Last Sunny Days for a While

Aral and Nathan make it to the border of Wilderness

Last Friday, because there wasn’t any school, I loaded up Aral and his good friend Nathan and meandered my way up into the Cascades. The goal was to get the boys and me out on a trail to enjoy some of the last dregs of sunshine before its gone. We ended up climbing up to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness border via the Pacific Crest Trail northbound from Snoqualmie Pass.

To be sure, this section of trail is a favorite of mine, so it’s no wonder when given an opportunity I gravitate toward it. In particular, I love the ascent up to the Kendall Katwalk because it traverses a narrow face of the mountain and goes through all the different biological regions. I should add that once you’re high enough you get out of the noise pollution of the I-90 corridor. Back in the day, I never had any trouble climbing up and out of civilization. It’s an escape route.

Friday both boys drug their feet from time to time. I’d mistakenly let them pack whatever they wanted along on the trail and so in addition to all the spare clothing and water they had in their bags they were both toating a hefty load of toys. They did this even after I warned them that the extra weight would bother them while we hiked.

Oh well. C’est la vie, non? I was able to coax them both along until we reached the Alpine Lakes Wilderness border sign. I ceremonially stepped into the wilderness and let the sunshine beat down on me for a moment. Ah, momentarily cleaner somehow. Then we traveled back down to the van in good spirits with a healthy load of vitamin-D coursing through our veins.

As I get my van together I’ll also work on building out my go-bag and kit so these trips will become much easier. For the first time, in a long time, I’m excited to get off-island and up into thin air.

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A New Yo-Yo

Correction: I formerly reported that 68 people have yo yo-ed the PCT. I have updated the story.

It was a long time coming, but in 1993 the Pacific Crest Trail opened officially. Any number of people hiked the path before the opening, knitting together sections on their own, but the corridor wasn’t designated until that time.

Since then some 3,413 people have hiked the PCT once. This means that they have completed the whole of the 2,663 miles on foot in segments or in full, as a thru hike. In the intervening 22 years only 68 people have ever successfully repeated the whole distance and of those only three have ever yo yo-ed. For those of you who don’t know, this means that they walked all the way up, and then back all the way. That’s 5,326 miles and nearly a million vertical feet in elevation gain.

Recently, the first woman, Olive “Raindance” McGloin, Yo-yoed the PCT. Congratulations to anyone brave enough to start something like this. I’ve hiked segments and even these are no small feat.

Now, let’s get this back fixed so that I can join her on that list.

July Trail Runner Blog Symposium

About two-thirds of the way through the month I wrote Yitka at Trail Runner magazine. The topic announcement for the July edition of the Trail Runner Blog Symposium was seemingly stuck back in June. She replied, offered her apologies and mentioned that they were over committed for July and that they’d be skipping this month.

I don’t feel let down by this at all. July is one of those months in the trail running community when everything tends to happen all at once. Speed Goat, Hard Rock, too much sky running. Kilian Jornet completed an 11h and change ascent of McKinley. Okay, so that was in June, but everyone spent the first couple of weeks in July trying to nab an interview with him. Point being, it’s a busy time. It is also an incredible time for trail work.

In early July I did a big moon trail run up the PCT well into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area. As expected it was an amazing run and I felt blessed to have the opportunity. The ascent is steep, but most of the snow had melted before the Kendall Katwalk. When I emerged from the trees I was bathed in milky, silver moonlight. We all know that you can have a sun bath, but who knew bathing in moonlight could be so good?

On the far side of the Katwalk fields of fast melting snow slowed my progress so I only made it as far as a rocky outcrop just before Joe Lake. I set up a hasty bivy under the moon on a flatish rock and tried to grab some shuteye.

The moonlight was one problem that kept me awake, but with my hood pulled over my eyes I was shaded enough to not be bothered too much. But in the stillness of that high place along the Crest I could make out the constant passage of traffic along Interstate 90 some 10 miles away and far below. It was driving nutty.

Surrounded by thousands of acres of supposedly untrammeled land compression breaks of container trucks and early morning air traffic headed to and from SeaTac penetrated that far up the Gold Bar basin. And so it goes that I gave myself a topic to consider. Trail running is a backcountry pursuit. Sure, I can head out the door of my townhouse here in suburbia and trot along foot paths lovingly cut into the DNR forests that border the development, but the good stuff, the trails I crave are all in deep Wilderness. So I wonder, what can trail runners do to protect what remains wild in the backcountry we inhabit, and more specifically, what can we do to protect lands specifically designated as Wilderness?

This year is the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act. In that short time Wilderness has come under a barrage of attacks. Today, wilderness areas as increasingly at risk as politicians, convinced they’re missing out on money making opportunities, endeavor to remove or weaken protections guaranteed by this piece of legislation. The Wilderness Society maintains a map of active bills and legal battles that would be detrimental to Wilderness lands. All that red is very sad commentary on contemporary American civic values. It means that love of money, power and control has taken over our collective consciousness.

I believe that understanding why this is happening is the best leverage we have in the protection of these lands. The people who mount these attacks on wilderness do so because they do not value these lands. They have no experience, in fact, of America in its primal state. Or if they do, it is an experience distorted by playthings.

When I worked on the Flat Tops Wilderness in Colorado I would spend the first half of any summer hauling out the trash of hunter camps from the previous autumn. Privileged white men with more money than sense would hire out guides, steads and luxurious accommodations well beyond the wilderness boundary for a chance to hunt the impressive herds of Elk that roam those high, primal lands. As was evidenced by the piles of rotting junk I invariably collected up and slung across my back, these people did not visit that place for a love of land. Rather, they were there play-acting like children the role of hunter.

Moonlight bivy above Joe Lake

Now understand, I have no problem with hunting. When I had more time and money I hunted regularly. The point I’m trying to get at is that these people visited this place, not to experience the place, but to exploit a resource it happened to contain. They were invariably removed or padded from the consequences of their actions and the impact their visit had on that place. The point I’m getting at is that they did not experience wilderness, only a proximity to it.

How could they value untrammeled, wild land? How could they fall in love with the stark, unforgiving beauty of tundra? How might they understand the value of a place completely devoid of all human sounds save the passage of your own breath?

People only fight for things for which they feel passion. You cannot feel passion for something you do not understand. It’s my belief that many trail runners understand how valuable wilderness is because they know these places. Trail running is an excellent way to include people in a raw wilderness experience. There is very little between you and your surroundings on a good trail run. You’re really in it. What can trail runners do to protect wilderness? This one wants to take you along on his next bivy. So come on, lace ’em up, let’s get wild in the wilderness.

Fast Trekking Packs

I’ve been spending a lot of time getting ready for one of the panels I’m on at DetCon1 next week and as a result I’ve been looking at many pictures of endurance races. Thus I’ve also been exposed to the great variety of new gear that is forever coming out. Anyone who has ever run a self-sufficient stage race or attempted to through hike a great distance knows that your pack is the foundation of your whole world. If you forget something, lose something, or break something while underway you will soon gain a deep and unrelenting understanding of the term SOL.

To make matters worse, for both of these endeavors, everything you take with has to fit into your ruck. You cannot strap an iron skillet to the outside of your pack. You’ll go insane before you pass 20 kilometers. Tidy, comfortable, well balanced, padded in all the right locations your pack has to move with you and it should feel like this piece of nylon is handing you the thing you need right when you need it.

Currently my kit does not do this. Even for extended day trips I can never reach what I need when I need it and my selection of packs seems optimized for a much slower and mode of travel.  The Pacific Crest is starting to open up and I really want to spend what little free time I have on the trail there, not fighting with my gear.

The idea of getting back out on the trail using a series of LT24Os is also something I’d like to make a reality. We’re coming up on August quickly and I’ve already volunteered to raise money for Washington Trails Association during the Hike-A-Thon. But this post isn’t about raising money for one of the best stay-at-home causes I can think of (although you should expect one soon). Rather it’s about considering options.

I have been, for some time, smitten with packs purpose designed for this kind of work. If someone were to ask me this morning, “Matt, if you could get any self-sufficient race pack on the market, which one would you chose?” I would have replied the WAA Ultrabag 20L MDS, don’t hold any of the fixin’s. I discovered soon after this conversation however, that a lot has changed since that black and orange wunderbag caught my eye as I watched the Marathon des Sables a year ago.

The problem at this point is not that there isn’t innovation being made here. It is that all the innovation that has taken place occurred in Europe. Mostly in France. Very little about these sports or this gear seems to make its way across The Pond. If you’ve watched even a little of the World Cup recently you may now agree that this is a shame. North Americans, and in particular citizens of The Good ‘Ol US of A, have largely ignored some of the most independent and free form racing sports ever invented.

Below I’ve begun to compile a list of packs that might fill the bill. As I’ve mentioned, this August I’ll be running trails a lot. My intent is to get out on the dirt most, if not every, day during the month. Some time down the road Nolan’s 14 still resides within my bucket list. And when I break out my Tour the Divide maps it’s not to plot a course for my bike (gratz again Jefe), but rather to plan out how to make this possible on foot (although that is looking increasingly like a bulki run).

I’m shooting for packs that carry a fair amount of water. Approach about 20 liters of carrying capacity. Aren’t too heavy. Aren’t horribly expensive. Are designed to ergonomically move with the wearer/runner. Look sorta cool. And packs that can carry my kit (which is tiny).

One more thing, water and balance are always problems for me. I usually prefer to carry more water than I think I’ll need because I always drink it. August in Washington State is dry. There are significant dry stretches along the Tour. You get the picture. Two handhelds, two shoulder stashed liters and at least two liters in the bag on the back is what I plan for on most occasions.

Balance? I prefer to have the option of a front pack for a variety of reasons. All my snacks and such are easily available. I get the forward leaning balance weight. I have a place to sew patches. I can “wear” electronics closer to my core. For some reason North American designers have overlooked this prime real estate opting instead to preserve that window of chest hair. Thus, bags that either come with or can accommodate a kangaroo pouch will get extra special attention.

If you’ve used any of these packs and want to pass along your kudos or frustrations I’d really appreciate your advice. Also, if there’s something missing from my list please feel free to clue me in.

Right now my top contenders are listed below. Their benefits and drawbacks are included.

WAA Ultrabag 20 MDS

2014 WAA UB 20l

2014 WAA UB 20l

Still number one my list is the French designed and manufactured WAA. It has an excellent reputation (from what I can translate) and is used not only on routes like the MdS, but can be found in in races like the Everest Ultra series and the Indo Asian. This pack has a front pack as well as bottle holders and can accommodate a sizable bladder on your back. The gear tie on straps (for things like the sleeping mat) are more than just a couple of elastic strings and because of the squared off main compartment the ability to strap additional gear such as a bivy or a sleeping sack to the top are now an option.

Chief disadvantages for this pack at this time are that it has to be shipped a very long way to make it into my hands. WAA sells these, and, per their web site, it appears that they’ll ship it to the US. But there’s no indication of how long it might take to get here. Also, it is expensive.

RaidLight OLMO PACK DESERT 20 + 4 L

olmo-desert-pack-20l-4

olmo-desert-pack-20l-4

Again, my skills of translation, may be failing me here, but this ruck system was for a long time known as the Raidlight uniform. Everyone was wearing it. Now in later versions it shares many of the same positive attributes found in the WAA. The kangaroo pouch is hung much lower (on the waist line) and while they’re rated the same size this one just looks bigger to me. It’s price is average compared to the others.

This pack is not squared and has mesh pockets instead of tie-on straps. It would be difficult to impossible to strap a z-foam mat to your back with the RaidLight. Again, French and only sold in Europe with potentially stupid wait times.

Osprey Rev 24

Osprey Rev 24

Osprey Rev 24

The Osprey has the most space out of this selection. It lacks gear tie-ons and instead uses elastic cords. Running with a sleeping mat bungied to the back would likely drive me insane. I might as well develop a speed habit. And it does not have a kangaroo pouch.

It does have some very likable attributes. Starting with the DigiFlip phone case that attaches to a shoulder strap. Another project I’m currently working on is forging the One Device. Seriously, I carry too many electronics and being able to get the functionality I require out of a single multi purpose device is where I’m headed. Being able to flip it open from its protective case while running? That’d be a huge point in its favor.

Also, it is important to note that this pack is both available in the US of A and priced very competitively.

Salomon Skin Pro 14+3

Salomon Skin Pro 14+3

Salomon Skin Pro 14+3

Front pack? Check. Balanced and form fitting? Check. Tested on long duration races? Check. Salomon get’s some high marks with this one, and right now, if you order online from them directly you’ll get 30% off the base pack. This makes them competitive on another plane.

The big down side to this set up is that it’s just so small. Fourteen liters is perfect if you’re fast and can run 100 miles in under 24 hours. This will get you there. That person isn’t me, hasn’t ever been.

So while it’s sexy, well manufactured and used by the best it may be that it’s also targeted at the best. Or at different sports.

Ultimate Direction PB ADVENTURE VEST 2.0

Ultimate Direction PB ADVENTURE VEST 2.0

Ultimate Direction PB ADVENTURE VEST 2.0

Part of UD’s signature series this is the second design iteration of Peter Bakwin model. This pack suffers from many of the same problems that the Salomon suffers from. It’s just too small. I’ve been using UD products for a long time (still have a collection of their first version rubber nipple water bottles) and so I know that they’re making quality goods.

If UD took this design opened up that back compartment to 20 liters and added an integrated kangaroo pouch they would immediately accomplish two things. First, they would fill a market gap in North America with a wonderful product. Second, they would add a new member to their growing signature series, the Ultimate Direction MT Self-Sustaining Vest 1.0.

Could I get mine in gray please?