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.

Sperry

I’ve been experimenting with ways to not be cold and damp on the drives home.  Today’s method, stripping down to capilene outside and cranking the heat all the way home, worked better than layering a belay coat over damp layers.  But as I drove along the shore of Lake McDonald, drying quickly, something was wrong.  I smelled funny.  Not normal exercise stinky, and not from any particular body part or item of clothing.  Then I realized: ammonia.  Byproduct of anaerobic muscle burning.  Apparently I worked too hard and didn’t bring enough food.  Oops.

But the sun was out!  There was fresh powder!  I had new skis!! No matter that I know better.

Sublime though the day turned out to be, I felt like death at 6am.  Too much beer, wine, and steak at the company holiday party last night.  I drank a lot of water and OJ on the drive out to the park (Glacier), hoping it’d all sort itself out.

It did.  Trail breaking got harder as the new snow increased with the altitude, but the views and ski terrain was getting better at the same time, so I didn’t notice or care until about 1/2 mile from Sperry Chalet, when I bonked hard.  But I was almost at my top for the day, so much ado about nothing.

The only other time I’ve been up in the Sperry Cirque rain, fog, threatening darkness, and fatigue kept me from seeing further than 100 feet away from me.  Which made for a pleasant surprise when I saw and understood just what an astounding position the buildings hold.  Enhanced, if such a thing is possible, by winter.  The trees were fully ghosted, the boulders wearing snow hats 10 feet tall, ice mushrooms overhung distant walls, and tantalizing ski lines were riven through the cliffs.  I’ve got some video that fairly does it injustice (that will make it’s way into volume 2 of the year in review), but the still photos are just crap by comparison.  I imagine I’ll be up there again this winter.

The Marquettes got a good workout today, and what I’ve gleaned of their personality has me pleased.  Unsurprisingly, they float very well.  That they turn very fast is perhaps not noteworthy, given their length, but I was taken aback with the precision with which they swing into arks.  They carve powder, smear, slide, and pull up on dime with little imput.  I’m confident they’ll fulfill the role of bushwacking and tree ski nicely.

Marquette Backcountry ski: out o’ the box

Enter the clown shoes.

Those are 185 Guides.

Inserts make mounting dead easy.  I did need a longer screw for the front, to use the Voile wedge.  Fine threaded, takes a 3mm allen.

Big fishscales.

They have a bit of camber.  They’re also very stiff, by any standard.  Not plastic noodles.

Lots of tip rise.

Off to get ’em dirty.

Ghosts

On the Swan Crest looking NNW, two weeks ago.

The sun actually came out today, I wore shades driving to appointments this afternoon.  That hasn’t happened much in the months we’ve lived in the Flathead.  I’m adapting better than I would’ve thought possible, years ago sunniness on par with Arizona seemed like a prerequisite to an acceptable place of residence.

The combination of darkness, overcastness, and a nasty little sinus cold has made this a quiet week.  But I’m getting itchy, and this weekend should provide some good leg stretching opportunities.

Karhu Guide ski review

ExecSum: This neo-classic ski, currently living after the demise of Karhu as the Madshus Annum, is the proverbial jack-of-all-trades, master of none.  If you want one ski that will work for 40 degree powder fields, 20 miles of rolling trail breaking, and everything in between, this is the ski.

The facts: My Guides are 185 cm.  I’ve owned them since February of 2009.  I’ve skied them a lot: long rolling tours on untracked terrain, multi-day trips, double black terrain both in resorts and in the backcountry.  I mounted Voile Mountaineers (heavy-duty 3 pin bindings) on 15mm G3 risers, on the factory recommended pin line, and haven’t played around with that original job.  Initially I used Alpina BC 2075 plastic/leather boots, but the vast majority of skiing on them has been with a pair of older, softer blue T2 plastic boots which I’ve modified to make lighter and softer (cut off the lean lock, cut down the cuff, made the tongue softer).

Madshus’ claimed weight for the Annum is right in line with my skis, 5.7 lbs for the pair in 185.  Very light for a 109-78-95 ski.

Assessment: I call the Guide a neo-classic because I think it will eventually be seen as the originator of a new category of skis, all-around BC touring skis.  The Guide took the attributes of Karhu’s long-standing XCD (cross country downhill) series of skis and stretched them to the point that a new category is in order.  The Guide’s width is only skinny by contemporary powder-ski standards, and when combined with the Guide’s substantial single camber (seen above, uncompressed), creates a ski that can turn down truly difficult terrain, break trail, and make miles.

The width, robust single camber, fishscale base, and light weight have been the focus of attention for most of the Guide’s life, because they were such a unique combination.  Now in the Rossignol BC125 the Guide has been surpassed in dimension, and hopefully more attention can be paid to the Guide’s design, which is very well thought out.

The Guide doesn’t have much sidecut, by alpine standards.  It has a big shovel, and the tip is quite soft (flex-wise).  The result it excellent float and soft-snow performance, be in downhill, uphill, or on the flats.  In truly soft snow conditions the Guide may be one of the more efficient trail breakers around, being wide enough to float well, and still quite light.  The back end of the ski has even less sidecut, a feature which serves two distinct and important ends.  First, the relative lack of sidecut lets the Guide track very well for a ski of its girth.  Second, the pin tail (and the rounded tail tip) lets the tail be dragged quickly around for smear turns, a crucial feature in tight trees or when descending narrow roads and trails when speed must be scrubbed ASAP.  The more I ski the Guides in varied terrain, the more I appreciate the utility of the sidecut and flex pattern.

The Guide does have shortcomings.  Such a large, light ski will inevitably, in the absence of expensive space age materials, lack both edge hold and dampness.  The Guide gets kicked around by hard debris, and while it can hold on edge on frozen snowmobile tracks, requires some consequential body english to do so.

The light bindings and boots which match best this skis versatile nature compound those problems, but not in ways which I find unsafe, or overly problematic.  Folks have skied the Guides with everything from NTN to Dynafit, but I like the simple, bomber and cheap Mountaineer binding.  The low risers prevent binding drag on hard snow, and the anti-ice tape (plastic sticker on the binding) keeps snow from being compressed into ice.  I went until last spring without anti-ice tapes, which was pure folly.  They’re impressively effective, a must have accessory.

On the whole, I think the Guide is a great design and a fantastic value.  Keep its limitations in mind (skiing steep stuff and bad snow is much like riding a rigid bike on technical terrain) and you’ll not be disappointed.

10/2012 update:  The Guides endure, and never fail to get used a ton no matter what each winter brings.  I stripped off the risers for ’10/’11 and didn’t miss them at all.  As of this writing they are in the garage, mounted with Plum 145 tech bindings, waiting for snow.  Check the trackbacks for thoughts on use with Dynafits.

Enduring

What matters in life?  A redundant question, as thinking that something would matter outside of life (which is to say, existence) not only makes no sense, but is quite unthinkable.  Life is an echo chamber, where meaning is discovered like a skier in a whiteout: unable to see anything, the skier yells out, listens, and skies slowly forward, knowing the location of mountain walls only by the echo.  We only know, anything, because of the presence of other stuff in our lives.

At first thought, it seems like the “other stuff” can be divided into two categories: other people, and everything else.  Our relations with fellow humans tend to be rich and dynamic, echos coming back quickly, the relationship therefore easy to define and understand.  Our relations with mountains, however, (and we do have relations with such things) are more prolonged, subtle, and on the surface at least one-sided.  Both kinds of relations, those with other people and those with nature, define who we are, but do so in different ways.

Or do they?  I’ve long thought that existence is quite a bit messier than that.  Inter-human relations can be quite shallow and truncated, the influence of nature is always more profound than we can easily understand, relationships with animals and the land (farming) seem to point to significant grey areas, and technology has of late exaggerated the many ways in which non-face to face relations can nonetheless be enormously influential.

In short, defining how we are who we are is not so simple, and how you ask the who question is enormously important.

Ed Abbey’s central thesis, both in his work in general and in Desert Solitaire in particular, is concerned with this question: how does our relationship with the world define us?  The coextensive and thus contradictory need to be both a part of something (secure) and a separate person (independent) can be played out between two people (most poignantly in romantic relationships), or between a culture and the land (manifest destiny and America’s fetishization of The West).  We cannot be truly independent people, because the possibility of our existence is defined by the presence of other people and of the larger world.  Yet, a degree of separation from others and the backdrop of nature is essential for much of our thinking and action.

Bedrock and Paradox.

All of which is to explain two things:

I see philosophy and the tradition of intellectual exploration as rooted in nature.  Aristotle was a philosopher and a naturalist.  Thoreau went walking in the Maine woods (but what wonders would his mind have created had he went west with Muir?!).  Siddhartha Gotama sat under a tree in Varanasi.  Jesus wandered in the wilderness.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sat in his cave.  As our world becomes more and more full of our fellow humans, experiencing the other side of existence, not in solitude, but being in the sole and overwhelming company of nature, is more and more relevant.  This is, generally speaking, why I do what I do, and why this blog is what it is.

I am very glad I went down to Missoula to visit with my friends this weekend, my sisters-in-arms from grad school (they’re all women, after all).  We cooked and ate food, drank beer and wine, sat around and laughed and talked, and went skiing, snowmobiling and skinning up to a high ridge with a tremendous view to lap turns and turns on a slope of perfect snow.  Because on some moments you can be, all at once, in the company of everyone and everything.

What I wore this past Saturday

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

-Scarpa T2 plastic double boots, Darn Tough socks

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

-Midweight stretch polyester pants, Powerstretch boxer-briefs

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

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

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

-Patagonia Houdini

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

-Capilene magic hat, Montrail headband

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

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

-Patagonia DAS parka, OR Endeavor mitts

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

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

-Fleece vest and mittens

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

 

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

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

The interloper

Danni Coffman skinning Big Mountain this past Friday morning.

Competency is one of the larger burdens/insecurities I carry through my life.  For exactly, the fear that I will be incompetent and be experienced as such by others.  Sometimes these two are the same, sometimes they are very, very different.  Provided that in work and in my main leisure pursuits I can feel and feel that I appear competent, I can give most other areas a pass (I’m quite content to suck at washing dishes, for instance).  Fortunately I’m eight weeks into a job that’s just far enough outside my past experience to be interesting and challenging without being scary, or frequently engendering incompetence.  Outdoor pursuits are typically even more secure; I’ve been doing them my whole life.

Typical dawn fog on Big Mountain.

There have been a few notable instances where this has not been the case.  Doing Le Parcour with Kevin was one, and aside from my not packing enough food (which was emphatically not competent, but I got over it), my fears were for naught.  Signing up with Luc and Forrest to do the Selway was another, and while that run stretched me mentally a lot more than either of them, it also went off splendidly.

The third instance happened today, when I went ski touring with a crew vastly more experienced and capable than me.

The fast part of our nine-person group heading back across the lake, 5k+ of skinning and skiing already in the bag.  Look closely above the head of the lead four and you can see our tracks from the day’s first descent.

In the above picture are two local guys who have been in the top five of the US Ski Mountaineering National Championships, plus some guy who gave a talk last night on his project to ski 2 million vertical feet in 2010.  It was attending said talk, and my glooming onto Brad’s plans for today, that got me invited in the first place.  Our group was big and unwieldy, I’m a worse skier than all of these people, and aerobically weaker than almost all of them.  I knew I was in trouble from the first.

The day began with a snowmachine tow three miles up to the summer TH.  (I’m with Forrest on this being an ethical use of snowmachines.)  Brandon towed four of us with his machine, masterfully moderating the speed to both get through the ruts and powder and allow all of us to dodge the deadfall without running into each other.  It was a new experience that gave me a good arm pump and numb hands (even in mitts), which as our crew put on skins degenerated into a wicked case of the screaming barfies.  I was probably death gripping the tow handle a little bit much.  The 2700′ ascent was pleasant, Brandon and I talked about packraft and fishing (he wants an Alpacka, and has run Meadow Creek gorge in inner tubes), and with my inflexible three pin bindings I struggled and flailed, unable to do snap kick turns.  When we summited Eric, who does avy work for the USGS, dug a pit, pronounced things good, and the leaders tipped over down terrain as steep or steeper than anything I’ve ever skied.

I learned a lot today, as you invariably to from being out with people more skilled than you and on terrain over your head (if perhaps only just).  This education started with watching 6 or 7 of our group absolutely destroy the 2000 vertical feet of perfect powder, the first few hundred feet of which were certainly steeper than 40 degrees.  Complete control, total confidence, able to dodge trees and arc turns of whatever radius, speed, and frequency they saw fit.  How everyone wishes they could ski.  On every descent, irrespective of sluff, rocks, or refrozen avy debris, the crew was shredding, and I was quivering trying to keep up.  On the first run I flailed a bit before I coached myself into remembering proper technique, and then managed to put together the best run of my life thus far, linking even turns down a continuous 1200′ stretch.  The snow was phenomenal, superlight low moisture pow over a solid base.  Good, kind conditions for me to use to my advantage, if I could.

On the top of the second run I was even more intimidated.  Even after side stepping and sliding down to the easiest entry point, I still looked between my ski tips at seven feet of almost vertical snow above a very steep apron.  Below that were some rocks on the left, avy debris to ski through, then more perfect snow through the trees.  I dropped in (the first time that term has ever been accurately applied to my skiing), skidded almost to a stop, and began to link cautious turns down the powder, reaching downhill, through my bubbling panic with my outside hand to maintain good form.  I was doing ok, but wasn’t fast enough, and my sluff caught up to me, snarled in my skis, and sent me cartwheeling.  I didn’t go far before I got my edges under me, came to a quick halt, and dug myself back out, cursing.  There was some good snow in the rest of the run, but some funkness as well, and those conditions, my nerves, and my light gear combined to suck deeply from my reserves of quad power.

Skin track in the shade.

I had been able to keep close, if not up, with the leaders earlier (never mind that they were breaking trail).  Not on the third ascent.  My legs were toasted, not excessively, but well beyond immediate repair.  I set my own pace, and arrived to a summit where, in the several hours recently passed, the clouds in the valley had moved in.  We had bluebird skies and a solid ceiling 1000′ below us.  We dropped off the other side, ripping perfect turns in perfect snow between snowghost trees that stood like legions of dinosaurs drapped in sheets.  I summoned a good rhythm out of fatigue, until we dropped into the fog, visibility dropped to a graduated 100′ at best, and all contrast left what illumination the sun was still able to cast upon the world.  Intimidation conspired with fatigue to make my skiing once again a thing of ugliness and desperation.

Greg had already given notice that he would be skiing out, his daily tally had been met and exceeded (though not by much, he’s had to average 5800′ a day all year) and a long drive to Revelstoke awaited.  At the bottom of the run I called my day as well, I couldn’t expect my form to get better, perfect though the conditions were.  I had another 1000′ of combat skiing down a gully before I reached the summer road, though thankfully the fog soon relented.  Brad even caught up to me, and I got a snowmachine ride the last two miles.

I got home at 430, nine hours after I left, beat down; and hard.  Sitting here at the computer my thighs have a 100 miler (bike) ache, and my arches and toes (!) keep cramping without warning.  Was I, with my lack of skill and experience and too-light gear, the interloper today?  Oh yes.  But though I worried frequently that despite the best reasonable expression of what skiing competence I have I was looking unwelcome and out of my league, I think I acquitted myself well.  I tried my hardest, hope to ski with the same crew again soon, and look forward to being a bit better when I do.

Perhaps this weekend?

Trip planning is an equisite art. The mechanical side has, and continues to be, revolutionized by technology. Six years ago M and I lived in Moab, and quickly stockpiled USGS quads because they were the only source for detailed topographic information about most of Utahs backcountry canyons.

That is no longer the case.

Travis from BPL turned me on to Wikimapia less than an hour ago, more than enough time for to appreciate the finely presented satellite images and the clean, intuitive features.  The level of detail on Google Terrain will still have the prudent reaching for paper (or another resource) in some situations, though many of those situations (I’m thinking SoUt slots) also push up against the boundaries of what paper can hope to articulate, 20 ft counter intervals or not.

And that is in the end why maps and trip planning are both such fun, because eventually you’ll stumble across an idea which, once opened up on a map, promises to show so much more once you’re actually out in its folds.  I’ve been looking at the big paper map of Glacier on our wall for weeks, trying to sort out an idea as good as the last one (that being the Two Medicine-Lake McDonald trip).  I finally found one.

Here.

In summer this would be an interesting route with major flaws, chiefly the amount of road walking and the near mile long packraft crossing of a lake full of powerboats.  But now, with the Hungry Horse reservoir roads gated, Jewel Basin’s trails covered in snow, and ice lapping at the shores, things change quite a bit.  I am concerned about avalanche terrain on this route, especially going over the first pass.  I may well put this project off for at least a weekend, to get out a bit more and gain more data points about the snowpack.  On the other hand, temps are moderate this weekend, and wind looks to be low.  And adventure calls.

 

More interesting off-season trips:

A ski-canyoneering adventure in Cedar Breaks.  How many raps in Ashdown, Phillip?

Perhaps the ultimate shuttle trip: the complete Deep Creek and the Narrows trip.  In winter, of course.  Skis, drysuit, crampons, 3 days.  No rope work on this one, but best bring a bit anyway.  Winter does odd things to canyons.  How could you go wrong?