Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Renee and I are on a“southwest tour” with my parents before we go hike the PCT.  For our first stop, we spent two nights backpacking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas… 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park features the highest peak in Texas, remote wilderness and an astonishingly wide diversity of plant habitats- from the Chihuahuan Desert to the mountain top forests of oak and pine.  The geology of the Guadalupe Mountains is also fascinating- they were formed from a 265-million years fossil reef. 
On top of Guadalupe Peak (8751 feet), highest point in Texas.
Since there are no springs or other backcountry water sources, we planned our two out-and-back overnight backpacking trips from the same trailhead at the campground so we could get water on the second day.  We figured that carrying all our water into the backcountry each night would be good practice for the long water-carries on the PCT.

On the first day, my parents dropped us off near the visitor's center, and while they went off for shorter dayhikes, Renee and I followed well-designed switchbacks up the 3000 foot climb to Guadalupe Peak, highest point in Texas.  Several dayhikers, but only two other backpackers, were also on this popular trail.
The water I’m carrying weights more than everything else in my pack combined.
Being out West, I couldn’t stop grinning.  Even though I've lived in the East for a long time, I still think of myself as someone from the West at heart (I grew up in Oregon).  As much as I love my familiar hiking trails in Georgia, these tall mountains with those sweeping views make me so happy. 
Spectacular views.
Marveling how these mountains were made by corals and other marine organisms.
After having dinner on Guadalupe Peak and watching the sun begin to set, we hiked back down to our campsite.  In the early hours of morning, wind gusts rocked my hammock like I’ve never experienced before, but we had a view of the sunrise.
First night at Guadalupe Campsite.  Hanging with a view.
Renee tries out cowboy camping.
The second day, we descended to the campground to resupply with water.  We didn’t expect to see them, but somehow my parents guessed exactly when we would be there.
My parents met us with delicious fresh oranges.
For the second out-and-back trip, we began with a hot climb up the more exposed Tejas Trail.  This part of the park receives few visitors and felt more remote.  We only saw two dayhikers on the climb.
Umbrellas provided needed shade.
Even though I've been living so long in the southeast, I could feel my body rapidly adjusting to the intense sun, dry air, and altitude.  My old desert hiking tricks came back to me-- soaking my shirt in water and then putting it on to provide instant 'air conditioning,' hiking 'shade to shade' and stretching out on cool shaded rocks whenever I started feeling too hot.
View across the valley of Guadalupe Peak where we'd hiked that morning.
Narrowleaf puccoon.
 Cresting the ridgetop was like walking into a completely different world- there was ponderosa pine and chirping of birds.  We followed along a ridge before descending down the valley to the lovely forested Tejas campsite.
Lots of fossils and neat rocks everywhere.  Maybe next time I'll find a trilobite.
Taller and taller trees.
Hanging from gambrel oak at Tejas Campsite.
Guadalupe was a spectacular park, and I only wish we’d been able to spend a week there because there were so many more trails to explore.  I’m definitely planning to go back!
Thank you to fellow 2014 PCT hiker and hammock hanger Mark “SlowBro” for the trail and campsite recommendation!

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

More information:

-Stop at the Pine Springs Visitors Center to pick up your backcountry permit, which are issued on a first come first served basis.  We did have a ranger check our permit on the first night.  Campsites had no water, but did have tent pads.  Winds can be severe so check the forecast.

-If you go to Guadalupe, don’t miss Carlsbad Caverns National Park, only an hour away, which is part of the same ancient reef formation.  We went during the week, and got to wander around the mile-long loop through the large cavern all on our own, enjoying the quiet and listening to occasional water drops splashing into pools.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

PCT prep: Gear list before starting

I’m setting off to hike the PCT in just a month and a half, I’ve been trying to make final gear decisions. Here is a link to my current gearlist.

Right now, my base weight is 13.6 lbs.  That's not as low as I'd like, but I’m trying to think of this more as a work in progress, pre-PCT gear list.  I anticipate that I will be learning a lot as I go, and finding ways to cut my pack weight further.  **If anyone has any suggestions, please comment or email me.**

A few notes about me and my hiking style to provide some context.  This is my first long-distance hike.  Much of this gear is what I’ve used backpacking in the southeast on weekend trips.  I tried making a few changes for the conditions that I expect along the PCT.  I’ve already covered the hammock-specific gear in a previous post (here). 

You may notice that my sleeping clothing tend towards the heavy side (i.e. down booties and fleece hoodie).  I tend to be cold, both at night and while hiking.  I’ve been testing various systems all winter, spending several nights VERY cold and uncomfortable, trying to see how little insulation I could get away with.  There is a tradeoff between weight of sleeping clothes and weight of quilts- when I use lighter sleeping clothes, I needed warmer quilts to stay tolerably warm.  I decided to go with lighter quilts and heavier sleeping clothes so that I can then also use the clothes when I am cold while hiking.  For example, I wrap my head with my down jacket when I sleep because my quilt doesn’t have a hood, but I often wear my down jacket (and fleece hoodie, and rain pants) while I hike.
That's me on the left with my rainpants and fleece hoodie, while everyone else is in tshirts.
It drives me crazy that it always takes me longer than most of my hiking companions to warm up, and that sometimes I can’t move fast enough to get warm.  Some of this is due to Raynaud’s Syndrome, some due to hypoglycemia if I don’t pay enough attention to my diet and get low blood sugar, some just due to having a low resting heart rate from being an aerialist and runner.  In any case, I keep hoping I will change (haha! that's doubtful!) or figure out other ways to stay warm.  For the time being, this sleeping system is the best I’ve come up with, even though it seems relatively heavy compared to other people's.
Things I am not bringing:

Stove  I’ve enjoyed the simplicity and speed of stoveless meals for several years.  With the drought and fire restrictions in So. Cal. I believe that it is important to do everything possible to prevent forest fires- I’ll definitely NOT bring an alcohol stove or have campfires.  I know there is an argument for carrying a stove for safety reasons, so I will consider bringing one into the Sierra and Washington at a later time.

Solar charger  I’m going with a battery pack to charge my iPhone between town stops.  I will keep my phone off as much as possible and use my paper Halfmile maps.

Camp shoes  I don’t use these now.  I just air out my feet during breaks and wear my trail runners through water crossings.
Things I’m still undecided about:

I’ve been trying for months to use the camera on my iPhone, but I’m still disappointed with the quality of the photos compared to my Canon S120 (7.5 oz).  The weight cost of my camera is 7.5 oz, even if I bounce the battery charger ahead (2.3 oz) or omit the extra battery (0.9 oz).  I was talking to JJ about it last week- and she really urged me to think about my priorities for my PCT trip, and how it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I do value having nicer photos to remember my trips and to post here on the blog, and I have always regretted all the trips I’ve previously done without my camera- without exception.  But 7.5 oz is a lot.

I’ve got a 2.5 oz Sunday Afternoons hat that is huge and provides lots of coverage.  But I wonder if this is needed with the umbrella.  I’m going to be on the lookout for something lighter in the next month.  Any suggestions?

Hiking clothes- pants vs. skirt. 
I’ve got two hiking clothes options: what I normally wear and love here in the southeast, and what I think could be better adapted to the sun of So. Cal.   I love the versatility and breeziness of my DIY skirts and tall gaiters.  And I actually sewed up a new skirt for the PCT (out of the lovely galaxy print fabric from one of my old trapeze costumes), and made it longer to protect my knees.  Plus it’s even an ounce lighter than my old DIY camo hiking skirt!  But, I am also considering wearing Railrider pants- they would provide better sun and bug protection, but have pleats and are an ounce heavier than my skirt plus DIY tall gaiters.  The other consideration besides weight, comfort, and hideous pleats is that skirts make for super-fast peeing- and I really don’t want to go back to having to take off my pack and squatting- ugh!
Pants/ short gaiters vs. skirt/ tall gaiters.
Hiking clothes- long sleeved shirt vs. short sleeved shirt plus sleeves
I’m also trying to decide between my old long-sleeved, collared shirt and my short-sleeved icebreaker shirt plus DIY sleeves combo.  The long-sleeved shirt (7 oz) provides better sun and bug protection, is possibly cooler because of the side vents and material, but it weighs a bit more.  On the other hand, I wear my icebreaker wool short sleeved shirts (4.2 oz) all the time in the southeast, and I like how they feel.  My DIY sleeves (1.5 oz) are versatile- I love that I can take them on and off without taking off my pack, and I sewed up new DIY sleeves for the PCT out of a favorite old, lilac capilene shirt that come down over my hands with little slits for my thumbs- this will provide extra sun protection for my "freakishly" long arms.
What’s next...
I’m leaving for a trip to the southwest, and I will be bringing all these clothing options and thinking more about my camera, so hopefully that will help me decide.  And if not, I’ll leave it with my parents so they can get whatever I decide I need to me on the trail. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Checking on Section 10.3 of the Appalachian Trail

Susan maintains a 1.4 mile section of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia- she’s officially a volunteer “overseer” for the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club (GATC).  She scouts her section ("10.3") at least 4 times a year, clearing brush and logs, reporting blowdowns, and maintaining waterbars.
Susan at 'her' section of the Appalachian Trail between Cowart Gap and Bull Gap.
Susan let me tag along while she went up to check on her section.  Even though it snowed last week and much of her section was still covered in snow, we decided to go up there anyway for an overnight backpacking trip.  We moved smaller blowdowns off the trail, and she reported a few fallen trees that will require a chainsaw.
On previous work trips, Susan helped a GATC crew repair a huge blowout at this site, including making those rock steps.
As a trail maintainer, Susan "sees" details of the trail that can be easily overlooked by a regular hiker.  She showed me how her section has a lot of 'fall line trail'- that's the type of trail that shoots strait up the mountain. Water bars are used to divert water from the trail, and check steps keep the dirt from washing away on this type of steep trail.
Erosion is a problem for "fall line" trail when water funnels directly down the slope.
I've always wondered why reroutes aren't built to add switchbacks and more sideslope trails in places where there is this old type of fall line trail.  Susan explained about the long process that is required to get reroutes approved and balancing the costs of new trail construction (including damage to new plant and animal habitat) plus the long time it takes for old trail to recuperate (i.e. the soil is all compacted and "dead").   What was also cool about hiking with Susan through her section was the amount of ownership and pride she has for this stretch of trail— showing me particularly well-designed waterbars, boasting about the salamander diversity, listing off the rare plants found here.
We didn't see any of the rare plants, but the ferns and lichen were lovely in the snow.
Another highlight of this trip was meeting Julie, an AT thru hiker from Connecticut.  The three of us women shared the evening and morning with laughter and great conversation at Plumorchard Shelter.  She is a mountaineer (totally cool and bad-ass!) and was obviously loving all the snow.  While Susan and I are in the process of agonizing over our gear and plan for our thru hike (we are both hiking the PCT in April), Julie told us how she set out with hardly any planning and will figure it out as she goes- it was neat hearing about her approach to her hike.  Best wishes for your hike, Julie!
Out for a night hike to watch the sunset reflect off the snow from a ridgetop.
First time hanging my hammock above snow.  I loved how the moonlight lit up the snow at night.
Check out Susan's Blog here

For more information about volunteering for trail maintenance:
      Check out Appalachian Trail Conservancy's website.
      Check out the Pacific Crest Trail Association's website.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

PCT Planning: Why? and FAQs

People have been asking me questions about my upcoming hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, so I decided to answer some of them here.  If you have any other questions that I haven't addressed, please let me know.

Why do you want to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail? 
Backpacking is what I love.  Being outside is where I find meaning.  Many of you know I go backpacking (or hiking) nearly every weekend.  I never want to come home after being in the outdoors.   My room in town is more of a 'gear closet' than anything else.  I want to be immersed in the natural world.
At home right here on the trail. Photo by Sandi.
I also long to stretch my abilities.  Backpacking in the southeast on weekend trips is no longer difficult like when I was first learning to backpack.  I want to take my skills to the next level.
Water crossing with snow-covered banks in the Gila Wilderness.  I'm looking for more challenges like this.
I also want to add that I am seeking community.  I've met many of my closest friends while out backpacking, so I know how strong friendships can be forged in the outdoors.  I really hope that on the PCT, I will meet a wide variety of other backpackers- people who can teach me stuff, people with whom I can share outdoor experiences.  Maybe other people who understands what it’s like to have this crazy drive to go backpacking all the time.

Why the PCT?
I grew in Oregon, climbing trees and hiking and camping in the rain.  I've lived 'back east' for the past 20 years and I know the mountains and the plants of the Appalachian Trail better now than anywhere else.  Still, I miss being surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks and being able to see "forever."  I miss the starkness of the high desert and the smell of juniper, sage and ponderosa pine.

For a while, I though I might choose the Appalachian Trail for my first long-distance hike.  It’s what I know- from living near DC and now in Georgia.  I already have supportive friends all up and down the AT.  Despite all this, the PCT is what draws me.

One quick story.... On vacation during college, I went hiking with my dad out to Crater Lake in Oregon, very close to the PCT.  We crossed one particular snowy traverse, stomping footholds in the snow.  I vividly remember feeling terrified that I might slip down the sheer drop-off.  I felt so small on that slope against the backdrop of the grander of the clear deep blue waters of Crater Lake.  When I think about why I want to hike the PCT, I always remember that sense of smallness that I felt, mixed with wonder at the natural beauty of the place, mixed with the sense of accomplishment for taking on such a physical challenge.  That's why I want to be on the PCT.
I've kept this photo of that snowy traverse at Crater Lake, OR on my desk for many years.
Why 2014?
When the funding for my research came to an end this year, I decided that instead of looking for another position, I would take the time now to do a thru hike.  I never took time off- I went to college right after high school, then went to grad school, then got a postdoc.  But I don't want to end up working non-stop for the rest of my life, or having to waiting until I retire, never having followed my dream. 

The other reason I'm finally doing it this year is because I was inspired by my friend Renee/Pathfinder who thru hiked the AT this year.  We had a long talk about choosing to do a thru hike in our mid-30's.  The majority of thru hikers are either right out of school, or retired.  People our age are settling down or having babies.  Talking to Renee alleviated my fears about stepping off the career-track and gave me inspiration to do what I want with my life.

How can you afford a thru hike?
I've been planning to "eventually" hike the PCT for a long time (even before meeting Renee).  Over the last several years, I’ve been saving up so I would be ready.  I think the most important thing I've done to save for a thru hike is to make backpacking a priority in my life.  I've made choices so that I can have the freedom and money to backpack-- no kids, no pets, and no home.   Rejecting notions of what society thinks success looks like has also helped.  

I’ve rented and lived with roommates for many years, but a few years ago I moved into an even smaller space with very low rent.  I also cut my other expenses considerably over the years- I don't go out to eat, don't drink, don't buy nice clothes, haven't traveled for a while, don't spend much money on my car or gas since I drive a civic hybrid, I get books from the library, cook my own food, sew a lot of my own clothes and gear.

I talk to some people who say they would like to thru hike, but just have too many responsibilities.  I think if you make backpacking a priority, you can find a way to do it.  For me, it is that important.

How do you think long-distance hiking will change you?
I don’t know for sure.  Possibly in ways I don't anticipate.  It might be the first in a series of long-distance hikes.  Or maybe I will finally settle down and be content with weekend backpacking trips.  Or maybe I will find a way to live outdoors more often or as part of a job, or in an otherwise sustainable way.

Isn’t backpacking a selfish endeavor?
(OK honestly no one has asked me this, but it's something I think about a lot.)
While long-distance hiking doesn't directly contribute to society, I think taking the time to do exactly what I want in life will, somehow, be a positive endeavor.

When I look back at the last five years, one of the most meaningful things I’ve done is to be involved with Trail Dames (a description of the group I wrote for the Gossamer Gear Blog is here).  I organize and lead hikes, and served on the Board, as my way to “give back.” I believe in the transformative power of hiking and connecting with nature, and I see so few other women out when I am on the trail- I want to change that.  It’s been so rewarding when women come up to me and tell me that I led their first hike and now they have gone onto hike tons more.  Or when someone tells me they recognized a flower (or saw tree foam) that I’d pointed out on one of my hikes.  It makes me so happy to facilitate those experiences, in whatever small way that I can.

Of course I know I haven't change the world by leading hikes, just like I know my hiking the PCT isn't going to matter in any big way to anyone else.  Instead, the biggest thing was how much my experience with Trail Dames has changed me- by teaching me to be more open and less judgmental, to be more patient- to slow down and savor experiences.   The most important lessons were ones I learned about friendship, trust, and about myself.  In learning how I could take advantages of my strengths, how I could make up for my weaknesses, and how I could work in a team.  In a similar way, I think that hiking the PCT will make me a better person, and will make me better able to have a meaningful life and inspire others.
Trail Dames also teach me how to have FUN. Photo by Monica.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Down the Congaree

This was the type of trip that is intensely satisfying to look back on.  I can laugh about it and think, "Wow, we did that!"  But in the moment— it was HARD.
It took days of paddling and countless portages to finally make it to this gorgeous sunrise.
My friend JJ and I went for a 4 night/5 day kayaking trip on the Congaree River “Blue Trail” for about 40 miles from Rosewood Landing near Columbia, South Carolina, then up Cedar Creek through Congaree National Park for another 7 miles.  (see JJ's trip report at JERMM's Outside)
Thick mud at the put-in should have been a warning.
The first day was peaceful being out on the water.   A sandbar campsite, the chorus of crickets or frogs, and then coyotes calling back and forth across the water.
Sandbar on the Congaree River.
Three things took this trip to another level.  It nearly reached type 3 fun.

First there was the rain and freezing cold.  I couldn’t manage to generate enough heat while paddling to stay warm.  My glove and shoe systems, sufficient for backpacking, were not adequate for the cold-weather kayaking, and my fingers and toes were numb for much of the time.  I believe that comfort is not the point of an adventure so that's not necessarily a problem, but I also know it takes its toll, sapping energy, and can quickly lead to hypothermia.
Paddling in the rain and cold.  Photo by JJ.
Even with the cold, it was still fabulous to be paddling day after day.  Watching the tree-lined banks passing by, seeing more birds, and the bright red buds of the red maples (spring is near!).  It was also heavenly to end each day hanging in my hammock, wrapped in warm down quilts, toes finally thawing out (what a treat to be able to feel one's toes!), listening to raindrops on the tarp and later the owls and woodpeckers and other wild creatures.
Resting in my hammock.
 The second thing that happened on this trip was that I got more sick than I’ve ever gotten while out in the backcountry.  On the third day at lunchtime, I told JJ I felt like I couldn’t paddle any more.  So we called it a day and I collapsed into my hammock.  Fever, nausea, likely dehydration, total lack of appetite.

 The cool thing was that I learned that I could actually recover OK out there.  My hammock is the ideal place to rest, so by the next morning, I got up ready to paddle.  I was really low on energy and unable to eat much for the duration of the trip, but I found out that I could still manage.
Downed trees across Cedar Creek- time for another portage.
The final thing that really took this trip to another level of difficulty were the downed trees across the creek that we had to portage around on the last pull up Cedar Creek.  There were so many that I lost count.  It ended up taking us one and a half days of hard work to reach our car at the Cedar Creek Canoe Access.  For a "paddling" trip, there was a lot more sloggy through the mud carrying heavy kayaks than we bargained for.
Hauling the kayaks up and down steep muddy banks.
Working that hard, life takes on a intense focus.  Everything is totally in the moment-  one foot pulled out of the mud (that mud had some strong suction!), next step a few inches up the bank, then lift the kayak up, then set it back down (gently!).  Never thinking of anything not immediately of concern. 
JJ figuring out how to move the kayaks efficiently up the creek.
Even though it was tough going, the overwhelming beauty of the area, plus the fabulous company, made everything worthwhile.  Cedar Creek was absolutely gorgeous with cypress knees, colorful lichens on gnarled and ancient trees, woodducks and great blue herons.
One last surprise...  On the last night, nearly asleep, I heard a voice out of the darkness.  It was JJ.  Would I like some hot soup?   It was quite possibly the most delicious soup I’ve ever tasted!  I hadn’t been able to eat much all day, but that soup completely hit the spot.  Ahhh, bliss!
Overall, this was a really satisfying trip and I'm so glad to have "survived" it- we got to see some really inaccessible places and see lots of wildlife and birds, and we MADE IT! 

For more information:
Congaree River Blue Trail - NPS map and more info here.

Congaree National Park- pick up your free backcountry camping permits before you head out.  The Cedar Creek canoe trail is only partially marked, and has numerous portages right now, so I wouldn't recommend doing the trip we did.  The rangers said that they try to clear it once a year, but there are funding problems so call ahead (also ask about flooding and weather/ bugs/ snakes).  Or, stick to the hiking trails which were fabulous and that I enjoyed a lot on a previous trip to see the big trees.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

PCT training: knee problems and aerial dance

My plan when I was started preparing for the PCT was to focus on physical training and injury prevention.  To get into “the best shape of my life” before starting.  

I read books about exercise- Chi Running and Fix your Feet.   I set out a training plan involving gradually increasing my distance and pack weight, and doing specific exercises to targeted at my hiking form. 

Knee problems
Despite my efforts, around New Years, my old knee pain (IT band problem) returned.  I overdid it by hiking too fast with too much weight than I was probably ready for.  (oh, I miss my lightweight pack!)  Since then I've reduced the weight I've been carrying to 15-20 lbs, so it doesn't hurt.  However, doubt at my physical ability had hit an all-time high.  What if the only reason that I've always felt so strong as a backpacker is because my pack weight is light?  When I carry a heavy pack for the long water carries on the PCT, could I get too injured to hike?

Fortunately, I’ve had other things to keep my busy….  preparing for another aerial dance show (i.e. dance trapeze and aerial silks- sort of like Cirque du Soleil- only at an amateur-level).  I thought this might give my legs and feet time to heal.  Ironically, all the aerials practicing left me exhausted and ever more sore.  It doesn’t seem like rest climbing the silks over and over, or when I am walking around with my pack at 6 AM.

Why I'm so sore- climbing up and down and up and down.
In-town hiking in the morning.
Lessons from trapeze and aerial silks
I've learned a few lessons from getting ready from our aerial performance that I hope will help me for the PCT. 
From doing aerials, I learn that soreness is part of the process, and is a physical sign that I am getting stronger, but I also learn how to not push it too far.  I stretch, I rest, I do exercises to improve my form, then I go back to practice. 
Massaging my sore forearms.
I learn to listen to my classmates and teachers when they tell me that I am strong enough to do a trick, when I don’t believe it myself.  It always turns out they are right.  I think about this when one friend tells me "I have no doubt in you completing the PCT in a thru-hike.” 
 Photo by Susan.
This show was the most challenging one I’ve ever done-  the cues were tricky, there were two transitions that I only get ‘right’ 25% of the time, and there was little time between our two pieces to rest my forearms.  When we first choreographed our aerials piece, I didn’t know if I would ever have the strength to make it through the entire set of tricks.  A few times during practice, I’d have to climb down, unable to continue, my muscles spasming.  But I knew my classmates believed in me and that arms have never been so strong.  Sure enough, we totally pulled off an awesome show!  I hope I will be as strong for the PCT.  I poke at my rock-solid forearms wondering if those muscle cells can please migrate down to my legs.

When I look down at my hands and see my callouses, I know I have the hands of an aerialist.  I realize… I AM an aerialist!   I practice saying "I AM a PCT thru hiker” and can hardly believe it will become true in another 2 months.  
The final performance goes really well!  Photo by Susan.