Wednesday, June 19, 2013

New Hampshire: Harsh, Beautiful, and Wild

As some of you might know, I'm getting married! In just over a year I will be wed to the love of my life. We are getting married in New Hampshire right by Franconia Notch. With rugged mountains as our backdrop, spring-blooming wildflowers in the fore. The planning and preparation gives us an excuse to go north and a)visit her parents b)get some planning/preparation in c)go hiking in the White Mountains!

This last trip I took the following week off to hike while Songbird had to, unfortunately, come home to go back to work. Flip also took the week off and came up to hike with me. Songbird, departed, and Flip arrived late the following day. We woke to a rainy Tuesday morning; undeterred and set on backpacking, we packed our things donned our rain gear and got a ride from Songbird's dad, Jim, to the trailhead. We were dropped off at the beginning of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, a mile from the Cog Railroad at the base of Mount Washington. The rain had stopped, but the sky was steely grey and we knew this was only a break in the storm, not a passing of the storm. We were hopeful, though as the following days forecast sounded better.
We followed a soft rolling trail for the first couple miles, along a river and over wet roots and rocks. The forest smell of damp and leaf decay both pleasant and familiar. The trees dropped their wet tears down our backs as we hiked full of care-free joy towards the base of the mountain. The streams and rivers did not seem overly swollen from the last day and a half of rain, I wasn't sure if we had any water crossings, but was thankful all the same that they weren't in flood stage! The trail traced close to the banks of the river at some points.
 Soon, through a break in the trees, we saw where our path was to take us. The easy jaunt through the lowlands about to end. We began climbing stone stairs, and the rain started to fall softly again. I put on the hood of the Packa, but stayed unzipped to keep heat exhaustion at bay. As we ascend and the air got colder the coat came on and I stayed both dry and warm.
As we neared tree-line the conditions worsened, the rain picked up, and we had to cross the river a time or two. The river crossings were harrowing, and would have forced us to turn back had there been more water. On top of slick rocks a few yards from a waterfall that fell down the side of the tallest mountain in the northeast, the trail precariously crossed these slightly swollen waters. This could be deadly in worse conditions.
Up we climbed and clambered. The trail crossing steep slick rocks, the trees becoming stunted and gnarled. We were in the rain clouds now. The wind picked up and started to swirl, sometimes those raindrops sounded a bit... heavy, more like ice than water. The clouds blew back and snow fields were visible as the trees finally gave up.
Up and up more. The wind picking up, the rain blowing in, over, under. My glasses making everything a blur, and the clouds obscuring everything beyond a couple hundred feet anyway. But, even in these conditions and under this strain, beauty stood out. Tiny alpine flowers, surrounded by a carpet of green moss hung on and thrived. The disparity of the wind-swept landscape to the micro-communities that stood hidden in plain sight belied the strength of life, and the beauty in the small things.
Not knowing how much further to the top of this hill, we continued to strain upwards. And there! A roof line! A shelter from the storm, a place to shed wet raincoats, if only briefly: Lake of the Clouds AMC Hut. We stumbled around the corner, threw open the door and came in to applause of the guests riding out the storm inside the warm comfort. The Croo hostess said, "Are you checking in? We have spots available." My gut instinct after being mauled by the elements while pulling myself hand-over-hand up the side of a steep mountain was to say, "Why yes I am checking in. I would love nothing more than to pay $125 to sleep on a wooden bunk!" Instead, after making eye-contact with Flip, I said, "Give me a minute to decide." So we ordered a bowl of warm soup, sat at the table and unwound. We dripped a bit dryer and the memories and shock of the vicious wind and pelting rain faded. After consulting the map, our watches, and each other, we decided to push on. We also decided to save the summit of Washington for another day, this wouldn't be a good one to be up there.
I will not rant about the AMC. I can say that the oasis of calm and brief respite was welcomed. The prices were high, but the people were kind. We chose not to pay for the luxury, but the fact that the Huts exist enable those that would not otherwise be able to see the grandeur and beauty of the White Mountains to experience it in slight comfort.
We put back on our packs and braced ourselves for another onslaught. We were surprised and hesitantly elated that the rain had died down. We headed south on the Appalachian Trail towards Nauman Campsite ~4 miles distant. The wind blew fiercely and then calmed. The clouds seemed to be thinning, only over us though. Suddenly: SUN! BLUESKY! What a treat. We were able to walk on this ridge top, this spine-of-the-world, with a circle of clouds obscuring the far views, but allowing us some sun light and some views of the mountains we trod upon. We even captured a glimpse of the Washington Hotel surrounded by its golf course down in the valley below.

We started descending into the woods again, back into the damp. Was it raining again or was that just dripping from the trees? Maybe a bit of both. On our descent we spotted a lynx flash across the trail and then we peered at each other before she gracefully disappeared into the thick sub-alpine woods. We arrived at the next Hut and the hostess ignored us as we walked in, continuing to cut up pieces of paper with her Swiss Army knife. There must not have been any room or other reservations coming in that evening so the pleasantries could be dispensed with. I enquired if this is where we checked in for the adjacent campsite. No, there is a specific campsite host in a tent. We walked over to the campsite and spoke with Dillon, the campsite host. He said he'd never stayed in a Hut, but they were real nice, they even let him come over the night before and hangout since they only had two guests. So the AMC hires a completely different host that must sleep in a tent, literally 50 feet from the Hut. That makes such little sense that I am boggled. We asked if it might be alright if we went up there to prepare our dinner out of the rain instead of inside our tent. He had no idea, he didn't really talk to them, but it might be worth asking. They did have a lot of guests though. Rather than being looked down upon like the homeless tent campers begging for scraps we prepared our meal at the tent.

The next day dawned not bright but rainy. It had began raining in earnest over night and continued unrelenting as we broke camp as quickly as possible, trying to keep as much of our gear as dry as possible. We hiked out into the rainy morning with hopes it would stop any second now. The forecast said, "Chance of Showers" this day and "Chance of Showers" for the following 2 days. There was no chance, it rained continuously. At times it slowed, but then picked up. The bogs seemed to mirror our wet mood.

 Crossing over Webster Cliffs and bookended mountains we were blown about. As we descended Webster we got quiet. Thirty minutes of inner thoughts, just struggling not to fall down the rain-soaked rocks and slabs we both said what we were thinking, "Why are we doing this?". We are seeing no views, we are not enjoying any of this, we are endangering our bodies unnecessarily. We both knew if we continued on to the next Hut and began setting up a wet saturated tent and peeling off wet socks and shaking out wet rain coats, that we would not be able to resist the Sirens call. We would pay the $125, or $500 if they asked it of us, to stay in the Hut. The forecast for the following day was the same as this day, so would we wake to more pattering rain? Another all day slog through puddles and down wet rocks.

We each fell on several occasions. I wasn't hiking the AT anymore. I wasn't doing this to prove something. I was doing this for enjoyment. And my saturation level surpassed my enjoyment! We decided we would go back to Lovetts Inn, we would dry off and we would day hike the following day, rain or shine. Having a dry place to go to makes all the difference in the world. When I hiked the AT and there were days like that, I often found a way to be in a dry room. A wet miserable day drove me to Great Barrington to pay $250 for a bad room.
We finished our tumbles down Webster Cliffs (there might be nice views, but I can't tell you that for a fact!) and came to Crawford Notch. I had no cell service, which I knew was going to happen from previous research in the area. It had been raining too hard up top to get the phone out or take the pack off. I knew there was a shuttle service, and hoped there would be one coming soon. Otherwise a 4 mile walk up the road to the Highlands Lodge was in store for us. But I was completely prepared for that, It's happened before! The shuttle schedule had a shuttle visiting this spot twice daily. One of those times in 30 minutes! How fortunate. Of course, in typical AMC fashion, those four miles was going to cost us $10 each! But we paid. And we got to the Taj of Huts. More like one of the resort areas in the Shenandoah. Outside people played bocce ball in the rain, knowing a warm shower was only a few feet away. We used the 4G service to call Jim and he drove the 20 minutes over to pick the up the drowned hikers.
That night we celebrated! Alive and warm! A semi-successful hike. Under the circumstance we made the right call. The Whites will wait. The day will come that they will be enjoyed, not slogged through.
The following day we decided to hike the crown jewel of the White Mountains: Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge. The day began sunny and nearly cloud-free. What?! Same exact forecast as the preceding day. If I've learned anything it is to completely ignore the forecast for this region of the world, because it's wrong. This valley might have a totally different weather than that one. We packed up our gear and drove over to the bottom of the Old Carriage Trail, we made the steep climb up Lafayette, rock scrambling up steps and rock faces. Our light day packs enabling us to bound up the mountain, light on our feet and energetic. Views became apparent behind us and we could see for miles. What a difference a day makes. Clouds rolled in but stayed far aloft, leaving our views unscathed. In a short amount of time we came upon Greenleaf Hut. A very nicely situated hut nestled on the shoulder below the treeline of Lafayette by a mountain tarn.

We ate lunch here and let our sweaty backs dry before gaining more elevation and a lower temperature. The last mile was a few thousand steps, above treeline, the views are amazing, the hard granite wall rising above to envelope the sky in front. We reached the summit and had panoramic views all around us. A valley that looks untouched by the influence of man, the road in the Notch a thread hardly visible. Franconia Ridge looked like a shark fin breaching the waters of a green ocean, our path evident down the ridgeline. This bit of trail is on many of the best hikes lists, and again and again showcased in Backpacker Magazine. I agree with this. This was an amazing hike. Views draw your eyes up and outward from yourself. Consciousness expands with the views. There are other places like this on the AT, but the others aren't so accessible. Saddleback Range in Maine is as good, if not better. Katahdin is similar as well as Avery Peak also in Maine. Big Hump and Little Hump in Tennessee is incredible, but in a different way.

We traversed the Ridge and began down the Falling Waters Trail. Uneventful and easy descent over rocks and down stairs lead to an unexpected series of waterfalls. Of course, with a name like "Falling Waters" I assumed there would be waterfalls, but I wasn't expecting as nice or spectacular of falls. We crossed and recrossed the river multiple times, avoiding wet feet - barely! A very spectacular ending to an awesome 7 mile hike. After the falls the trail leveled out and we quickly made our way back to the car.

Songbird called and told me she had to hide from a tornado while at work. She came home to the majority of the big old maple in the backyard no longer standing. The house was not damaged fortunately, but the trees were a mess. I made the call that I needed to come home and clean this mess up before heading back to work, so we had to leave a day early from the New Hampshire adventure. We've a score to settle NH, I'm GOING to enjoy every bit of trails you've got to offer!!
Kaya is impressed, as am I!!

Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gear Talk - Three Categories

I was on a plane going to Puerto Rico reading Backpacker magazine and it got me thinking about gear again. They are a mag to promote and sell gear, some of their reviews are succinct and ring true, while others are very obviously paid promo bordering on propaganda!
The following concerns my experience, my own personal rules and what works best for me. Of course I've said things before and changed drastically once I find something better or more suitable, so this is an ever evolving line of reasoning, but at this point it is fairly well refined due to experience and variety.

Less is more. The less I have the better the trip. I can honestly say I've never thought to myself, “I should've brought that piece of gear”; this, of course, excludes gear I've forgotten to bring (not having an eating utensil  or TP is a drag)! And many times that I go backpacking I think, “I haven't used this, why am I carrying it”. There are three categories of gear. The Sleep System includes tarp, hammock, pad, and sleeping blanket. The Kitchen includes stove, cooking system, water bottles, and food. Lastly, the Weather Protection includes clothing and rain gear. I don’t include the pack as it is just a pack.

All of the above gear with five days of food fit into the Osprey Talon 44L pack. That is considered just above a day pack size. I have found it to be more than adequate even for winter gear. I would like to eventually try out one of the UL frameless packs with integrated padding/ground pad, just seems like a marvelous option and perfect for the hammock as an insulation barrier not as padding (since padding isn’t needed in the hammock). Why 75+L packs exist, I can only fathom. There are such a small case of use scenarios and so many more weekend backpackers there should be way more options for Lite, UL, and SUL than there are in stores (REI, I’m looking at you).

As I’ve said probably way too much before, hammocks are the way to go when solo. I can understand a tent when: on the west coast, when hiking as a couple and you want some privacy, and (as is the case for me next week) hiking in the White Mountains. And those aren’t really good reasons, all the draw-backs of tents are still experienced, just un-avoidable. Sleeping on the ground sucks. Puddles form, roots and rocks emerge, hills and flats both have disadvantages. To all those still crawling on the ground, go get a Byers Hammock with mosquito net a lite weight tarp and spend a few nights in a hammock. If you don’t like it return it. But there’s a good chance you’ll be returning the tent or the bivy instead. My hammock weighs less than a pound, my tarp weighs less than a pound and I’m way more comfortable and actually DRY when it pours for 12 hours. I just can’t advocate enough for this.

I always thought going cold was crazy, but I’m leaning more and more that way. I’ll need to go out a few more times and try it out. Though not like last time where I went with others that DID have stoves. That’s just called mooching… which is a really great way to go UL, but not satisfying at all. Currently, and throughout my AT thru I carried an MSR PocketRocket, 8oz of fuel, and an 20oz capacity aluminum cup for boiling water. That amount of fuel would last me 2 weeks minimum with hot meals every night and coffee every morning. I saw many other hikers that used Heet and alcohol stoves - they supposedly save a few ounces but the fuel is no more easily found and bought than the Iso-pro canisters used for the Pocket Rocket. The few ounces saved is lost however in that a heat shield is absolutely necessary, you must be very exacting on how much fuel you're going to use to cook with - you must let it burn out on its own so you can't pour the unused fuel back and you might not get a boil with what you've got and need to start over. Also they tend to explode. A lot. There is no flame regulation, it is all on or all off, simmering is impossible.And the last drawback, as if the exploding and loss of eyebrows weren't enough, they tend to blacken your pot, so it either needs to be cleaned thoroughly, put in a bag, or it gets carbon all over. The idea of turning a soda can into a stove is neat, but in reality I would advise against it!

Concerning camp cooking, dirty dishes are extremely over rated! If at all possible dirty dishes should never exist, and if they happen to, swishing water and drinking the food remnants should be the absolute extent of it. Most of my dinners on the trail were in boil bags and eaten directly from them. Coffee in the morning is really the reason I’ve not gone completely cold and ditched the stove, I enjoy warm morning coffee more than a hot dinner! I found the best things to “cook” were pre-cooked rices, couscous, mashed potatoes, ramen noodles and Backpacker Pantry meals (an expensive luxury). All these meals needed only heated water. I would add a protein, beef jerky, salami, tuna and maybe a bouillon cube for flavor and salt. A raw onion is worth carrying I found to add variety to dinner and lunch. To go cold I would just double what was for lunch and be done with it. Lunch consisted of bagels, wraps, and flat bread stuffed with peanut butter, tuna, onion, crasins, fruit snacks, cheese, beef jerky, pepperoni, and whatever else was in my pack! Lunch was by far my favorite meal of the day – easy cheesy. Oh and a bag of salty snack, like Cheezit, was perfect to munch on throughout the day. Breakfast was bagels cream cheese (easily lasted 4 or 5 days even in July) and then cereal bars, protein bars, and a protein shake. I should add, on a thru hike you aren’t eating enough calories. You can’t. I had to supplement with powdered shakes: carnation Instant Breakfast, Slimfast, AND GNC weight-gain 9000. Having one with every meal was what it took for me to break even and stop losing weight. Obviously on weekend or even week-long trips this is totally unneeded. Referencing back to BackPacker Magazine, they have cuisine options, normally consisting of doing stuff at home and bringing it along. It fills pages, and I guess some people might go down that path. The rest of us (especially thru-hikers) need to walk into a grocery store or even a gas station and be able to get enough food to hike for 5 days. It’s easy once you pick your way carefully through the really really empty calorie junk food and find some gems.

Weather Protection
Protecting yourself from the elements includes clothing and poncho. One must carefully consider the worst case scenario and pack for that. While hiking the AT I was able to get away with the clothes I had on, a base-layer long sleeve shirt, an extra pair of socks, and rain gear (JUST the Packa, rain pants are beyond useless). This was only in the summer, at the bookends of the trip I had a down vest to wear in camp, a fuzzy hat, and a wind-breaker. I never felt in need of more, I was never hypothermic or even close. The Packa is the best rain gear on the market and, like hammocking, I won’t shut up about! The Packa covers both pack and body, like a large poncho except it has pit-zips, a zipper down the front, a flap on the back to sit on, a pocket, and a brim on the hood. The really expensive rain gear on the market is all but useless. If a summer shower threatens you must drop your backpack, pull out your rain jacket, pull out your rain pants, struggle into them as the rain looms and the thunder rumbles, lastly you put on the pack cover and re-don the pack. You begin hiking again and immediately start sweating profusely. Turns out the storm passes and doesn’t drop a drip. You stop to take off the rain jacket and rain pants because you are dying of heat exhaustion, you sweated enough that had it rained and you had put no rain protection on you may have been drier! After putting the rain jacket and pants away the sky unexpected opens up anyway. Cheers to misery! Hope you like it.

With the Packa you put it on as a pack cover in the morning (in the summer with afternoon storms, it’s just a given). As you hike thunder rumbles and it looks like rain. Without breaking stride you pull the sleeves and hood out but don’t put them on yet. They hang like a cape around you making you feel totally bad-ass, like Strider (before you came to know him as Aragorn) from Fellowship of the Ring. Oh, the storm passed without shedding a tear? I’m still comfy and still hiking along. What’s that, it decided to rain anyway? The hood and sleeves are on and zipped in seconds, again without breaking stride. There’s no reason that this isn’t the de facto standard except people just don’t know about it!
Wearing the Packa in theHighlands

I’ve nothing to say about boots except for, “Find what fits you best”. If you’re getting blisters, change them out. If you’re getting shin splints or planar faceitous try high support inserts. I know people that hiked thousands of miles in Dollar Store sneakers, and I was quite comfortable in BackPacker Mag Editors Choice Salewa boots too – it’s all about preference. (as a side note, my Salewas lasted from Springer to Delaware Water Gap and I miss them).

I have also wasted money on pointless items that seemed like good ideas. REI is full of that stuff. Some of the things that stand out that are crap for Long Distance Hiking include: collapsible buckets, water filtration pumps, UV light Steripen, Crocs, Platypus water bladders, contact lens, solar chargers, TENTS, binoculars, Nalgen bottles, toilette trowels, extendable hot dog forks, a change of clothes “town clothing”, and a full length sleeping pad. There are stories, experiences, and reasoning behind each of those.