Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Back Country Camping 101: 8 Essential Tips for your first trip

So you have finally decided to take the plunge and go on your first back country camping trip. However, as a backpacking newbie there are many pitfalls to avoid. These mistakes range from minor inconveniences to death march inducing calamities. Since it seems like making lists for success is all the rage these days I decided to make my own 8 step to get you pointed in the right direction.

Pick a suitable beginner trip
While hiking the entire 2,663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail may seem like a great first trip to some, you should focus on a shorter trip your first time out. Ideally, pick a trip lasting no more than 2 nights and covering no more than 10 miles total in case something goes wrong and you need to bail early. This will give you a good first exposure without the risk of being 40 miles from help when you accidentally feed a bear all of your food. I highly recommend laying your hands on a guidebook to help you know which trails will be good for beginners.

A great option for a two night trip is what’s called a basecamp trip. The first day you hike into your destination and set up camp. Day two is then spent relaxing, eating all your food or hiking around and exploring the area before returning to camp. Then you pack up and hike out to your car the next day.

Trip planning
How do you plan for a trip like this?  Take a page from NASA and make yourself a handy checklist.  Do you actually know where you are going to camp? Do you have all the appropriate permits for the area you are visiting? These are the type of things you need to make sure you have figured out in advance. Your pre-trip checklist should include all the food and gear you plan to take, any documentation you need as well as campsite locations and trail information. Also, be sure to actually take the necessary maps and trail guides with you; there is no sense in hiking way out into the wilderness only to realize you have no idea where the campsite is. Check the weather! You don’t want to lug around rain gear for no reason or leave the rainfly at home in monsoon conditions. Lastly, ALWAYS leave an itinerary with someone at home along with the phone numbers for the local ranger station. If you have a problem that prevents you from walking back to your car, it is much easier to find you if the search and rescue teams have an idea where you will be.

Get in shape!
Being out of shape is probably the leading cause I see that keeps newbies from having fun when backpacking.  Let’s be honest; even at the best of times hauling a huge pack full of junk up a mountain pass is an arduous task. Do yourself a favor and hit the gym or your local trails beforehand. Not only will this reduce your suffering but will allow you to make better time on the trail, leaving more time for relaxing or exploring when you reach your campsite.

Pack just the right amount of gear
One of the most difficult things when transitioning from car camping to backpacking is deciding how much gear you need to take. Do you really need that Dutch oven or an entire chocolate cake for 1 night in the wilderness? (Full disclosure, I have been on trips with people who have brought both of these items).  Reducing weight is one of the biggest favors you can do yourself. While you can of course go out and spend hundreds or thousands of dollars buying the lightest gear available, it isn’t always the best thing for a beginner to do as you simply don’t know what you need or prefer. I find the best way to reduce weight without taking out a bank loan is to share as much gear with your hiking partners as you can. Besides your clothing, sleeping bag and toiletries you can pretty much share all the other gear you will need. This will let you split everything between multiple people and reduce your individual load. Also, don’t bring a guitar; just don’t do it.

The Pack
Choosing a pack is probably the most daunting gear choice for someone new to backpacking. It is pretty easy to tell when someone is buying their first pack. They tend to walk into their local gear store with a “deer in the headlights” look when they see the endless wall of packs to choose from. Save yourself an ulcer and do your research beforehand and try to narrow down your choice to at the very least a couple of brands to try out. There are really only 2 factors that are really important when choosing a pack: Fit and capacity. You want a pack that fits you well or you could get a visit from the dreaded hip blisters or have sore shoulders the entire time. The best way is to have a store clerk help you adjust everything correctly and then walk around the store with some weight to see how everything fits. You want the pack to feel like it is a part of your back as opposed to something on your back. Capacity is also really important as it determines how much or how little you can take. A good rule of thumb is that for 1-2 nights you want a 45-60 liter pack. Any more than that and you will be tempted to cram it full of extra stuff. Any less and you will probably be leaving a lot of gear at home or strapping tons of things to the outside of the pack.

Beyond these two factors, most major brand packs are very similar in price and bells and whistles and I caution most new hikers to avoid choosing based on anything but the two major factors I mentioned above.

You are what you eat
Meal planning and preparation is a huge part of a successful backpacking trip; and yet it also one of the areas where there is a huge range of opinions on what method is the ‘best’. The options available range from beef jerky and trail mix to dehydrated commercial backpacking meals on to more elaborate gourmet home designed meals. There certainly is a time and place for each type of meal and I have done trips where I have eaten beef jerky for 3 days and others where I ate pretty well. However, for your first trip you will want to focus most on ease of preparation and taste. A good rule of thumb I tend to use is, “If I would eat it at home, I will eat it on the trail.” I generally like to test out my food before I go as there is really nothing worse than getting to camp after a long day only to find out you brought a terrible dinner with you. For this reason I tend do make up my own meals and tailor them to my specific trip. Several good resources to use for some beginner meal ideas of your own are the Sierra Social Hub or Backpacking chef.

Step one for backpacking cooking; ditch the heavy camp stove. You really don’t need to lug a huge stove and fuel bottle around to cook with. There are several cost effective and very easy to use options on the market today that will save you a ton of weight. For a beginner, I usually recommend going with a canister stove over a white gas set up because it is a lot simpler and lighter, not to mention the stoves themselves are less expensive.

Dress for success
So since you will be outdoors getting dirty you should throw on an old pair of jeans and a ratty T-shirt and head out into the wilderness, right?  Wrong again! You want to stay away from cotton fabrics as they do not breathe well and dry slowly when wet. Once wet, cotton also offers minimal insulation and so you can get very cold even in warm weather.  A much better option is one of the multitudes of polyester or wool “tech” fabrics available. In warm weather a single layer works great and on cooler weather a base layer and outer layer will keep you warmer.  Zip off pants are a popular option, despite being kind of (ok, REALLY) dorky looking when worn around town. Fortunately, you won’t be attending any red carpet premiers in the wilderness so go with what you prefer. I generally use a single lighter weight pair of pants unless it’s really hot.

And that's it! Really beyond that the best way to learn how to backpack is to do it!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Road to Whitney 5 Trip Report: Did I mention it would be steep?

"Writing about climbing is boring. I would rather go climbing!" -Chuck Pratt

Mt. Whitney summit from the middle of the Portal Road.  Setting up a shot and dodging cars is fun!

With the overnight trip complete and my legs recovered, I have finally had time to put together something of a trip report. Overall, the trip was harder in many places than I expected and easier in others but still an absolute blast.

 Mountaineer's Route: Shorter does not mean easier

We hit the trail at 8am sharp the first day; it was forecast to be almost 90F on trail near the Whitney portal trailhead so we figured getting an early start would allow us to avoid baking on the trail. After around 20 minutes we reached the turn off from the main trail and headed off into the blissful unknown.

The Mt. Whitney Main Trail, at least the short part we used.

Since the Mountaineer's Route is only around 3.5 miles from the turn off to the summit it might seem like the easier choice; however it climbs at nearly 2,000 feet per mile the entire way.  Almost as soon as we left the well manicured main trail, the upward slog hit us like a Mack truck. The first half mile winds sharply up through a maze of willow trees, pine trees and rocks while crossing back and forth across Lone Pine Creek. It was in this section that we met our first group of descending climbers; a grumpy group of 4 who seemed pretty dazed and in quite a hurry to get off the mountain. They proceeded to tell us how hot and terrible it had been at Iceberg Lake the day before and then headed off. My dad and I just sort of looked at each other and shrugged at them as they hobbled down the trail in a haze of grumpy pain.

After another few minutes we finally emerged from the trees and got our first glimpse of the ledges; a sheer granite wall running along the right side of the canyon. We crossed the creek once again and made our way further up the canyon.
The Ledges. An imposing hunk of rock.

Now the guides I had read all said along this section that the trail would be in the river. I had assumed that this meant "river bed" and that you would have to pick your way along the creek. Nope. It is a good thing we had waterproof boots because we were quite literally walking in the creek. However, the wet is not without its rewards; there are several great waterfalls that you hike more through than past.
Hey! A waterfall for a trail.

We eventually made it through dense foliage and pointy rocks to the access point at the base of the ledges. This is where the fun really starts to pick up; and by fun I mean scrambling and exposure. We climbed up along a narrow fissure in the wall up to a lone tree that marks the route. Now my dad is no fan of heights but he made it just the same; though not without some nervous sounding comments along the way.

Cresting the first ledge.  You gain height really quickly.

We spent the next 30 minutes or so traversing back and forth along the ledges to make our way to the top. Along the way, we somewhat successfully followed the rock cairns that mark the route. I often ended up looking back down at the way I had come and noticing I had gone the wrong way. Despite many horribly glaring yet slight navigational errors we made it to the top in two pieces.

Lone Pine way down in the distance. Not for climbers with a fear of heights.

Gary on one of the more exposed ledges.

Once we made the top of the ledges and continued on our way, we met the second group of descending climbers. They had spent the previous 3 days climbing Mt. Whitney, Mt. Muir and Mt. Russel and were pretty beat. To top that off, they had brought only cold pizza for the entire trip and were in a big hurry to get down to eat something else. With the ledges done, you are immediately confronted with yet more steep, steep trail to climb.

With the ledges done, you still have to climb a steep valley...and then a mountain of course.

We made it to Lower Boyscout Lake around 10am and stopped for a quick bite to eat. The previous 2 hours of climbing had kicked our butts but we were still in good spirits and feeling pretty good considering. We met the trail ranger here and chatted for a few minutes. He was up for several days cleaning campsites and packing out any WAG bags people had abandoned along the trail. Unfortunately, this is a major problem on the mountain, though much less so on the Mountaineer's route. I attribute this to the greater level of wilderness experience and Leave No Trace awareness of climbers attempting the mountaineer's route.

Gary cresting the first step into Lower Boyscout Lake

The climb above Lower Boyscout Lake is where you really earn your dinner. The use trail you were on becomes an endless sea of boulders to navigate marked only by a nebulous series of rock cairns. It is easy to get off the "trail" in this section but as long as you know where you need to end up it is not a major issue. It took us nearly 45 minutes to make it though the boulder field but eventually we made it out.

This is the trail. The large boulder in the center is where we are heading.

I'm looking for a pile of rocks to follow? The boulder got bigger!

After we left the boulder field we had to climb up the slabs.  The slabs is a section of large, wet granite slabs that you have to climb.  There is nothing terribly difficult about this section except that it is fairly steep and requires some careful navigation to avoid a painful slip and slide on the rock.

This photo is from the descent, but gives a good idea of the area.

Making my way through the slabs.

Once we made it past the slabs, we stopped for a quick snack at the last trees before we hit the treeline. Fortunately is was not terribly hot as this was the last shade we would encounter.

The last of the trees above the slabs.
Once you leave the treeline you come upon Upper Boyscout Lake. Its at this point that we really started to feel the altitude. For me at least, the lack of oxygen was the most noticeable.  I found myself having to stop and catch my breath every few minutes and my appetite dropped away pretty sharply. It started to become a struggle to continue eating and drinking enough.
Upper Boyscout Lake

Looking back at the treeline from just above Upper Boyscout Lake.  Lone Pine and the Alabama hills are visible far below.
As we made the climb up the slope above Upper Boyscout Lake, dad really started to hit the wall.  I think a combination of altitude and lack of appetite had kept him from eating sufficiently and he began showing signs of bonking. We made a few rest stops and he ate some, but I was still concerned with the situation as we continued to climb.
More Uphill

"How far is it?"

A quick rest and a snack.

The summit finally visible!

Mt. Whitney up close and personal. You can see the Mountaineers chute if you look closely.
At this point you may find a noticeable gap in the photos. The reason for this may be obvious to more experienced climbers already; Dad bonked. I have to admit I had not been watching him closely enough after his first brush with a bonk. Since then, nearly an hour had passed and I had been preoccupied with my own battle with the altitude. We had made it to the base of the slope below Iceberg Lake, less than a kilometer from the lake as the crow flies but closer to 45 minutes climbing at altitude.

I had been following him and allowing him to set the pace. All of a sudden, he just sort of sat down on a rock. As I caught up with him I noticed he was dozing off a bit. I immediately realized he had once again bonked, but much harder this time. Over many years of endurance sports and climbing I have seen many people (including myself) in this position and knew that the only way to correct the situation was to get some sugars and fluids into him.  I broke out my chocolate bars and he drank a good amount of water laced with Nuun Energy. Luckily he responded quickly and regained his alertness after about 20 minutes, though he was far from 100%.

At this point I had to make a decision; descend or continue to Iceberg lake. The prospect of descending in his state was not good as we faced a 3+ hour down-climb with lots of rocks to make it back to the trailhead. However, continuing to Iceberg lake also posed risks as we still needed to climb up the last few hundred feet of loose rock and sand.  After a few minutes of deliberation I decided to continue to camp and re-evaluate our situation once there. We made the final climb without incident and arrived in about an hour.

Great Campsite
Once at camp we quickly set up the shelter and pumped some water. We fired up the stove and made dinner. Over the years, climbers and rangers have piled up numerous stones to create very effective windbreaks around the campsites. We had managed to get a nice site nestled next to a large boulder and were sharing the area with only 2 other groups.
Cooking up a storm on my handy MSR Pocket Rocket

The sous chef isn't feeling well

We spent the evening relaxing and taking in the amazing surroundings at the lake. Once of the highlights of trips like this for me experiencing a place so few people care to or are able to visit. As the sun set we were treated to a few fly overs of Navy F-18's.

The summit looming overhead

Iceberg lake complete with...Iceberg!
The sun rises early in the mountains.  5:30 am rolled around and the tent was in full sunlight so we had no problems waking up. The bonk from the past afternoon left dad pretty drained so he elected to stay at camp and sleep in and rest for the descent. I elected to climb with another pair of climbers camped near us (as I didn't want to risk climbing solo). It was definitely a disappointment to be making the climb alone, but it was the right decision so as not to create a dangerous situation if he bonked again. So I headed out alone at 6:15am.

The climb begins
I started up through the massive boulder field at the base of the chute heading towards the base of the buttress where I met up with the other two climbers who had started just behind me. We continued picking our way though the cracks and boulders until we hit the scree field.
Iceberg Lake falling away below

Just cresting the buttress before moving into the scree.  Still a long way to go.
Selfie time!  Place your Ad here on my head.

Feeling good. Even managed a smile.

Getting closer
It is worth noting here that I always wear a helmet on climbs like this. Not because it will help much if I fall but because it is very easy to dislodge a large rock and I don't want to get hit in the head with one.
Looking back down at Iceberg Lake in the distance.

Nearly to the notch.

Mt. Russel to the North

The Notch at last!
 At 8:04 we made it to the notch. We spent about 5 minutes resting before starting up the final 400. The first move of this section is probably the most involved of the entire section and requires a bit of confidence as there is significant exposure just behind you. I offered to spot one of the other 2 climbers as he was not as comfortable with this type of climbing and he made the move with no issues. I quickly follow them and remembered I meant to take a photo of the move, so I settled for a shot from the top (lack of oxygen causes weird things to make sense). We then continued on up picking our way back and forth across the various shelves of rock. I think I will let the photos explain the rest of the climb.
Looking down at the ledge below the final 400

I forgot to take a photo of the first move, so I took a photo looking down at it.

The final 400 in all it's glory.

About 70% there. Climber above for scale. The last bits of ice are left on the route.

Is this thing on? Looking back down the final 400

Almost there!

Picking my way past some ice

Epic self shot

It is quite steep at the top

It is a bit of a struggle one handed.

The final push over the crest!

Wait, I made it?

Oh. It's pretty far to the summit hut.
That far

Off we go

I look confused about something
Who put all these boulders up here?

Mt. Russel selfie

I finally made it to the shelter!
At the very top...I'm Tired.
Selfie with Lone Pine

Someone lugged this huge plaque up here
Looking back down at Whitney Portal
Iceberg lake 2000 ft. below
Official Summit Photo
The summit register
After all the climbing I summited at 9:03. It was perfectly calm with very little wind and only a bit chilly. I spent a total of about 25 minutes on the summit. I ate some gummy worms I had brought as I couldn't palate anything else I had. While I was there, there was a huge rockfall on one of the ridges to the south of the peak. It sounded like a freight train derailing and of course my oxygen starved brain forgot to take a photo. We cautiously made our descent and were back at Iceberg lake by 11am. I thanked the two other climbers for a great run and packed up dad and the tent. We headed out to some building clouds and thunder on the way down.

The ledges posed the only real obstacle on the descent as we were tired and got lost for a short time. I neglected to actually look for or follow the rock cairns and ended up too far along a shelf for a short time. I quickly realized I was not going to be able to go down that way and we back tracked until we found the path. I could write a lot more about the descent but you can get pretty much the same idea by reading this post backwards and imagining that our knees hurt a lot more this time.

We finally dragged back into the portal at around 3:30 for a well deserved portal burger and a shower.

Overall, it was an amazing climb. The one major downside is we both didn't make it. Despite the disappointment, it was the correct decision based on dad's physical condition at the time. This trip reinforced a few lessons for me that I have learned over time but hadn't paid as much attention to while climbing:

  1. Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.
  2. Don't assume the other climber is eating enough. Regularly check in with each other to ensure everyone is staying hydrated and fed.
  3. Don't try and continue climbing if you are having altitude or other physical issues. Get to a safe place, rest and then descend.
  4. Leave no trace. Don't leave trash for the poor rangers to pick up.  They are really nice people who work hard to make sure the area is clean and pristine for you.
  5. There is always next time. No mountain is worth dying for. 
  6. Pack food you really like. Stuff tastes gross at altitude.