraordinary winter Montana has had it will be difficult to say no.

Not having been in Montana since early November, I find myself in the new to me situation of having to assess conditions and plan from a distance.  Though naturally having done this for each of the last six Mays makes generalizing data to what is on the ground quite a bit easier.

BadgerSnotel

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 12.59.31 PM

Of all the Snotels in the Bob I find Badger Pass the most useful, for reasons discussed here.  While I won’t be going especially close to the pass itself, it should give me a decent ideal of how much and more importantly what kind of snow I might find on the passes I will go over.

Badger tells us that a lot of snow fell in the Bob this winter.  More importantly, it tells us that unless a truly remarkable heat wave rolls in there will still be lots of snow at the end of May.  The top graph tells it best, showing snow depth holding steady over the past 30 days, while snow water equivalent slowly increased.  This tells me that the ~80 inches of snow currently lurking in the spruce up at Badger is exceedingly dense and solid, and will take a long time to melt even with warm temperatures.  For the Open I’ll expect snow down to 5000 feet, maybe lower in the trees on north facing slopes, and well over 6 feet in most places above 6500.  Navigational challenges will be a bit more extensive than usual.

SforkApril2017

NForkSun2017

It seems likely that lower and low-mid elevation snow will be well cleared out by a fairly warm April, as steadily high but not egregious flows on both relevant rivers show.  This removes the unlikely, but after a winter like one not improbable, scenario of snow persisting below 5000 feet well into May and even June.  Flows this high for this long also mean a high probability of wood being moved around, not necessarily of more wood jams, but certainly in different places.  So much snow does mean that increased deadfall on trails is a certainty.  Only the weather close to go time will determine how big the rivers and streams in fact are.  As the Snotel sites tell us there is still more than enough middle and high altitude snow to make things truly huge, but the elimination of low altitude snow does mean that it will take a more sustained warm period to really bring the waterways up.

Planning wise this data doesn’t necessarily change much.  Lots of snow might prompt you away from a trail on a north facing aspect into a neighboring drainage which is likely to be more melted.  On the other hand, depending on temps in the week before more snow in live forest might be preferable to less snow in a burn, and the tons of downed trees which might there be found.  The potential for problematic stream crossings, a la 2013, certainly has my attention, as does the omnipresent question of whether to bring snowshoes or not.  Hard not to lean yes on a year like this one.

See everyone next month!