Clever, but not yet smart

CleverHiker.com wants to make the best backpacking tutorial videos, so you can, as narrator Dave Collins says at the end of each episode; “Hike light, hike smart, have fun.”

Earlier this year they raised a pile of money, and last month the first season went live. They were kind enough to provide free downloads to the Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors, which is how I came to be writing about their work.

 

The CH videos are slick. Production values are high across the board, the structure of each episode is tight, and the visuals are both illustrative and evocative. Filming appears to have taken place in Zion, as well as alpine and coastal PacNW terrain. Seeking out such variety is laudable. Beginners, clearly the target audience, will learn a lot from the 10 bite-sized (5-6 minute) episodes. I can’t think of another comparably expedient place to consume said information.

I also have quite a few problems with the first season, some minor, some systemic.

Virtually all of the Zion footage is posed down on the Angels Landing trail, the horse loop by the Sentinel, and the bottom of Orderville. It’s an understandable choice given the desire to get good footie without lugging gear too far, but when you pretend to camp 2 miles from the trailhead in an area where such is emphatically not allowed I’m going to knock you a full letter grade out of hand.

The content in the first season relies almost entirely on regurgitating conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, Collins et al not infrequently repeat ideas which are factually inaccurate (e.g. that loft directly correlates with warmth in sleeping bag insulation, that synthetic insulation stays warm when damp by not loosing loft, that thicker sleeping pads are warmer). Less frequently they implicitly endorse ideas which are plain dangerous (e.g. using a windscreen with an upright canister stove). Overall there is a general lack of examination and engagement with the concepts introduced. A variety of contemporary ultralight backpacks are shown and discussed, but almost all the screen time is given over to discussion of volume and features, rather than frame and harness systems and fit. This last point is especially salient: many of the folks who try and dislike frameless packs do so because they get a pack which is too small, and indeed around 50% of the packs shown on people throughout the video series have torso lengths several inches short of ideal. Given the lack of instruction to the contrary, or indeed any discussion of pack fit whatsoever, CH are endorsing bad habits.

All of this is mere nit-picking, or indeed deck chairs on the Titanic. The larger problem is encapsulated well about halfway through the first video above, when Collins segues directly and without hesitation from stating that their focus will be ultralight backpacking, to talking about gear. This is a thoroughly conventional and understandable way to think about backpacking with a lighter pack; buy lighter stuff, learn to use it, and you’ll be good to go. I’d guess this is how most folks go about it, and while perhaps not outright wrong, there are compelling reasons to encourage other ways, especially in beginners.

One reason is financial. Frameless packs and alcohol stove are indeed cheaper than a Dragonfly and Terraplane, but a Western Mountaineering bag and HMG Echo II are several times more expensive than a Blue Kazoo and Clip Flashlight. I’ll do everyone a favor by withholding comments about the Neoair. Point being, to claim that ultralight gear is cheaper than traditional gear while endorsing upgraditis as the best way to lighten your pack is disingenuous. Ultralight is cheaper insofar as it endorses technique over the brute force of the wallet, and this idea simply does not exist in the CH universe.

Another reason reason CH’s approach comes up short is that it promotes a shallow engagement with the subject and a superficial understanding of learning and safety. As Collins says in the episode on first aid and essentials: “The problem is, all those extras add up to a lot of weight, which can make you less comfortable.” This statement is as accurate as it is irrelevant and undiscerning. People buy pre-packaged first aid bundles and haul multitools and redundant repair kits because it makes them mentally comfortable. At the same time they’re provided with a sense of security and relieved of the burden which cultivating and maintaining knowledge constantly demands. It’s easier for REI to sell 80 dollars kits off the shelf than 600 dollar WFR courses. By tacitly going along with this, CH is supporting a false model of safety and endorsing the quintessentially modern fallacy that democracy means being able to buy your way to comfort, knowledge, and dare I say, happiness.

Collins et al are currently soliciting ideas for their second season, and therefore my challenge to them is this: remake your first season from a different angle. Emphasize technique and critical thinking. Create a countervailing yet complementary narrative which emphasizes the points from the introductory episodes in different ways. Discuss how minimalism is about attentiveness and adaptation to the landscape, while backpacking has all too often been about clobbering nature with a pack full of hypothetical. You can do this, because you can go light with the stuff which is in the closet right now. Democracy of initiative, rather than democracy of and by wealth. There is no perfect style other than the style which gets you on the trail this weekend, and here is how to do that. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because if you get wet, cold and hungry it’s very unlikely you’ll die and very likely that you’ll learn something important, both about your gear and about yourself. Comfort in the backcountry should not be about recreating the experience of sitting on a couch in a climate controlled room. It should be about comfort in the abilities and understanding, both of yourself and world immediately around you, built over days and weeks and months of practice.

There are, in summary, two ways to look at ultralight backpacking. One way is based explicitly on acquisitionalism and is implicitly tied to a way of being-in-the-world which love of wild places should lead us to view with unease. CH, in their first season, followed this line directly. Another way is based on technique, contemplation, and critical evaluation of equipment in context. At its best it promotes an understanding of fun which goes beyond 5 second neurocortical reward cycles. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but CleverHiker isn’t there, yet.

2012; the most beautiful year

This has been a difficult year.  To use one easy example, the progression of my wilderness skills was orderly and logical in years past.  In 2008 Chris Plesko and I went to Yellowstone.  In 2009 Kevin Sawchuk and I traversed the Bob in October.  In 2010 I traversed the Thorofare alone in May, and learned to packraft.  In 2011 I completed the Classic.  This year my two “big” traverses ended in failure, at least insofar as completed the route was concerned.  Work had similar struggles, as I closed in on and passed 2 years at my current job and struggled with having a sustainable attitude towards a job whose external worth is often so hard to judge.  These battles are why 2012 has been the best year yet.  Compiling the video below brought back an overwhelming layer of memories, and with it a few tears of gratitude.  Job completed.

In the video you’ll notice something rather different than those from years past; people.  I resolved to do, and did, many trips with others.  And loved it.  Solo has been and will still be a huge part of what I do in the wilderness, but getting better at sharing has been enormously rewarding.  I believe some call this growing up.

Last year I wrote, on the occasion of this blogs 5th birthday, that I hoped to raise the bar on content.  Visually things have stayed stagnant, photography wasn’t a huge focus this year and I chose to sink money into going on trips and buying gear rather than upgrading cameras and hardware.  This will continue to be the case, as I just ordered a new packraft (Scout!) yesterday.  M and I had a conversation a few months later, prompted by the second time I was freshly pressed and saw viewed multiply for a week or two, where I concluded that additional volume was not a desirable goal.  I do not want to be anywhere close to the most read blog around.   I’d need to make content here more regular and more ereadily digestible, neither of which will ever happen.  I don’t compromise lived life for blogging, and I see little value in being easily understood.  I want to be the most influential blog in my strange corner of the universe, and judged by that criteria I’m pleased with my progress.  My writing here and elsewhere has improved, with several posts here and articles on BPL whose influence has been easily seen.  I shall do my best to keep this up.

I’m not going to write about specific gear this time around, because while my curiosity and consumerism is far from dead, reflecting on the last 6 years has made the gear urge seem a bit silly.  So long as I’ve had a reliable mountain bike good adventures have come, and the particulars matter little.  Investing in a fatbike, as I did this year, is worthwhile for the new terrain and ways of thinking it opens.  Worrying about the best tires and fiddling with different drive trains or different amounts of suspension does not provide a good growth-experience to fiddle-time ratio.  3 years ago I was enjoying myself and exploring places quite as well with one pair of skis as I will this winter with six.  All this is why you should expect to see a bit less gear writing here and elsewhere, and why I bought a new Alpacka rather than any of the many other things worthy of said funds.  A packraft opens new places, and I want a lighter one to ease my multi-sport explorations as well as a second boat to more easily bring others along (looking at you Danni/Clayton/Lauren/Megan/Ali/etc).

I have big plans for 2013.  The first 12 weeks are already quite full with Fisher research trips in Glacier and the Fat Bike Summit in Idaho.  M and I hope to (finally) return to the Colorado Plateau in April, and come May boating and spring skiing will be upon us, followed shortly by the orgiastic period of dry-dirt hiking known as summer.  I’ll need to train hard to be able to last from July through September with all I plan to do, and with enough in reserve to hunt deer and elk in the Bob.  There will be lots of trout to catch along the way.

I can’t wait.

Banff 2012: the death of the spectacular

I have in my possession an unpublished essay by Arne Naess entitled “The Spectacular- An Enemy?”  According to Bill Devall, he wrote it in the mid-80s after visiting Canyonlands National Park for the first time.  At the moment that binder is buried in a box under boxes down in the garage, so I cannot quote it directly, but memory recalls that Naess’ argument is that the spectacular and spectacularly unsubtle landscapes of the American West will evoke a sort of scenic elitism.  Among other things, such a view will lead to only the most visually obvious wild places being revered and protected.  This has de-facto been the case anyway, as by the time the National Park service was up and running, and certainly by the time the Wilderness Act came into being, most of the wild places left unspoiled were spectacular by default.  Spectacular places tend to have little value for industry, and as one example it has only been in more recent decades that we in America have seen Wilderness areas designated in less rugged, lower altitude places which might be valued by (for instance) the timber industry.

Naess’ argument is more relevant than ever in the age of digital HD.  The latest iteration of the Banff World Tour which came to town this week demonstrates that more clearly than ever.  As I’ve said in previous years, the task of contemporary adventure film makers is to go beyond visual pornography, to identify and then expound upon a narrative thesis.  It is too easy to get good cameras and software and rely solely on the wow-factor of time lapses, slow-mo, and synthetic saturation to lull an audience into remaining stationary.  Mountain in Motion was an especially boring and awful example, as was Petzl RocTrip China.  Both are among the worst films I’ve seen in five years of attending the Banff World Tour.

Thankfully, this year we also saw one of the best I’ve seen at Banff.

In Honnold 3.0, the Lowells and Peter Mortimer could have been forgiven for focusing only on the climbing.  Yosemite is after all the very definition of the spectacular, and the Owens River valley is up there as well.  To their credit, the stunning visuals and jam dropping boldness are held in reserve, and Honnold’s sardonic personality and the mental side of what he does is put front and center.  My own free soloing is well in the past, but my memories of on-sighting hundreds of feet off the deck in Eldo or the Red are burned into my mind.  This film gives a faithful, non-reductive portrait of the mental and emotional dimensions of free soloing, which is a formidable achievement.

Why were Big Up and Sender able to do this?  A large part of the answer is no doubt that they’ve been doing climbing films long enough and well enough to get over themselves and the awesome raw material they have at their disposal.  Big Up invented the bouldering film and pioneered many of the technical aspects of climbing films now taken for granted, and I still recall the scrappy, soulful Scary Faces, which focused on everyman climbers in Boulder and launched Mortimer’s career.  Being climbers themselves, and experienced enough to look beyond the visually spectacular to the subjectively spectacular, the makers made Honnold 3.0 an impressively well-rounded work.  Quite frankly, it saved the evening.

Banff will, in the years to come, begin to struggle for relevance. The market for visual porn will always exist, especially in the adventure community, but I do not think I was the only person that evening bored more often than was appropriate given the setting and ticket prices. The other issue is of course that with Youtube and Vimeo the need for festivals will continue to decrease, unless the bar (for entry) is raised. It is time to demand more thought outside the editing room.

Money for something

Most readers will be familiar with the Andrew Badenoch/77Zero/Fatbikerafting the Arctic/Kickstarter debacle. For those who are not, the short version is as follows. In January Badenoch, with no endurance or wilderness palmares that I’ve been able to dig up, went live with a funding proposal for a scandalously ambitious loop trip from Seattle to the Arctic coast and back again. His proposed time frame was March through late autumn, and the advertised product (and thus according to Kickstarter rules raison d’etre, as Kickstarter prohibits “fund my life” projects) was a documentary film. Badenoch got a late start due to poor planning, suffered from mis-managed logistics in British Columbia, and pulled the plug on the trip in mid-summer, having not made it beyond pavement. In spite of regular Facebook and Twitter activity over the summer, he made no plain statement of failure until recently. He has intimated, but not said outright, that be plans to have another go next year. Googling and perusing Badenoch’s websites and social media feeds will reveal the details, and answer whether my characterization here is fair.

In the past few weeks Badenoch has had a rough time of it.  Considerable internet speculation and abuse culminated in a brief article at Outside and a prominent excoriation at BikeSnobNYC.  The future of his project is very much in doubt.

There were many questions concerning Badenoch’s plan from the beginning, though none of them were asked very loudly.  I was on the verge of asking them here several times over, but always rejected the subject as bad style.  I don’t intend to do that again.

The first major question concerns Badenoch’s experience and route choice.  Kickstarter notes in their guidelines “If a creator has no demonstrable experience in doing something like their project or doesn’t share key information, backers should take that into consideration.”  Badenoch listed nothing about his own cycling, packrafting, or wilderness accomplishments.  There are few people alive today with the experience to evaluate his proposed route as a whole, and most of them communicated skepticism privately.  That being said, it doesn’t take much research to question the practicality of lugging any sort of bike across ANWR, along the Iditarod from the Yukon to the Happy in high summer, or across Prince of Wales Island from north to south.  I’d argue that his trip was more ambitious than Skurka’s 2010 Alaska-Yukon loop, and it is worth noting the Skurka, whose solo experience is almost unrivaled, almost got broken a few times in the process of completing one of the most impressive mental and logistical feats in recent memory.

I do not think that Badenoch’s ignorance of what he was getting into, and subsequent bailing, was what earned him so much grief.  I don’t even think it has much to do with his tendency to be overly intellectual and obfuscatorially verbose, but I’m a sympathetic audience there guilty of many of the same things.  I think the reason Badenoch got so much shit was that he pushed the bounds of what crowd-sourced funding should be.  In the age of GoPro, Youtube, and the first worlds inundation with leisure time, you need a very good reason to ask other to pay for your vacation, however eccentric and ambitious.

Photo by USGS. Go here for a truly huge version.

I find it easiest to think through with myself as an example.  I would like a new camera.  I would like other things more, so I haven’t bought a new camera this year.  I live near Glacier, hike there more than most, and know more about it than many.  So what could I offer others, in exchange for some of their money, which I would use to buy a camera, that would provide for a justifiable, equitable, and moral exchange?  Prints of nifty pictures?  A photo book, electronic or paper?  A photo project based around a project, such as one I’ve been thinking about anyway, like visiting and documenting all of the park’s shrinking glaciers next year?  Is there a way in which my position as neither a scientist nor a pro photag might make this valuable to others, or would I be merely selfish and sneaky in even contemplating such a thing.

I’m a huge fan of authentic media shot in the moment [though the Banff edit was scrubbed a fair bit], but Badenoch’s project just didn’t measure up when it came to salient details.  A comparable project, with more credibility and conceptual beef, would be appropriate for crowd-sourced funding.  Giver beware.

Third annual Kishenehn autumnal equinox

“I’m a sucker for knock-you-upside-the-head grandeur as much as the next guy, but over the years I’ve learned to prefer slightly less spectacular places with wilder character, where the animals don’t come for handouts, they come for prey. That’s Kishenehn.”

Aaron Teasdale

“While every day in the teeming lands around Kishenehn carries the unpredictable, kinetic hum of a self-willed landscape, for every dramatic encounter there are five days filled with the kind of dynamic calm that only deep wilderness provides.”

ibid.  [Read the article.]

“There was a faint ambient light from the moon above the storm clouds, above the troubles and life-and-death struggles of our world. You couldn’t really see things, but more sense their impressions. Then, somehow, I recognized the silhouette of a cluster of cottonwoods along the river. At that moment I knew I’d almost reached the cabin. Something about recognizing those trees in the night also showed me that in some small way I’d become a part of this place, that my story was now woven into the wild fabric of the landscape here.”

ibid.

Last night at 0430, Kishenehn was living up to its billing.  The Megalight was pitched on a sand flat amidst budding aspens, 40 feet from the river up a gravel bar on the legal (non-park) side.  Something big was walking slowly, ambling through the dark, along the edge, the shallow water splashing and big cobbles chinking and clanking.  The sound had been loud enough to wake me, not an easy thing on its own, let alone over the steady background chatter of the water.  After a breathless, still minute listening through my quilt, the steady, leisurely steps faded away and I went back to sleep.

Waking up by footsteps again an hour later was more disconcerting.  I knew the first had been too big to be a deer, and too loud to be a cougar, which left elk, moose, or bear.  This new visitor, whose timing I would confirm with my watch after the fact, was distinctly hooved.  They echoed hollowly off the smooth, football sized rocks as the elk or moose snorted, drank, and splashed across the river, the noise of its exit disappearing into the background of the river.  Well, I thought, that first one must have been a bear.  I wonder how many others have walked so close to camp over the years, just on quieter surfaces?  What would have been a lengthy mental inventory of the last years solo camps was interrupted by yet another distinct, animal noise floating over and through the water sounds.  Wolves.  Howling and on the move, at least three or four.  Watch out elk.

In the previous week particles from fires to the south had rolled into the Flathead, and by the time I left for my annual excursion late Saturday morning the clear skies were uniformly filtered in a vague, off-taupe.  Rather like my mood: I’d been sick last weekend, we’re moving next week, and M is out of town visiting family.  I’m off base for good reason, and ordinarily a familiar and cherished trip would be perfect respite, but today the process of packing and getting out the door feels a bit off.

Driving the now well-grown washboard between the end of the pavement and the Camas bridge feels equally so in our old truck with worn-out struts, but things ease as the road narrows and the footprint of the summer’s traffic narrows.  I’ll take narrow twists, gravel and rocks over potholes and washboard any day.  The unmarked trailhead is familiar, as are the initial miles to Starvation Creek.  I stop to fish, and surprise myself with the first and third largest cutts of the year, one right after the other.  This in an outlet where I’ve been skunked several times before.  Fishing the rest of the trip is very slow, partly due to the very low water; I get a few cutts and, the next morning when it’s still cold, one whitefish while throwing nymphs.  Most of the time between nymphing and not fishing, I’ll take the later.

Camp, when I get there, is perfect.  There’s a nice soft spot just big enough to fit the mid back in where no animal would think to walk, and 100 yards back upriver a massive pile of driftwood.  I’m damp from paddling, and the beaver-harvested and sun-dried cottonwood sticks I pull out by the armload are the more aromatic and satisfying firewood this side of Utah Juniper.  It’s cold enough, and I in no hurry at all, so I make a fire in the morning as well, watching the sun emerge slowly through the haze.

In summary, I’m not sure how much of our primeval past is fact (my hearing was awful clear when the bear came past) or fiction bled from wishful thinking (or dances with salmon).  I do know that even with the mediocre fishing, scenery I’ve scene already, and smokey air, the time I spend up in Kishenehn, the 23 hours, hiking, fishing, rafting, eating, sitting, and sleeping, however quotidien on an off day, is not time I question spending.  Not last year, or two years ago, or this weekend.

I even ran into other people, for the first time ever.  And they did some trail work in the last six weeks.  The secret is getting out.

 

Packing for Glacier

A video unpacking, mid-trip, from my hike this past weekend.  It did not rain.  The only things I forgot were my spoon (whittled a stick) and to charge my camera battery.  Full report soon.  Ask questions below.

Bob Open pre-game

72 hours ago my participation this weekend was very much in doubt.  All weekend I was on the couch without much energy and a weird appetite, not a good confidence booster for such a hard trip.  As I write this I’m almost back to full strength, but the ambiguity my physical condition has introduced replaces that which experience has taken away concerning the route and conditions.  I’m nervous, which is as it should be.

I always prefer to pack a few days out for a big trip. Having the pack sitting around packed is good for making sure nothing is forgotten.

Since I show my hand in the video, I might as well let those interested in on my route planning.  The figures for pace are optimistic, but not wildly so.  I expect to be a bit slower now, especially on the uphill stretches, given my recent illness and the fact that fresh snow up high is looking increasingly likely.