it’s a long way down

2

“Down slow!” came out of my my mouth and I stepped backwards into the void with 800 feet of air underneath me. Since joining Mono SAR, I’d heard stories about Dana’s Third Pillar. It’s the name tossed around for one teammate to scare another.  The tallest climb in our county, it’s in rarified air as having exceedingly high consequences, requiring solid technical skills, and hosting weather that can change in minutes.

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That huge scary ass thing is Mt Dana’s Third Pillar.

Three hours before that, my phone rang. An automated voice recording came on going something like this:

Team, we have a callout. Report of an injured person on Third Pillar Dana. Please bring technical gear and Rescue 3. We’ll be staging at the airport for helicopter insertion.

In 21 minutes I went from sitting on my couch to being in a Ford F350 loaded with teammates and gear, barreling up the 395. Readiness and response times are critical: people call us when they’re hurt or otherwise in trouble. Getting the job done right means getting it done fast.

“Technical gear” means all the stuff for rigging. With it you should be able to lower someone, raise someone, lower yourself on a rope, ascend a rope, and create anchors. Not shown is 50′ of 8mm and 30′ of 6mm rope.

tech

My base technical equipment, aka my “RFR kit”, named after the Rigging for Rescue curriculum that we base our practices on.

We got to the airport and went through our briefing. How many people, who was hurt, the nature of the injuries, stuff like that. For these I always have a pencil and a pad handy because random tidbits of data fly out that you allow you to assemble a narrative, be it medical or perhaps trying to put yourself in a lost person’s mind. If they’re lost, what do we know about them and what are they inclined to do and not do?

If it’s medical, when did they get hurt? Did they report something on a 911 call that two hours later they don’t remember saying, perhaps indicating ACR or a more serious TBI? Stupid little things aren’t so stupid, and I’m not smarter than my pad and pencil so I write everything down.

3rdgoingup

My team leader ahead, we’re on Dana Plateau headed to the summit of Third Pillar.

We decided we could beat the chopper if we headed in on foot so we packed up and drove to the trailhead. The folks on my team move fast. No matter how fast you’ve ever seen me move, I have to use everything I’ve got to keep up with a few folks in particular. They kick my ass on the way up and can standing glissade on the way down.

3rdpillar

Me, going down. Someone was hurt about a 100′ below me. The boulders and snow are about 800′ down.

I balked at the idea of being litter attendant, which is the job shown above. You go over the edge, find the person, treat their injuries, attach them to our rescue system, and guide the whole thing back up again. I’m well trained on all of that, but the “going over the edge” for lack of a better term is just scary as hell.

On the walk up though I did the math. I had the most medical training, held the highest license, and had the most patient time. I had gone through five days of professional rescue rigging taught by the best of the best barely two months before. I practice this stuff. Two days before when camping with the kids we rigged a mechanical advantage system to pull a snag widowmaker down.

I stepped through every component of the rigging systems in my mind. What they should and would look like. I knew the people who’d be running them, and I have and would again trust them with my life.

I re-volunteered for attendant. I had a teammate who’ve I’ve done a lot with double check me. I double checked him. We do it in silence because solid systems setup correctly don’t need explanations.

The screaming in my head before I went over the edge was loud: neurons were ganging up like angry peasants with pitchforks and torches. Fortunately, all I had to eek out was, “Down slow” and my team lowered me where my own nerves probably wouldn’t. Once over the edge it was game time.

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My team on top of 3rd pillar, I’m over the edge coming up. Mono Lake and the 395 in the distance.

I’ve told my daughters that when things get hard you need to listen to that part of you that won’t quit, and tell all the other parts to shut up. The original line was “…the patient is the one with the disease…”.  In emergency medicine, you can say “The patient is the one with the emergency.” At that moment there’s someone hurt that needs help, I get to have my emergency later.

I stopped by Vons at midnight after I got back, bought a pack of frozen yogurt popsicles, drove home, and hopped back on my couch and ate the whole box. My PS4 game was still waiting for me where I left off.

electricity and plumbing for car camping

I’m a big fan of making lists in the middle of some endeavor rather than afterwards. On a mountain, when traveling, or when otherwise outside your normal day-to-day your priorities change. It’s important that in the middle of that new world you jot down the things you care about because upon returning to your normal grind you can start to forget the realities that you just experienced.

Marketing and consumer culture in general has made most of us fall victim to buying things with the anticipation that we’ll use it one day, only for it to collect dust. Unless you’re going to die from it I’d recommend starting simple and then complicate further based on what you’ve proven to be necassary.

In no particular order, here are the things that I’ve wanted to improve when car camping with my family.

My Redneck Sink

sink

Shade tree mechanic work, right there.

All of my pans are cast iron which never see water let alone soap. But I also got tired of paper plates and plastic cutlery, so now everything is reusable and needs to be washed. Coming from boat land, I used foot pumps which keep your hands free and sparingly uses the very limited fresh water on most vessels.

I now have a place to wash dishes, wash hands, wash faces, and spit toothpaste. When half-full (or as full as you want to carry), I take the faucet off and walk the bucket somewhere to dispose of the contents (typically at the edge of the campsite somewhere).

To construct this epitome of modern engineering, I used:

  • Enough stuff from the hardware store to make a “faucet”. A 5/8″ barb to 1/2″ NPT, then 1/2″ pipe from there. Cost: $11.
  • A piece of scrap wood to ziptie the faucet to with a slot in it to hang over the edge of the bucket. A second small scrap of wood to jam in there to make it more secure. Cost: $0.
  • A big bulb pump with 5/8″ hose. There are better foot pumps out there that cost 3x the amount, and maybe I’ll do something like that one day. In the meantime this is fine. Cost: $30.
  • A bucket: $0.
  • 5 gallon water jug. You can also use another bucket, but for camping it’s handy to have the ability to store water if you’re going somewhere dry. Cost $15.

In total it’s about $55 worth of gear, although only $40 if you have your own water jug already.

Electricity

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85 watt flexible/foldable panel charging a battery/inverter.

 

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That speaker is loud, but if you look carefully the volume is set almost to zero. I am *not* that annoying guy blasting tunes from the neighboring campsite. 

There are electronics that have made my car camping life demonstrably better, and they probably will make your life better too. I have a bluetooth speaker that cannot be heard at other campsites but is just loud enough for us to hear in our cooking / eating / card-games tent.

My oldest daughter has a Kindle and on one trip she showed up with it near dead. Once on a trip when the kids are good I like to hang out in the tent with them and watch a movie on our iPad. My own cell phone is playing music, getting used for photos, and suffering from high power consumption from the low signal strength.

  • Roughly 1.5 times the size of a child’s lunchbox, the yellow box is basically a battery with an inverter. It can accept a charge via solar, AC outlet, or vehicle 12 volt. It can provide power to AC devices via three outlets and has USB outlets for four devices. It’s got a display to show its battery capacity and has a lamp for no particularly valuable reason.
  • A 70 watt panel is big enough to put some charge into the battery but small enough that you don’t need to deal with a charge controller for most uses. It’s also light, easy to fold flat and get into the truck, and has little pop out legs so it sits happily at a 30 degree angle.

Dutch Oven Dome

I’ve eaten enough freeze dried food to raise the stock prices of mountaineering food vendors internationally. I have a dehydrator and make own backpacking meals. On SAR calls I just eat gross Cliff bars and deal.

But cooking when camping is something I’ve started to focus on which means I need tools that don’t suck.

blueberry

Blueberry breakfast cake, baked in my Dutch oven on a grill, with the dome.

ovencover

There’s a Dutch oven in the dome there.

One of my favorite camping recipe books for Dutch oven cooking uses the charcoal technique. I’m supposed to bring charcoal, light them, and then carefully place x amount below the oven and y amount on top, and ensure that I replace them as they burn out.

Nope.

My incredibly awesome stove is where things get cooked, minus some stick-over-fire nonsense primarily for the kids. Depending on the recipe, you may not actually need to bake in a Dutch oven (think stews, chilis, etc). In those cases just toss the thing on the burner and cook away.

But if (a) you need equal heat distribution all around (ie: baking) and (b) don’t want to use charcoal, the Dutch oven needs a dome and heat diffuser.

Shower

shower

Shower enclosure, orange rope hanging in holding the shower bag, and rubber mat to keep some of the dirt off you.

I’ve backpacked for days without cleaning myself. I’ve washed myself in Alpine creeks. I’ve used wet wipes on the critical parts and tried to call it good. I’m not a fan of trying to be as squeaky clean while camping as I might be at home.

But a day spent sweating, kicking up dust, and being covered in bug/sun lotions will leave you gross at the end. Two or three days and you’re totally disgusting. Worse, you’re taking all that filth into your sleeping bag and shortening its life. If it’s just some piece of crap then no big deal but I happen to like my 700 fill down bag and want to keep it clean. I have a liner for it, but I also just try to be non-disgusting when possible.

Sailors are fond of the black bug sprayer models, and if you’re stationary with trees abound the gravity fed bags are pretty cool. You can spend hundreds of dollars for a rack mounted version, and even more if you want a base camp version capable of near continuous use and bulk propane tanks.

Whichever you pick, consider the drawbacks. Gravity fed solar bags are the cheapest and simplest, but you must provide the gravity. 40 pounds of water (5 gallons) is no joke to haul into a tree, or to build some type of bracket for a roof cargo basket. The electrical/propane versions are great but create more expense, weight, and potential failure points.

Whichever you pick, get an enclosure (or build one from tarps/vehicles). It’s not just about privacy and modesty: even a relatively warm day will feel like the North Pole if you try to shower in all but the calmest of wind.

postpile

The result: two washed kids with a belly full of blueberry breakfast cake. Devil’s Postpile. 

 

a busy summer for mono rescue

This post contains graphic content. 

To quote Forrest Gump, Search and Rescue (SAR) is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. Like most first responders the bulk of SAR work is actually fairly mundane and uneventful. But 2018 has proven to be one for my record books. While last week’s volume has been high with nearly a call per day (and two in one day), they’ve also required some of our most advanced skills.

The Sheriff’s Office has clarified its policy on posting pictures so I feel a little more comfortable sharing some of the work we’ve done, hence this post.

chopperout

January 1, 2018: the year started with me getting hoisted out of a CHP helicopter. This would be the least exciting thing I did all year.

On the first day of January, 2018, we responded to a fallen climber. I’ve written about it previously so I won’t belabor things. Eight months later though I’m amazed that something so mind-blowing at the time (getting lowered out of a chopper to treat a heavy trauma patient) wouldn’t rank amongst the more trying moments of my SAR career.

rfr

Me, training, in the yellow gloves. Rigging for Rescue. Horseshoe Piles, Mammoth Lakes.

The amount of training I’ve been through in the last year has been nothing short of incredible. There is of course all the team specific training we put on ourselves. We build mechanical advantage systems and haul heavy loads across parking lots. I rappel off almost everything to learn the different friction feels of various ropes through various descent control devices coupled with different friction hitches.

But then there’s the formal training. Weeks in Alaska getting my Wilderness EMT. The five day Rigging for Rescue basic series. Stop the Bleed. It’s just a non-stop battering ram of advancement in technique, repetition, and locking it in with your teammates.

training

Hauling trucks around the parking lot, practicing mechanical advantage systems.

Most of us have been through training that we’ll never use. It’s rare that you learn something, get good at it, and then 24 hours later you’re using it in the field to save lives. But this year that’s exactly what happened.

mainfield

Mechanical advantage systems in the field, saving actual lives instead of moving trucks around parking lots. Less than one week after our most recent training on the same topic.

On July 29th, our team was dispatched to “a call from help” coming from the Conness Glacier. Trapped underneath roughly two tons of granite, a man was pinned with crush injuries. The same mechanical advantage skills we had been practicing all summer, skills designed to lift patients and rescuers up through vertical space, quickly transformed into a technique to precisely move thousands of pounds of granite.

connessrock

I debated about including this picture. But it’s hard to capture the real anguish for the patient and the urgency of our team in words alone.

glacierview

A small chunk of the Conness Glacier in the background, our team working at the base of Mt Conness. Many of those boulders are loose, including some that are the size of passenger cars, weighing several tons.

conness

Those mechanical advantage rope systems deployed again. I’ve got the blue gloves on, the patient draped over me.

Moving boulders off trapped climbers is not a skill practiced by most rescue teams, let alone something they’ll ever do in the field. Crush syndrome is one of those topics you learn in EMT school that is glanced over: it’s common enough in urban settings because of motor vehicle accidents but in that urban world a hospital is generally not far away. Having a crushed patient in your care for hours, no one needs to tell you that field amputation is a real possibility if your team can’t get the job done. Even if you can extract, the rhab-d clock has been ticking from the start with no mercy.

guardian

Extracted, our patient leaves the Conness Glacier onboard Guardian 2-3.

The call up on Conness in late July scrambled me a bit. It’s hard watching someone in pain, and harder still when the math is not in your favor. My teammate told me later that the rock is what hurt him, we saved his life. Intellectually I know that but the trauma, pain, and adrenaline of the whole operation (nevermind the part where we had to climb onto and off of a glacier ourselves) was a lot to process. The next day our team met up at lunch and disinfected our equipment.

subway

My teammate (and others) after a late night call last week. Laying on the asphalt, eating Subway sandwiches: heaven.

The next night I found myself in an elderly woman’s tent, 7 miles in, an IV bag hung ingeniously by a stethoscope (good work, H40 crew). Treating her, I was happy: she was not actively dying in front of me. My blue nitrile gloves were more of a formality than anything really protecting me from gushing blood or CSF. There was urgency and we needed to do our jobs, but compared to the last few calls this was downright pleasant.

The calm didn’t last.

ducklook

Me in helmet and goggles, looking at the helicopter hoist wire out of frame. NE of Duck Lake.

24 hours later our team would again be dealing with crush trauma, a call remarkably similar to the one from only a few days prior. Perched on rocky mountain top, an operation that most rescue teams will never perform played out with spooky deja vu.

alexcrush

Normally I cannot show a picture like this, but the patient has allowed it to be public.

Another aspect of SAR is that we’re all volunteers. Our day jobs sort-of care about our SAR responsibilities, but it gets old for them fast. In California we’re protected by the Labor Code, but you can tell it grinds on people when you leave in the middle of meetings or your coworkers need to pick up your slack. The first time or two it’s exciting, but eventually I’m pretty sure it gets old for them.

This isn’t getting into the impact it has to our families or friends, all of which end up being “SAR widows”. The phone rings, the world stops, and I’m out the door. I might be back in 10 minutes, 10 hours, or in rare cases 10 days. Emergencies are quite inconsiderate like that and while we have other good medical providers and riggers on the team, we’re a small team. In the second picture above, counting the guy taking the picture, there were five of us.

Five people to handle three mechanical advantage systems, extricate a patient, communicate with our base and the overhead choppers, and provide medical care, all at the same time.

The next day I went camping with my kids, happy to take a break from SAR and spend some time with two little people in the prime of their lives that weren’t suffering from massive trauma or medical illness.

While walking around Devil’s Postpile, my phone rang. SAR call: Devil’s Postpile, right less than a mile from where I was standing. A deputy that I work with walked the girls over to the ranger station and got them into the Junior Ranger program while I rigged a raise and lower system for the litter team, extracting a patient.

deputy

My kids wondering exactly where dad is going.

At the same time, an 8 year old boy was reporting missing in a remote part of the county, our team responded. The next day (yesterday), a patient was airlifted for medical reasons.

We were notified that our team will be covering a large portion of Tuolumne county because wildfire has shut down critical highways in their area, blocking their team from access.

Today is a new day and I don’t know where it will lead. I do know that my harness has my technical gear. My medical bag is restocked. The battery on my team radio is charged. The fuel tanks are full on our rescue trucks. Three gross Cliff bars that don’t melt in the summer are zipped back into my pack.

And I know I’m lucky enough to work with a team of professionals that I would and do trust my life with more often than I can count.

 

mammothguy.com

For the 7 people who read this site, most likely when unable to sleep at night and searching for the most boring content they can find….

the new website address is http://mammothguy.com . WordPress had a discount code running and I pulled the trigger. Now you’ll have an ad-free experience.

If you feel an aching desire to compensate me for this blog, first you should consider heavy rounds of therapy. Second, you can go donate some money to the sar team I’m on. It’s self serving, really. Help us pay for our training bills which in turn provides better results if we ever meet you professionally. Win-win.

you say glamping, i say not dumb

I used to think that car camping was for soft people from the suburbs that lack the chops to be “real” backcountry travelers. As an egotistical backpacker with a superiority complex based in my own insecurities, car campers were the people to step on to make myself an inch taller.

Then I moved to the Eastern Sierras. Backpackers here are given a golf clap with a “wow, you managed to walk down a trail for a while? That’s impressive!” deserved sarcasm. I’ve learned that backpacking is a component of mountaineering, an umbrella term that includes all the disciplines necessary to safely and effectively traverse mountains throughout all seasons.

Smashed in the face with a 2×4 of humility, I’ve come to grips that enjoying yourself is important. Whether on a portaledge, cowboy camping, or in a developed campground I’m going to take advantage of opportunities to make things a tad more civilized when possible.

theclam

The “clam”. I know you’re jealous.

A Screen Tent to Cook and Eat Meals

Sometimes you can have bug-less campsites but generally that’s not the case. Mosquitoes, flies, and yellow jackets will all want to have a piece of you and/or your food. Cooking in a tent is widely regarded as terrible and dangerous, but with big screens and a tall ceiling I’m fine with it.

I’ve grown tired of hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches on my little piece of crap Coleman green flip-up stove. I now have cast iron skillets that I can cook eggs in. I have a dutch oven. I’ll throw together quick stuff when needed but I enjoy making real meals as a challenge. That requires a lot of time to prep and cook: doing that early morning and late evening (when bugs are at their peak) is absolute torture. Within the confines of my awesome Clam screen tent I get peace and quiet.

explorerstove

Black bean and sweet potato chili in the dutch oven, getting going.

A Real Stove

I’ve used little tin can alcohol burner, my MSR Dragonfly, a cool titanium alcohol burner, and of course the ubiquitous green Coleman flip-top stove.  They each have their place in the world, but they all basically suck at doing anything other than the obtuse application of heat for small meals.

I opted for the Trail Chef Explorer (stainless).

As a nascent trail chef I need the following:

  • Large and stable cooking areas. With 12″ cast iron pans and a big dutch oven, they weigh a ton and take up a lot of space. In the picture above that 12″ / 6 quart dutch oven looks downright dwarfed on the stove top.
  • A ton of heat. 30,000 BTU’s per burner. Most everything in cast iron land is cooked at low or low-medium, but future recipes may ask for real heat.
  • Lots of fuel. These stoves take bulk propane tanks, not the chincy disposables. Way-oversized, I grabbed the 30lb unit that sits next to our house’s generator.
  • Space to do stuff. The wilderness is particularly devoid of kitchen counters so one must bring horizontal work surfaces and ways to hang utensils.

Dishes

Similar to the green coleman stove, disposable flatware, cups, and utensils tend to be a stock of camping as well. It’s kind of sad watching people “get back to nature” and generate massive bags of trash which then get hauled away by a truck burning diesel and thrown into a landfill.

dishes

It’s a work in progress, but it works as is.

Living on a sailboat, I used foot pumps in the galley. You needed your hands and pressurized systems were noisy and expensive. I may actually get a marine foot pump and mount it to a piece of wood: pumps like the Whale Gusher Mark 3 are dope as hell. But in the meantime I’ve got my $23 oversized bulb pump that I can push with my foot.

Now my dishes are cleanable, my utensils are not-chincy metal, and my stovetop cooking tools are stout and clean.

 

 

the vt prusik max over one, 6 over 1, 5 over 1, etc.

As a disclaimer, I’m not a professional rescue rigging instructor. I’m on a sar team and do the work and often I’ll need to understand something myself more clearly. Breaking it down step by step I can share that process with others, and maybe you can benefit from it too.

Before you put your life or anyone else’s life on a rope system you should (seriously) get professional training, including about any topic I’m showing you.

Basically the single vt prusik on a twin tension system can replace the tandem prusik belay (TPB). The TPB seems great except that it’s nearly impossible to maintain that level of focus for an entire operation. Slack and user error get introduced early. You can watch professional rescuers in training screwing up the TPB all day long. For years SAR teams have been comparing the twin tension with TPB model and it’s not hard to convince folks to move to twin tensioned vt setups.

Studies and videos show a critical problem of the TPB: long catches. Falling 8′ before the prusik arrests your drop can be the difference between you dropping into a ledge and decking, not to mention the dynamic load that is created and transferred. You can run a single asymmetrical (shown below) vt instead of two normal prusiks because with a normal prusik only half of the six loops are really holding the load. So two normal prusiks are needed to actually create six grabs. With an asymmetrical vt you get all but two loops to grab, coupled with better heat tolerance.

In general, a better is a twin tension system with a single vt prusik on both the main and the belay.

vt1

Step one. Start at the anchor side and keep wrapping towards the load. The amount of wraps you’ll make depends on the vt’s width and the host rope’s width.

vt2

Take the longer (load) end, and wrap it around as such.

vt3

Tuck the longer (load) end under the bar you just made, and pull. Dress it down, make everything tight and have both eyelets equalized.

A couple of other notes from my own research.

The VT Prusik is a brand name of Blue Water Ropes and cost ~$30 a piece. It is not acceptable to use some other sewn-eyelet cords and imagine them as VT’s. The studies you’ll read about are unique to Blue Water Ropes’ product so unless you know what you’re doing, stick with Blue Water. It’s about the material, strength, grip, and temperature rating: switching to random sewn eyelet cords does not give you that.

Conveniently there are two colors, tan and black. The 7mm is only available in tan, but the 8mm comes in tan and black. Make your life easier and buy 7mm tans and 8mm blacks so you can grab one and know what it fits.

The 8mm VT fits 9mm ropes and above, and is basket rated at 29.5kn.

The 7mm VT fits 8mm-9.5mm ropes, and is basket rated at 22.6kn.

Four VTs on your rack now cost you $120. But consider that the end-to-end rating of an 8mm is 20kn, allowing it to be used as an extender, basketed for quickdraw, etc.

a taste of the sierra high route and tips to remember

My friend and I took off for a section of the Sierra High Route last week and got back in the wee hours yesterday. The spring conditions gave us snow, granite, some dirt, and ice. We spent some time on the JMT/PCT as well which I’ve come to nickname “the highway” : full of people, busy, and usually littered.

It used to be rare to see a PCT thru-hiker, now mid season you’ll easily encounter 20 per day in addition to other trail users. Not a Disneyland mob by any means, but enough to break you from the isolation of the Eastern Sierras.

taking off

Me and my buddy stepping off on the Pine Crest Trail out of Round Valley, Eastern Sierras.

Forget daily mileage, think daily hours and your schedule.

A reality for cross country travel especially on mixed terrain is that you will go slow. Specifically how slow is a crap shoot, but slow it will be. Maybe 1/3 – 1/4 of your trail speed.

Far more important (trails or cross country / mountaineering) is your daily schedule. It’s really not hard to pack away a lot of miles if you start walking early and stop walking late.

branchriver

A valley we needed to descend into, without (a) dying in the river (b) falling off a cliff.

By midday you can start estimating how much farther you’ll get. Whether or not you want to shoot for that next pass, stop ahead of it, or push for some objective. But a general strategy for me (assuming ~8pm darkness) is “how about around 5:00pm we start looking for a good stopping place, and try to be driving in tent stakes no later than 6:00pm”.

If you’re feeling beat down, go slower. If you’re feeling pumped, push it. Either way you know that (by consulting your map and planning materials) that you’ll have plenty of time for evening and a comfortable place to crash.

silverpass

Silver Pass, Eastern Sierra in June 2018. Snow, ice, rock, and water: you’re not moving fast through here.

Get moving early.

There’s nothing fun about standing around a cold campsite in the early dawn hours. But if you went to sleep at “hiker midnight” (sundown), then you’re probably going to be awake by 5:00am if not earlier. It will be cold and you’ll likely have some ice and moisture on your sleeping gear. Provided it’s going to be a clear sunny day, pack it all up as is. Start eating a cliff-esque bar and get walking. You should have done everything the night before to make breaking camp be a 15-20 minute affair. Keep your trail clothes in your tent/bag/bivy so they’re not ice cold in the morning. Get walking. Sure, it sucks to start cruising at 5:00am but you’ll warm up and have more hours to work with.

By mid day you’ll have been walking for ~7 hours and can stop for a bit. Wash your feet off, maybe wash your whole body off in a stream. Put your wet sleeping gear out on a rock to dry in the mid-day heat. Charge your phone with your solar charger. An hour or so later, get moving again.

Also, mosquitoes tend to be extra-motivated in the hour right after sunrise: you’ll bail on them before they show up and since you’re moving they won’t have an easy time latching on.

bivy

My OR Alpine Bivy is great for sleeping, but hanging around for hours awake in it sucks. Get up, get moving.

June is a rough month in the High Sierra.

Intellectually I knew that June generally brings mosquitoes and high/fast waters. But there’s a difference between knowing something and really having it seared into your memory the way that can only be achieved with the firebrand of reality.

I am a mosquito magnet of epic proportions. It’s truly shocking watching them fly by others and head right to my juicy capillaries. Spring through fall carries mosquitoes in the Sierras but the spring thaw causes water to be nearly everywhere and thus mosquitoes are nearly everywhere. And mosquitoes can make the difference between a nice couple of hours hanging around watching a sundown versus hiding in your tent/bivy as they mercilessly attack your mesh netting.

waterfall

It’s hard to capture the ferocity of water in a still frame, but crossing this was the second scariest of ~20 water crossings we dealt with.

With all that melt comes the swelling of streams, creeks, and rivers. Bridges can end up submerged. Stepping stones to hop across are equally deep, tossing up whitewater. It’s worth remembering that in our county people die every year from drowning or the trauma that results of getting carried away in a river.

At best, your feet will be getting wet constantly, and if you take your shoes off to cross you’ll be taking the time to do that ~12 times a day.

branchcross

We crossed through this with similar conditions. Blown mist and out of frame to the left is the multi-hundred-foot drop on polished granite.

A benefit to June is that the days are long, allowing you sunlight by 6:00am and not needing a head lamp until nearly 9:00pm (in the Eastern Sierra). For thru-hikers in particular, this is pretty ideal.

You won’t eat much.

My friend and I knocked out 27 miles on our last day. Outside Magazine’s calculator says that I burned roughly 320 calories an hour, so 8,640 calories. That’s a lot, and nearly impossible to eat enough to support. When you’re walking and scrambling all day there’s not a lot of time to eat, and even if you could most folks find their appetite suppressed.

jmtresupply

Some fellow JMT hikers we met in 2015, sorting through their resupply boxes, Vermillion Valley Resort.

It seems really counter-intuitive but you’re better off with slightly less food than slightly more as you’re probably over-estimating what you’ll eat anyway. It’s of course better to be dead-on accurate but I’d rather stretch my meals a bit than haul a bunch of weight (food) around that I never use.

VwNMcdU

Beef jerky, dehydrated apples and bananas and much else are staples for me. I even dehydrate my pasta sauces, ground beef, and ground beef to make something resembling a real meal.

Figuring out what to eat and how much is a never ending quest. Most folks, especially if only going out for a couple of nights, are generally better off buying freeze dried food (Mountain House, etc) for their dinners. I don’t personally enjoy the stuff and find it expensive, but to each their own.

Be prepared for the long dark.

Winter backpacking sucks for me, chiefly, because of the incredibly long nights. The sun comes up much later, stays lower in the horizon offering up less heat, and sets earlier : the whole “winter” thing.

I generally need 6-7 hours of sleep to feel good, but 9:00pm plus seven hours is 4:00am and that’s if I don’t wake up early or pop up in the middle of the night for some reason.

If you can lay peacefully in the dark of your tent for a couple of hours with your own thoughts, go for it. For me I pre-load my phone with several long and dry audio books. Stuff on moral psychology, political autobiographies, etc.

Try not to think of night time as a cohesive block of sleep but rather a long span of cold and darkness in which you’ll be mostly asleep but also awake for portions.

niceface

I’ve started using a bivy, but on this trip I rocked a 2 person MSR Hubba Hubba NX. It was September/October and with the long nights it was nice having some room to move about.

Filtering water is probably not necessary.

I’ve watched cows crap and pee into a river that I’m getting water out of: you definitely want to filter that. But I’ve also seen snow melt from a 13,000 foot granite spire: you don’t need to filter it.

Backpacking gear companies make a fortune off of selling filters, and it’s hard to argue against the safety-first adage of “well you don’t know for sure that’s safe so filter it to be positive.” That’s true, sort of, but you trust your car won’t explode the next time you go to start it even though you don’t really know that for sure either.

Just read up on the data and make your own decisions. What you’ll find is that it is very rare to find dangerous protozoa (giardia lamblia being a chief culprit) in wilderness settings. What is very common however is people taking a dump, not washing their hands properly, and then grabbing some of their buddy’s trail mix. Further, the incubation period of gastroenteritis (aka “food poisoning” aka “stomach flu” aka “jelly belly”) can be hours, days, or weeks. So one week after a backpacking trip when you come down with diarrhea for a day it’s complete guesswork as to the cause.

If you travel along rivers known for heavy use, I’d bring a filter. If you’re watching snow melt drip off a granite slab, no one’s going to stop you for lugging a filter around and taking the time to use it, but base your decisions in data and not REI’s marketing. To which, I’ll leave you with these conclusions from the linked study:

Published reports of confirmed giardiasis among outdoor recreationists clearly demonstrate a high incidence among this population. However, the evidence for an association between drinking backcountry water and acquiring giardiasis is minimal. Education efforts aimed at outdoor recreationists should place more emphasis on handwashing than on water purification.

But of course, outdoor companies make a lot more money selling you $100 water filters than they do a $3 bottle of Campsuds.

filter

Me filtering water at ~12,000 feet, well above tree line, from a snow-fed stream into a tarn. There’s no evidence to support my actions.

The more you go, the better you’ll do and the more fun you’ll have.

The first backpacking trip I went on was in 6th grade. I brought, amongst other ridiculous items, a propane lantern. Cotton socks and ill-fitting mountaineering boots rounded out the disaster.

Until you know what you need and what you don’t there’s a tendency to bring items “just in case”. The penalty for all these unnecessary items of course is weight which directly corresponds to pain and fatigue which equally tracks with you hating life.

Similar to life in general it takes a while to learn what makes you tick versus what your neighbor is into. You both probably love indoor plumbing, but you might have a better mountain bike because that’s important to you as where your neighbor’s TV might be better.

I’ve seen people in the backcountry with stuff I’d never bring, and I’m sure they feel the same about me. But do try to lock in the general principles and common threads that nearly all wilderness travelers can agree on. Go with other people that have experience and learn from them, I certainly do. As soon as you get back and unpack, note the things you loved, the things that were debatable, and the things that you didn’t even use.

Hike your hike.

Maybe backpacking for you is getting somewhere to hang out and fish for a few days. Maybe it’s crushing miles. If you’re like most people it will be several different things and it will be based on your input and those that you’re with. Don’t get boxed into doing things that you really don’t want to do, but don’t make the world revolve around you either, if for no other reason that you won’t learn new ideas or have your boundaries pushed.

chillaxing

I like to crush miles as much as I like to lay on my ass and do nothing.

And hey, maybe I’ll see you out there sometime. It’s a mighty big backcountry and I hope you find it as good for you as I find it for me.