Monday, March 31, 2014

Plan for blogging on the PCT

Despite everything that's going on with my Mom, I am still planning to leave to hike the PCT next week.  She is still getting more testing and my Dad is with her, and they are considering more treatment options.

Anyway, at this point, the PCT preparations are back in full swing.  I wanted to let you all know that I DO plan to keeping blogging from the PCT.  I will aim for a weekly post at least.  It might be delayed and they could vary in frequency, but I'll do my best to keep you all updated how things are going.
Training hike at Arabia Mountain, GA.
I've never blogged from the trail, so I'm nervous that my writing and grammar will suffer when I'm not able to spend a lot of time re-writing and editing my entries.  Maybe you will overlook this if I include lovely photos?
Photo that I shared on instagram from a rare snowy day in Georgia.
I will also try something new.  I'll be posting photos on instagram.  The link is also on the side bar of the blog.  I have already included photos from hikes that I haven't otherwise written about for the blog.  I have found it quick and easy to post these photos so that should help you all to stay updated this way.
First bloodroot of the year.
I will also be keeping a paper journal.  Perhaps I will type some of these up sometime and post them later, or mail them to a volunteer to type up and post.  (So old-fashioned, I know!)

Finally, I will try to respond to comments on the blog, but I may not have time.  Please know I will read them and your comments always help keep me motivated and feeling connected.  Keep them coming!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

PCT planning: Not part of the plan

Dad just called me.  It’s about Mom’s recent cancer diagnosis.  They want to start her right away on radiation therapy for 6 weeks.  This comes as a shock.  We all thought the doctors said it was a benign form of cancer, that it wasn’t at risk of spreading, that the biopsies were promising.
Mom and I during the "southwest tour" last month.
My parents were planning on meeting me in So. Cal. in a few weeks on the PCT, and following me along the trail.  They were looking forward to meeting me in trail towns, and I was so excited to share in the adventure with them.  We’ve been talking about doing this for years, and have been planning this for months.  Cancer was not part of the plan.

Dad wants to delay treatment and just head out west to the PCT anyway.  He says if it were his cancer, he’d opt for 'no treatment' and take it as an opportunity to live life to the fullest (and “buy a motorcycle”).  But I can’t imagine Mom being comfortable not getting treatment right away- that’s how she is.  Plus, what if down the line things get worse- there’d be ‘what if’s’ and I couldn’t live with that if she put it off treatment to help me on the PCT.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but all I want is for my mom to be healthy. 

I realize I don't normally blog about more personal stuff like this, but right now all the gear, resupply boxes and training seem completely trivial.  This is what's real.

UPDATE: Mom is figuring out her treatment options and will likely get treatment right away- thanks everyone for your good wishes.  I will start hiking the PCT as planned.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

PCT training: Form and Feet

Recall that I’ve been concerned about injury prevention and my feet as I’ve been preparing to hike the PCT.  Thought I'd give you an update on how things are going.
Yay, feet!!!
During my training hikes these past 6 months, an old overuse injury (“IT band syndrome”) reoccurred (see previous blog post here).  I saw a physical therapist a few years ago about this, but I thought that that was all behind me.  Back in February, I had some knee pain again during a backpacking trip where I carried a fire rake strapped to my pack in the snow (probably not the smartest thing I’ve done….).   This pain scared the heck out of me, but provided further motivation to work on improving my alignment and hiking technique.

I was really thrilled when Barefoot Jake offered to talk with me about my form and posture.  Jake is a backpacker and uses minimalist footwear, and has a background in coaching.  The advice he gave me that helped me the most was how to maintain awareness of my form and how to initiate movement.  The other part that was really helpful was hearing how everyone is different and how important it is to listen to your body and adjust accordingly.  On my hikes since then, I've been paying close attention to my alignment, especially on the downhills when I’m tired and more prone to getting sloppy.  I've also been careful to stretch, to not overdo it, and not carry large wooden-handled tools strapped to my pack to throw me off balance.  Happy to report that I haven't had any more knee pain.
Walking mindfully in the snow.  Photo by Stacy Boone.
On my trip to the southwest, I noticed that this attention to form helped me on the snow.  When I shifted my weight smoothly and deliberately (and maintained a ‘zen mindset’), I had fewer problems postholing in the snow.  Bonus!

So a big thanks to Barefoot Jake.  Check out his website with lots of informative articles on barefoot and minimalist hiking and don't hesitate to give him a shout if you have questions.

I've also been anticipating potential problems with my feet.  Blisters are often a problem for hikers in So. Cal on the PCT.  During our snow skills course, one of the things that Stacy stressed was the importance of taking care of our feet and regularly stopping to air them out, treat hot spots, and keep them moisturized.  I've never had big problem with blisters and I've never needed to put lotion or body glide on my feet before, so this is going to be new to me.
Checking my feet during a rest break.  They are looking happy so far and I'm trying to keep them that way.
I also have been transitioning to lightweight, zero-drop footware for the PCT.   Because of my big feet (I have to wear men’s shoes) and bunions, I’ve always had a horrible time finding shoes.  In the past 6 months, I tried dozens of shoes and went to countless shoe stores.  Finally, the local running store fit me with Altra Lone Peaks back in October.
Renee and I in our Altras.
I have never in my whole life loved shoes as much as these.  Well, maybe those knee-high black leather combat boots with the side zipper that I had in my punk rock high school days that made me feel like a bad-ass Riot Grrrl… but I digress… Anyway, I didn’t think it was possible to have shoes that I loved again.  Ones that gripped tight to sheer rocks like I found at Canyonlands National Park.  Ones that didn’t hurt my bunions or make my little toe feel cramped when I backpack.  When I walk in them, I experience the ground differently too.  I am reminded of this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: "Walk as if you are kissing the ground with your feet."

During my snow skills course, I wore my Altras so I could test them for the Sierra.  It may sound strange to wear light, non-waterproof trail runners in the snow, but I found a way to keep my toes from going numb with cold in them.  I used a layering system, starting with thin smartwool socks, then rocky gortex socks, then warmer hiking socks, then plastic bags, and finally two pair of gaiters (dirty girls and gortex tall gaiters).  I'm happy I can use these same shoes and just send myself the gortex socks (and perhaps the gortex gaiters) when I enter the Sierra. 
Sock and gaiter layers system for snow.
The funny thing is that Renee (who is also hiking the PCT) got fit for the exact same shoes when she went to her running store in Ohio.  And she is just as thrilled with her shoes as I am.  The take-home message is this— if you are having trouble finding shoes- don’t give up hope even if it takes you years and years of looking.  And try going to your local running store if nothing else works.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed are my own and I paid for these shoes with my own money.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wanted: Wisteria

A break from PCT planning for an important pubic service announcement….

Dear Readers in GA, NC, and SC,

Are you going to be visiting any of these places on this map (shown below) over the next few weeks this spring?  Can you take a few moments away from your hiking to help out a graduate student studying invasive plants?
Are you planning on going to any of these points on this map?
My friend Sandra Hoffberg is looking for volunteers to hunt for wisteria, a vine with showy purple flowers, at specific sites.  You can help her with this critical part of her dissertation research by checking out her website and contacting her.  She can’t offer payment in return, but you will get the satisfaction of being part of a very cool research project, and knowing that you got to help ‘DO SCIENCE.’  It'll be like going on a treasure hunt!
Wisteria is highly invasive vine in the southeast.
All you have to do is let her know if you find wisteria at one of these sites on her map and take a photo.  Be sure to click on the points (on her website) for the written description of the location.  Then have her enter the data on her website.  For all you wildflower enthusiasts, weekend hikers, and springtime travelers who are out enjoying the gorgeous southeastern spring, that should be easy.
Me, another grad student, and Sandra holding wisteria leaves.
All those dots on her maps are places where wisteria has been documented before in herbarium records.  But no one knows how long an invasive species can remain in the same place or at what rate invasive vines go extinct.  Everyone assumes that once an invasive plant establishes, that it’s there forever.  But Sandra’s research investigates this assumption.  Landscape changes might cause some populations to go locally extinct— she has already done preliminary surveys to show this occurs in some places.  Understanding how invasive plants get established and what happens to them over time may help (eventually) to slow their spread and offer solutions for control.
A long-forgotten cemetery teeming with wisteria.
I helped Sandra with her field work for the past few years.  Exploring the backroads (and back alleys) of Georgia hunting for wisteria and kudzu was one of the most fun parts of my job.  Since I’m heading out to go hike the PCT in less than two weeks, I’m going to miss this field season, but I can’t wait to hear about the findings! 
That’s me two years ago recording wisteria sites in Athens, GA.
Once again, please check out her website and contact her if you can help, or forward this message on to anyone you know who in the southeast.

Thank you,

Joan (Hemlock)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Trail Dames Beginner Backpacking Trip

This beginner backpacking trip with the Trail Dames felt so precious and meaningful for me— it was my ‘last’ beginner trip (and second to last trip I lead for the Dames) before I leave for the PCT.  I always find it so exhilarating to watch others experience the excitement of backpacking for the first time (there were 4 first time backpackers).  Being around others who are so thrilled to be out in nature and helping them learn backpacking skills, reminds me about what is most important to me in my life.
Trail Dames beginner backpacking trip.
Everyone’s stories as we give introductions were so varied and inspiring!  One woman decided she wanted to take up backpacking since she’d turned 70 (how cool is that!?!?).  A common thread was wanting to be part of a group where it was OK to hike slowly and enjoy the experience, and where they could learn to do things themselves, rather than having others do the camp tasks (like when the “guys” throw the bear ropes) and make the decisions (like selecting where to camp).
We had some awesome teamwork and ingenuity getting a stuck throw line for the bear bags unstuck- way to go ladies! Photo by Amy.
One thing I absolutely love about beginner trips is seeing the backpacking through fresh eyes.  Gathering and purifying water is one of the first lessons.  As they used their filters and steripens (and discuss other options like aquamira), the women on the trip expressed the wonder in gathering water.  There was delight to tasting the coolness of the mountain stream water.  It turned the process that sometimes feels like a “chore” into something empowering-  because the ability to get water equates to freedom to stay out longer, to being self-sufficient. 
Gathering and purifying water.
One of the biggest challenges I have when teaching a beginner backpacking class is how much to share and explain, and how much to let the women find their own way.  When I strike the right a balance, they figure things out for themselves, and I watch the wheels turn and hear a new flood of questions.  The heartfelt questions- raw with truth, expressing fears, and the ones that spark deeper conversations.  I can see myself in these women.  There have been so many questions as I’ve been preparing for the PCT.  I ask here, and ask there, and ask everywhere- grateful for the expertise and wisdom I find, but in the end it comes down to trying things out for myself.
Steps upward.
Night hikes are my favorite ‘Leave No Trace’ alternative to having a campfire.  We stopped at the high point on the trail and took a moment to turn off our headlamps and look at the night sky.   The stars were amazing.  In the silence, I felt the magic of sharing those moments with these women who started off strangers in the morning.  And I am grateful to them for their questions and openness to new ideas (and to entertaining all my leave-no-trace lessons).
Glow-ring power on the nighthike.
As I prepare for the PCT, I have been reflecting a lot.  A friend ask me what I ‘believe in’ and I say this: I believe in spending time outdoors, in finding the wonder that is out there, and sharing it with others.
Becky Branch Falls along the Bartram Trail of Georgia.
Stopping to enjoy the rue-anemone- an early spring ephemeral.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Canyonlands National Park

The final backpacking trip on the 'southwest tour' (before Renee and I head off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail)...

‘Mindblowing’ describes this 3-night backpacking trip to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park, UT.  The views were over the top (literally) and the terrain and scenery were completely varied- a surprise around every corner.  We’d start our days leaping across desert creeks and then we’d climb up to dizzying heights and cling to the edges of cliffs, hearts pounding.  I didn't want to leave.
Ah what a view!
Flowing springs in the canyons were an unexpected delight.  Each canyon was different from the next- rich riparian Squaw Canyon, large Salt Creek lined with cottonwoods, potholes teeming with fairy shrimp on the way to Squaw Flat (so cool!!!).
Elephant Canyon
Squaw Canyon
Climbing over from one canyon to the next required ladders, boulder scrambles, and slopes I could not believe we would scale when I first looked at them.  It was scary and challenging… and I absolutely LOVED IT!
Going for it on the uphills.  Photo by Renee.
This part was fun/scary cause there were dropoffs on both sides.  Photo by Renee.
Many times we said to one another that we had to trust the NPS that this trail was passable.  We also had to remind ourselves to trust our own strength and our shoes- they turned out to have extra sticky soles that never failed to grip the rocks.
Renee walking on the side of a rock.
Bear canisters and wag bags 
And if the terrain wasn't enough of a thrill, new regulations required bear canisters for our campsite in the upper Salt Creek Canyon and human waste disposal bags for our two other campsites.  So we were carrying all the extra weight of bear cans and our poop as we clung to the edges of cliffs or squeezed through tights spots in the rocks.  Whenever a spot felt too difficult, we’d take off our packs and hand them over the ravine or down the inclines to one another- these trails were much, much easier without full packs and I *almost* envied the dayhikers— but not really because I loved spending so much time out there, plus I sure felt strong carrying that darn heavy pack and getting in an awesome core workout.
Look I’m carrying my own poop in this special bag!  Photo by Renee.
It may sound gross to pack out your own poop, but what’s really gross is finding other people’s poop and toilet paper in the backcountry— I see it all the time on the Appalachian Trail- yuck!  People there do not dig holes properly and they do not choose sites far enough away from campsites or the trail.  In arid environments like Canyonlands, decomposition happens very slowly, and campsites were often close to our water sources.  So I was really quite glad for these regulations- they kept the campsites and water clean. 

Lessons from the Red Layer
We quickly noticed that one of the rock layers was much easier to travel over than the other.   Geologists that we are… NOT…  we called the smooth, rounded layer that was easy to walk over the 'white layer' and the upper, more sheer vertical layer the ‘red layer.’ (We later found out at the visitor’s center that this Cedar Mesa sandstone was deposited during the Permian- the white layers are the nearshore dunes, while the red are the river and lake deposits that eroded from huge mountains.)
Grateful to be on the “nice, gentle" white rock layer.  I felt like I could soar across.  Photo by Renee.
At first, I got mad at the red layer because crossing it made the fear well up inside me.  The pass over to Peekaboo had one part that was the stuff of my nightmares- a narrow traverse with a steep drop-off.  When we got to that part, my gut reaction was that I wouldn’t go any further.  But Renee came back across it, and carried my pack over that part for me.  I followed her across and didn't slip and die, much to my relief.  Logically, it made no sense why I got so scared- that part was nowhere near as technically difficult as other sections that I’d sailed across.  It was that visual of the drop-off that I let get to me.  The red layer made me face my fears.
Pointing to my scary spot on the red layer- that horizontal traverse out past the green bushes.  Photo by Renee.
Later, Renee faced similar obstacles- she hates ladders, and steep steps/ uphills.  So she’d hand her pack to me, or I’d go first over those parts and help talk her through them.  Go teamwork!

That evening, looking at the map, I realized that there was an alternate route back to the trailhead, that I didn’t NEED to go over that steep drop-off spot again.  There was a choice- go over the red layer again vs. take the dirt road.  That’s when Renee and I reviewed what we’d learn from the red layer— crossing over the red layer made us grow as hikers; the red layer made us stay present and in the moment; we could see far and have better perspective from the red layer; it allowed us to appreciate the safety and ease of the white layer.  Of course, we went back over the red layer on our last day!  And it was FUN!
Playing at "stepping off the end of the world" on the red layer on the last day.  Photo by Renee.
A few things that I learned
I was thrilled with the scenery at Canyonlands, and also that the arid environment provided excellent opportunities to learn how to be adaptable in different and ever-changing environments.  It really hit home how "routine" my backpacking has become back in Georgia.  In contrast, I was challenged and constantly learning on this trip and that was really satisfying.  I'm looking forward to this continuing on the PCT.

Contending with the sand (and the dryness) was also a new thing for me.  Sand had to be dumped out of shoes on breaks, and at night it would take an entire wet one just to get the sand out from between toes (even with dirty girl gaiters).  Backpacking in the southeast, I hardly ever use any lotions and I'd repackaged my lotion into teeny tiny containers that seemed laughable out West- where I was lathering on the sunscreen every 2 hours (more than that and I’d burn), and slopping on the lotion to keep my hands and feet from cracking.  SO different from Georgia!

I’ve been carrying around the same small roll of duct tape in my kit for at least three years.  It was all gone by the end of this trip- patching holes in skin and gear.  Both packs got small holes where the sides of our backpacks scraped against rock.  Next time I might put a protective layer of duct tape on the wide part of the pack BEFORE I go, especially if they are large from carrying bear canisters and two days of POOP. :)
Why they make canyoneering packs that are tall and narrow.
Our route:
We got dropped off at the Elephant Hill trailhead, hiked out to EC3 (gorgeous site!) and set up camp, then did an out and back hike to Druid Arch in the afternoon.  Elephant Canyon had a lot of dayhikers.   On day 2, we hiked down Squaw Canyon (lovely riparian area) then up over to LC1 (another gorgeous site, and more wooded).  Then an afternoon out and back up Lost Canyon- this part of the park was more remote and beautiful and we only saw three other people.  On day 3, we climbed up and over to Peekaboo, and then into Salt Creek- doing an out and back further into the canyon- just one other group encountered and it was cool because they showed us some pictographs we’d have otherwise missed.  On the last day, we went out to Squaw Flat campground where my folks picked us up.  What an excellent trip- I only wish we'd have stayed out a few more nights!
Dad meets us at the trailhead with refreshments- he's really getting the hang of being a trail angel!

-We made reservations for our campsites well in advance so we got our choice of campsites. 

-Secure your food at all times.  We saw where animals had gotten into someone’s unattended pack that had been stashed at a trail junction.  DON’T leave your food out!  We carried a bear canister (required for some areas)- you can borrow these from the ranger station.

-This time of year, early March, nights were cold/ below freezing- there was frost on tarps, ice on water (and on rock in a few places), and the bear canister was frozen shut in the morning (side note: does anyone else have this problem where the top of the bear can is frozen due to frost?)

-Water sources are seasonal and intermittent.  Check at the ranger station before you head out.  We lucked out and there was plenty of water in all the canyons.  Other times of year, you need to pack your own water and be especially careful to leave water for wildlife.  Water is precious in this area, so don't camp or pee near the water and certainly never wash in the water.

Check out Renee's trip report on her blog, Pathfinder on the PCT.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Another stop on our “southwest tour” (before Renee and I start hiking the PCT), Canyons of the Ancients National Monument outside of Cortez, Colorado….

While Renee and I were on taking our snow course, my parents stayed in a cabin at Kelly Place Bed and Breakfast, adjacent to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado.  After our course, we joined them there for another two nights and got to hike from there into the Monument. 
Sleeping in my hammock at the B&B (have I mentioned I love my hammock!), but I didn't pass up the delicious breakfast.
Dad hiked by himself to see the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings while we were gone, and had gotten really turned around.  He spend a couple hours trying to find his way back, and had a wild look in his eye as he told the story- saying that wandering around on top of the ridge alone and feeling the thrill of being lost was the most fun he'd had for a long time.  (I sure know where I get it from!)

We decided to try to retrace his route and see if we could find the trail he was attempting to follow.  Renee and I equipped ourselves with compasses, written instructions provided by Kelly Place, and I downloaded the relevant maps using Gaia GPS on my iphone. 
Dad climbing up the loose rocks.
Right from the property, Dad, Renee and I followed a faint trail up a canyon for about a mile.  Crossing over a barbed wire fence, we entered the National Monument.  Dad's footprints from the previous day were apparent, and he showed us where he'd gone.  After a few false starts and repeatedly checking maps and compass, eventually we found the White Rim Trail.  The whole area was as beautiful as Dad had described!  There were hardly any signs of other hikers- this part of the park is fairly inaccessible. 
The White Rim Trail is named after this rock formation.
Dad looking thrilled.
 We hiked east for a few miles on the White Rim Trail (which was marked with carins) to see a series of four incredible ruins.
Looking but not touching.
Pottery shards.
Even more ruins.
After the hike, we walked around the other archeological sites on the Kelly Place property, climbed down into the restored kiva, found mountain lion tracks down a wash, and finished the day with cookies and hot chocolate in the common room.   Ahhh what a life!

I'm not even going to pretend this is preparing me for the PCT- the miles were short and we had to stop all the time to take photos and say 'WOW.'  But it was really sweet to learn so much about the Ancestral Puebloans and see these remote cliff dwellings, and especially to get to hike with my dad.

More information:
Here is a map of the trail and ruins from the Kelly Place website.

Umbrella rigging

Several people have asked how I attach my umbrella to my pack so I can use it 'hands-free."  There are a few other ways to do it, but this method (that I learned from Jim (PITA)-thank you again!) is easy and inexpensive.
Hands-free, so I can use my hiking poles (or goof off).
For materials, get two shock cord loops with cordlocks (3/32" shockcord), and a short (3") piece of 1/2" (inside diameter) foam pipe insulation.

Shock Cord loops
Cut the shock cord to 8-12" lengths (I made them longer to start and then cut them down when I figured out how much I used so they wouldn’t flop around).  Thread the shock cord into a cordlock, and tie into a loop.
Shock cord loops with cordlocks.
The shock cord loops are attached to the pack at two points.  Location of the points depends on the pack (i.e. number and location of loops on the pack strap) and the angle you want the umbrella.  For greater flexibility, I larkshead the loops to the pack so I can make adjustments to change angle of the umbrella as the sun or rain moves.  I leave the loops on the pack.
Shock cord loops on the pack and foam pipe insulation on the umbrella shaft.
On our Gossamer Gear Mariposa packs, Renee and I both like the upper loop at the base of the load lifter and the lower loops near the chest strap.  Sometimes I attach the lower loop below the chest strap like shown in the previous photo, but other times I put the loop above the chest strap.  I wish there was another loop below the load lifter for the upper loop though, and may end up sewing one on eventually.

In general, distance between the shock cord attachment points affects the stability of the umbrella, so if the points are close together, the umbrella tends to move around more.  But if they are too far apart, the umbrella shaft may dig into your shoulder.

Foam Pipe Insulation
The foam pipe insulation goes around the umbrella shaft and slides up and down.  The foam keeps the umbrella more stable and provides cushion when the upper shock cord loop is secured around it.  When the umbrella is collapsed, the foam pipe insulation slides down the shaft so the umbrella can be closed completely.

“Rigging” the umbrella
Thread the umbrella shaft through the top and bottom shock cord loops.  The upper shock cord loop goes around the foam pipe insulation, and gets cinched down.  The lower cord lock rests in the groove of the umbrella handle.
Upper shock cord around the pipe insulation, lower cord on the umbrella handle groove.
Adjust the tension of the shock cords on the umbrella by tightening or loosing the cordlocks.  This gives the umbrella less “wobble.”  If they are too tight, your shoulder may get bruised, so play with the tension or adjust the location of the foam insulation.

Hands-free without the pack
I also have a hands-free rigging method for when I'm not wearing the pack.  I use my bra strap and shirt bottom (folded over) as the two “attachment” points.  It looks funny (especially with a purple bra), but it works when I can't otherwise find a shady spot and want to have both hands free to eat.
Alternate hands-free “rigging” using bra strap and shirt.
Note about carrying the umbrella
While I just described how I use the umbrella hands-free, I also want to add that the more I use the umbrella, the more frequently I carry it in one hand and stow one or both hiking poles in my pack.  This allows me to adjust the angle of the umbrella to keep more of the sun off me.  I tend to use the hands-free rigging on long downhills (where I like to use my poles) and while bushwhacking so the umbrella doesn't get caught on branches.
Umbrella in hand while climbing over logs and ducking under brush.
During our trip to the southwest, we encountered other hikers who would look at us strange for carrying our umbrellas.  I’m used to getting funny looks- especially for wearing leg gaiters, arm sleeves, and DIY clothes- but the umbrella seemed to bring it to a whole new level.  We chuckled as dayhikers gawked, grinned when a sweet couple asked to take our picture, and smiled sheepishly when people said they could see us coming for “miles” (The shinny silver is so not LNT- it does not blend it to the environment). 
Carrying the umbrella at Canyonlands Nat'l Park.
As another umbrella-related aside, I finally figured out to reach my umbrella when it's stowed in my pack WITHOUT having to take off my pack or ask anyone for assistance.  Just for fun, here is a video of the “quick draw umbrella”:

More about umbrellas:
Excellent article by Frances Tapon about the benefits of using an umbrella.
I found further uses for the umbrella on the Arizona Trail.
Another handy umbrella tip by SlowBro, for making an umbrella sling.

Update: Rockin also has a hands-free umbrella method if this doesn't work for you.

You can't get the Chrome Dome umbrella from Golite anymore, but Gossamer Gear now carries them here.  Note that I am a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador, but I got my Chome Dome from Golite.

Snow Skills

For the third stop on the “southwest tour” before we start hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)….

Renee and I took a fantastic snow skills course in the southern San Juans of Colorado which covered how to travel over snow in the mountains, how to use an ice ax, and much more.  It was taught by Stacy Boone of Step Outdoors- who is a mentor for us, and also taught us a Leave No Trace Trainer Course a few years ago. 
Heading up to 11,000 feet, ice ax on my pack.  Photo by Stacy.
I have been wanting to learn snow skills for a long time, and since Renee and I are hiking the PCT this year, we decided now would be a good time to do it.   Even though it is a low snow year in the Sierras, that doesn’t mean we won’t encounter any snow on the PCT.  And even if I don’t use any of these skills this year, I intend to put them to use someday… like on future hikes out in Colorado, perhaps even the CDT.

We started with techniques to navigate and travel over snow.  I liked learning the cross step, duck walk, and kick step because they focused me to think about my form- making my kick steps level, keeping my balance, using my core muscles, and softly shifting my weight- so I didn’t have time to be scared of falling down the slope.
Postholing is when you sink down into the snow. Photo by Stacy.
The soft snow and weather conditions meant that sometimes we were postholing up to our hips.  This made it a struggle to get unstuck and make any forward progress.  We realized how exhausting and frustrating traveling over snow can be.  But then we discussed ways of getting through the frustration and managing our attitudes about how we react to the challenges that nature will provide us- essential skills because long-distance hiking presents significant mental challenges like this.
Resting near the summit. (I was too excited so I ran around taking photos.)
We also went for additional Avalanche Awareness training with Bill of the San Juan Mountain Guides.  Avalanches are a significant risk in Colorado, and the risk level was high during our course (A local ski patroller even died the day before in an avalanche).  Outfitted with avalanche beacons and mountaineering boots, we learned the signs and conditions to look for that indicate higher avalanche risk.  This training opened up my eyes and ears in new ways- I now understand what to look for when I travel over snow.  The avalanche risk is much less where and when we will be on the PCT, but still, I believe that this sort of knowledge makes me much better prepared for future snow travel and the skills for dealing with risk in the backcountry are universal.
Estimate the slope to see if there is a greater risk for avalanche.
Self arrest is a technique where you use an ice ax to stop yourself if you accidentally end up sliding down a steep slope.  I was apprehensive when I watched our instructor demonstrate sliding down head first on his back down a slope, and then turn himself around using his ice ax to self arrest.  I’M SUPPOSE TO DO THAT!  But when it was my turn, I planted my ice ax firmly, spun around, and stopped!  I’m hoping the self arrest technique will get into my muscle memory in the rare event I’ll ever have to use it.
Renee practicing self arrest. Photo by Stacy.
One concept that was emphasized was “mitigating risk.”  There are many things we could do to decrease our risk like traveling in the morning, or traveling at a faster pace in dangerous places.  Reflecting on our decision making processes at the end of the day also allowed us to learn from our experiences.  Asking “Did I get away with it, or did I get it done?” allowed us to distinguish if we just got lucky or if we made the judgement calls that will keep us safe in the future.
Mitigating our risk while crossing through tree wells by spreading out. Photo by Stacy.
When we were heading down out of the mountains the last day of the course, I realized just how much my outlook had changed.  Instead of looking up and thinking just how beautiful those snow covered peaks were, I could actually see things about the mountains I hadn’t before and I could imagine myself up there.  This definitely planted a seed- inspiring me to dream about future trips or mountaineering courses into snow-covered mountains.
Happy in the snow.
There are snow courses available many places, but I was really happy to take this course with Stacy- she is an excellent teacher and mentor.  She also showed great flexibility in adding additional lessons on other topics that we wanted to cover including foot care and blister kits, planning for water in So. Cal, and Leave No Trace practices for the desert and for mountaineering.  She spent hours discussing nutrition and going over my menus and resupply plans for the PCT.  She was supportive of my particular backpacking style and goals (i.e. no-cook meals, hammocking, and lighterweight philosophy), while also providing guidance and balanced perspectives.  Things like “you always want better food than everyone else.”   Her husband, Greg Boone (also a Triple Crowner) added to the discussions- having the two of them talk about their experiences, answering my endless questions, and offering advice was just priceless!
Near the top.