Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nice Timing

So I decided to do multiple laps up Bald Mountain today. I figured that if I climbed it at least three times my exertions would start to approach the ballpark of a high peak climb.

About two minutes into the first lap I had a morale-dampening bit of equipment failure. The left strap on my pack parted. Upon close inspection it became clear that this was a result of the same defect that had led me to take the pack back to the store for a replacement part when I first bought it. Here's a shot of the right strap which is perfectly sound...

...and here is a picture of the peccant part. Note the distance from the rivets to the snap, and the frayed nylon; the strap has pulled almost completely from the rivets. This caused the Rube Goldberg-esque plastic-snap-and-steel-hoop assembly to take the entire load, which it couldn't handle.

About a third of the way up the mountain, the strap gave way again. Did your intrepid narrator tuck his tail between his legs and slouch toward the trailhead? He did not.

Thankfully I had the presence of mind to buy a few extra feet of nylon strap when I kludged a new heel strap for my left snowshoe the other day, and I included it in my "utility belt" pouch. Today it became a second kludge: I applied the amazingly refined expedient of two granny knots, and the failed strap was replaced.

I must say, this incident confirms my initial impression of the pack: it's way overdesigned. My simple strap seemed quite as effective as the original esoteric assembly of nylon straps, steel hoops, rivets, and plastic clasps.

I continued on, and was quite satisfied with my field repair job. I was not so satisfied with my balance. The pack is still transforming me into a staggering, pratfalling parody of my former snowshoeing self. I fell down a lot, I slid a lot, and I had a much harder time climbing.

The good news is that I seem to be improving along a line of punctuated increase. In other words, today I started out worse than I was at my best yesterday, but I improved radically during the hike so that, by the end, I was probably at my best yet. I fell a lot during the first climb, perhaps twice during the second, and none at all during the third, even though I was naturally very tired by the third lap.

Unfortunately I was too tired and cold, and therefore too invested in getting back down the mountain, to remember to take pictures from the summit. Here are a few from near the bottom which give you a sense of the day.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winter Camping First Steps

Dec. 26
Well, I made it. It's 5:17 and I've shoveled the car in and started a fire. Thankfully there wasn't much snow, and what was there contained no ice.

It's good to be here. I've been wanting to get up here by myself for a long time.

6:08 PM
Woo hoo! My improvised heel strap for my snowshoe works GREAT! Hell, it's probably easier to secure than the original! (The original rubber strap broke just the other day. I stopped at a hardware store in Old Forge to try to figure out the best cob job. I settled on some string, a no-slip clip, and some strapping. Now all I need to do is put the boot in, snap the clip, and draw the strap tight!)

10:30 PM
Whagh! Left camp around 7:15, after packing everything I think I need for a 1- to 2-night camping trip in the snow. This was a dress rehearsal. I wanted to feel what it's like to snowshoe with the pack. And wow, was it more tiring than I thought! Of course I started after dark, at the end of a long day, after an incredibly draining week. So that makes it pretty impressive, now that I think about it. The pack threw my center of gravity way off. I was reeling and falling like a drunk; it drastically reduced my ability to recover from stumbles and slips and snags. Very frustrating.

On a positive note: my improvised heel strap functioned perfectly.

I forgot my gaiters, and that sucked. My legs were soaked. But they were soaked from the thighs down, so gaiters wouldn't have totally dealt with the problem. How am I going to deal with the problem? I don't want to get into my bag with wet pants legs. I suppose I'll have to put my pants into the little sack attached to the sleeping bag, and maybe keep the sack inside the bag to keep the pants warm. Of course they'd still be wet in the morning but aside from building a fire to dry them out, I don't see an alternative.

Another problem: my glasses steamed up badly, so I was half blind most of the time. Must try "Cat Crap".

Another problem: I should not have worn a sweatshirt because I can't open it up. I got sweaty, and that's a no-no. It was an unseasonably warm night so it wasn't a problem, but I need to be very wary of sweat.

Anyway, I made my way up Black Bear and once I got to exposed places the wind was howling. I called Grace and Twittered, and headed back down.

I was completely exhausted by the time I got back. I think that I should give the Army pack a chance - maybe I'll adjust to the displaced center of gravity. But I'm not giving it too much of a chance. If I don't get used to it soon I'm going to buy a pack that lies closer to my back.

Well, I just downed three Hofmanns with Howard's Piccalilli. Mmmmm. And I'm well on my way through a bottle of Hennepin. As the way-over-the-top friendly and ironic and funny cashier chick at Diorio's in Old Forge said: "Living the dream."

Holy shit! I have a major goose egg on my left shin! Must've hit my shin a lot harder than I realized during one of those falls.

Dec. 27
11:20 AM
Feeling refreshed. Need to go find an outfitter and buy gaiters and possibly a lighter hat that wicks sweat.

Dec. 28
1:00 PM
YEAH! Hot chocolate never tasted so good (except maybe that one time in Paris)! Then there was the camp breakfast: three eggs, four slices of thick-cut pepper bacon, two slices of Heidelburg French Peasant Bread, and two cups of tea.

OK, first some notes on the hike two nights ago, when I went up Black Bear and then right back to camp. Here's the unexpected thing I observed: I got spooked. I got spooked a lot. Part of it was the creaking and rustling of all the bindings and such on my back and on my feet. Those sounds mimic the sounds of something moving behind me. But I don't think that accounted for all of it.

I am keenly aware of how much more dangerous it is to hike in winter than in summer. I'm also aware that hiking after dark, even with multiple flashlights, is more dangerous still. That night I was aware of a cherry on the danger sundae: the pack. The pack reduced my dexterity from, like, 15 to 7. I was falling all over the place, and I knew that if I fell wrong... well, that might just be the proverbial Lulu.

So I was aware of all this, which equated to fear. And apparently fear is more generalized than I had realized. Apparently rational fear can osmose over to the irrational side of the membrane. Apparently an acute sense of my need to be careful in a potentially deadly situation can feed a sense that there are monsters in the woods! I've walked all over hell's half-acre at night, and I never got spooked like I was that night! I wonder how many people have frozen to death because they fell while running from monsters.

Anyway. My rationality easily overcame my spookedness that night. Presumably I'll get less spooked as I become more sure of myself. But I never want to get too blasé. A little spooked is better than a lot dead.

So. Yesterday I went to Pedals and Petals in Inlet and talked to Gordy, the proprietor. I told her about having to choose between going hatless and sweating profusely, and she told me about the need for a wicking, non-cotton underlayer. I bought a thin head covering that wicks moisture away from the skin, along with a pair of "Duofold Varitherm" long johns made of the same type of material. Then I went to Old Forge to get gaiters at Mountain Man. Man those Outdoor Research gaiters are expensive! $65! Well, I need them. I also got a pair of Outdoor Research "Men's PL 100 gloves". They are thin, and made of wicking polyester fleece on the interior and a stretch nylon exterior. Finally, I got some "Cat Crap".

So I loaded the pack and headed out at 3:25 - much later than I wanted. The first thing I noticed was that the Cat Crap didn't work worth a... crap! Maybe I washed too much off after I applied it while washing the glasses?

So the hike up Black Bear was much nicer than it was the previous night. I think that I was getting used to the pack, and that I had much more energy than I'd had at the end of that very long previous day. Of course the big factor was light. I'm learning that flashlights count for much less than I'd expected when snowshoeing in the woods. There's something limited about the flashlight - maybe the diffuse nature of sunlight makes subtle features of the landscape easier to pick out. In any event, the hike up to the summit of Black Bear was cake. I reached it as the light was fading. The glimpse of the sunset was worth the climb.

I headed back down into the darkening woods on the other side and immediately the fun started. As I was trying to climb down from a rock my right shoe slipped and I fell after it, while my left leg remained planted. I did a power-split and was grateful not to have pulled a groin muscle, let alone broken a bone. I thought to myself "Way to break your hip, shithead."

So, from then on I adopted the tried-and-true but slower method of descent: walking backwards while digging in with the crampons. This worked well, and I don't think I took any falls to speak of after that. And man, not taking a fall is of paramount importance on that one set of big rock steps a few hundred yards down from the summit of Black Bear.

Just after I took that fall I had another experience that reminded me of how important it is to keep my head. I suddenly couldn't see the trail. I felt around a little bit - very cautiously, because I know that there are a lot of abrupt dropoffs in that area. It wasn't long before I did the sensible thing: slowly and methodically went back until I knew I was back on the trail, then took a closer look. Of course I saw immediately where I'd gone wrong: the trail turned sharply to the right, and I'd missed it.

It occurs to me just how true the statement "Pride goeth before the fall" is. As I was poking around trying to find the trail, I could feel panic on a very low simmer, there below the surface. Why was that panic there at all? Because I was looking around and I couldn't see the trail. "Aaagh! I've lost the trail!" But that irrational fear is predicated on the assumption that I couldn't have missed something! Once I got beyond that prideful assumption and backtracked farther than I thought I needed to, my mistake was obvious and I was back on track. I wonder how many people have died because of their own pride?

So the rest of the hike down to Route 28 was uneventful, including the careful descent over those rock steps I mentioned. I continued on up Rocky, found some nice dry pine branches, and started a fire. This was not as easy as I'd expected. The first match lit just fine when struck on the scrap of striker from the match case. But that fire went out when I was scrounging for more wood, so I had to start it again. And for the life of me I couldn't get any of the other wooden matches to light. So I fell back on the book matches, which worked. This illustrates the importance of making sure your matches and your striker are fresh. That match case was my father's, so for all I know the matches and striker had been in it for decades.

I learned two other lessons around that time, both having to do with my feet. They started to get cold as I was standing in the snow tending the fire, and it was apparent that some water had gotten through the leather. So first, I needed wool socks; my father taught me that wool keeps you warm even when it's wet. Second, I need to water-proof the uppers on my Sorels.

I cooked four Hofmanns and enjoyed them with a bottle of Hennepin. Then I set up the bivy and called and texted some folks while enjoying a bottle of Rogue "Santa's Private Reserve". I got my boots and tomorrow's wool socks into the bivy, covered the pack with a contractor bag, zipped the bivy, and went to sleep.

Once I zipped up my sleeping bag I was, if anything, too warm. It was not very cold last night. I could tell that from the fact that I went gloveless the whole time I was setting up the bivy, pad and bag. No way could I have done that on a cold night.

So I slept - not badly, but not well either. It's going to take some getting used to that cramped, smelly environment. Of course, the worries preoccupying my mind don't help: how long should I wait before undergoing the peeing process? Should I unzip the sleeping bag so I don't get sweaty, or will I be too cold then? Is the condensation forming on the bag going to eventually wet through and make me cold? Will that damned snap on the bivy pop off, thus making the pole sag?

But here's the funny thing: All during the preparations for the night, all during the night, and all during the hike down the mountain and to Uncas Road in the morning, I had the song "Eli the Barrow Boy" running through my head. Sure, I heard the song recently - during my drives to and from Larchmont with Morgan and Ben. But I heard a lot of songs then. It's quite conspicuous that I fixated on the one song about sad, cold, lonely death. I find this quite reassuring. It means that my subconscious is keeping its finger on the gut-strings and feeling the vibrations of danger and risk. As long as that awareness doesn't rise high enough to spook me into doing something stupid, I'm happy it's there.

This morning I took far too long breaking down camp. "Oops - I left my knife in the sack that's now inside the pack... Oops! I forgot to fasten my suspenders before putting my shirt and jacket on!" I need to get much more efficient if I'm to do this in serious cold without damaging my hands.

So I finally got underway at 10:15, working my way carefully down the steep northern face of the summit. Boy, all those climbs up and down the ridiculously steep face of the ridge across the beaver meadow were good practice, because compared to that, this descent wasn't that bad. I went backwards when necessary, traversed when necessary, and got down in short order.

Then I started running into ridges and ravines. I was using a compass to stay on a generally north-by-northeast course because I figured that would take me back to Uncas with an eastward margin of error, which makes sense since camp is east of where I'd come in if I used a right-angle course. Well, that was clear as mud. Anyway. I tried to keep a north-by-northeast course but it turned out to be far more of a zig-zag than one usually has to take in the woods. That's because I constantly ran into granite ridges and ravines that were consistently very nearly perpendicular to my desired course. After a while the consistency became way too notable to be coincidence: those ridges and ravines are clearly a feature of the local geography. But they run roughly southeast to northwest! They can't be the result of glacial till, can they? I need to ask someone about this, because it's gotten me very curious.

Anyway, I did a hell of a lot of traipsing over and around ridges and ravines, so it felt like a lot longer than it was. When I finally made it back to Uncas I was surprised when I checked the time: 11:02. I'd made it from the summit of Rocky to Uncas Road in a smidge over 45 minutes!

So I traipsed back to camp, stocked the indoor woodpile, started drying out all the wet clothes, consolidated the ridiculous mountain of kindling-oid odds and ends, burning most of it, and cooked that glorious breakfast. And here I am!

Notes on gear performance: A big thumbs-up to the sweat-wicking underlayer garments, and especially to the head cover! It's incredibly versatile: the whole thing can be pulled down around the neck; I can pull it up to cover my chin; I can pull the top up over my head with the lower part remaining in this position; I can pull the chin piece up over my nose and breathe through the relatively thin patch of fabric; and finally, if I want, I can pull the top part all the way down over my nose so that my face is covered for sleeping. Unfortunately the logo "CTR" doesn't tell you much, and the website is under construction. I suppose this head covering is little different from many on the market, but man, it's quite a revelation to me. I like not sweating!

Unfortunately the Outdoor Research gloves get a big thumbs-down. They do not live up to the hype. The package says "Stretch nylon exterior resists wind and abrasion for warmth and durability". But I put a tear in one glove after three hours of hiking, just by brushing up against some branches! And there's an abraded spot on the other glove that looks like it will become a hole soon. I'm taking these back to Mountain Man. $26 for a pair of gloves that fragile is just wrong.

Going into town now to call Grace and to get some water seal wax for my Sorels. And maybe to brag a little. :)

5:05 PM
Damn! It only got down to 26 F last night! That was no test at all!

Pedals and Petals didn't have water-seal wax for my Sorels so I went to Old Forge. Now I'm back at camp having beer and preparing hot dogs, beans and sauteed onions. Tonight I'll waterproof the boots.

Ahhh, that hit the spot. So. Beer good. Seems like I'm enjoying this Sam Adams "Winter Classics" 12-pack more than I did a winter or two ago.

Let's see... what else have I learned? I learned that I need to have a system for packing and unpacking. I learned that the one drawback to my improvised heel strap is this: When ice freezes into the plastic clip, I need a knife to chip it out in order to free up the strap.

Most of all I learned that I need to get faster at setting up camp, and especially at breaking it down, before I can hit the peaks in the real cold.

7:13 PM
OK, so my Sorels are now water-sealed. Supposedly. Tomorrow will tell. Speaking of tomorrow: what shall I do? It's supposed to dip below zero tomorrow night. I think that the sensible thing would be to camp out on Bald.

Dec. 29
5:56 PM
Mmmmm! Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic goes even better than I'd dared hope with Cadbury chocolate!

Dad would get a kick out of hearing about my exploits. Yesterday I found my way back to Uncas quite efficiently using his old compass. Today I tried to take the reverse route, but the land was posted and I wasn't sure I had the right spot, and by the time I was sure that I'd gone too far, I'd gone way too far to the west. So I headed into the woods on a southward course rather than south-by-southwest. I estimated that this would either bring me straight to Rocky or intersect yesterday's path.

The going was way tougher today; there's clearly a knoll just to the west of yesterday's approach to Uncas, because today I did a hell of a lot of traversing and climbing and searching for a path.

But it turned out that I did indeed intersect yesterday's path. I was pretty impressed that I recognized a particular treefall from yesterday; I skirted it to the north and there were my tracks from yesterday. I followed them most of the way to the summit of Rocky, choosing a new ascent route toward the end. I got a 360° series of shots on top, then headed back down.

During the hike back I was pleased to find myself regaining a touch of my old unencumbered nimbleness. Even with the pack, there were moments when I was able to skate down slopes, balancing myself as I went, and skid gracefully to a stop. So I'm hopeful that, with time, I'll compensate for the altered center of gravity.

Between my increased nimbleness and the fact that I was following a path I knew to be efficient, my walk was much quicker than yesterday's. I was back on Uncas in short order.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Second Night in the Bivy

The little camp in the Adirondacks has been one of the greatest blessings of my life but also a curse: there's always the camp to come back to at night, so I never advanced beyond day-hiking. Sure, I can start a fire with the best of them, and split wood, and go on very strenuous day hikes. It's great exercise and it helps me to be robust. But I've never just gone into the woods for a night or for multiple nights with everything I need on my back.

So, in order to develop my body and my skills toward camping proficiency, I recently bought an Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy. It's not the easiest thing to set up, but it's very compact and probably is less of a pain to set up than a tent. So, provisionally, I think I like it.

Two weeks ago I spent my first night in the bivy. It was a cold night, and I was colder than I expected to be. My back didn't feel cold: I have a Therma-Rest inflatable foam pad, and it insulates me quite nicely. So clearly the sleeping bag I got from Freecycle was not quite up to snuff. Also, I wasn't breathing so well that night and the next day, which I think was an allergic reaction to the down fill. So the other day I ordered a Mountain Hardwear Lamina -30° bag. It arrived yesterday, just in time for me to camp out in the back yard in Oneida.

My plan is to ramp up to camping out on an Adirondack high peak in January. I need to do this in a controlled way because I have no interest in dying any time soon. So, for the second stage on the ramp, I chose to only go as far as the back yard.

I would have liked to hike out into the woods so that I'd introduce an incentive not to wimp out while retaining the option of walking home. But it was 2:00 AM, I'd been driving for six hours, and I had to get up in the morning to join my neice and nephew by the Christmas tree. Also, the walking part is not essential to the experiment because it's not an unknown. I know that I can climb a mountain all day and all night under almost any conditions, and that as long as I keep moving I'll generate more than enough heat to stay alive. So I consider the removal of the hiking part to be trivial.

The unknowns, however, are not trivial. If I reach a mountain top and it's thirty below and the wind is howling, will I be able to deploy the bivy, pad and bag before my hands freeze? If it's 32° and pouring rain will I be able to keep everything dry during the assembly? I need to answer these questions before I hit the high peaks.

As soon as I started unpacking I noticed a problem. I'd packed the sleeping bag on top of the frame pack, securing it with the main drawdowns. But I hadn't wrapped the sleeping bag in a contractor bag. So I had to put the sleeping bag on the ground while I unpacked the rest. This would have been a problem if it had been a wet night. So I need to get some contractor bags before I head out on any serious overnights.

I unpacked and deployed the bivy, making sure to point my feet into the wind. I'd learned this lesson from my first overnight, when I could hear and feel the wind prying at the zippered opening at the head.

I did not set any speed records in getting the poles and snaps assembled. I haven't used the bivy enough to trust the material too far, so I'm very careful about sliding the poles through their little tunnels. I'm a bit worried that, at my current speed, I'll get chillblains - if not frostbite - if I try this on a high peak. I need to get faster; I'm sure that will come with practice. I also need to find the maximum finger insulation that will leave me enough manual dexterity to do the job. I think that I could fit a pair of thin rubberized work gloves beneath my warm but fingerless mitten-gloves. This combination might be ideal. I'll give it a try soon.

I unrolled and blew up the sleeping pad, strapped it down in the bivy, dumped the spare flashlights, extra clothes, bottle of water, etc. into the head of the bivy, and stuffed in the foot of the sleeping bag. Now here's another part I need to improve: getting myself into the sleeping bag while getting the sleeping bag into the bivy. Right now it involves stepping out of my boots and onto the bag, shimmying the bag partway up my body, then lying down gradually as I work my way down into the bivy. Again, I will get a lot faster at this. I'll have to.

If I had to make one complaint about the bivy, it would be the zipper and pole arrangement. The poles anchor right near the ends of the zipper so they get in the way of any attempt to get the zipper started. It's one of those things that make you swear that it had to have been designed by a sadist or an octopus. Or a sadistic octopus. But I am getting faster at it.

So I hauled the boots into the bivy and zipped it closed. And as soon as I got myself zipped into the sleeping bag I knew that I wouldn't have any problems with the cold. This is one warm bag. I didn't need any of the extra layers I'd brought, so I just used one of them as a pillow and put the other one aside. The only part of my body that was cold was the exposed part of my face centered on my nose. Next time I'm going to wear a face mask.

I reached into my pocket for the toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste that I'd brought. I was about to unscrew the cap and squeeze some onto the brush when I took a closer look at the tube. Look closely at the picture above and you'll see what I saw. I'm very glad I looked, but at the same time I regret cheating myself out of a sitcom-level farce.

One of the most important lesson I learned during my first night in the bivy is that getting up to pee is a serious pain in the ass. By the time I had unzipped the bivy, wormed my way out, dropped trou, and aimed away from the gear, I was already shivering. This will not be tenable on a high peak. So I brought a plastic pee bottle. It let me do the necessary without ever leaving the sleeping bag. Once I was done I just unzipped the bivy a few inches and dumped the contents. Not dinner conversation, but boy was it a good idea.

I slept quite soundly, waking only when light filtered through the hood of the bivy. I got a bit worried about the moisture forming on the top of the bag. As the reviews for this bivy mention, condensation can be a problem. However, when I finally got up and felt the bag, it became clear that the amount of moisture was negligible. It would only become an issue if I were camping out on multiple nights with no opportunity to dry the bag in between.

I slept soundly so I consider last night a successful test and a valuable learning experience. The overnight low was 18°, which is practically tropical compared to the conditions in which I intend to camp. So I look forward to more and colder controlled experiment nights prior to any major ascents. Speaking of which: the bivy in the back yard awaits.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


The game of "Spy"
as explained by my five-year-old Goddaughter, A., while playing the game with me and her brother D.
July 11, 2009

  1. We start at the corner of the yard and, when A. says "Go!" we all run over to the jugle-gym airplane.
  2. When A. says "10" we all run back over to the corner of the yard. Note that A. in no way implied that she would count to 10. She just says "10!" and off we go. It is important to pay precise attention to instructions in this game of Spy.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2.
  4. Now, this time when A. says "10", we must all run inside, tiptoe past A.'s sleeping daddy, and run into her room.
  5. Once safely inside the room, A. reads the rules of "Spy" from a card that, on the surface, appears to be a Barbie invitation card to "A Ballerina Princess Party". The code is obviously dense, because the list of rules was long. Some of them have left me, but "Still doing what Mommy and Daddy say" was prominent. There were some memorable bits at the end, though: we all must run back out, and D. and I must try to be the first to touch Grace*, my fiancee; and after we have done this, I must thank A.
  6. When A. says "100" (again, note that she will not count to 100) we must run out and carry out the above instructions.

Now that I have documented this fascinating game, I am ready for A. to introduce me to the next one.

*I was the first one to touch Grace. Yay! Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm, A. had to remind me to thank her.