Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)

Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)

“How much water will you need for the day?” the guide asked as we prepared for our second day of trekking through the Andes.

“I don’t know, a liter?” answered one of our group members. I gave the guide a skeptical look, that number seemed dangerously low to me. Our plan for the day included ~4700ft of elevation gain through an exposed section of high altitude desert with no shade and the forecast was predicting temperatures over 90°F. Both my experience and the research I’ve done on water requirements for hikers suggested that 1L wouldn’t be anywhere near enough:

“When’s the next time we can get water?” I asked, hoping I was missing something since the guide seemed unconcerned. “We can get water when we stop at Maranpata for lunch,” he replied. I looked at the elevation/mileage cheat-sheet that I’d made up before the trip. Maranpata wasn’t that far away, but we had to climb from the Apurimac River at 5084ft (1550m) up to 9950 ft (3033m) to get there.

“Hmmm,” I paused to to do some calculations. The guide estimated it would take us ~6hrs, it was going to be a strenuous climb, and it was going to be extremely hot.  I would probably need ~4L in that time, but I could ‘camel-up’ and drink a liter with breakfast and drop that number a bit. “I’ll take 3 liters,” I concluded.

“Really? Are you sure you?” replied the guide, urging me to take less.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I replied confidently. I’d made the mistake of skimping on water during a heat wave on my AT thru-hike in Virginia and ended up suffering from heat exhaustion (complete with nausea, vomiting, and double vision). It wasn’t an experience that I cared to repeat.

The guide remained unconvinced, “Water is very heavy. Make sure you don’t take more than you need.”

“I know,” I replied.  “A lot of people skimp on water because water is heavy and they want to keep their pack weight low, but when temperatures climb over 90°F skimping on water isn’t just a bad idea, it’s dangerous! Even though its heavy, for conditions like these most hikers I know would carry 2-3 L of water.” Eventually everyone sorted out how much water they were going to carry (the range was 1.5L to 3L) and we set off on our adventure.

The trail rose steeply out of the canyon, providing us with some shade as we started our first uphill climb of the trek. Since the temperatures were already in the ’80s, we would enjoy the shade while it lasted!

The first couple of switchbacks leading up from the river seemed long and gentle, especially since our guide was leading us with a slow deliberate pace called rest-stepping (a strategy I was familiar with from high-altitude mountaineering). Down by the river at ~5000ft rest-stepping felt awkward and out of place, but as we gained elevation and the switchbacks got steeper it began to feel more natural for me.

Unsurprisingly, the distance between the fastest members of our group (me, Jari, and the guide) and the slowest people in our group began to grow as we climbed. We also lost the glorious shade, and began to split our time between hiking in the blistering heat of the sun and baking in the middle of the trail while waiting for the group to catch up.

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After three hours of hiking we’d traversed 1.2 miles and reached Santa Rosa, a small oasis at 6873 ft (2095m) with shade, benches, toilets, and a stand selling beverages and snacks. We took a 10-minute break there and bought beverages. I bought a blue Gatorade, someone else bought a coke, and the Quechuean woman running the stand brought out a pitcher of mud-colored liquid and poured some into glasses for both the cook and the guide.

“¿Qué es esto? (What’s that?)” I asked, my curiosity piqued by the milky-brown liquid. “Acca,” replied the woman. “Chicha,” clarified the cook. I furrowed my brow as I tried, and failed, to translate chicha from Spanish into English. “Inca Whiskey,” elaborated the guide smiling broadly. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, but it seemed plausible that it was some sort of home brew. The only way to know for sure would be to try some. Even though I like whiskey, alcohol seemed like a bad idea on a scorching hot day when I was headed to altitude, so I went back to drinking my unnaturally blue Gatorade.

Since our group had struggled with the first part of the climb, the guide offered to take the day-packs of the slowest group members and put them on a horse that would stay with us as we climbed. While he and the head horsemen (Gumercindo, pictured above), re-sorted gear to free up one of the horses, we headed out.

In the guides absence the group seemed willing to let me set the pace and lead the charge up the mountain. As a kid, my dad had one simple rule for hiking as a group, “you start as a group, you hike as a group, you end as a group.” So I tried to keep our group together by setting a relatively slow pace, and making sure that everyone was caught up at each switchback.

The midday sun directly overhead was blazingly hot. Even in the best conditions the ~2700 ft (~823 m) of elevation gain in the 2 short miles (~3 km) between Santa Rosa and Maranpata would have felt steep, but with temperatures soaring up over 100ºF it felt even more impressive.

I found the steepness of the switchbacks particularly impressive. When I’d seen the elevation profile for the hike I’d assumed this stretch of trail would be a steep, rocky scramble straight up the mountain like the scrambles in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Instead it was a consistently graded dirt track more like the trails I’d hiked in California, but much, much steeper. The impressive elevation gains on this hike (1800 ft in the first 1.2 miles, and 2700 ft in the the next two miles) rivaled some of the steepest sections of the trails I’d hiked on the AT and PCT. One advantage of the super-steep switchbacks was that they were so steep they created shadows, which gave us a little bit of shade to rest in.

We were taking the hike so slowly and resting so often that despite the elevation gains, the heat, and the altitude I was feeling pretty good. It also gave me plenty of time to marvel at the beauty of the trail around me and wonder at its curiosities. Per usual, I took pictures of each new flower and strange plant that I saw. I also marveled at the things I didn’t expect to see while hiking through the desert in Peru,  like the groves of bamboo tucked into the ravines. I’d always thought that bamboo was strictly native to China, but it turns out that bamboo is also native to Peru and the Americas!

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As the morning turned into afternoon the energy levels among the people in the group started to drop. One person in particular was really struggling. Her pace had slowed significantly in the last hour and she was feeling nauseous. In addition, she was starting to stumble in a way that I found alarming. Unusual “umbles” (stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles)  while hiking are classic warning signs that something is going seriously awry.

Since we were going up in altitude, we hadn’t eaten in 6 hrs, and the temperatures were excessively hot, it was hard to tell if the problem was dehydration, altitude, declining blood sugar levels, or all of the above. The next time she stumbled I suggested we stop in the shade for a few minutes to rest and drink some water. I also offered her some of my favorite electrolyte gummy candies (shot bloks). Luckily she started to feel a little better after that, and her gait and nausea began to improve.

Finally at around 2 pm we made it to our lunch destination at ~9,573 ft (2918 m). By then a lot of people in the group were feeling excessively fatigued and headachey. Since temperatures had reached 102°F and it had been about 7 hours since we last ate, dehydration and low blood sugar were definitely a part of the problem, but exertion at high altitude was also likely to be part of the problem.

  • 75% of people have some symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) above 8000ft (2500 m)
    • Mild AMS: headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, disturbed sleep, and a general feeling of malaise
    • Moderate AMS: severe headache (not relieved by medication), nausea and vomiting, increasing weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, and decreased coordination (ataxia)
    • Severe AMS: shortness of breath at rest, inability to walk, decreasing mental status, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE)

While we rested in the shade waiting for lunch I pulled out the pulse oximeter (Acc-U-Rate CMS 500DL, US$19.95) that I’d brought along. I’d purchased it because I was curious about how the altitude would affect my poor asthmatic lungs, and as a scientist I’d hoped that the entire group would join me in collecting data  about the effects of altitude on our physiology. I measured my oxygen saturation (SpO2) and then passed the pulse oximeter around to the rest of the people in the group. Sure enough, every single person in the group had a lower SpO2 at Maranpata than they had had that morning at the Apurimac River. Mine had dropped from 96% to 93%, but other people in the group had seen more dramatic drops. For example, the woman that had been struggling with nausea on the way up had dropped from 94% to 74%.

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*The decrease in mean SpO2 levels between our campsite at the Apurimac River (94.4% +/-0.3SE, n=7) and Maranpata (86.9%+/-2.6SE, n=4) was statistically significant (p<0.03)

Luckily after resting, hydrating, and eating lunch everyone started to feel better. Besides, the rest of the day’s hike was what the guide called, “Inca flat,” which meant that there were plenty of little ups and downs, but not significant changes in altitude.

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Heading from Maranpata towards Choquequirao the cacti quickly gave way to greener, lusher vegetation, and we caught our first glimpse of the Inca ruins of Choquequirao in the distance. The steep farming terraces of the lowest sector of Choquequirao seemed to be cut into the face of sheer cliffs. It was incredible to think about what kind of oasis this must have been when it was actively being farmed and maintained. Especially since only a fraction of the site at Choquequirao has been excavated.

As we got closer to the first visible ruins of Choquequirao (Phaqchayuq, or “the one with the waterfall”), which sports at least 80 agricultural terraces I noticed the unmistakable  purple star-shaped flowers of the nightshade family mixed in among the vegetation. They reminded me of the potato plants that used to grow in my grandfathers garden. I wondered if this plant might be among the 2,500 varieties of potato cultivated in the Andes, and if its ancestors had escaped from the Inca terraces centuries ago.

Even though the two miles (3km) from Maranpata to the Choquequirao campsite were relatively flat, the pace of our group as a whole was still incredibly slow. As the sun dropped behind the ridge a sense of disappointment welled up within me. One of Choquequirao’s claims to fame is that it contains the only known Inca site dedicated to the sunset and I’d really been looking forward to watching the sunset from that amazing site. It was only as I realized that I wasn’t going to get to watch that sunset that I began to understand that the speed of our group might have a negative impact on our itinerary and on my vacation.

After settling in among the terraces at the Choquequirao campsite and admiring the beautiful mountains around us, Jari and I headed into the dining tent for tea, snacks, and cocoa. It turned out that he was just as disappointed about missing the sunset at Choquequirao as I was and was concerned that the slow pace of our group might prevent him from getting to visit the ‘Llamas del Sol (Sun Llamas)’ at Choquequirao the next day. I had no idea what the Llamas del Sol were, but I was excited to find out, so I said that I’d happily explore them with him.

Eventually everyone else from the group filed in and we ate dinner. Once again the cooks prepared a real feast for us, including something that I’d never eaten before, lupine salad (ensalada de tarwi). “I had no idea that lupine was edible,” I commented as the guide described each dish. “Usually it isn’t,” he explained, “raw lupine beans are poisonous, but the Inca learned that if you soak the lupine beans in the river for two weeks they become edible.” I was curious about what the white beans from the pretty purple flower tasted like, so immediately tried one. Their flavor was absolutely unique. They were slightly bitter, nutty, and vaguely reminiscent of bug spray, but still surprisingly good. I took a heaping serving of them and enjoyed imagining that they might act like a natural bug repellent.

While the cooks prepared bananas flambé for dessert,  Jari quietly asked the guide if we were going to get to be able to check out the Llamas del Sol at Choquequirao the next day. The guide explained that to see the llamas we’d have to hike half-way down the mountain and back up again, and that it would be way too much for our group. “Yes, but I would still really like to do it,” insisted Jari. “Count me in!” I added.

The guide sighed, “I don’t know why Jari is fascinated with dead llamas. We’ll see plenty of live llamas on this trek without having to do any extra hiking.” I still had no idea what the Llamas del Sol were, but I was intrigued, especially since it would involve extra hiking. “The two of us (Jari and I) could go check out the llamas and then catch up to everyone afterwards,” I proposed. Although the guide wasn’t enthusiastic about it, he gave an affirmative nod, “that could work.” Jari and I would get our adventure at Choquequirao!

–Next Installment: Day 3-Choquequirao and the Llamas del Sol–

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Summary: Day 2 by the numbers

  • Apurimac River (5084ft/1550m) to Santa Rosa (6873 ft/ 2095m)
    • Distance: 1.2 miles (2 km)
    • Elevation gain ~1800 ft (~550m)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5 hrs (3 hrs)
  • Santa Rosa to Maranpata: 9,573 ft (2918 m)
    • Distance: 2.1 miles (3 km)
    • Elevation gain: 2700 ft (~823m)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5-2hrs (4 hrs)
  • Maranpata to Choquequirao Campsite: 9950ft (3033m)
    • Distance: 2.1 miles (3 km)
    • Elevation gain: ~0ft (‘Inca flat’ as described by guide)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5hrs (3 hrs)
  •  Totals: 5 miles (8 km)
    • ~4700 ft (~1400 m) elevation gain
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 4-5 hrs (~11 hrs: 7:30 am to  6:30 pm)
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Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1)

Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1)

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“Slow,” responded our guide with brutal honesty, “You are are very slow.”

He had tried to get a way with the politely evasive answer, “Hard to say,” when the woman with the baseball cap and jaunty step had asked him how the pace of our group rated, but she’d persisted. She’d even given him options to choose from, “Would you say that our group’s pace  is pretty average? Is it faster than usual? Is it slower? How would you say our group is doing compared to other groups that you’ve guided?”

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We stopped and looked back towards the rest of our group, many of whom were so far back that we couldn’t see them. Our guide shook his head, “Today we have gone only down, and still you are very slow.” He looked across the river at the switchbacks we’d be climbing in the morning, “Tomorrow we go up.” A vague note of concern in the guide’s voice as he discussed the slowness of the group drew my attention to the position of the sun in the sky… it would be setting soon. Suddenly the guides concern with the slowness of the group became clear.

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Blue agave by the side of the trail as we descended towards the Apurimac River

Although I’d noticed that our group was slow, I hadn’t thought much about it. I’d been soaking up the beautiful and exotic views of the altiplano (high andean desert) with the mountainous cloud forests off in the distance. In short, I’d been lost in the timeless beauty of the Andean mountains…

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A cliff covered with hundreds of bromeliads

Hiking through the altiplano reminded me of trekking through the Sonoran desert on the PCT in California with its dusty trails, distant forest fires, desert scrub, prickly pear cactus, giant blue agave (American agave; an invasive from Mexico and central America), and tall columnar cactus (unlike the columnar cactus in the Sonoran desert, these Peruvian cacti contain mescaline). There was also a succulent that the guide referred to as Inca agave, which was used in Inca times to make cloth and rope (it looked so much like yucca, I couldn’t  believe it was agave; it turns out that it is fourcroya/furcreaea andina).

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Heading into a steep switchback surrounded by cacti

I was also captivated by new-to-me sights, like hundreds of bromeliads growing on the faces of cliffs, and a tree that looked like it was straight out of a Dr. Seuss book (a Ceiba/Kapok tree).

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A Ceiba/Kapok tree with it’s cottony puff balls

When I took a minute to stop to think about it, I realized that it had been taking us (as a group) an awful long time to descend the 6 miles (~10km) down to camp. Since we were descending more than 4400ft (~1350m) and it was only day 1 of a 12-day trek, I didn’t mind going a bit slower than usual (it would really suck to sprain an ankle or twist a knee on a loose rock on day 1)!

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Trail sign saying, “Danger Landslide Zone,” indicating no headphone use

Despite the large drop in elevation, the trail was mostly nicely, if steeply, graded switchbacks and since we were only carrying day packs we should have been able to descend it fairly quickly. Our itinerary suggested it would take us about 3 hrs to descend, which seemed like it would have been an entirely reasonable pace of about 2 miles/hr (~3km/hr).

Instead, we’d started hiking at 11:30 and when we stopped for lunch 3 hours later we were about halfway to our riverside campsite. By 3:30 we were hiking again, but by 5, when the guide was forced to admit that we were slow, we were still at least an hour away from camp.

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The trail disappearing off into the distance

The mountains were starting to glow with the low angle light of the golden hour and the Apurimac river, a headwater river of the Amazon, was sparkling with the late afternoon light… I desperately wanted to be closer to those amazing waters before the light completely disappeared from the valley. The guide, ever perceptive, noticed that I was getting a bit antsy and said,  “I’m going to wait here for the rest of the group. You see those tents down there by the river? That’s us. The three of you can keep going to camp if you want, just don’t cross the bridge over there.”

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The little voice inside my head danced, and shouted, “Freedom!” For the first time all day I set off at my normal pace, stretching out my legs, and enjoying my full stride. There was so much more oxygen here below 6000 ft (~1830m) than there was in Cusco at 11,000 ft (~3400m) that I felt like I was flying. The trail into and out of the canyon kept reminding me of the long, hot, descent into Belden on the PCT (aided by a similar looking ascent immediately afterwards), and my body was feeling like my thru-hiker body as I danced around the rocks, and whipped around the switchbacks.

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The turquoise waters of the Apurimac River at sunset

I loved it! The steep canyon walls lit with the orange glow of the sunset, the sparkling turquoise waters below headed on their amazing journey to the amazon, and many miles of open trail ahead of me on my journey to Machu Piccu… I was in the mountains, I’d found my happy place, I was home again!!

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A sunset view of the bridge over the Apurimac River

I ran out of trail and sunlight at about the same time, but my face remained lit up by a giant smile as I settled into camp. Not only was I in this amazing place, but when I arrived in camp my tent was already set up for me, hot chocolate and cookies were waiting for me, AND I didn’t have to make dinner or wash dishes?!! It seemed to good to be true. The horsemen (there were 3 for our group) even brought us wash clothes, basins, and soap to wash up with.

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After we all arrived and got cleaned up, we reconvened in the dining tent. Seated around the table were the 8 people of our fellowship: the guide, the Finnish writer, the 5 friends from Wisconsin, and me. As we drank cocoa and tea the most amazing meal materialized before us, thanks to the men behind the curtain, our two amazing cooks. There was no denying that our group was slow, it had taken us 6.5 to 7 hours of hiking to descend 6 miles on relatively decent terrain, but as we all sat around eating our gourmet dinner on the banks of the Apurimac river, there was nothing but smiles all around.

My tent at the Playa Rosalinda campsite

Day 1: Capuyiloc to Playa Rosalinda (By the numbers)

  • Total Distance: ~6 miles (~10km)
  • Starting time: ~11:30 am
    • Capuyiloc: 9,561 ft (2915m)
      • Groups Oxygen Saturation: 91.1±1.5 (n=8)
  •  Finish time: ~7:00 pm
    •  Playa Rosalinda/Apurimac River: 5,084ft (1550m)
      • Groups Oxygen Saturation: 94.4±0.8 (n=7)
  • Temperatures: Daytime (~100°F/~40°C), Nighttime (88°F /31°C)
  • Total Elevation: -4400ft (-1350m)

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–Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)–

 

Thru-hike Trekking Pole Review: Leki Carbon Titaniums

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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!!!”

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  • 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!

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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).

 

 

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:

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Kennedy Meadows (PCT Days 43-45)

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“Kennedy Meadows population 200,” the local guys laughed, “maybe there are 200 parcels in Kennedy Meadows but there’s no way there are 200 people, 20 would be more like it.”

I’d hiked through 700 hundred miles of desert to get to Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierras. As I’d hiked northwards it seemed like everyone was excited about getting to Kennedy Meadows… Overtime it became an almost mythical place: the point at which you leave the desert and enter the Sierras.

When I remarked on the spectacular beauty and amazing views of the desert the people around me would smile at me and say, “if you think this is amazing, just wait until you get to the Sierra.” It seemed almost akin to people smiling at young children and saying, “just wait until you’re older.” Lots of people were looking forward to getting out of the desert and into the Sierra and getting to Kennedy Meadows was symbolic of that transition.

I wasn’t sure what I expected or what to expect as I approached Kennedy Meadows, but I do know that whatever it was, it was something completely different than what I found…

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Entering Kennedy Meadows as I Ieft Sequoia National Park I passed by a few small homes and some land that looked like it was used for cattle and headed towards the general store. It looked much like a small store you might find in any southern or western mountain town. There were chairs out front with local folks relaxing and enjoying some beers, and then a side porch where the thru-hikers were sorting through their gear and preparing for the Sierras.

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The two porches felt like they were two different worlds of completely alien peoples. I kind of enjoyed the watching the people on both porches… The locals seemed relaxed, and happy to drink their beers and marvel at the thru-hiker show with all of its bustle, boisterousness, excitement and beer.

Every now and then there was an alien encounter and a few words were communicated between the thru-hikers and the locals. I get to talk to other thru-hikers all the time, so when when of the locals started up a conversation with me I grabbed a beer, sat down, and joined them.

“That’s a mighty fine knife you’ve got there,” was the conversation starter. “Why yes it is,” I smiled and replied. “Mind if I take a peak at it?” I handed him my knife. He recognized the make and model of the knife (as did his two friends that were sitting there drinking their beers) and they admired it thoroughly.

Before I knew it, I was on the porch in Kennedy Meadows fully embroiled in a conversation about knives, guns, and the government. “I’ve stumbled into the wild Wild West for the first time,” I thought as the conversation went on. “The nearest law enforcement is at least three hours away and that’s the way we like it,” continued the conversation. “If the government stays out of our business, we’ll stay out of its business,” contributed another. And they tried to explain what life out in Kennedy Meadows was like.

With less than 20 full time residents and cold snowy winters, you have to be ok with a lot of solitude, and since the nearest law is 3 hours a way you learn to trust and rely on your neighbors. Are there small town politics, heck yeah. The smaller the town, the bigger the politics, and this may be the smallest “town” I’d ever seen.

What Kennedy Meadows has is a general store, a road, a trailhead, and solitude and independence for those that want it. The general store is the gathering point for both the locals and the thru-hikers with its nice shady porches for beating out the heat of the day. It’s not a big store, or a new store, but it’s Kennedy Meadows’ Store and that means something. There’s no cell phone reception in Kennedy Meadows, none. And the electricity for the store comes from it’s own generator. There’s no public power, public water, or public sewage in Kennedy Meadows. There’s no post office in Kennedy Meadows. There is, however, a pay phone… The first pay phone that I’ve used in over a decade.

As we were relaxing on the porch the guy with the black tank top and cammoflauge hat received a package. “You better look out man, could be a bomb,” said one of his friends. He looked at the package, turned it over in his hands, looked at the other guy and said, “f*** man, you may be right. Plenty of folks looking to take me out.” He then stood up and walked to the far side of the driveway to open the package. They seemed legitimately concerned that the package might be a personal bomb. I was definitely in a different world.

A couple minutes he jogged back beaming, “it’s a book!” He yelled. A book about the history of the American Civil war. As we chatted the afternoon away I grew fond of the group of locals and one of them offered to let me and some friends come back and sleep in his cabin instead of pitching our tents at the back of the parking lot.

With a couple of friends in tow, we piled into his pickup truck and headed for a new adventure in Kennedy Meadows… We’d found an unlikely trail angel!

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The cabin was beautiful and had been completely constructed by our trail angel. He gave us the tour and showed us the solar panels, batteries, and generators that he uses to power everything in his house. It was really cool to see. Then we went inside, relaxed, ate roasted pinyon pine nuts that he’d collected from his own trees, and listened to him play guitar. He was a really good guitar player!

In between sessions we played with his punching/kicking bag a bit. I was pretty entertained at one point when he turned to me and said, “damn girl, you’ve been trained. You don’t land a kick six feet up the bag like that unless you’ve been trained.” It was good to see that I haven’t forgotten everything :)

There was more discussion about guns, conspiracy theories, the government, and what it meant to be a true patriot before he said, “you wanna really hear something?” and went downstairs to turn the generator on. When he came back he went to town on one of his electric guitars. This guy was definitely a real musician.

Though Kennedy Meadows may not have been what I expected to find, it was full of awesome and amazing adventures!! I can’t wait to see what awaits me in the Sierras… The trip has been incredibly amazing so far.

p.s. Still having trouble with the newest revision of the blogging software, hopefully it will get resolved soon!

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Yeah, it’s legal, but it ain’t 100% legal (PCT days 9&10)

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There are some nights when I feel like staying in my tent in a field of boulders. It was just 3 more miles to the trail angels house and the next water source, and it was only 4 o’clock, but I didn’t want to camp near a road again. I’d spent the previous night camped by the road at Warner Springs and it was way too loud so close to town. This spot in the boulders was quiet and beautiful and I loved it. I could stretch my water until morning and just relax for the rest if the afternoon.

I woke up early the next morning and headed to my next source of water, the trail angels house. The trail angels and trail magic on the PCT have been absolutely amazing. It seems like they are incredibly organized and go to an amazing amount of effort to help the hikers out, especially with water. This trail angel’s place was no different. Instead of just a couple of jugs of water, he’d installed a giant full tank of water for the hikers.

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As I was filling up my water I heard the unmistakable laughter of the Russians (three Russian hikers that I’d been hiking with on and off for the last couple of days), so I decided to head down, say hi to the Russians, and meet the resident trail angel.

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The Russians and the trail angel were sitting in front of the house chatting and welcomed me warmly. They offered me some tea, so I sat down to join them for a spell. It was only 8 am so I was barely half awake.

The trail angel got up for a smoke and the conversation turned to state versus federal drug laws. The Russians had never seen weed before, so asked to see the trail angels prescription. “100% legal” said the Russian translator. The trail angel replied that yes, he had a prescription, but that even though it was legal you were better off thinking of it as illegal.

It turns out that he used to own a dispensary (100% legal according to state law), but he’d been raided by the Feds. Having been arrested 11 times for issues associated with pot, his lack of confidence in the law seemed very understandable!

As the conversation waned and turned towards other subject matter one of the Russians walked away from the table and towards the backyard where he picked up a 22 and began shooting at beer cans. This combination of events was a little too much for my brain to process at 8 am!

I drank my tea and enjoyed this new and somewhat surreal trail experience. On the AT lots of people talked about guns and asked me if I was carrying one, but I’d never actually seen anyone firing them. On the PCT this was now my second time watching someone fire at targets in the desert.

I finished my tea and as I prepared to head back out into the desert I wondered what new and surreal adventures were still awaiting me!

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AT vs PCT: The first 150 miles

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Lots of people have been asking me how the PCT compares to the AT… At least in the first 150 miles there are lots of differences!

The AT is a green tunnel, the PCT is either a red racetrack or the yellow-brick road.

The AT has lots of tree cover and the trail was mostly mud or hard-packed earth. The PCT by contrast is incredibly exposed. There is rarely tree cover and much of the trail is yellowish beach sand or reddish rocks.

Walking on the AT was mostly walking on hard surfaces, walking on the PCT is mostly like walking on the soft part of the beach.

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On the AT I never used my sunscreen, on the PCT I use it four times a day.

On the AT I used my rescue inhaler four times a day, on the PCT I haven’t used it at all.

On the AT it seemed like there was water everywhere, on the PCT the creeks and streams have mostly been dry. The water caches, however, have been impressively stocked.

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On the AT almost 80% of the thu-hikers I met (in the first 150 miles) on the trail smoked cigarettes, on the PCT I haven’t encountered any smokers yet.

On the AT the birds started chirping an hour before dawn (a reliable alarm clock), on the PCT the birds start chirping sometime between dawn and an hour after dawn.

On the AT views were a rare commodity, on the PCT it seems there are spectacular new views around every corner.

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On the AT the lows were in the 40s, on the PCT the lows were in the 20s.

On the AT the highs were in the 70s, on the PCT the highs were in the 90s.

On the AT it’s possible to stay at shelters every night, on the PCT there are no shelters.

On the AT mice out number people, on the PCT lizards outnumber people.

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On the AT the crowd was mostly 20 something’s, on the PCT the crowd seems to be mostly 60 something’s (because I’m starting the PCT early and I started the AT late?).

On the AT people would look at you crazy if you hiked 20 miles on your first day, on the PCT that seems like the norm.

Blister prevalence seems the same for both the AT and the PCT. I’ve seen fewer knee injuries on the PCT so far though.

The PCT truly believes in switchbacks, Georgia thinks that it’s trying sometimes.

On the AT there are gaps, on the PCT there are canyons.

On the AT I never used my sunglasses, on the PCT I use them every day.

I didn’t seem any mosquitos the first 150 miles of the AT, I’ve seen tons on the PCT already.

There seems to be a higher default level of education on the PCT relative to the AT (could be due to the older demographic.

On the AT I hung a bear bag every night, on the PCT I sleep with my food on my tent.

On the AT I resupplied out of grocery stores and ghetty marts, for the PCT I am sending myself maildrops.

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Despite raining 4/5 of my first days on the PCT, it has generally been much sunnier on the PCT than on the AT.

When packing for the PCT I made a few adjustments to my gear. The main one was switching my alcohol stove to a jetboil sol. I loved my little alcohol stove, but because of the fire danger California has banned them this year.

In the first 150 miles I’ve also switched some of my gear. I traded out my baseball cap for a more desert friendly cap with a neck guard. I bought down booties to keep my feet warm. I bought a chrome dome umbrella for shade, I bought extra sunscreen, and I bought some Chapstick with sunscreen in it. I also realized that having a v-neck long sleeve shirt meant having extra sunburn area to worry about so I would definitely get a high-colored shirt if I were to do this again!

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Do you wanna be a cowgirl? (PCT Days7&8)

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I rounded the corner and came face to face with a herd of cattle in the trail. Not one, not two, but a whole herd. In the trail.

When I was on the AT I’d run into cows in the trail, usually one or two that I could walk around, or a whole herd in a pasture, but this was different. There was no way to walk around them, and there was no where for them to go except up the trail or down the trail.

Two of the cows turned towards me and tried to stare me down. It looked like I was going to need to learn how to herd cattle… something that I’d never expected to do, but seemed sort of fitting out in this scrubby area of the desert.

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I pretended that it was a heard of black bears and I moved forward slowly and deliberately while talking to the cows in a calm, cool collected way. “Hey y’all, I’m sorry to disturb you, but you’re in the middle of the trail. If you could kindly move out of the way I’d really appreciate it.”

The herd did not respond in a cool and collected way. They started stampeding up the trail! I worried about what they would do if they encountered another hiker coming from the opposite direction? I hadn’t seen any southbounders so far and i hoped that trend would continue so I wouldn’t find out what the cattle would do with that kind of dilemma.

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After the initial stampede, I gave the cows some subtly words of encouragement and before long I had them marching single file up the trail in front of me. I felt like maybe I could handle this whole cowgirl thing afterall!

I envisioned myself as a cowgirl wandering the old west: thirsty, dirty, and with a herd of cattle to look after. California was certainly west, and I was definitely thirsty and dirty… The cows were even kicking up a fair amount of dust. I decided to call it close enough and claim my title as a modern cowgirl and started singing one of my favorite songs:

On the loose to climb a mountain
On the loose where I am free
On the loose to live my life
The way I think my life should be
For I only have a moment
And the whole world yet to see
I’ll be looking for tomorrow
On the loose!

I held onto this new image of myself until I met a real cowgirl, Gillian. The PCT is approved for both human and equestrian thru-hikers and Gillian (check out her webpage) is working on a doing a thru-hike with her horses. I kept pace with her and her horses for a while and chatted with her about her adventures, but their pace of 3-4 miles per hour was a bit much for me (my comfortable pace on that kind of terrain is more like 2-3 miles per hour). After meeting Gillian, I relinquished my title and gave it to her. Headed off on here solo ride of the PCT she seems to epitomize the modern cowgirl to me!

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The Bloomin’ Desert (PCT Days 5&6)

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I awoke to the pitter patter of rain on my tent. “I’m not coming out until it stops raining” I announced to the universe and anyone else that may have been close by. It was my fifth morning on the PCT and this now meant that it had rained on 4 out of the first 5 days of hiking in the Southern Californian desert. This just wasn’t supposed to happen. Up until this morning it had been kind of funny that a rain cloud was following me around, and I appreciated that it was good for California, which has been having a massive drought. This morning, however, I was a bit cranky about it.

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I gently reminded myself that this was not Virginia, that it was not the Appalachian Trail, and it was not going to rain 50 out of the first 60 days on the trail.

It shifted from a light rain to a misting fog as I clambered out of the tent and packed it up, sopping wet yet again. One of the good things about the rain was that it had been a much warmer night than the night before (it had dropped down to 20F causing water bottles and condensation to freeze at mount Laguna the night before) and I’d slept much better.

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By mid-day I’d hiked out of the fog and into the sunny, shadeless Californian desert. Unlike the rain and fog, which felt familiar to me, the long treeless expanse of the desert was definitely going to take some getting used to. At least it was gorgeous!

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As my rain cloud dissipated, the Californian desert revealed endless spectacular views and even though there wasn’t much vegetation, the vegetation there was seemed to be in bloom!

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I think I can get used to this!

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California Dreaming (PCT Day 0)

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On the plane flying from Boston to California I realized that I’ve only been to California 2 or 3 times before. The landscape I was flying over was incredibly foreign to me. One thing was for sure, I wasn’t going to find the Appalachian Trail with it’s green tunnel out in the California desert.

The other thing that was abundantly clear was that there wasn’t any snow on the peaks of the mountains in eastern California. None! Suddenly the drought felt incredibly real. On the AT it had rained on me for 50 out of the first 60 days… Water shortages definitely hadn’t been one of my worries on the AT. Flash flooding on the other hand, had been a frequent concern.

Hotshot’s parents picked me up at the airport and before I knew it we were standing at the Mexican border at the start of the PCT. It was hard to believe that we were there, and about to start a new adventure!

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It was amazing to be at the PCT starting monument, but everything else about the border was ugly. 2 feet behind the monument was a rusty barbed wire fence about 4 feet tall. Behind that was a dirt road with Border Patrol vehicles sauntering along it and whipping up giant dust clouds. On the other side of the road was a dark rusty metal wall 8 feet tall separating the US from Mexico. It made me glad that I was going to be hiking north into the desert hills.

As we were gawking at the monument and the wall, a border patrol agent drove up and parked beside us. He said, with what seemed to be a sense of resignation, that he would stay there until we left the border area. There was, apparently, a troublesome group in the area that they were looking for. It was clear that he was suggesting that he was remaining there for our protection.

He offered to take group pictures for us, and allowed us to cross the buffer road and touch the 8 foot metal dividing wall. We poked out fingers through the holes in the fence and laughed about the fact it was so much hotter in Mexico. The winds were whipping from North to South keeping our side of the fence cool, but heat was radiating off of the other side.

True to his word, the border patrol agent sat in his jeep and watched us the whole time we were there. It was a surreal start to what I hope will be an amazing adventure.;