Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Instinct for Survival (and the tale of two cats)

When the brown bear was charging, a million thoughts went through my head. Mostly, stay put. Do not run (Trust me, harder than it sounds! Every instinct said to run!). When I found myself lost in the talus, trying to find my way back to a goat trail, it was tempting to hurl  myself down the steep slope with abandon rather than carefully scan the landscape for where that trail would be and slowly inch over to it. When the mountain lion stalked my camp, the impulse to scream and run was overpowering. For some reason, I did the right thing. Luck, or survival instinct? The same impulse has turned me around from rivers that should not be crossed, snowfields that were unstable, or urged me forward in other times when things only looked threatening, but turned out not to be.

I've never been in a life or death situation (well, maybe the bear counts), where I had to rely on determination for hours or days to stay alive. Hopefully I never will be. But it fascinates me to read stories of survival, when others in the same boat (sometimes literally) gave up. Would I have that same will to survive? Would you?

Animals have more of a survival instinct than we do.

This is Scout. He is one and a half years old.

When Scout was so little he could barely walk, his eyes still blue, (probably 2 weeks old if that), the owner of the barn in which he was born found him crawling into the yard. She put him back in the barn (lots of barn cats live out their lives in this county. It's a tough life). She noticed he crawled out again. The third time, she realized something was wrong and investigated. There were five abandoned kittens, their mother having left them for an unknown reason.

Three kittens quickly died, despite her best efforts to feed them with an eyedropper. Scout and his brother responded and began to grow. We babysat both kittens, feeding them with a bottle and holding them in our laps for hours. Scout was definitely the most determined to live. His brother seemed less sure.

J feeding Scout...
And Puffin.

Eventually both kittens made it (you have to teach tiny kittens how to pee. Don't ask). I adopted the black and white one, now named Puffin. Scout lives happily with another friend. It's only because of Scout's will to survive that I now have one feisty cat who does things like chase deer out of the yard.

It makes me think. What would you do to stay alive? Would you be willing to take a big risk to save yourself and others? A man I worked for was mauled by a grizzly while on an outing. He said he saw husbands push their wives aside so they could climb higher in the tree. Everyone abandoned him to save themselves (he was a child and his parents were not there. To be fair, it sounds like it was chaos). When I worked for a short time on a recue helicopter, people ran the gamut. There were those that folded and others who were brave. Of course, we all hope we are the brave ones.

Puffin would have died if his brother hadn't had the will to survive. I think about that a lot. Hopefully none of us will ever be tested to a point where we have to find our inner steel, but it is something you take on when you go to the woods. May we all make good choices and live to roll around on the carpet another day.

A happy tuxedo.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Trail Divorce: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I've seen a few trail divorces (break-ups between outdoors partners, not married couples) in my time. The worst case was when we were ambushed by a guy on the John Muir Trail. "Have you seen a guy..." he rattled off a description. We had not. The hiking partner said, "He was so slow, I left him. He might have gotten off the trail, I don't know."  Slightly horrified, we asked what the plan was. "I guess I'll just keep hiking." We left the guy to his fate with an oncoming thunderstorm, but strongly suggested leaving a note.

On that same trip, we passed someone else sprawled exhausted on a pass. "My hiking buddy (nowhere in sight) wants to do 20 mile days and I just can't," he moaned. "He wants to do this trail in a week." He looked completely defeated.

I've seen more amicable trail divorces, where the partners mutually agreed that this was not working, and went their separate ways. Or where they adapted: hiking separately during the day, but meeting up at night at agreed-on spots. Ultimately, a trail divorce occurs for many of the same reasons as a regular one. We all have our own expectations and dreams when we go outside, and it's rare to find other people who match 100% of the time.

I've never been part of a trail divorce, but I have wanted to a couple of times. Different paces, different camp routines, and hiking with a already bonded pair are all challenges to overcome. You don't know someone well  until you've slogged along a difficult trail for three weeks with them. You are both at your best and your worst in those circumstances.

I'm sure my partners have wanted to divorce me at times, too. As a former wilderness ranger, I've gotten used to doing things my own way. I don't go on the trail to chat all day, either. (I spend hours on the phone for work. Silence is good) I have a most likely irritating habit of being cheerfully uncaffeinated and ready to go very early in the morning. I love charging up mountains first thing. I tend to forget to eat enough and can bonk unpleasantly. All of these are things I continually work on.

I'm not going through a trail divorce but it looks like I will be without my trusty hiking buddy for this year. Separations can be good, though. They force you to think about how to be a better partner, and what you really want in another. You can work on skills that they always took over. It lets you meet others that may turn out to be long term buddies. 

As someone who has been through a real divorce, I recognize that trail divorces are not that big of a deal in the scheme of things. But they are sad and hurt All the Feelings sometimes. A few ways to avoid these are pretty basic: 

  1. Be upfront. This is especially hard for women to do. I just learned last year that my hiking buddy likes to get stuff done right away at camp, while I like to lie back in the grass and eat crackers and reflect on the day. We learned that sharing a tent isn't a good idea because of our styles. This way she can set up  her own tent and get all organized, while I can just laze around for a bit. If one of us had talked about this in the beginning, we could have avoided some (minor) issues.
  2. Be honest with yourself. If you take pleasure in pushing yourself to the redline, or want to do long, difficult days, that's fine. But make sure your buddy does. And if you find yourself thinking, oh, it's okay, I can do five mile days at a slow pace, make sure that's true! Otherwise you will seethe with resentment.
  3.  PAAR-TAY! Alcohol. Trust me, this can be an issue! I've had hiking partners who won't go without breaking out the flask. I'm not much of a drinker, and it isn't worth the weight. But if drinking bugs you, you'd better know it. (Same for other controlled substances that are now legal in some states-but not on federal land)
  4. Know your own flaws (and strengths).This means being self aware, and it's uncomfortable for most people. It's essential for a good trail relationship, though. If you always hike alone, it's easy to avoid the truths. When you go with someone, you learn things about yourself maybe you would rather not know. It's good though--it can make you a better person.
  5. Plan for the worst. What will you do if someone gets sick? Will you both leave the trail? How does your hiking partner react in a desperate situation (I've had partners who froze in place during storms)? How do you react? Could you make it out of the woods by yourself if you had someone depending on you to reach help?
  6. Are you the type that wants someone with you at all moments (waiting for you if you stop to pee, for example? It happens)? It's good to communicate this. Also, are you a planner or a wing it person? This can cause conflicts.
  7. Breaks on trail--I've hiked with people who like to take long lunches, and others who like to eat while walking. Still others have planned out breaks in advance, by time or mileage. It's best to have this worked out before starting.
  8. Talking on trail: I had a boyfriend who claimed our relationship was doomed because we didn't chatter incessantly. (It was doomed, but that wasn't the reason) I've hiked with people who like to stop and talk to every hiker they see; I am less interested in that. Same with music on trail. I've passed a couple groups with external speakers (so everyone can hear). Not for me, but some people love that. On day hikes, I do more talking, longer hikes for me are more meditative.
Trail divorces don't just happen when hiking. They can happen in any sport. Maybe your partner likes to take  more risks than you, or less. Maybe they are training for a marathon while you are running 5Ks. The good thing about trail divorces is that usually you can still be friends, and do different things together. 

Any trail divorce stories to share? Any tips for avoiding them?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Snowshoe Backpacking: A love/hate relationship

Halfway up the Hill of Death, I paused. "Why did I think this was a good idea?" I asked. After all, for J's birthday, I had taken him to Hawaii. For mine, I was slogging up a mountain with a backpack, on snow that was alternately crusty and caused my snowshoes to slide out of control, or so deep that I could barely move. Why did I keep doing such hard things?

When we had arrived at the place where we would start our climb to 8.000 feet, sixty mile an hour winds lashed the truck. A wet snow fell horizontally, stinging my face. As I hoisted my backpack, I was glad we were going to a hut instead of trying to put up a tent (I doubt a tent would have held up in those conditions). Even though we were going to a hut, we still were carrying most of our supplies, so I am going to call it backpacking!

Would you get out?
J was on skis, the better choice. This was definitely not snowshoeing on packed trails. The route went straight up, often with a slippery sidehill. Even the dog looked a little put out. After two hours I felt a meltdown coming on. It was the infamous trifecta:  not enough food, intense conditions, and an irrational disappointment in myself for not performing better. "I hate backpacking on snowshoes," I growled. I might have thrown my trekking poles. But as with all meltdowns, once I had it I felt better. I resumed the one mile an hour slog and finally reached the hut.

Spartan yet welcoming, the hut provided much needed shelter. We set a pan of snow on the stove to use for drinking water. I shoveled out the outhouse (a tarp with a pit toilet). J bravely went for a quick ski run but I decided enough was enough. The wind howled ferociously all night.

This is looking up at the Hill of Death which doesn't look as bad as it really is.
The next morning dawned clear and cold. I headed downhill through a powdery, sunlit world. There was nobody in sight, and it was warm enough to linger reading my book at the base of the Hill of Death while I waited for J to catch up (he stayed later to finish up chores). "I love snowshoe backpacking," I enthused.

Tips: Eat. Drink. Snowshoeing with a pack is HARD. Embrace the slow pace. Also, I carried a Luci solar lantern for the hut. I probably wouldn't carry one on a normal backpacking trip but if you are going a more luxurious, base camp route, these little things are great! You can get the normal white color or one that has many colors. Great for a dark hut or a campsite with picnic tables.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Drama in the Hotel Exercise Room

Greetings outdoors people,

I am in Denver encased in a windowless conference room for days on end. Whenever I travel, I try to stay over the weekend to do something fun, but things did not line up this time. Also: I arrived at the hotel and asked the question I always ask: "Where's the fitness room?"

The desk clerk sighed. "Well, we have one, but all it has is a treadmill and free weights."

Wait, what? ONE treadmill? The hotel is on a busy highway, and I hadn't brought outdoor running clothes in anticipation of that fact. I felt a minor panic. (okay, major). One treadmill? I can't run every day or risk injury. And surely there would be cutthroat treadmill competition! *

I just don't feel right if I can't exercise. In a perfect world, I would be able to hike all day, every day, or trail run, or ski. But I make allowances. If a creaky exercise bike is all there is, then fine. I have been regularly exercising since the teenage years, and my body really needs it.

One treadmill? Okay. I would make it work. I set an alarm for five and hoped for the best. You have to understand, sitting all day in a conference room + eating out -exercise is not a good thing. After about five hours of fitful sleep, I dragged myself to the workout room, to find a vision of happiness: a nice elliptical trainer.

Getting excited over an elliptical is never what I imagined my life to be like. But sometimes we are driven to extremes. I was glad to see two pieces of cardio equipment, and I knew I could face the long hours of sitting much better.

Since only one person came in, and hopped on the treadmill, I thought I was in the clear. The next morning I would run, and whomever else showed up could have the elliptical. I bounded to the workout room to find...a guy on the treadmill. At five! He was intently watching the TV, which was bemoaning the move of a football team to a different state. So, no running for me. The elliptical it would be. While we were on our respective machines, the door opened a couple of times with prospective exercisers, who saw us and beat a hasty retreat. I felt a little bad for monopolizing the elliptical, but not bad enough to remove myself from it.

I have one more morning to participate in the exercise machine wars. It's clear: get up early and claim possession. Pathetic? Obsessed? Perhaps. But in the end, if you are sitting in a conference room with me, you want me to have had exercise. You really, really do.

Anyone else as obsessed as me? Please, say you are and make me feel better.

*Yes, google hotel room workout, and you can find a list of workouts to do in your hotel room with no equipment whatsoever! The only issue with this is if you are on a top floor and risk annoyance from the people below. Or the walls are really thin, so your jumping around will equally annoy people next to you. Once I stayed at a hotel for work where they would deliver an exercise bike to your room. That's my kind of place! (I also stayed at one where they brought a goldfish in a bowl to your room and put a teddy bear on your pillow. My kind of place too. If only they brought kittens!)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Post Trail Blues

I've got the post trail blues,
Don't wanna put away my hiking shoes...

Freedom of the trail. It is hard to leave it and go back to a regimented life. It is so simple out there. Am I hungry, what should I eat, where is the next water, where should I put my tent? The comforting arc of the sky, the headlamp army of our friends nearby as we prepare our beds for the night. You need to be out more than one day to really know, and once you are, it is hard to come back.

First world problems, but coming back from the Canyon has been hard. What do you mean, "work"? I don't wanna! Can't I just hike?

I am dealing with this in two ways: 1) get out on day trips as much as I can; and 2) prepare for another trip.

I broke out the snowshoes today and it is true, in some cases you really can keep up with the fat bike:

It was steeper than it looked. He said, "Don't get a picture of me pushing the bike!" So there it is. Not pushing.
Trends are slow to come to Wallowa County, but we happened upon some more fat bikers! There are now six in the county! There was only one last year, so a 600% increase!

The bike in the foreground is a Roman Cycles, made in a small town in Oregon. Pretty nice! Want one? Email me or write in the comments.

 Since I got back I have been trail running, skiing and snowshoeing. Even if it's not something epic, it still helps. Which brings me to the next trip...

As for the next trip, I have been planning for my next assault on the PCT, California section B, from Warner Springs to Cabazon. Alert readers will recall we did Section A last April. I have been fortunate enough to fall in with another hiker much like myself. We are not planning on hiking together all the time, since we both enjoy our solo time, but this section is a challenging one on several fronts (a confusing fire closure and alternate, possible snow in the San Jacintos) so it is good to know that we will have each other out there if needed. If all goes well, I will set foot on the PCT in April and walk about 100 miles. (The summer trip, I will talk about later.) Anyone hiked this? Let me know how it was...

Some people never really recover from the post trip blues. They hop from one trail to another, California to New Zealand, but eventually you do have to come home. Home is a great place, you just need to figure out how to make it work for you. For me, I have tiny adventures until I can afford to have big ones.

Do you have post trail blues (or post big event blues, like running a marathon)? How do you re-enter life without being a Cranky McCrankerson? Or is that just me?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Grand Canyon in Winter, 2015 edition

"It feels like we've been down here a month," I say to TC on the morning of day four in the Grand Canyon. The Canyon is like that: timeless. Hours are somehow longer here, days encompass years. I feel like I have always been here.

We are hiking rim to rim to rim again over six days. The four of us met here in the canyon two years ago as strangers. Now we are friends. Plenty of people do RTRTR in one day. We could do it faster, but why would you speed up your time in the canyon? Six days, I think, is barely enough.

We start out on the South Kaibab trail on a brutally cold morning, just above zero. The trail is icy, requiring our microspikes right away. They stay on for at least two miles. Snow lingers far down the canyon, and even though the sun hits us by Tip-Off, it is still very cold. We reach Bright Angel to find the water shut off, the result of a pipeline replacement. Though this campground typically has the dubious luxury of flushing toilets, this is not the case today. Instead we must hoist buckets from a fold-a-tank, hoping not to splash ourselves in the process. By the time we have camp set up, a deep chill has sunk in.

My pack for this trip weighs in at 38 pounds, the result of my fear of cold. I am fine when I am moving, but what I dread are the sleeping and pre-sleeping hours. I have Raynaud's Syndrome, which means that arteries that supply blood to the skin are narrowed in response to cold. Typically, my fingers and toes turn white at low temperatures as available heat is diverted to my core. It's manageable but it means I can be colder at rest than most people. I am not a candidate for an Everest quest. Secretly, I wonder if I can do this and not be miserable.

Me with my Big Agnes Fly Creek. A small, easy to set up tent was the way to go. We saw the gamut, from heavy mountaineering type tents (not necessary) to a guy cowboy camping. Brrr--he regretted it.
But it turns out I have packed the right stuff.  Ultralight is not for winter camping. I wear my down vest, fleece pants, and puffy jacket, leaving the large puffy--the big gun--in reserve. (Like a chocolate stash, I like to have layers in reserve). Boiling our separate meals, we all are surprised how warm we are, even though it must be mid twenties. 

We have a short day on Day 2, about seven miles to Cottonwood, a couple thousand feet higher. We meet people coming down with tales of horror. "Three feet of snow! We had to turn around on our way to the north rim," one woman says. "Did you bring waterproof pants?" She tells us that Cottonwood is very, very cold. Another couple says they made it to the north rim, but it was very snowy. One of them is wearing jeans. If he could make it in jeans, we can surely make it, we think.

On the way to the North Rim. Ice and snow started about a mile from Roaring Springs. We were glad for our microspikes.

The next morning we day hike to the North Rim. We leave early, which is a good decision. There is so much snow on the trail, and at the lower elevations it melts and turns to thick mud. We run into four guys on their way up, who say they wish they had left as early as we did. "Well, we left at eight," one counters.

"Thirty," says another.

"San Diego time," says a third. We laugh. It turns out they don't get back to camp until ten pm. (later, we see them carrying huge yucca stalks tied to their packs) Not us. We are in our tents by hiker midnight, which in winter can be as early as 7 pm. Some people would not be able to handle this much tent time, but to me it is a luxury, hours to sleep and read and do nothing.

The end of the trail on the North Rim isn't overly inspiring. But...

...there are some great views on the way.

We break camp and leisurely stroll back to Bright Angel, where I hang out on Boat Beach and finally feel warm. Not for long--this is the coldest night yet, below twenty. I make quick work of packing up and heading on the Bright Angel trail to Indian Garden, our last camp. Here, we debate. It is early: we could hike out and be in hotel rooms tonight instead of facing another twenty degree night with brutal winds. The ranger comes by and says she is leaving out extra pads and sleeping bags for campers because of the extreme cold. Hike out? No way. We are staying.

Boat Beach!

Mule riders crossing the bridge. They all have to wear yellow jackets that say "Mule Rider." Plus, they looked like they were freezing.
I leave early for a solo walk to the rim on the last day. I love this more than anything, walking by headlamp alone as the canyon slowly brightens. I've been here three times this year, and by all rights I should be over this place. But I'm not. The day after I get back I am reading up on the Grandview--South Kaibab route. Spring of next year, I think, maybe.

Plateau Point view.

It is possible to camp comfortably in cold temperatures. Here's what worked:

  • Down vest. Absolutely perfect. Your core is warm, the rest of you is warm.
  • Down booties for camp. Yes.
  • A Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer jacket. I rarely am passionate about gear but I am sold on this coat.
  • A hard sided Nalgene for a hot water bottle in your bag. Tighten the cap!
  • Chemical heat packs for sleeping bag and mittens.
  • Hot drinks liberally. We generally had one right when we got to camp, at dinner and at breakfast. We carried one medium fuel canister and one small one for two people, and two small ones for the other two people. We ended up with extra fuel, but not much.
  • Freeze dried soups and stews. My dinners were not calorie heavy, like the others', but I had lots of snacks.
  • Putting discarded layers in the mesh pocket of my ULA Catalyst pack. They were easy to retrieve without having to dig in the pack. In fact, someone else could pull them out for me.
  • A small sit pad (I used a thermarest one) for insulation when hanging out in camp.
  • I brought a Neo Air XTherm for my sleeping pad. It worked fine. I did envy some of the others who had thicker, longer pads though.
  • I brought a buff and used it as a headscarf. Mostly I wear a cap for sun but this time a buff was the way to go. Most of the time I didn't even need my wool hat.
What didn't work so well:
  • I brought mittens but not liner gloves. You can't really break down a tent, etc with mittens, and they got too hot to hike in. My hands get too cold for just liner gloves. I should have brought both.
  • I have a hard time with breakfast: eggs, etc are revolting early in the morning. I brought protein smoothies which are great in warmer weather but even with hot water I couldn't face them. I should have brought granola and powdered milk instead.
  • I brought energy chomps, but didn't eat them. Those seem to work better in summer also.
  • I hiked only in hiking pants. I saw lots of people in just tights (a look that is hard to pull off, but may work well for them) because my long underwear was just too hot. Maybe silk long underwear would have worked. If it had rained, I would have had to figure something else out.
  • I brought waterproof socks for the hike to the north rim but didn't wear them. I was lucky that the sun was out on the way back down because it dried my shoes and socks. If not, it might have been uncomfortably cold.
  • I brought a hydration bladder because I drink more with it. It did freeze at night. This would have been a problem without my Nalgene to drink from in the meantime.