Thursday, April 18, 2013

Massanutten South

Tortuga, Flip, and I hiked a couple days in the Massanutten Range. We started just west of Luray and hiked back via Sticklers Knob. All-in-all a good weekend. Perfect weather, with nice day time temps and good chilly nights. I think all of us learned things this weekend, as at least I know I do everytime I go for a hike. Tortuga, as you might know, is an inexperienced backpacker. He went to REI and got a bunch of gear and this was a test of himself and of his gear.
I was testing out an upgraded sleep system, using the hammock and just a down backpacking blanket. I figured the worst that could happen is I'd shiver all night, if it got really bad I'd either move the hammock to the ground for insulation or start a fire and huddle by that. No rain was being called for so I didn't think I'd be in hypothermic danger no matter the case.


Anthony and I met up after a half day of work. I arrived at his place close to Alexandria. He showed me his gear as he packed his new backpack. We weighed in, he at 35lbs and I at 17lbs. Obviously his pack weight needed some refinement! But as this was a learning trip, learning by doing is very important. I had given him advice on what to bring and what not to bring, I'd given him a pack list and coached him through the purchases he had made at REI. He was adamant about some things, and thought I was being silly on others.

Flip and I are a good balance. Flip also carries a light-weight pack, but he also carries damn useful things like a saw and a good camp kitchen; where-as I break sticks and eat out of a cup. I self-sump and he carries a rag to wash his dishes. I carry a gallon zip lock and he carries a collapsible Platy or two for extra water. Each of our methods are 100% correct... for us. So with this mentorship Tortuga can see two sides and decide for himself.

T and I got in the car and drove out towards Luray via 66 thru Front Royal and south on 340. We stopped at the grocery store and picked up some snacks prior to heading to the parking lot. We started hiking right at 5pm. Plenty of daylight left this time of year to make a couple miles from the road and find or make a campsite and wait for Flip (arriving a bit later).

We ascend the forest road Massanutten Connector trail, talking and enjoying the day. We talked of gear and other trails we'd like to do in the future, of our lives and wives (in his case) and future wives (in my case). The sun slanted golden beams on the Trail before us, the trees still barren of leaves, but springs pulse quickening around us. We kept our eyes open for a likely spot but saw none for awhile, up over a hill and down a steep descent took us to the sound of water in a valley and the Massanutten Trail going East and West from where we stood. Since Flip would likely be coming in in the dark I wanted a campsite on the connector trail, we turned and re-ascended the steep hillside (only about 100 yards) and dropped packs. I wanted to search the semi-level area around to find a nice camping spot. Tortugas' first stealth site!

Hammocks hold a great advantage. Had we tents, we would've been out of luck, we would've had to range further or walk miles more to find a site. I found 4 trees to hang 3 hammock. I cut some small scrubby sticks that were in the way and cleared back a spot for a campfire. I tried to follow Leave No Trace principles, and when we left the next morning, there was no trace, so much so that on our way back I asked T where we'd camped as we hiked past and he had no idea. It could be because he is incredibly un-observant in the woods (we're working on that), or maybe I've mad LNT skillz.

Tortuga did a great job hanging his own hammock for the first time and putting the tarp over it. He gathered firewood and made his first fire. He broke out his camp chair and lounged comfortable. Camp chair?! Ok, so there's 1.5 lbs of that 35. I did say one comfort item. Mine is a 5oz pillow. But to each their own.

We sat around a nice campfire, listening to the woods, able to see the lights down in the valley, able to see the dark mass of Sticklers Knob hulking above us. We slipped some whiskey and waited for Flip. Flip did show up soon enough and we pitched in a hand to help set up his hammock in the dark. Our three hammock shared one tree and spoked out to three others.

After a bit more whiskey passing, cigar sharing, and chatting we called it a night and T went to hang for the premier time. I slept a bit on the chilly side, but I wasn't uncomfortable. Considering the temps dipped into the high 20's, I am absolutely thrilled about removing a pound from my pack by trading in the sleeping bag for the blanket!


We all awoke early, the sun was up, but not upon us. The warming rays still on the hillside far above us. I packed quickly with numb fingers and feet. Tortuga saying he couldn't feel his feet and that they were very very painful .Yup, so are ours buddy, just a joy of hiking in the cold. Best way to warm up? Get packed and start hiking! The sun finally enlivening us, we tossed on the packs, made sure the fire from the evening before was nothing but a memory, hide our existence and started hiking.

Back at the intersection of the Massanutten Trail we headed left, west and the start of the loop we were taking this weekend. Immediately we began ascending a large pile of rocks, otherwise known as a mountain. Tortuga started sweating. Wasn't he just frozen a minute ago? Oh yeah, the best way to get warm is to walk! We gained elevation on this gorgeous morning, the valley opening like a flower behind us, all it's secrets exposed. Still above us was Sticklers Knob, imagine the view from that lofty place!

Once up top we followed the ridge, views to both sides, and sights south to Waterfall Mountain and way across the valley, Shenandoah. Shenandoah with it's easy access roads, paved trails that always go down hill, and snack bars. I imagined the tourists already having paid their $25 entrance fee driving down the Skyline drive commenting on the view so easily achieved. I liked our view better. We worked for it. Some of us harder than others!

We continued and crossed over a gravel road. I thought we would dip down again, but we did not. We only ascended gently to the other ridgeline. As we hooked back north we came to an overlook. This open place looked west, over Shenandoah Valley. There snaked Rt 81. There, the tops of those mountains, is where West Virginia began. Peeking through a far pass, could that be Dolly Sods? Probably a bit too far to see.

After the picture opportunity was done we continued on. Four miles of ridge-top walking, first to the west then up and over to the east then back again. This up and down frustrated Tortuga. I've learned to not fight the Trail. It always wins. the trail traces to the west or east to (a) avoid a cliff (b) show you something cool (c) go the harder of the two ways so you don't get bored and complacent.

The four miles done, we came to a knob another 1/2 mile up the trail (an out and back). Despite Tortugas protestations Flip and I ran up with our packs thinking it would be a good lunch spot. And it was. Very pleasant in the sun to let our socks and feet dry out and snack on all our goodies. We chatted about the things people chat about while on a,mountain top and enjoyed the company of each other.

After lunch, down down down and the sun sank lower. We finally got to a water source flowing out of a spring and I gladly filled up. I could tell I was a bit behind on my water consumption as I'd been nursing the last 1/2 liter for a couple hours. We gave T lessons in wood lore, or at least tried to. We asked him, "Which way does the trail go?", "Are you sure?", "How can you tell?". We tried to impart to him the ways of not getting lost. Not just following blazes on trees but where it looked like more people had traveled, and why. I went on to explain why we were getting water from this small spring trickle rather than the larger creek in the valley floor. And much to my chagrin, but unsurprisingly, the diaper I said I'd found next to larger, close to road, water sources was there as we passed by the picnic area by the road. A good illustration to my point.

We began the slow ascent of the far ridge after the picnic area, climbing a rocky crumbly trail. Tortuga mentioned that we had trod every kind of trail he could think of. Muddy, rocky, sandy, flat, steep. Not my intention, but it works to teach! The afternoon wore on and still we climbed; not steeply and not a difficult trail, but Tortuga was weary. Flip and I hiking ahead and then waiting for Mr. Slow-and-Steady to catch up. To the top of the ridge and immediately we dropped over the other side. At the top T definitely didn't want to see what the overlook 1/2 mile off trail looked like and so we descended. At the bottom a sign pointed towards a camp site. Not knowing the area or where the next water source or clear-of-brush area might be we called it a day and went about making camp.

On his own, T set up his gear like an old pro. We each concerned ourselves with our own stuff and soon had a bivouac surrounding the fire pit. The fire pit had nice stone lounge chairs around it which negated the need for T's chair. He still stubbornly used it because he'd carried it all that way. He allowed Flip and I to peruse and tear down his ruck. We gave him helpful suggestions and some minor sh!t for his more fanciful carryings! The extendable hotdog forks, the snow baskets for his hiking poles, and fabric pouch that covered his water pouch, and the extra battery, cell phone charger, Android and iPhone charging cable gave us a clue as to why his pack was heavy. Flip and I are strong hikers anyway, add in a pack that was half his weight and it is completely understandable why we weren't sore or exhausted. We energetically gathered firewood and scampered around. I hope T will take our advice and sift through his pack some more!

We finished all our booze. We ate 3 dinners. We enjoyed a raging fire in the company of friends. The evening grew dark and we roasted marshmallows, T using his extend-o sticks, I a green branch. I have to admit, knowing the company I kept this trip (Flip) I brought no stove. I brought no uncooked food. I brought no cup. I was the light-weight moocher. I had enough food to not cook. I could have very easily "survived" without a hot dinner. But I also knew the preeminent trail chef in our midst would have plenty for all! I ate well and carried none. The rule is know the company you keep.


The night was warmer. I slept with more clothes and a hot rock from the fire, both unneeded but it's good practice. We did our morning routine of packing. Tortuga lamented about relaxing in camp in the morning, he is backpacking with the wrong guys for that! We had some miles to go and some sights to see along the way. And lunch in Front Royal.

Tortuga took his first crap in the woods.

Again we explained to him why you had to go as far from water as possible, how to dig the hole, and how to bury it. All this is intuitive to people that have pooed in the woods since we were kids - not so much to a nearly 30 year old that has not.

The trail on this side was terrible. We followed the creek toward its source, a Bobcat had been used to grade the trail leaving it a muddy mess. The condition was terrible. I'm not sure who or why this was done, but nothing done would've been much better! A few miles and complaints drifting on the wind from behind we made it to the top of the ridge and the end of the Bobcat destruction. Here lay the beginning of the ridge to Sticklers Knob. We dropped packs and Tortuga decided to stay behind. Flip and I both tried to coerce him into coming, but gracefully bowed out from the side quest.

Flip and I love side quests. They make our trips. We grabbed a few snacks and jogged down the unofficial trail to the Knob. At times rocky, but easy to follow, we made our way peering at the views to the east and west. We found several good campsites, each better than the last. And the last really was amazing. A small 2 person tent would fit and that is all. The firepit on top of a cliff and truly spectacular view of the valley and the Shenandoah Mountains to the east. A few tenths beyond we scrambled up to the Knob. We got sweeping 360 views and we even found a Geocache! Experience points gained, side quest done, we headed back so T wouldn't feel abandoned and we could explain to him on why he should've come with us.

Our packs lay in the trail. No sign of a Tortuga in any direction. We guessed he must've got impatient and started heading back towards the car. We hoped. Ten minutes later he must have remembered and scratched his initials and an arrow into the dirt. Confirmation that a pack of raptors hadn't carried him off was good. After a bit we caught up with our quarry and he explained he wanted to test his skills. He survived and was happy for it.

The next few miles were all down hill, side slabbing up above a stream before crossing and re-crossing it to get back to the Massanutten Connector Trail that lead back to our cars and civilization. Hours after getting home Tortuga (now Anthony again) sent me a picture of a pile of stuff he wouldn't be carrying next time! The man learns! He's no longer a noob and will not treat him as such. The lessons are over and now he makes his own calls on what to carry and what not to carry. No longer an amatuer he must make his own way.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Light weight backpacking

I'm not sure when it happened. I'm sure over the course of last years Appalachian Trail thru hike I certainly enjoyed a light pack. I remember hiking from Tinker Cliffs to Daleville with 1/2 a days food, with a wonderfully empty my pack!

That pack looks small, but that's the 58L, I soon got a 44L and still had room in it.
Since getting back I've only been backpacking once - a fact which I plan on remedying - and on that trip to Massanutten I took the top flap off the Osprey Talon 44 and still had room.
Over the course of the last few months I've made a few low cost purchases to reduce weight. I refuse to pay $100's per ounce to lighten my pack by grams. I refuse to count grams. I don't have that kind of disposable income for one thing, and even if I did I would rather buy plane tickets with that money! That being said, you can later call me a gram weanie for the few ounces I am saving!

Black Diamond tarp shelter prior to hammock hanging. After it looks similar, but for the hammock under it!

I replaced my carabiners for a lighter pair. The other ones that came with my old hammock are heavy. They clunked and weighed the whole setup down. I don't have a postal scale, but I probably saved 8 oz or something to the new climbing 'beaners I purchased. I used part of a gift card I got for Christmas so the net cost of this purchase was $0!

My hair weighed too much and wasn't dual use so I cut it off
Next I purchased a Therm-a-Rest Alpine Down Blanket. It's basically a down blanket with a foot box completely eliminating the zipper, bottom of the 'sleeping bag'. My winter bag (the Grouse Mountain) doesn't have stuffing on the bottom to eliminate weight, this goes a step further and totally eliminate the zipper, hood, bottom of the bag. It is rated for 35 degrees but the reviews say more like 45 degree. I figure since drafts can happen and you aren't building the encapsulated layer of body heat it is more a spring/summer/fall bag. But it is only just over a pound - a full TWO pounds lighter, and much less bulkier than the Grouse Mountain. I used the remaining gift card and my dividends and bought the Alpine Down Blanket for $40 with an in-store pickup so I incur no shipping charges. Not a bad cost to reduce my bag by 2 pounds!

Going through the 'Lemon Squeezer' with my pack on - a testament to how small it got!

I weighed my gear as I was packing for this upcoming weekend hiking in southern Massanutten and my base weight is 11 pounds 12 ounces. Add 2 liters of water and a couple days of food and it'll still be under 20 lbs. That's impressive. And I don't feel like I am doing with out. I don't feel like I'm skimping or cutting corners. I have all the essentials, plus a pillow, first aid, camera, extra battery. I don't know when exactly it happened but I'm bordering on UL.

Descending Big K with day packs, not carrying all that jazz up a hill and back down!
For the trip coming up I could plan on going without a stove as well, try out the "cold" method. I would leave home the aluminum cup, MSR Pocket Rocket, fuel, and cooking utensil. This would save another pound and a half or two. I plan on having a campfire, over which I could easily roast some summer sausage. My biggest regret with this would not be having coffee in the morning or Sleepy Time Tea in the evening. For a weekend of roughing it I suppose I could forgo these small pleasures, but on any kind of thru the pleasure of something warm out-weighs (pun intended!) the extra weight.
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