Part 1 – A Solo Winter Mount Washington Ascent: To Hike or Not to Hike?

IMG_7432

I hate being cold, which is why I was sitting in my car questioning my sanity. I’d pulled over to take a picture of the sun cresting over the top of the Presidential Range on my way to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire when I made the mistake of looking at the temperature gauge on my car… “Holy sh**! It’s -16F (-27C) out there?!” Was I really going to set off to climb Mt. Washington, solo, at the end of February in subzero temperatures?

IMG_7454

To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure… Mount Washington has a reputation for having the worst weather in the world, and for being one of world’s deadliest mountains! So, even though I’ve climbed Mt. Washington many times (most recently on my 2013 AT Thru-Hike) and have done winter hiking and mountaineering around the Whites (e.g. Mt. Lafayette last month), around the country, and around the world, I was a little bit nervous about my first winter ascent of Mt. Washington… especially since I was going to be doing it solo…

IMG_7459

I checked the summit forecast for Mt. Washington for what must have been the zillionth time… they were predicting a beautiful, cloudless day with highs near 0F (-18C) and westerly wind gusts of 20 – 45 mph (32 kph – 72 kph), and valley highs in the upper 20s F… All in all it sounded pretty good for Mt. Washington in the winter, but pretty good for Mt. Washington was still pretty dang cold! Especially since the national weather service had posted windchill advisories and was predicting windchills of -25F (-32C) to -35F (-37C) for the summit.

IMG_7451

I thought about all of the coldest hiking experiences I’d had… were they colder than what they were predicting for the summit of Washington that day? I wasn’t sure… It had definitely been cold as I climbed Mt. Whitney in the predawn hours of May last year (I remember someone at the summit saying that after sunrise the temperatures were in the single digits)… Taking a break near Disappointment Cleaver on Mt. Rainier had been impressively cold, even in my expedition jacket, but I have no idea what the actual temperatures were… Approaching the summit of Kilimanjaro in the middle of the night had also been extremely cold, but I didn’t know exactly how cold… There was just one time that I knew for sure that I’d set off in temperatures colder than the -16F my car was currently reading, and that was also in the White Mountains… Our intrepid family had done some winter camping (overnight lows in the -20s) and set off to climb Mt. Lafayette after a ranger told us that the current temperature was -18F… We had a great hike, but decided not to go above treeline that day because it was too cold. Brrrrrr….

IMG_7453

When I’d left the parking lot at Carter Notch 10 minutes earlier my car had registered a balmy -4F… For some reason -4F seemed like a perfectly fine temperature to set off hiking into, but -16F? I thought about it for a few minutes and decided, “Nope, no way, no how”… I would continue driving over to the trailhead parking area, but I vowed that I was not going to leave my car until the temperature was at least -5F (-21C)!

IMG_7419

Stay tuned for “Part 2 – A Solo Winter Mt. Washington Ascent!”

Tragedy in the Whites

I plan to climb Mt. Washington this winter, and I expect to survive the attempt…but I recognize that not everybody does. New Hampshire’s White Mountains, though beautiful, can be dangerous, especially during the winter. Yesterday the hiking community received a painful reminder of this truth when we learned of the tragic death of fellow hiker and adventurer Kate Matrosova. Though I did not know Kate Matrosova we have some things in common… We are both women in our 30s that enjoy hiking and mountaineering, we’ve both climbed Kilimajaro, we’ve both gone on solo winter hikes in the White Mountains, and we both hoped to climb Mt. Washington this winter…

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

There are people that think that I am crazy… crazy for hiking, crazy for backpacking, crazy for going on solo adventures in the woods, crazy for going outside during the wintertime… When the snow begins to fall most people head home to curl up beside the hearth, drink a cup of hot cocoa, and read a book or watch a movie… some people head to the hills to ski, but a small number of us head to the mountains to hike and soak in the spectaular snow-covered views. When I learned that someone that shared my passion for the outdoors died doing the thing I love, I felt compelled to learn more about what happened… partly from a morbid sense of curiosity, partly to reassure myself that I wouldn’t end up in a similar situation, and partly to learn from the tragedy to try to avoid ending up in a similar situation.

So, What happened? Matrosova was attempting a winter traverse of the Northern Presidentials: Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Washington. This day-hike is 13.5 to 17.5 miles long and is one of the most challenging hikes in the White Mountains.* She began at 5 am on Sunday morning, but by 3:30 in afternoon she’d activated her personal locator beacon initiating rescue efforts. Even though rescuers were deployed Sunday evening, they were unable to locate Matrosova and deteriorating weather conditions forced them to postpone their search until morning. At 2 pm on Monday her body was located near Star Lake, not far from Madison Spring Hut (which is closed during the winter).

Could/would the same thing happen to me? I tried to reassure myself that the same thing wouldn’t have happened to me. After all, I’d made a different decision than Kate did when it came to attempting a Mt. Washington climb on that Sunday… I decided not to hike and she decided to hike. Despite the fact that I’ve been checking the weather and looking for a viable window of opportunity to climb Mt. Washington since my successful Mt. Lafayette ascent in January . I decided that the forecast high temperature of 0F degrees was too low for me, that the forecast low of -30F was way too low for me, the predicted wind speeds of 80 mph were too high, and the weather pattern was too unstable (tail end/after effects of the blizzaed) for me to even consider making a Mt. Washington attempt…. Brrrrrr!!!! But I have to admit that I spent most of the day Sunday and Monday looking out my window at the beautifully sunny skies wishing that I was out hiking, seriously contemplating going for a quick hike up Mt. Monadnock (which is closer to home for me), and grumbling about the cruelty of winter when it feels like you should be outside enjoying the sun, but are trapped inside.

It bothers me that the initial reaction of the hiking community to the death of an adventurer is to assume that they must have been inexperienced, cocky, or reckless. From the little information that is publicly available, it looks to me like Kate Matrosova had more mountaineering experience than I do… If I assume that she was more comfortable with winter mountaineering than I am, her decisions begin to make more sense, not less… Perhaps she felt like she was equipped to deal with those temperatures and wind speeds? It’s hard for me to imagine, but certainly possible… She probably had a number of bail out options and plans (I always do), and the fact that she used her locator beacon before it started to get dark suggests to me that she realized when she got in over her head that she needed help and called for it.

It is a classic stage of grief to try to isolate ourselves and reassure ourselves that we would have responded differently and that we would have survived, but as I watched the online forums explode with commentary about Kate’s death I found it upsetting… Was this the kind of commentary that people would make about me if, god-forbid, something happened to me on one of my solo hikes? I knew that the answer was yes because some variant of the same conversation seems to unfold every time a hiker meets an untimely death, but I didn’t like it…

As hikers, backpackpers, and mountaineers we acknowledge that risk is a part of our sport, a part of our community, and a part of our lives… and that sometimes death is the cost of living. Everyone that has done extensive hiking and backpacking has made bad decisions, has been cocky, and has been inexperienced. The thing that really makes us different from those that have perished is that we have had the privilege of living through our mistakes and learning from them… Not everyone is that lucky. I fully intend to survive my Mt. Washington attempt! But then again, I have no doubt that Kate Matrosova did as well.

 

*The Northern Presidentials: The typical route starts at the Appalachia parking lot off of Highway 2 (where she was dropped off at 5 am on Sunday), follows the Valley-Way trail to Madison Spring Hut, and then follows the Appalachian Trail across a beautiful and exposed ridge to Mount Washington and Lakes of the Clouds Hut (the Gulfside Trail to Crawford Path with optional side-trips to the summits of Madison, Adams, and Jefferson) before descending via the Amanoosuk Trail to the Base Road Parking lot (off of 302, where she was planning on meeting her husband later that day)

This post by a White Mountain guide gives another interesting perspective.

Mount Lafayette, NH: A Solo Winter Ascent

Mt. Lafayette

Looking back at the summit of Mt. Lafayette from Franconia Ridge.

What is your favorite day-hike in the White Mountains? For me, the answer is Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge, which is why I set my alarm for 6 am and headed for the Lafayette trailhead early last week.

Franconia Ridge Loop (White Mountains, NH):

  • Date: January 22, 2014
  • Activity: Winter Hiking/Day Hike
  • Total Mileage: 8.9 miles
    • Old Bridle Path – 2.9 miles
    • Greenleaf Trail – 1.1 miles
    • Appalachian Trail – 1.7 miles
    • Falling Waters Trail – 3.2 miles
  • Duration: 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, 6 hours 30 minutes
  • Parking: Lafayette Place Trailhead Parking (just off of I-93), 2 privies available at trailhead, open year-round.

Although I’ve hiked the Franconia Loop dozens of times, most of those times have been during the summer or fall when the days are longer and the temperatures warmer. Of the handful of times I’ve hiked it during the winter, the day it was -20F at the base really stands out in my memory… that was the day I decided that there really was such a thing as too cold!!! By comparison, the 14F temperatures that greeted me at the trailhead parking lot last week seemed downright balmy!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path... If that's not motivation I don't know what is!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path… If that’s not motivation I don’t know what is!

The Old Bridle Path (Lafayette Place Parking to Greenleaf Hut) – 2.9 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. The trail gains 2,450 ft in 2.9 miles… anything approaching 1000 ft of elevation gain per mile qualifies as strenuous in my book.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons, snowshoes (optional)…
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, soft-packed powder. Occasional icy spots, easily avoidable.
  • Vistas (8/10): After 1.5 to 2 miles, amazing views of Franconia Ridge ahead and the valley behind are common.
IMG_5425

Greenleaf Hut and the Franconia Ridge as viewed from the Old Bridle Path.

I donned my microspikes and set off, alone, into the quiet, snowy, New Hampshire morning. After two solo thru-hikes it felt both strange and incredibly normal to be heading off into the snow-covered mountains by myself, but mostly it just felt great to be moving in the mountains I loved with beautiful blue skies above and sparkling white snow below. The only thing that dampened my spirit was that I couldn’t find my ‘good’ camera when I stopped to take pictures at the first overlook. I assumed I must have forgotten it back at the car in my excitement to get out on the trail… My iPhone 5 would have to serve as my camera for the day!

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

The trail all the way up to Greenleaf hut was beautifully snow-covered. Even though extra gear and precautions are necessary for winter hiking, one of my favorite things about the snow is that it covers and smooths out the normal rocky backbone of the trail and creates a strangely uniform hiking surface… The nice, stumble-free, snow-covered terrain reminded me of the PCT, but the grade of the Old Bridle Path was way too steep for that! I gained 2,450 ft in the 2.9 miles it took me to get up to Greenleaf Hut (closed & boarded up in the winter), and I still had a mile to go to get the the summit of Lafayette!

IMG_5449

Greenleaf Trail and the summit of Mt. Lafayette as viewed from the trail. How many cairns can you count in frame?

Greenleaf Trail (Greanleaf Hut to Mt. Lafayette Summit) – 1.1 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous, the trail gains ~1000 ft in 1.1 miles
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons recommended. Snow shoes optional
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): partially-tracked, lightly-packed wind-swept snow, some possibility for postholing. Windy!
  • Vistas (9/10): Primarily above treeline with sweeping vistas.

Near Greenleaf Hut I ran into a couple of people on their way down. They assured me that the trail conditions at the summit, along the ridge, and on Falling waters were great… Our excitement about the unusually warm, clear White Mountain weather was almost palpable… and it was certainly visible on all of our smiling faces.

Not long after leaving the hut I left the scrubby treeline entirely behind me, and embraced the blinding sun and whipping winds characteristic of Greenleaf trail in the wintertime.

IMG_5481

The sandy snow made that final mile to the summit of Mt. Lafayette seem to go on forever… I wasn’t postholing, but I could feel myself backsliding a little bit with each step… It didn’t help that I was almost 5000 ft above the elevation I’d slept at the previous night!

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Either way, I didn’t hesitate to take a break when I encountered a rare site on Mt. Lafayette… a group of 5 skiers struggling up the slope. Sure they were struggling on the uphill, but they were going to have it made on the way down!

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

After a few more photo breaks than were probably absolutely necessary, I made it to the windy summit of Lafayette! As I looked around I couldn’t help but smile… There’s nothing better than a beautiful clear day on the summit of Mt. Lafayette. I was kind of curious though, where exactly were those skiers going to go from the summit?

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

Appalachian Trail (AT/Franconia Ridge Trail – Mt. Lafayette Summit to Little Haystack) – 1.7 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Moderate, some ups and downs with drifting snow.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons
  • Trail conditions (9/10): well-tracked, windswept powder. Windy!
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely above treeline. Amazing views of the ridge you’re on (Franconia Ridge) and of the Presidential range… Absolutely phenomenal!

It felt good to be back on the Appalachian Trail (AT)… The last time I’d stood on the summit of Mt. Lafayette looking out at Mt. Washington was on my 2013 AT thru-hike… The sense of accomplishment I felt standing at the summit was for more than just climbing the mountain that day, but for the incredibly journeys of the last two years… It was a beautiful moment full of memories of the past and excitement about the new memories that I was creating right then and there.

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Franconia Ridge is one of my favorite stretches of trail. It is incredibly beautiful, but it is also incredibly exposed… definitely not to undertaken lightly when hiking solo in the wintertime. I scrutinized the distant clouds… the weather was still miraculously clear, which was good, and I did a time check. It wasn’t even 1pm yet, but since it was the middle of the winter sunset would be come early, ~5pm… did I have enough time to do the ridge and descend to my car before dark? Yes. Plenty. If I got caught out after dark was I prepared? Yes. Were there any suggestions of iffy weather? No. Since I was winter-hiking solo, I did a quadruple check… Would another hiker with my level of skill and preparation think that this was a risky decision? No. Phew… Safety checks passed, I texted my parents, “heading across Franconia Ridge now, will descend via Falling Waters.” I’d given them an itinerary before I left, but sending them time-stamped updates seemed prudent.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Every fiber of my being rejoiced at the opportunity to prolong my time on Franconia Ridge. It was such a gorgeous day, and as winter weather goes, it was as good as it gets! The winds weren’t too strong, the temperatures (in the teens) were moderate, and I had plenty of gear to keep me warm. I also discovered that as soon as I wasn’t going uphill anymore my toes completely warmed up!!! I was definitely excited about that!

The Appalachian Trail's familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge

The Appalachian Trail’s familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge.

About halfway across the ridge I encountered a northbound hiker, “How’s the trail ahead?” I queried. “Well, the ridge isn’t bad, but Falling Waters Trail is Icy… It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it! It was so bad I had to use my ice axe to get up it!” he replied sounding slightly rattled… “Hmmm…” This was directly at odds with the trail report I’d gotten from the last person I talked to!

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I'd come.

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I’d come.

After some contemplation, I continued hiking South along the AT.  I remembered the sweeping vistas from my Northbound AT thru-hike, but somehow the snow made it all feel more magical!

IMG_5544

The windswept rocks of Franconia Ridge iced with snow! (On the AT, looking South).

As I neared the end of the ridge and headed up Little Haystack I ran into one final group of people (total number of people encountered: 9). I asked the group of 3 guys how the trail had been. “It was great,” said one guy. “No Problem,” smiled one of the other guys.

“That’s good to hear,” I said feeling relieved, “there have been conflicting reports about Falling Waters trail.”

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

“Oh?” replied the third guy, curiously. “Well… the last guy I talked to said it was the worst he’d ever seen it and that he’d had to use his ice axe.” Almost immediately they chimed in and admitted that they’d used their ice axes too, but assured me, “it’s not that bad, you won’t have any problems with it.” I looked at them kind of skeptically before quizzing them a bit more about where they’d used their axes… I tried to picture the trail ahead and the spot that they were talking about..but I had trouble imagining a spot where I’d need my ice axe… Well, I’d find out when I got there!

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

Falling Waters Trail (Little Haystack to Lafayette Place Parking) – 3.2 miles

  • Difficultly Level: Strenuous, steep downhill descending 2800 ft in 3.2 miles. Snow-cover decreases impact on knees compared to summertime conditions.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons. 3/4 people ascending cited use of ice axe on one section. I did not use an ice axe nor did I feel the need to.
  • Trail Conditions (6/10): mostly well-tracked powder, however, some extremely icy sections are present on the lower 1/3 of the trail… Confidence traversing ice flows a must on this section.
  • Vistas (7/10): The majority of the trail is below treeline. However, the views from Shining Rock are worthwhile and the ice formations and flows of the ‘falling waters’ make up for the lack of more sweeping views.

Sometimes the trail seems even steeper when you are going down than when you are going up, and this definitely felt true as I headed down the Falling Waters Trail. It was steep, well-tracked powder, and it would have been a lot of fun to do some glissading… Unfortunately, I was below treeline and would have to navigate around a lot of trees in order to safely glissade… I was also afraid that I would end up going faster than I wanted to, so I decided to play it safe and stay on my feet.

IMG_5554

When I reached the falling waters section of the Falling Waters Trail I was fascinated by all the different ice formations in and around the stream. They were absolutely beautiful!

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

The ice formations were so beautiful that I couldn’t help but stop and take pictures of all of the the different kinds of ice… The feathery plumes were something that didn’t remember ever seeing before!

IMG_5573

Despite discovering lots of beautiful ice and water as I descended, the trail had remained nicely packed powder…

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

… until all the powder disappeared and was replaced with a wall of ice. There was no doubt… the wall of ice below me was where everyone had used their ice axes. I stood at the top of the steep ice flows contemplating my options for a couple of minutes.

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

It was clear that most people had used the ~5-6 ft long ice chute (pictured above) to my right instead of following the main trail with it’s steep 20-30 ft long ice flow (pictured below)… I continued contemplating my options… I didn’t like either of them, but eventually decided on the ice chute/glissade… once I was sitting down with my legs extended I’d be most of the way to the soft powdery snow below.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes... though I'm not sure how.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes… though I’m not sure how. Check out that blue blaze up there? The trail is somewhere underneath the beautiful blue ice.

Sure enough, the powder cushioned my short slide, no problem. Despite the icy trail conditions, the thing that was really slowing me down wasn’t my footing… it was all the time I was taking to admire and take pictures of the cool ice formations along the way!

A different kind of icicle… ice sheets maybe? near Falling Waters trail

Luckily for me, the icy section of the trail… the section where the trail held more ice than snow, was relatively short… about 1/4 mile, but I treated that section with extreme caution!

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

Even though I wanted to linger on the icy sections of the trail taking pictures and enjoying my hike for as long as possible, the magical low-angle light that was making everything extremely photogenic also signaled the fast approaching sunset.

IMG_5722

I reluctantly put my phone camera away and continued towards my car.

IMG_5685

Back at the car I searched for my ‘good’ camera, which I’d assumed I’d forgotten in the car during the hub-bub that morning… It wasn’t there… Doh! Was it possible that it was somewhere in my pack and I’d just missed it? I frantically emptied all of the contents of my pack out into my car… Still no camera… Oh sh**! My camera really was lost… My beautiful Sony Nex was somewhere between the car and the first overlook where I’d first noticed that it was missing.

IMG_5697

I took a deep breath… at least 5 people had descended that trail, maybe one of them found it and left it or a note about it for me somewhere… I circled the parking lot looking for clues… Nothing… My heart sank as I contemplated retracing my steps from that morning to look for it… Somewhat exasperated I decided a bathroom break, a snack, and some more water were in order before making any decisions…

As I rounded the corner to the women’s privy I saw it, right in front of the privy, lying on the snow… my camera!!! It must have fallen out when I stopped there before my hike. Since I was the only woman on the trail that day, nobody else had ventured over to the women’s privy, and nobody else had seen it! Phew!

With my camera in hand, and the sun beginning to set, I returned to my car and headed home… I was definitely a happy hiker! It had been an amazing day and the hike up Mt. Lafayette and across Franconia ridge kept its place as one of my favorite hikes of all time.

Note:

  • Consider checking out trip reports and forecasts here before heading up Lafayette.
  • The weather in the White Mountains is notoriously bad (even in the summer), so when planning a winter hike in the Whites finding a good weather window is my primary concern… If I’m considering a climb of Mt. Lafayetter (5250 ft) I check the Mt. Washington summit forecast and look for a day with high temperatures > 5-10 degrees F, wind speeds < 30 mph, and no measurable precipitation predicted for that day or the next… Even with appropriate gear, low temperatures and high windchills significantly reduce the fun factor of the hike for me… been there, done that (like the day it was -20 degrees F at the base… brrrrrrrr!!!).
Up next, Mt. Washington?!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

Thru-hike Trekking Pole Review: Leki Carbon Titaniums

DSC05876

Trekking poles have been an indispensable part of my hiking and backpacking gear for over a decade, so when I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail (2013), and then the Pacific Crest Trail (2014) there was never a question… I was going to bring trekking poles with me. I chose the Leki Carbon Titaniums for my adventures:

  • Purchased: Fall 2012
  • Weight: 16.6 oz/pair
  • Length: 62-135 cm
  • MSR: $199.95

I started using the Leki Carbon Ti trekking poles in the fall of 2012 and I am still using them today (two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles later).

  • Functionality (10/10): I use my trekking poles for additional stability (I have a history of spraining my ankles without them) and to reduce the stress on my knees (especially going downhill). During the last 2 years (and ~5000 miles of backpacking through some of the most rugged terrain in the United States) my knees and ankles have remained sprain free! I love my trekking poles and found them to be incredibly useful during both of my thru-hikes… especially in rocky, sandy, and snowy terrain.
  • Fitness (9/10): Most people lose upper body strength during their thru-hikes, but I rely so heavily on my trekking poles that I actually gained upper body strength! I use my trekking poles for more than just passive stabilization, I use them to actively propel myself forward (similar to the way cross-country skiers use their poles), which engages the muscles of my upper body and turns hiking/backpacking into a full-body workout.
  • Comfort (8/10): The grips are comfortable and the adjustable height allows me to set my poles to the length that works best for me (I’m 5’10, have a 35 inch inseam, and have had trouble finding fixed length poles that were long enough for me in the past). During thru-hikes I build up callouses on my palms from heavy trekking pole use, but the poles remain comfortable even in hot, sweaty weather.
    • Note: I get rashes on my hands when I use poles with cork handles, so I stay away from the cork handles!
  • Locking Mechanism (8/10): The clip locks are much easier to deal with, and more convenient than the older twist-style locking mechanisms. I usually use my poles at a fixed length and only collapse them to their minimum size for transportation in cars or when I’m in town (even fully collapsed I wish they were shorter and more stowable than they are). The only time I intentionally adjusted the length of my poles was on the steep, snowy slopes of the High Sierra when I wasn’t using my ice axe. For the most part I didn’t have any trouble with the locks loosening as I hiked, but during the the last ~500 miles of the PCT (after ~4000 miles of use) the lower locks seemed to loosen occasionally. Even then I only needed to re-tighten them once or twice.
    • Pro-tip: Carry a quarter or a dime in your repair/emergency kit so that you can tighten the locks if they loosen over time. It’s much easier/better to mechanically tighten them with a coin than to do it by hand.
    • Pro-tip: When traversing steep snowfields you can shorten the up-slope pole and use both poles in the snow if you don’t have an ice axe or for some reason don’t think an ice axe is necessary.
    • Pro-tip: Your ice axe is only useful if you have it out! When in doubt, take it out!!! Trekking poles are not good ice axe replacements… Having attempted to self-arrest with a trekking pole I can strongly recommend against it (1/10)… Know when to use your ice axe, know how to use it, and take it out of your pack before you need it. Repeat after me, “When in doubt, take it out!!!”

20140603-234427-85467422.jpg

  • Durability (8/10): I am not gentle with my gear, and that is certainly true when it comes to my trekking poles. I have used my Leki Crabon Ti trekking poles on every hike and backpacking trip that I’ve been on since I purchased them in the fall of 2012 and have been impressed with their overall ruggedness and durability.

Even though I love my trekking poles, over the course of ~5000 miles of use they’ve accumulated some damage…

  • Repairs:
    • Carbon Fiber Shaft (8/10): I didn’t have any trouble with the poles during the ~2200 miles of my 2013 AT thru-hike. However, crossing through the High Sierras (PCT 2014) the middle section of one of my trekking poles sheered in half! I was able to remove that section and fully extend and lock together the remaining sections for a mostly functional pole until Leki sent me a replacement section (no questions asked) in my next mail drop.
      • Leki offers a 1 year warranty on carbon fiber pole segments.
      • Pro tip: Call Leki directly… I had hoped that the folks at Mammoth Mountaineering (4/10) in Mammoth Lakes would help me out, but they don’t help thru-hikers with warranty issues of any kind (I was hoping for Leki and Big Agnes help at the time).pole
    • Carbide Tips (6/10): They are reasonably durable, but replacing them is a challenge. It is hard (as in nearly impossible) to remove the old, overused tips to install the new tips.
      • The original pair of carbide tips saw me through the entire AT (~2200 miles) and the first section of the PCT (from Campo to Idyllwild, CA).
      • I purchased a new pair of tips at Nomad Ventures (10/10), but the old tips were so impacted that I couldn’t remove them. I ended up enlisting the aid of the store owner, a table vice, and some pliers before we finally managed to get them off…
      • The second pair was worn out by the time I got to Ashland, OR. Once again, I needed to enlist a store employee to remove the old tips, which he wasn’t able to do successfully (even using the appropriate tools), so he just fitted the new tips over them.
      • Carbide tips are not covered by Leki’s warranty and they told me on the phone that they expect each pair of tips to last about 500 miles though they were reluctant to give an exact mileage or duration.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would put a thin silicone or rubber coating over the carbide tips to reduce the noise of the poles on rocky surfaces… Wildlife and other hikers can hear you coming from a mile away as you click across the rocks with your trekking poles.
      • Pro-tip: If you want to see more bears, put your trekking poles away :-P
    • Wrist Strap (8/10): After more than 3000 miles of use, one of the wrist straps broke. The people at the Ashland Outdoor Store (10/10) replaced the wrist strap for me with one they had lying around.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would add a quick release to the wrist straps. I like hiking with the straps, and it helps make sure I don’t accidentally lose them down steep slopes, but the physics involved in some falls (especially on slippery, muddy down-slopes) mean having your wrists locked into the straps in a way that may contribute to severe wrist injuries or stress fractures (see below).20140507-223445.jpg
  • Injuries:

Despite the damages, I would give the Leki Carbon Titanium trekking polls a very good overall rating (8/10) and would recommend them to other hikers, backpackers, and thru-hikers. If I were to purchase new trekking poles I would get these unless I found something just as rugged and durable, but lighter weight, and with a more packable profile. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts, questions, and/or trekking pole experiences!

pole2

Even after two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles of heavy use my leki carbon ti trekking poles are my constant companions! (McAffee Knob, VA – AT section hike fall 2014).

 

 

The Gear That Got Me Thru (PCT Gear List)

DSC02798

As I tracked down the gear that I actually carried on the PCT to weigh it and write up my final gear list, I tallied up the number of miles I’d carried each item with me… The miles added up quickly… in the last two years I’ve hiked ~5000 miles (AT 2013, PCT 2014 et al.) and some of my gear has been with me that entire time!!!

As my gear list grew, however, I noticed another thing that was quickly adding up… the weight of my pack! My pack was on the heavy side. When I was backpacking on the AT in the early 1990’s carrying a heavy pack was something that people boasted about; it was a point of pride. Back then my pack was lighter than most of my peers, and people gave me sh** about it because a lighter pack meant that I wasn’t working as hard as they were. Since the ’90s, however, there’s been a cultural revolution in the world of backpacking, and the lightest packs are now the packs that people admire and boast about…

“With a pack that small you’ve gotta be ultralight… You must be a PCT thru-hiker!” exclaimed a southbound John Muir Trail (JMT) hiker admiringly.

“Me? Ultralight? I’m a thru-hiker, but I’m definitely not ultralight,” I laughed. Many of the PCT thru-hikers I knew were striving to be ultralight (they’d reduced their packs to a minimum and they used all of the latest, greatest, lightweight gear), but I wasn’t one of them. On the contrary, I had gotten so used to being razzed about my ‘big’ pack that after ~1000 miles of hiking amongst fellow PCT thru-hikers I’d embraced the idea that my pack was ‘big,’ which is why I was surprised when the JMT hiker commented on the petite size of my pack… I was also surprised that he’d picked me out as a PCT thru-hiker since I was on the JMT (headed to Half Dome and Yosemite Valley) and not the PCT at the time. He was partly right though, compared to the JMT hikers I’d seen, my pack was small.

“Not ultralight?!” he re-iterated with surprise as he shifted his 60+ lb pack around uncomfortably. He eyed my pack, which weighed ~30 lbs less than his, suspiciously. “Nope,” I assured him, “not ultralight.” In the High Sierra I had all of my heaviest gear, but even in the desert when my pack had been at its lightest, with a base weight (the weight of my pack and everything in it except for food and water) of ~17 lbs, my pack was ‘light’ (< 20 lbs) and not ‘ultralight’ (< 10 lbs). “Well,” I conceded, “I have a lot of lightweight gear, and I try lighten my load when I can, but I don’t want to be ultralight. People that are ultralight tend to have different goals than I do… they are usually trying to cover as many miles as they can, as quickly as they can. Me? I’m on Vacation! My goal is to take my time, to relax, and to enjoy my PCT thru-hike… To that end: I started almost a month early, I carry ‘luxury’ items (like my Patches, my camp shoes, and my camera), I go sightseeing, I take a lot of photos, and I hike a lot of side trails… It’s a different backpacking philosophy.”

DSC03140

As I tallied up the weight of my ‘luxury’ items for my gear list, it was clear that I wouldn’t be winning any ‘ultralight’ backpacking awards. On the trail, people frequently talked about their base weight… bandying around numbers between 12 and 15 pounds, but my cold weather base weight for the North Cascades was going to a lot higher than that… closer to 23 lbs… I carefully scrutinized my gear… I’d love to have a lighter pack, but what was I willing to sacrifice to get there? There were a lot of painless upgrades (except in terms of $$) and small sacrifices that I could (and would) gladly make to decrease my base weight in the future… Changes that would drop my cold weather base weight (to <20 lbs), but that wouldn’t alter the vacation-like nature of my thru-hike.

But what about my camera? That was my biggest luxury item, weighing in at ~ 2 lbs. If I were to do another solo PCT thru-hike would I leave my camera behind? No. Would I be willing to trade it for a point and shoot? No. I loved standing alone in the middle of the trail with my camera capturing bits and pieces of its ephemeral beauty as I hiked… My camera gave me an excuse to linger and interact with the beauty of the trail and its inhabitants… It enhanced my appreciation of my hike, and it was worth it… It was worth the weight… all two pounds of it…

Throughout my 2013 AT thru-hike and my 2014 PCT thru-hike, my gear was constantly evolving as I tried to maximize my enjoyment of the trail and minimize my pack weight. So, what did I have in my pack at the end of the PCT? Was any of it the same as what I started with at the beginning of my 2013 thru-hike? How many miles did my gear last? If I were to do the PCT again, which gear would I change/upgrade? What follows is the answer to these questions and a bit of gear geekery: first my comments on the gear that’s gotten me through between 1000 and 5000 miles of thru-hiking, then a detailed list of all of the gear I carried on my PCT thru-hike and the upgrades that I would make.

DSC00241

5000 mile club: This is the gear that I carried from start to finish on both my AT and PCT thru-hikes!

  • Patches (3.8 oz.)
    • My patches are the source of my trail name and are full of memories of the people I’ve known and the places I’ve been… I’ve had them for over a decade.
  • Tent (9/10): Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent (1 lb, 15 oz.)
    • I purchased the Fly Creek UL2 in 2013 for my AT thru-hike. I loved the UL2
    • After  ~3000 miles of use, the zipper on the body of my tent ran off of it’s track. I called Big Agnes from Mammoth Lakes (mile 907) and they sent me a replacement tent body in my next mail drop. Check out the full tent review that I did after the AT! The tent fly and stakes are still the originals I started out with in GA.
    • Upgrade: Z Packs Splash Bivy (6.4 oz., $225) with the Hexamid Solo-Plus Tarp w/ beak (7.4 oz, $280). Even though I loved the UL2, I would consider switching to a bivy/tarp setup. I discovered the joy of cowboy camping on the PCT, and cowboy camped whenever I could. This meant that I didn’t use my tent as often on the PCT as I had on the AT, and switching to the lighter weight bivy/tarp combination might better suit my PCT/CDT needs in the future.
  • Spork (10/10): Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Synthetic Insulated Jacket (9/10): MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • I love this jacket as a good basic layer that will keep me warm even when wet.
    • Upgrade: If I had it to do over again, I’d switch to the version without pockets to save 1.8 oz: Montbel UL Thermawrap Jacket (8.4 oz., $145).
  • Gloves (8/10): Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
    • The gloves were great, but sometimes I wished I had something a little warmer and that I could leave on while using my phone.
    • Upgrade to: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Headlamp (10/10): Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • I ended up changing the batteries about once a month.
  • Trowel (9/10): REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
    • My 9.6 inch long snow stake worked as well as any camp trowel I’ve used for digging cat holes.
  • Camera (10/10): Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers)
  • Trekking Poles (9/10): Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)
    • I love hiking with trekking poles… The middle segment of one of the poles sheared as I was coming down Glen Pass in the High Sierra, I called Leki from Mammoth Lakes and they mailed a replacement to Tuolumme Meadows for me.
    • The original trekking pole tips got me from GA to ME, and then from the Mexican Border to Idyllwild. A second pair of tips got me from Idyllwild, CA to Ashland, OR. I’m on the third pair now (I was told to expect ~500 miles per $20 pair of tips).

4000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping Pad (10/10): Thermarest NeoAir Women’s Xlite (12 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. It’s made it through with no leaks so far! Blowing it up is currently my least favorite camp chore though.
  • Sleeping bag liner (10/10): Western Mountaineering Whisper (4 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. I used my sleeping bag liner as a sheet on hot nights. I also slipped my sleeping pad into it whenever I was cowboy camping (PCT) or sleeping in a shelter (AT) to protect it.
    • Upgrade: If I get the ZPacks bivy I will eliminate my sleeping bag liner.

3000+ mile club:

  • Hydration reservoir (10/10): Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • ~ 3750 miles: PCT Thru & ½ AT. I borrowed it from my mom when she visited me on the AT in Virginia… I wonder if she wants it back now?
  • Knife (10/10): Randall (10.4 oz. with sheath)
    • ~3750 miles: PCT thru & 1/2 AT. I love having my Randall at my hip. I started the AT with a couple of small, ultralite blades, but I got tired of every single person I met asking me if I was armed. After I started carrying the Randall on my belt people stopped asking me if I was armed. Mission accomplished.
  • Emergency beacon (9/10): Spot Locator Beacon (4.4 oz)
    • ~3700 miles: PCT Thru & ~1000 AT miles. As a solo backpacker, I try not to leave home without it.
  • Synthetic Insulated Pants (9/10): Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
    • ~3000 miles: PCT Thru and ~600AT miles. I’ve had these pants since my Kilimanjaro ascent in 2010… they double as my hiking pillow.
    • Upgrading to the newer version would save 3.5 oz.: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).

IMG_3615

2000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping bag (10/10): Marmot Lithium Zero Degree Bag (2 lb, 15 oz.)
  • Ground cloth (10/10): Tyvek Sheet (5 oz.)
    • 2665 PCT thru: I absolutely loved cowboy camping on my ground cloth. I also kept the ground cloth handy to sit on during breaks during the day… (If I upgrade to a bivy/tarp combination I would leave out the tyvek sheet).
  • Cook Stove (8/10): Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru! The only trouble I had with it was that the piezo-starter was unreliable.
  • Raincoat (2/10): Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru: I had a Helium II for the ~2200 miles of the AT, but it wasn’t waterproof so I returned it. They sent me a new one for the PCT, but it wasn’t waterproof either!
    • Upgrade: The ZPacks  Challenger Rain Jacket Large (5.8 oz., $260)
  • External battery (8/10): Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. It worked great, but it was more than I needed
    • Upgrade to the Anker 2nd Gen Astro E3 10000mAh (8.1 oz).
  • Camp shoes (9/10): New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. I used them for river crossing, and around camp every night.
  • Sun hat (10/10): MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Mt. Laguna to Canada

IMG_4787

1000+ mile club:

  • Backpack (8/10): Osprey Exos 58 Backpack (2 lbs, 8 oz.)
    • ~1700 PCT miles. I used an Osprey Exos 58 on the AT and loved it to pieces, so Osprey replaced it and I started the PCT with a brand new Exos 58. At Kennedy Meadows, I switched to the ULA Catalyst (2 lbs, rating: 4/10) because my bear canister (required for the High Sierras) didn’t fit into the Exos very well. I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to hate the Catalyst until I’d hiked at least 100 miles in it. After hiking ~900 miles in it I was still grumbling, so I switched back to my beloved Exos. My dream pack upgrade would be to a 62L Arc Blast from Z-Packs (1 lb, 4 oz., $320) with a custom torso length (my torso is short: 15.5 inches).
  • Rain Pants (8/10): Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
    • ~1000 PCT miles: I’ve had them for about 10 years, but they need to be replaced now.
    • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).

****

When I finished my PCT thru-hike in the North Cascades, Washington I was carrying most of my cold weather gear and the total base weight for my pack (everything except the loophole weight*, food, and water) was 23.4 lbs. If money were no object, and I could convince myself to leave my ‘good’ camera behind, I would spend $1529 and make all of the upgrades I list above (and in my detailed gear list below), and I’d drop my cold weather base weight down to 16 lbs… But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t leave the camera behind…

DSC03004

***

Detailed PCT Gear List:

The Big Three (8 lbs, 11 oz):

Cook System (1 lb, 3.5 oz.):

  • Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
  • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz, I used 3 on the PCT)
  • Fuel canister (11.8 oz): I cooked 1 hot meal a day and a canister would last me ~3 weeks.

Wearables:

  • Outerwear (2 lb, 4.6 oz.):
    • Raincoat: Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • Rain Pants: Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
      • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).
    • Waterproof gloves: 1 pair vinyl gloves (0.2 oz.)
      • Upgrade? ZPacks™  Challenger Rain Mitts (1 oz., $65)
    • Synthetic Insulated Jacket: MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • Synthetic Insulated Pants: Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
      • Upgrade: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).
    • Rock On Fleece hat (1.4 oz)
    • Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Camp shoes: New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz) – luxury item
  • Clothing (1 lb, 8.6 oz.):
    • 2 – Ex Officio underwear (2 oz., 1 oz/pair)
    • 2 – Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (3.2 oz., 1.6 oz/pair)
    • Mountain Hardware Hiking Pants (10.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (3.8oz., $84.95) or Montbel Dynamo Wind Pants (2.6 oz, $69). This is the first pack upgrade that I would make!
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Bottoms (5.2 oz.): Pajamas
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Long-Sleeve Crew (3.8 oz.): Pajamas

Technology (4 lbs, 10.2 oz):

  • Headlamp: Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • lighter weight headlamps are an option.
  • Verizon iPhone 5 ( 7.8 oz. with cable and charger)
    • 679 miles: Bend, OR to Canada. My iPhone 4 made it ~4000 miles, through most of the AT and the PCT, before it decided it had had enough rough treatment and took a forbidden swim in Obsidian Creek.
  • Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers) – luxury item
  • External battery: Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable) – luxury item
  • Spot Locator Beacon ( 4.4 oz)

Extreme Weather Gear:

  • Desert (8 oz.):
    • Chrome Dome (8 oz.): 942.5 miles, I shipped it home with my ice axe. – luxury item
  • High Sierra (5 lbs, 4.8 oz): I wrote a review of my high sierra gear from the trail
    • BV500 Bear Vault (2lbs, 9 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Kahtoola Microspikes (13.6 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Hanz Waterproof Calf – Length Socks (3.2 oz.): 318.5 miles, Lone Pine to Kennedy Meadows North
    • CAMP Corsa Ice Axe (7.2 oz.): 290 miles, Lone Pine to Tuolumme Meadows
    • Montbel Plasma 1000 Down Jacket (4.8 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
      • Upgrade? Montbel XLite Down Anarak (6.2 oz., $219)
    • Sunglasses (?): Necessary in the High Sierra. I went through ~3pair on the PCT because I kept losting them. I’d put them on my hat, forget about them, and then, at some point, I’d take off the hat and I wouldn’t notice that the sunglasses had gone flying until the next time I wanted to use them… I didn’t use any sunglasses in Oregon or Washington.

Health & Hygiene:

  • Water (11.7 oz.):
    • Aquamira (2 oz.). ~5 aquamira kits for total PCT thru.
    • Sawyer Squeeze Mini (2 oz.).
    • Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • 3 – 1L Water bladders (0.8 oz. each). 6L capacity thru the desert, dropped to five later
  • Trowel: REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
  • First Aid kit (1 lb, 2.4 oz.):
    • includes emergency asthma medications, sunscreen, compass, bear bag rope, 2 epi-pens, 2 spare AAA batteries etc (Most people can drop this down to < 6 oz.).
  • Daily med kit (1 lb, 1.4 oz.):
    • includes one month of daily prescription medications, inhalers, contacts, toothbrush, toothpaste etc. (Most people can drop this down to < 4 oz.)
  • DEET & Headnet (~2 oz.):
    • Critically important during bug season in the High Sierra! Pick them up in Kennedy Meadows if you don’t have them before.

Loophole Weight (3 lbs, 6.6 oz.): *The stuff that didn’t go into my pack (or on it), and isn’t included in the base weight of my pack.

  • Daily Clothing (1 lb, 1.6 oz):
    • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Long-sleeve yellow Saucony shirt (4.8 oz.)
    • Rab t-shirt (2.4 oz.)
    • Arc Teryx hiking skirt (4.4 oz.)
    • Ex Officio sports bra (1.8 oz.) – doubled as bathing suit top.
    • Ex Officio underwear (1 oz.)
    • Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (1.6 oz.)
  • Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 1.5 ( 9.9 oz.). 4 pair of shoes total for PCT:
    • Altra ~850 miles. Truckee, CA – Bend, OR
    • Altra ~600 miles. Bend, Or to Canada
    • Check out my AT shoe review and my thoughts on shoes from the PCT!
    • Other  PCT Shoes:
      • Merril Moab Ventilator’s (1 lb, 8 oz.): ~700 miles, Campo – Kennedy Meadows, CA
      • Oboz Traverse Low (16.6 oz.). ~450 miles, Kennedy Meadows – Truckee, CA
  • Randall Knife (10.4 oz. with sheath) – luxury item
  • Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)

Questions about my PCT gear? Leave a comment below. I’m hoping to write full gear reviews for some of the things I carried in the upcoming weeks.

Thru-hikers: What was your favorite luxury item on the trail?

DSC05876

2014 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike Photos

On my 2014 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail I was amazed by how dramatically and how beautifully the land (and everything on it) changed as I hiked from Mexico to Canada! Though I posted some of the photos I took with my iPhone to Instagram (patchesthru) along the way, I also took thousands of photos with my ‘good’ camera (a Sony Nex 5N with two lenses:16 mm f/2.8 and 55-210mm, f/4.5-6.3). Now that I’m home, I’ve started going through my pictures and am falling in love with the trail all over again! The photos below (and those on this 2015 calender) are amongst my favorites so far:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Wild about Wild? A Thru-Hiker’s Book Review and More.

If the shoe fits?

“I am a solo female long-distance hiker, but I’m not Cheryl Strayed! Wild is not a book about me! It’s not even a book about backpacking!” was what I wanted to scream from the mountaintops every time someone on the PCT asked me if I’d read Wild.

  • Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Author: Cheryl Strayed
  • Publication Date: March 20, 2012
  • Print list price: $15.95
  • Weight: 5.6 oz, 315 pages
  • Kindle edition: $3.99

“Have you read Wild?”  It was always asked with the best of intentions. It was an attempt to start a conversation with the wild creature known as a thru-hiker (someone that had spent months on the trail, away from the world of small talk). Surely, as a solo female hiker on the PCT, I must have thoughts and opinions about Wild, right? There were just two problems: 1) I’d been asked that question hundreds of times before, and 2) I wanted to have a meaningful conversation about it, it’s impact on the trail, it’s impact on me, or it’s impact on the person asking,  but there were a lot of assumptions that we needed to sort out before we could get started…

Biography/Memoir Rating (9/10):

  • Wild is a book about grief, loss, addiction, and self-discovery. Wild is a memoir about Cheryl Strayed.
  • As I read Wild, I was amazed by the brutal honesty with which Cheryl Strayed described the low points in her life: her grieving process, her depression, her addiction, her marriage, and her incredibly flawed coping mechanisms. I both admired that brutal honesty and found it alienating. I didn’t want to be dragged through the ugly parts of her life, forced to watch helplessly as she self-destructed. That brutal honesty, however, is what made Cheryl Strayed’s character incredibly human, and made her story incredibly powerful. As the story transitioned from self-destruction to recovery, I found myself beginning to really care about her character. I winced at her blisters, her grief, and her inexperience. I shook my head and cringed at her bad decisions and incompetence. I understood her fearlessness and her solitude. I smiled at her bravery, her stubbornness, and her friendships. By the time the book ended, I was glad that I’d read it. Wild felt like a very honest story about one woman’s battle with grief and growing up, and I both enjoyed and respected it for what it was.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read this book if you like memoirs and stories about personal growth and recovery.
    • Don’t: read this book if consistently poor decision making bothers you.
    • Don’t: assume that your backpacking friends will automatically love this memoir.

Adventure/Travel Book Rating (5/10):

  • Wild is not a book about backpackers/backpacking. Wild is not a book about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
  • When I first read Wild, I was under the mistaken impression that I was picking up a book about backpacking and the PCT… As I began reading the book I was immediately disappointed. Despite the hiking boot on the cover, and the mention of the PCT in the title, Wild was shaping up to be drama, and not the adventure I’d hoped for! It wasn’t until Chapter 4 that the stage had (painstakingly) been set, and the hike was on… the story was still about Cheryl Strayed’s character development, but now she had a foil – the PCT… It was her interactions with that foil that made the book engaging and interesting to me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: skip the first three chapters of the book if you are having trouble getting into the back story. She explains enough within the context of the hike that you probably won’t feel like you are missing anything later.
    • Don’t: expect Wild to be about backpacking and/or the PCT.

Backpacking/Wilderness/PCT Guidebook Rating (1/10):

  • Wild is not a book about how one should conduct oneself in the backcountry. Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild is not the image of the responsible outdoorswoman and backpacker that we, as a backpacking community, would like to represent us in popular culture.
  • As I read Wild it seemed like it could be the guide for “what not to do” in the backcountry. For example, the famous scene where Cheryl throws her boot off a cliff… Is it good storytelling? Yes. Is it appropriate backcountry behavior? No. It’s a gross violation of Leave No Trace ethics… No matter how upset and/or frustrated you are with your gear, if you carry it into the Wilderness, you need to carry it back out with you. It irritated me that in the book Cheryl Strayed didn’t just own her bad decisions, she seemed to take pride in them!
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: Check out Yogi’s Guide if you’re looking for a guidebook for the PCT.
    • Do: Check out the PCTAs wilderness tips if you’re looking for some general hiking/backpacking advice.
    • Don’t throw any of your stuff off of a cliff!
    • Don’t wander aimlessly down random jeep roads in the desert! Cheryl Strayed was incredibly lucky that her forays down random jeep roads ended as well as they did… dehydration and getting lost in the desert are huge and potentially fatal issues!

Conversation Starter with the Thru-Hiker You Just Met (0/10):

  • One of the most common questions thru-hikers on the AT and on the PCT get asked is: “Have you read Wild?” This is especially true if you are a solo woman backpacking in the woods. Even though it is a well-intentioned attempt to start a conversation, it often ends up feeling awkward and complicated. After the first dozen or so Wild conversations I had, I gave up any illusion that the conversation I was entering into was going to be about the book… I was probably going to hear a vilification of Cheryl Strayed, an idolization of Cheryl Strayed, or imagined horrors about the throngs of inexperienced people (especially women) Wild was going to inspire to invade the Wilderness.
  • The biggest problem I have with Wild conversations is that they are usually laden with preformed assumptions and biases about backpacking, about the hiking community, about women, and about me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read Wild if you are a thru-hiker. Lots of people are going to ask you about it, and if you’re going to express an opinion about the book, you should read it first.
    • Don’t: ask the thru-hiker that you’ve just met on the trail if they’ve read Wild. Try asking them what they love about the trail instead.
    • Don’t assume that Wild is what inspired my thru-hikes.

My PCT boots

Ask a Solo Female Thru-Hiker!

  • When people say that Wild is inspirational, what do they mean?
    • They mean that Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, or that her character is inspirational.
  • What goes through your head when somebody says, “Wild was so inspirational, is it what inspired your hike?”
    • Why would they assume the Wild inspired me to hike the trail? Even though Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, her hiking/backpacking skills come closer to terrifying me than inspiring me.
  • Why does it bother you when they assume that Wild is what inspired you to hike?
    1. It bothers me because Wild isn’t what inspired me to hike.
    2. It bothers me because I am an experienced backpacker (I’ve been hiking and backpacking for 30 years). When people assume that Wild is what inspired me to hike, they’re assuming that I am relatively inexperienced since the book didn’t come out until 2012.
    3. It bothers me because I am a woman. Even though both men and women on the trail end up having Wild conversations, men typically don’t get asked if they’re just like Cheryl Strayed, and men typically don’t get asked if Wild is what inspired them to hike. Why? Because backpacking is culturally accepted as something that men do, whereas women backpacking and hiking (especially) solo is contrary to traditional gender roles… Both my mom and my dad were my backpacking role models, not Cheryl Strayed.
  • Do people actually say, “You must be just like Cheryl Strayed!”
    • Yes, I’ve had it happen more than once. My immediate thought is, “Not all of the women on the trail are inexperienced, incompetent, heroin addicts, looking for sex and searching for salvation! I’m not any of those things! Why would someone think that I am just like Cheryl Strayed?” But I calm myself down and answer my own question. They think that I’m just like Cheryl Strayed because I’m a woman, I’m a backpacker, and I’m alone. Both Cheryl Strayed and I are much, much more than that… It sells both of us short…
  • Why is Wild controversial in the backpacking community?
    • The backpacking community is concerned that Wild will inspire droves of inexperienced people to explore the backcountry in irresponsible ways. We were all inexperienced once (and should always leave room for learning), and goofing up is part of learning, but we want to encourage people to learn to share our love of the Wilderness and the trail as responsibly as possible… Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild doesn’t always provide the best role model for that.
  • Are there other things that you dislike about Wild conversations?
    • Yes! I love the freedom and independence that backpacking (and doing it solo) affords me… freedom from societies rules about what I should be, what I can do, and how I should act. For many people, reading and discussing Wild allows them to experience some of that freedom. Unfortunately for me, conversations about Wild on the trail are often harsh reminders that I’m not as far away from societies biases as I think I am. Even though Wild consciously contradicts some of those biases (e.g. the idea that women shouldn’t travel alone), it accidentally reinforces others (e.g. women are incompetent and women that have sex are sluts).
  • What is your favorite thing about the Wild conversations that you’ve had?
    • I love it when people tell me stories about Wild and how it inspired and/or empowered them. Watching people grow to the love the outdoors and the sport that I love is an amazing experience. I think that it is great that Cheryl Strayed and Wild are inspiring people to get out and hike. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world to discover that I have inspired someone to get out and hike and I appreciate anything that encourages people to share my passion for the Wilderness and the trail.
  • Did anything in the book really resonate with you as a long-distance hiker?
    • A lot of people ask me what I think about as I hike, assuming that I am thinking about the world’s problems (or at least my own), but in reality a large percentage of the time I’m hiking I have fragments of songs stuck in my head. Cheryl Strayed describes that really well when she says, “I found my mind playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop, as if there were a mix-tape radio station in my head.” Fragments of songs would get stuck in my head and just play over and over again as I hiked… Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose from Janis Joplin, and slight variations on The Ramones, I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my toes. Oh no no no no no were some of the most frequent offenders. Sometimes I would just re-write the lyrics to songs as I hiked, like Eye of the Tiger by Survivor, which became my hiking ballad, Heart of the Mountains or Queen’s Bicycle, which become Calories.
  • Did anything in Wild really resonant with you as a solo hiker?
    • Yes, when Cheryl Strayed wrote about one of her conversations, “You’re not alone, are you?” … “And what on earth does your mother have to say about that?”… “Aren’t you scared all by yourself?”… I found myself nodding vigorously. I’ve had even more conversations about being alone on the trail than I’ve had about Wild. I’ll have to share my thoughts and stories about that in a future post, but I will say this: I didn’t set out to do my thru-hikes alone, I set out to follow my dreams… learning to be comfortable doing that alone has been one of the greatest gifts the trails have given me.

One of my favorite quotes from Wild is, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told…” Not only did Cheryl Strayed tell herself a different story, she shared that story with the rest of the world. The fact that Wild is giving people, especially women, the courage to tell themselves new stories and to live new dreams is inspiring. Some of the backlash against Wild in the backpacking community is from fear – fear that in the aftermath of the movie the trails will be flooded with “Girls gone Wild!”, fear that new hikers/backpackers will hurt themselves, hurt the trail, and hurt the Wilderness… I think we need to stop telling ourselves those stories and start telling ourselves a different story… a story about millions of new people inspired to learn more about the wilderness, a story about people getting outside and walking, a story about renewed interest in the preservation of the PCT and other long distance trails… A story about trails where both men and women, novices and experts, old and young, can come together and explore their dreams!

Check out the Wild book review my friend Invictus (AT 2013) wrote!

Update: For different solo female thru-hikers take on Wild check out this article on Jezebel.com

Canada! (PCT Day 167)

finishphoto

For weeks, if not months, I’d been dreaming about what I was going to do when I got off of the trail… Most of those dreams involved food… My mouth watered as I imagined the amazing cuisine that awaited me in civilization… milkshakes, hamburgers, fries, filet mignon, eggs benedict, salmon, creme brulee, cupcakes, cookies, pies… Mmmm… pies.

Even though I kept dreaming about food, a new dream started to creep in with surprising urgency… A dream of going to the Ocean. After five months of hiking along what I think of as the west coast (California, Oregon, and Washington) without catching even a glimpse of the ocean, I felt an overwhelming urge to go and see the Pacific Ocean after I finished my hike… I dreamed about wriggling my toes in the soft, cold sand. I dreamed about the sound of crashing waves. I dreamed about cowboy camping on the beach… As I hiked I realized that it was a dream, but it was also more than that… I needed to see water… big water… I needed to see water stretching out in front of me as far as the eye could see… Water so big that it felt like it must go on forever… After hiking through so much desert and fire, I just needed to see the water… The ocean would be the yin to the mountains yang… It was what I needed to round out my trip.

When the Canadian border finally came into view, however, all of my dreams about food and the ocean instantly disappeared. Canada?! Canada! Canada! That one word eclipsed all thoughts. There was no past, there was no future, there was no present, there was just one word… Canada!

I stood a stone’s throw away from the Canadian Border, staring at the PCT terminus and monument 78 in shock with the word Canada stuck on repeat in my brain… I stopped moving and I tried to make sense of that word… Canada… It just didn’t seem possible.Walking from Mexico to Canada isn’t something that people actually do. It’s just a dream, right? Yet here I was… Canada!

I thought back to the start, to the Mexican border, with all of its barbed wire and corrugated steel… to the clean-shaven border patrol officers warning us about the armed and dangerous illegals in the area… I thought back to the desert, to the cacti, to the drought, and to the heat… Even though I was facing the unknown, I hadn’t hesitated when I stepped away from that corrugated steel wall (under the careful watch of the border patrol officers) and headed off on my hike.

rootbeerfloat

However, everything about the Canadian border was different… there was no barbed wire, there was no fence, there was no border guard (no mountie waiting to check my permit for “entry into Canada via the Pacific Crest Trail”)… Instead, there was a clear-cut gap in the forest, about 2o feet wide, that extended to the East and to the West as far as the eye could see… That gap was the border between the US and Canada and there were just three things in that gap: the PCT terminus monument, monument 78, and my mom.

Here, at the Canadian border, I was hesitating… For the last five months the trail had been my world, my life, my everything… so much had happened since I left the Mexican border… I wanted all of the memories and adventures from the last 2660 miles to flash in front of my eyes before I crossed over… I wanted to have that perfect moment of clarity, of understanding, of bliss, that would neatly sum up the meaning of life, the trail, and everything before I crossed into Canada… I wanted some kind of closure.

In the story of my life the PCT was huge! It felt like it should end with a big, powerful reveal after the resolution of all of the plot-lines of my life. Unfortunately, the closure I was looking for refused to emerge from the chaos of my thoughts and memories… I couldn’t force the PCT into one simple, powerful, universal statement… it remained fractured into thousands of little stories of transformation and transcendence…

The PCT wasn’t the story of my life, but it had been an amazing chapter… A chapter that I loved so dearly that I didn’t want it to end… a chapter so powerful that it seemed like it couldn’t possible end… that it would never end… I fell into denial as soon as I put the word end into the same thought as PCT. I glanced behind me with defiance and muttered, “It doesn’t have to be over, I could just turn around and walk back to Mexico.” It was an incredibly tempting thought…

I was stuck there, within sight of the the border, my mind racing, trying to come to terms with the reality that this was it… this was the end of the PCT for me, and it wasn’t ending with a nice, clean resolution of everything, it was ending with a cliff-hanger… It was an ending that begged just one question…

“What next?” It was the question that had been nagging at me… everyone (including me) seemed sure that after 5000 miles of hiking, after countless hours of solitude with nothing but my thoughts for company, that I would have discovered the answer to that one, simple question… “What Next?”…. but I didn’t have the answer… not a real answer… not the answer that everyone was looking for, not the answer that I was looking for, so I was hesitating there at the border… The word Canada no longer eclipsed everything… I was miles and miles away, lost in thoughts of the past, the trail, endings, beginnings, and the infinite possible futures ahead of me.

As I stood there lost in contemplation my mom gently reached out and grabbed my hand, “Come on,” she said, “you can do this!” My mom had flown from Boston, MA to Vancouver, B.C., and then had hiked 8 miles from Manning Park to the Canadian border (my dad, just out of surgery, was not far behind her) to meet me, to celebrate with me, and to support me. I let her guide me over to the monument, and laughed when I thought that maybe this was the whole reason my parents had come out here… to make sure that I didn’t just turn around and disappear back into the woods… They were there to provide me with the anchor and the support that I needed… to remind me that even though the trail was my home, there was still another home out there waiting for me, a home full of family and friends that loved me and missed me… As my mom pulled me into the clearing marking the transition from the United States into Canada, she pulled me back into the now, back to that word, that place… back to Canada…

IMG_1675.JPG

“I’m in Canada!” I exclaimed triumphantly as I reached out and touched the monument.  I had hiked myself into a foreign country… I had hiked the entire length of the USA, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, and beyond… I was finally in Canada! It was time for hugs, for celebrations, for champagne, for huckleberry wine, and for the pastries that my mom had hiked out to me… This was it… Canada! I stood there in awe of the monument… in awe of my journey… in awe of the PCT!

I felt like I had just won the Super Bowl of hiking, which brought me back to that question, “Patches, you’ve just completed the PCT, what are you going to do next?” I had to laugh, my answer to that definitely wasn’t, “I’m going to Disney World.” Disney World was the last place on earth that I wanted to go… There were infinite possible futures ahead of me, but the bigger questions of what I was going to do with my life could wait…  Right now it was time for vacation, celebration, and recovery. “I’m going to eat all of the food and I’m going to go to the Ocean!” I was going to make the little dreams come true before delving back into the bigger dreams… I was going to eat hamburgers, fries, filet mignon, eggs benedict, salmon, creme brulee, cupcakes, cookies, and pies… I was going to drink milkshakes… and I was going to go to the Ocean!

IMG_1760.JPG

A Mountain Personified

A Mountain Personified

newtmtn

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey

The mountains are my mentors, and my most trusted advisers. They constantly challenge me, forcing me to think, to learn, to explore, and to grow in unanticipated ways. When I take a wrong turn, or stumble and fall, they patiently wait for me to regain my footing and continue my journey. They demand respect, and through their silence, force me to gain confidence in myself and in my own voice. When I get to the peak, they proudly share their beauty and understanding, all the while reminding me of the vastness of the world, and the infinite possibilities awaiting me as my journeys continue.

The mountains of the Appalachian (2013) and Pacific Crest (2014) Trails have been my most recent mentors, but long before those mountains, I had the privilege of having a different Mountain as a mentor: David Mountain. Like many mountains, I have to admit that I was intimidated the first time that I met him. I was a Ph.D candidate studying the mechanics of hearing and I was in his office asking him (one of big names in the field) to be on my thesis committee. He had slightly disheveled curly white hair, and a white beard and mustache to match, but it was the intensity of his gaze that made the biggest impression on me. When I sat down and proposed my thesis he fixed me with that gaze and just waited… the quiet intensity of his gaze cut right to the heart of things, and made me squirm… he didn’t say anything, he just waited as I explained my project, my thoughts, and my ideas… his gaze never wavered, his expression never changed… It was incredibly nerve wracking! As I gained confidence, however, his intense gaze was broken more and more frequently by his smile, a smile that had the same intensity as his gaze and was just as memorable. It was a smile that lit up the entire room. I successfully convinced him to be on my qualifying exam committee and thesis committee and have been proud to consider him one of my mentors ever since. He challenged my assumptions, and forced me to think, learn, and grow, both as an engineer and as a person.

As with any journey, my scientific journey was fraught with unforeseen challenges, challenges that at times seemed insurmountable… it was in these moments that I would turn to Mountain for counsel… He didn’t hand me the answers. Instead, he reminded me that we were explorers in uncharted territory, and that the unforeseen was part of what made the journey so incredible, so worthwhile, and so beautiful. After I finished my dissertation I wrote thank yous to the people that had advised and supported me on my epic scientific endeavor. For David Mountain, I thanked him for reminding me that “complications and unexpected outcomes often lead to the most interesting results.”

The idea that “complications and unexpected outcomes often lead to the most interesting results” is relevant not just to my scientific journey, but also to my thru-hikes… The most amazing experiences I had on the trail were not things that I could have predicted, they were the result of complications, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Earlier this week I learned that my mentor, David C. Mountain, Ph.D., had passed away. It was impossible for me to envision the scientific landscape that I had grown up in without Mountain there, in the middle of it, with his steadfast gaze, his brilliant insights, and his heartwarming smile. As I struggled to wrap my head around the news I decided to go for a hike… I hiked into and above the clouds… Standing there on top of the mountain with the vastness of the world spread out around me my thoughts wandered… they wandered to Sir Isaac Newton’s cannonball thought experiment in which he envisioned a very tall mountain with an imaginary cannon at it’s summit launching things into orbit, things that would keep circling and moving long after the cannon and mountain were gone if only they had enough velocity… It made me think about the robot that landed on a comet earlier this week… It made me think about humanity and the way that ideas propagate through time… It made me smile, and I launched into a thought experiment of my own… envisioning David Mountain there, at the top of Newton’s imaginary mountain, adding more and more gunpowder to the proverbial cannon, giving his friends, family, colleagues, and ideas the extra boost that they needed get into orbit… We are the cannonballs, still moving forward on our journeys, even after the Mountain is gone.

My sincere condolences to David’s family. He was an amazing person and he will be missed. His funeral will be held at the Conte Funeral Home at 193 High Street in Newburyport on Saturday afternoon (11/15) with visitation hours from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. For more information about David Mountain’s life and scientific contributions see this article in Boston University’s BME news.

No One Left Behind…

Dad

Over the course of the last two years I have had the privilege of hiking 5000 miles on two of our National Scenic Trails (the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails), and I’ve gotten to know veterans from all across the country… They don’t always share my politics (my facebook feeds can attest to that!), but I’ve learned that we have one very important thing in common, our willingness to drop everything and go the the aid of a fellow in need… We strive to leave no one behind… Growing up I associated this “leave no man behind” ethos with one of my heroes, my dad, a Vietnam combat veteran, but it wasn’t until my AT and PCT thru-hikes that I began to associate it with the military and with other veterans.

Though different branches of the service phrase it differently, “I will never leave a fallen comrade”- US Soldiers Creed, “I will never leave an Airman behind”-Airman’s Creed, “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy -Ranger Creed, the basic idea remains the same… No man left behind… To me, it is a dedication to our humanity even in the most inhuman of circumstances… It is a way of life… It is a willingness to make sacrifices in honor of a commitment to your comrades, a commitment to your family, to your friends, to your community, and even to the stranger that reaches out to you… To me it is an acknowledgment of, and a dedication to, our shared humanity and it transcends politics and religion… It is a sentiment that makes you a part of my family, whether you know it or not.

Saying thank you to our veterans feels like a start, one step towards acknowledging the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women, one step towards welcoming our veterans back into the civilian world, but it is just a beginning. I want to do more than just say thank you… I want to recognize all of my friends and family that have served… I want to remind them that I am interested in their stories… I am interested in their lives… I want to take the time to recognize our shared humanity, and I want to grow our relationship based on that humanity, as perfect or as flawed as that may be… I want to hear the stories that you want to share, I want to respect your right to silence… I believe that no one should be left behind (in any sense), and I will strive, today and everyday, to renew that commitment to my friends, my family, my community, and to the veterans that I have had the privilege and honor of knowing.

***

For other posts I’ve written about veterans: Getting Thru and The Silence.