Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Road to Whitney 1: The Start of It All

The Call of the Mountain

Mountain climbing season is almost here!  Ok, so technically it's not; it's only mid January but the warm weather here in California has gotten me in the mindset to start training.  And this year, I want to really focus on a proper training plan as opposed to years past when I relied mostly on core fitness and guts (foolishness) to get me through my adventures.

So far for the coming season, I have several concrete trip plans as well as several back burner project peaks to summit.  But the main focus this year is probably going to be a pair of trips to Mt. Whitney.  This mountain in particular has become somewhat of a mountaineering cliche over the last few years.  The sheer number of climbers makes it seem like the Disneyland of the Eastern Sierra; the very mention of climbing it can draw dirty looks from self proclaimed "serious" alpinists.

I have climbed Mt. Whitney before, but it has been nearly ten years since my last climb and it seems like it's time to go once again.  I'm not sure what it is that draws me back now; the allure of that mountain and the beautiful area surrounding it is mystically intoxicating.  My goal this time around will be to explore a route that I haven't experienced before: the Mountaineer's Route.  The last time I climbed Whitney was via the much more traveled main trail.  Now, the plan will be to climb the shorter, but more technically and physically challenging path; and to do it solo.  I chose a solo attempt for my first trip because quite frankly none of my friends thinks hauling their behinds up a 14,000 ft. peak in the wee hours of the morning for a single day attempt is any fun.  I, on the other hand, am a glutton for physical punishment and think it's fun; a lot of fun.

Topo Map showing the approximate path followed by the Mounatineer's Route.

The second trip to Mt. Whitney has been much less of a planned affair from the start. In passing I had mentioned to my father that we should give it a shot this year.  He has never climbed the peak and I incorrectly assumed he had all but given up on tackling the summit.  But to my surprise, he agreed to an overnight attempt of the main trail or maybe even the Mountaineer's Route.  Now, my dad is hardly your typical retired 60-something-year-old.  He has a pacemaker, and has had one for the past 30 years or so.  In fact, he is the longest surviving pacemaker recipient in the world.  Not to let this type of thing stop him, he is an avid cyclist who rides centuries and 200+ mile weeks on a regular basis, which is more mileage than I do! So, in all reality he should not have too much difficulty climbing the mountain.  You can probably start to see where I get my athletic lunacy from here.

The Permit Dilemma: Not Everyone Gets to Climb the Mountain!

Now that we have the makings of a few trips, we need to get down to the hard reality of planning and actually pulling off these trips.  Due to the volume of people wanting the climb the mountain, the forest service has instituted a quota system on people entering the "Mt. Whitney wilderness zone" for single day and overnight trips.  What this means is that you will need to have a permit to climb the Mt. Whitney trail, and that there are not enough permits to go around during peak season.

The way to get permits is by entering the permit lottery.  Lottery applications begin February 1st at and end on March 15.  The permits available during the lottery cover both single day and multi-day trips along the Whitney Trail, as well as day trips on the Mountaineer's Route.  And here is where a nice little loophole entered my calculations.

My solo trip up the Mountaineer's Route requires a permit so I will be forced to enter the lottery and sweat it out with everyone else.  However, multi-day trips on the Mountaineer's Route are not subject to the lottery since a majority of the route is outside the "Whitney zone".  Why this condition applies to only the overnight and not the single day permits is beyond me...most likely the forest service has some very complicated reason for doing this.  At any rate, there is still a daily quota of 100 people, but you can reserve them up to six months to the day in advance on a first come, first serve basis.

Taking advantage of this, I procured a permit for two nights on the Mountaineer's Route for the overnight trip so that my father and I are assured of at least having a permit.  The plan is to back up those dates with a main trail permit lottery application so we might have more route options. Unfortunately, the main trail overnight permits are the most sought after and so the likelihood of obtaining a permit on the same date is far from certain.  So, it looks like there is a very strong chance I will be doing the Mountaineer's Route twice this year. Awesome!

With the permit situation covered, at least until the lottery applications are open, I turned to advance planning and training to get into mountain shape for the season this year.

Advance Planning

One of the common concerns each year is snow on the trails and how it will affect your climb.  For the main trail, snow and ice is not a good thing; it makes the infamous 99 switchbacks to trail crest hazardous and unpleasant. The Mountaineer's Route, however, can benefit from a good snow pack in early summer by improving climbing conditions over several sections of fallen, broken rock known as scree.  Climbing over the scree is like trying to climb a sand dune; you take one step up and slide back two steps.  What the snow does, is hold everything in place and allow you to cut in nice, clean steps making life much more pleasant. You will need crampons and an ice axe to do this, but even this extra weight is much better than the alternative. Unfortunately, if the snowfall so far this season is any indication, snow won't be a factor.

Somehow, I don't think snow will factor into the equation.
Photo: webcam
A second, less obvious effect of the thin snowpack this season may be limited availability of water on the route.  Normally, there are really only three reliable sources of water close to the trail: Iceberg Lake, Upper Boyscout Lake, and Lone Pine Creek.  A fourth, but far less attractive option is Frog Pond; it is smaller and even more seasonally dependent, as well as farther from the trail making it an iffy water source at times.  If water levels are low, the available water that the three main sources offer may be of extremely poor quality, even if filtered and treated.  This would mean that additional water would need to be carried in, thus creating a significant weight issue.  Based on the chart I created in the first installment of The Beginner Hiking Series 1: Getting Started, and adding some extra to account for the altitude, you would need around 18 liters of water for the expected two day expedition in the 40F-90F temperature range that normally occurs in June on the mountain.  This would mean a water load of nearly 40 pounds!  Even on the shorter duration one day push, a realistic water requirement would be 10-12 liters; which still would mean 20-25 pounds of water.  While these numbers may seem rather high for water intake, an important thing to remember is that dehydration is one of the major contributors to the onset of altitude sickness symptoms.  The dry mountain air and extreme exertion mean you will need to replace at least 3/4 liters of water per hour to stay properly hydrated.  Cooking water will also need to be considered on the two day trip, as that water will subtract away from the drinking water totals.  The only thing to do at this point is to hope that water will be available in June, which with any luck it will be.

Water consumption is a serious concern at altitude, this chart reflects a minimum number at altitudes above 10,000 Ft.

Fitness Training

This far in advance, training really needs to focus on base fitness and overall strength.  Intensive training and altitude conditioning this far out will only cause you to "peak" early and you will have trouble maintaining that level of fitness all the way until the trip.  With nearly six months to train, I am personally focusing on cardio fitness and leg strength.  Both my dad and I are pretty serious cyclists, so our overall level of fitness is much higher than the average person.  Because of this, I tailored our training to continue cycling at a normal pace for the next three to four months to maintain where we are physically.  I personally want to focus most of my development in my overall climbing leg strength.  Running and cycling use different muscle groups that the typical 'stair stepping' motion used in mountaineering, which is going to be a major component of the climb. To help overcome this deficiency, I am working into our training a lot of weighted stair exercises and hikes to build those groups up. A sample of my weekly training plan for the next three months is listed below.
  • Cycling: 4 to 5 days.  25+ miles per ride.
  • Hiking, Non weighted pack: 1 day every other week.  5-10 miles.
  • Stair climbing, weighted pack (10-25 lbs): 3 times per week. 500 vertical ft. equivalent.
  • Squats, lunges and wall sits: 3 times per week.  30 reps each.
  • Hang bar leg lifts: 4 times per week.  10-30 reps.
As you can see, this training schedule is designed to keep my cardio fitness level more or less intact for the next few months, as well as develop my legs for climbing.  I also include hang bar workouts to strengthen my core muscles, which will help with supporting the weight of my pack, as well as increase my overall balance on the climb. 

The Next Steps

With this initial planning foundation, I will need to begin intensive study of the route to ensure that I'm able to find my way along the correct path, even while at altitude.  Additionally, I will begin selecting gear required for the trip and continue the training schedule until it's time to ramp up to more intensive workouts.  Then will come some altitude training to begin building up my reserve of red blood cells so I will be better able to function at altitude (I live right at sea level).  All these subjects and more will be covered in future posts in this series, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Beginner Hiking Series 1: Getting Started

So it's 2014, and you have just made a new year's resolution: get fit and have fun doing it.  At this point, you have hopefully come to the conclusion that the best way to do this is to get started hiking regularly.  This blog series will show you how to get started and what gear and knowledge you will need to have an amazing time.  When deciding how best to teach these skills I realized the best way was to actually take someone who was not a hiker and turn them into one.  My sister Michelle was kind enough to act as our willing volunteer as someone who is not a hiker, but really wants to get started.

The biggest mistake most people make with new year's resolutions involving fitness is picking an activity that is not particularly fun and so it is difficult to incorporate into a healthy lifestyle change.  The countless people joining gyms in January only to quit again in February or March is perfect evidence to show that this approach is no good.

Hiking, on the other hand is more than just a great way to get into and stay in shape.  It is a major part of an outdoor lifestyle that is hard to give up once started.  It is unlikely that you will still be hitting the treadmill in your later years, but hiking can be enjoyed for nearly your entire life.

OK, enough about why hiking is great; let's talk about how you can get started.

What to bring?

The necessities
While you don't need much to get out on a hike, there are a few things that I always insist are mandatory.  The first, and often the most forgotten, is water.  I often see people out on a hike, several miles from anywhere with no water.  I have asked people I've run into about why they don't have any water and the usual reply is "I didn't think I needed any."  While you can easily go several hours without water on a hike when it isn't too hot, its all too easy to roll an ankle and be stuck out for an extended period of time.  Then you need water.  How much water?  I have put together a simple table to help you calculate how many liters of water you should bring per person:

Now, how you carry water is almost as important as how much you bring.  I generally prefer either a hydration bladder or a large, Lexan Nalgene brand bottle. You can argue that it really doesn't matter what kind of water bottle you use; and that is true to a certain point.  However, there is nothing like getting to the half way point of a long, hot hike only to find your water bottle leaked all your water while crushed in your pack.  We almost had this happen; Michelle had packed a small freebie type bottle from work and it leaked almost immediately.  Fortunately, I had a few spares with us and so I lent her one.

Not all water bottles are created equal.
Photo: Dan Norgan

Lid tight and water flowing freely...not good.
Photo: Dan Norgan

Beyond water, it's generally a good idea to have your ID with you as well as some food in case you get hungry.  I also like to make sure someone always knows where I am hiking and when I plan to return in case I get delayed and need help.  Beyond those basic must haves, the other items you may want are listed below.

The Shoes
Probably the first item you will need to start hiking is a decent pair of shoes.  Its one of those items that can easily be overlooked, but is really key to enjoying your hikes.  I can't count the number of times I've been in the wilderness and seen someone walking around in a pair of sandals or some cheap canvas shoes better suited to walking around their own house.  I even saw a woman hiking into the Grand Canyon in a pair of 4" pump heels; not the best choice.

The first thing my sister asked me when we started on this project was what type of shoes she should buy.  I have often been asked by friends getting into the sport if they should run out and buy a pair of hiking boots for their first hike.  My answer, in almost every case is, "Not so fast!"

A good pair of hiking boots doesn't come cheap.  Because of this it's really an investment that should be researched and thought out before taking the plunge.  What I generally tell people is that they should start considering getting a nice pair of boots once they know more about what type of hikes they will be doing and what type type of shoe fits their needs.

What I suggest instead is a pair of mid range cross training shoes or trail running shoes.  I do this for  two reasons: One, they are usually quite a bit less expensive than a pair of boots and two, they can easily function in other activities and so you will get more value out of them.

Several good options on the market right now are:

New Balance Women's Minimus 80 
Minimus 80, Black with Pink
Photo: New Balance

Salomon Women's XR Shift W

Photo: Salomon

The North Face Men's Ultra 109 GTX
Photo: The North Face

La Sportiva Men's Wildcat 2.0 GTX
Photo: La Sportiva

Michelle already owns an older pair of Salomon XA trail runners, so she will be using these on her hikes.
Photo: Dan Norgan

The Gear

Now that you have your shoes, you really don't desperately need any other gear to get going outside. However, there are a few optional items I would suggest that will increase your comfort and enjoyment, as well as help you get the most out of your time.

Day pack
A small backpack is a great addition to a hike.  It lets you easily carry your water, food, and any other items you want to bring along.  There is really no great secret to getting a great pack for this purpose; all you really need is a comfortable pack that fits what you need.  One of my personal favorites is the REI Flash 18 but really any other pack will work.
The REI Flash 18 makes a great day pack.
Photo: Dan Norgan

The Flash 18 really does a great job due to it's small size and ability to pack down to a very compact shape if you want to travel with it. Not to mention that it's cheaper than many casual backpacks on the market, making it a great value.  It is also capable of accepting a hydration bladder (Camelbak or other).

As it turned out, my sister owned one of these packs already (guess who got it for her as a gift?) and so she decided to bring it along.

GPS or Fitness Tracking
This is probably the least required type of gear to have, but I personally find it very useful to know where I went and how long it took.  Its also a great way to visualize what you accomplished and to help you plan future outings.

Fitbit Flex
This minimal "activity tracker" as Fitbit labels it, pretty much functions as a pedometer and gives you a calorie burn estimate.  Additionally it allows you to sync via wireless with a computer or other wifi device, allowing for long term tracking and data analysis.

Michelle had just received one of these as a Christmas gift, so I felt it was the perfect opportunity for a field test.
The small sized band fits even the smallest wrists.
Photo: Dan Norgan
Our initial impressions of the Fitbit Flex are that it is extremely comfortable; its even meant to be worn while you sleep.  Since it does not need to actively send out a GPS signal, there were no issues with it losing its position during the hike.  If you average 1 sync a day the battery has so far been lasting about 7 days between charging sessions.  From this first real road test it seems the Fitbit does exactly what it advertises.

Photo: Dan Norgan

Look for a more in-depth review of the Fitbit Flex in the coming weeks as we continue to test with it.

Map My Hike
Map My Hike is an app for your smartphone that delivers most of the same functionality as the Fitbit, but with addition of altitude tracking and a map overlay feature.  This gives you more of the traditional GPS handheld experience than the Fitbit does.  Of course, the downside is that you have to lug your smartphone around with you on adventures.  While the app will log data without a cell signal on GPS only, the battery life could easily be the limiting factor on multi-day trips.

The app design is minimal but effective.

The trail
Now that you are ready to go, you just need to get out and hike.  For this initial trip, I chose a relatively short and easy hike of 6 miles in the Purisima Creek Redwoods open space preserve.  This trail is a part of the Bay Area ridge trail system and was excellent.

Photo: Dan Norgan

Route selection is key to ensuring enjoyment of your hike. The important thing to remember on these beginning hikes is to chose something you can tackle with relative ease; you don't want to go on a death march your first time out.  The goal is to have a thoroughly enjoyable time, and we did just that.  The unseasonably warm January weather here in California made for a cool, but pleasant hike through second growth redwood trees.

Cool, dark Redwood trail.
Photo:Dan Norgan

Photo: Dan Norgan
Your first hike of the new year doesn't need to be a struggle.  If you follow this simple guide you will almost certainly have a fantastic time.  Stay tuned for more in this series as we follow Michelle in her development as a hiker.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Zip, Zip, and Away!

Dan's wife Robyn here and it's time for my first post! Dan started this blog around the same time we went zip lining in nearby Santa Cruz, which reminded me of our first time zip lining in Hawaii. I thought that would make a great post because we had so much fun. Since then, we've been zip lining several times in several different places, but nothing has been as good as our first time in Hawaii.

Although Dan did not want to go at first (he thought it was too expensive), I talked him into it. Looking back I'm so glad we actually decided to do it because we had such a blast. The place we went, Umauma Falls and Zip Lining Experience on the Big Island of Hawaii, was awesome! There are a couple of main reasons that this place has stayed our favorite zip lining place:

One reason is the fact that they gave us harnesses that went over our shoulders as well as around our waist and legs as you can see in this stylish picture of us above. The reason this is so much better is because you can go upside down while zip lining. Being able to go upside down while zip lining really made it so much more fun! It also made for some great photos as you’ll see below...

...including my absolute favorite photo of the day, which was taken on their tandem zip line (another reason this place was so awesome!). It can be a bit challenging to take pictures while zip lining, but it was totally worth it as you can see below.

Another reason we loved Umauma is because of it's 2,040 foot zip line. Since we zip lined here, we haven't even come close to this length on one line. In fact, we probably haven't even come close to that with all the zip lines at each individual place combined. Okay, that may be a stretch, but I believe our local Redwood Canopy Tours' longest zip line is around 500 feet. Not that it's not an awesome place - I definitely recommend it if you're in the Bay Area - but it's hard to beat 2,040 feet on one line.

The final reason why I, especially, liked Umauma is because they have stops set up for you. Now, if you've never zip lined before you may not know what I mean, but obviously you do need to stop before running into the tree or post that is holding the end of the line. At Umauma, they have stops set up for you, so you just go for it and don't worry about anything because it will stop you at the end. This is the only place we have zip lined that has had this. All of the other places give you gloves, so that you can stop yourself by reaching behind you and putting pressure on the line. I'm sorry, but I don't like having to do that. When I'm zip lining I want to have a good time and that includes wanting to go as fast as possible without having to worry about when to break so I don't hit whatever is at the end of the line. Having to worry about breaking at the other zip lining places really took away from the whole experience. Instead of enjoying being on the zip line during the - let's face it - short time you're actually on them, I'm worrying about when to break. Seriously, all zip line places should have these stops!

So, if you're ever on the Big Island of Hawaii, seriously check this place out! We had an awesome time at Umauma Falls and Zip Lining Experience and we have both loved zip lining ever since. We even recently did night zip lining during the holidays. The only light was twinkle lights set up around the redwood trees. Redwood Canopy Tours only does their "Twinkle Tours" during December and early January, but if you get the chance to go, that is also highly recommended. Here is a bonus pic of us from our recent Twinkle Tour:

If you have never zip lined before, I really recommend trying it. Even if you're afraid of heights, you might just surprise yourself and have fun. Now, I will end this post with one of my other favorite pics I took zip lining.

Now go forth and zip!

Oh and if you're looking for even more of a thrill, check out this list of the longest zip lines. The longest is almost 7,000 feet! I've definitely added that to my list!