Monday, October 24, 2011

Back to Being a Beginner (Part 2: Backpacking)

After backpacking frequently this summer, I've been feeling confident and comfortable with my gear and routine.   In preparation for teaching two beginner backpacking trips for the Trail Dames, I spent time thinking about backpacking and developing my philosophy to the extent that I could explain it to others.  My ego grew enough that I even considered myself an "intermediate" backpacker.  But then I took a backpacking class a few weeks ago taught by lightweight backpacker JJ (trip report here) and was introduced to lightweight backpacking techniques.  I find myself back to being a "beginner" again and rethinking everything I thought I knew. 

At first I admit it was frustrating-- hadn't I already figured this stuff out?  But I quickly embraced the excitement of learning new techniques and the thrill of challenging old ways of thinking.  I shifted to the Beginner's Mind-- to being open to the joy of trying new things and am now so excited about learning about going lighter-weight.

This past weekend, I went on an overnight backpacking trip from Tellico Gap to Winding Stair Gap along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.  JJ provides a trip report here.  This was a great trip not just because of the wonderful companionship and scenic splendor of the fall leaves and the beauty of the snow remaining on north facing slopes.  It also stood apart because we did a bunch of things that got me out of my old routine:

1. Paying for a shuttle.  Ron Haven shuttled us from Winding Stair Gap up to Tellico Bald.  Not only did this save us driving time, but got benefit of stories-- especially local history and origin of names such as Wayah Bald (from wolf/ warrior in Cherokee).

2.  Water cache.  Springs have been low or not flowing recently, so JJ set up two water caches.  Because I knew for sure where water was located, for one of the first times ever, I hiked with less than my normal (excessive) amount.   This made me nervous, but I still did it and realized that I (shockingly) did not die of dehydration. I appreciated having less weight to carry, because 1 L of water weighs 2.2 lbs.

Hidden behind some leaves...
...our water cache.

3. Hot dinner.  I've been going stoveless for a while, but JJ lent me her lightweight esbit stove and showed me how to use it.  I think that having a hot dinner helped keep me warmer.
Learning to use the esbit stove.  Photo by Monica.
3. Nighttime snack.   I "always" hang my bear bag before dark, which means I never eat after sunset.   But on this trip we had a "late night" snack of JJ's delicious brownies, and that energy-rich snack kept my body fueled and toasty warm all night.

4. Camping on the bald.  Normally, I camp at middle-elevations under dense canopy.  But camping on the bald allowed us a spectacular sunset lighting up red leaves and view of the clear night sky.  It was thrilling to spot half-dozen shooting stars, the milky way, satellites moving across the sky, and a million stars.  I ate my breakfast while watching the sunrise and fog swirling in valleys around mountaintop islands.

Hammock and tents right near Wayah Bald
Sunrise and moon.
Breakfast with a view. Photo by Monica.

5.  Setting up the hammock in dark (AND while wearing my new fingerless gloves).  I loved the challenge of hanging my hammock in the dark (even though it did take me twice as long!).  I had to completely understand the process more thoroughly because I couldn't rely on visual cues.  I did end up needing to make adjustments after I was all zipped up, but in the future, you can bet I'm not gonna forget to check these things while setting up next time!  Also, I tried something new that kept my head insulated underneath- tying my purple windbreaker sleeve to the ridge-line so it hung down under my head.  It stayed put rather than sliding down during the night.  I slept warm and more soundly than I ever do at home.
Warm in my hammock with purple windbreaker under my head.

Things I will consider doing different next time:

1. Retire my old heavy boots.  I was worried about cold feet in the cold and snow, so I wore my old gortex high-top hiking boots, and they gave me blisters and were too tight.  I missed my lightweight, low cut comfy hiking shoes that I'd switched to in the spring.

2.  Bring only one map.  I typically bring two maps, one AT map with elevation profile and water sources, and one Trail Illustrated Map showing larger scale perspective.  I could have done without the Trails Illustrated map because we had a shuttle driver take us to the trailhead so I didn't need it for the forest service road details.

Checking my map.  Photo by JJ.
3.  Bring less food.  I brought too many extra snacks, anticipating eating more in the cold weather.  But I ended up eating the same amount as usual.  Perhaps because I stayed warm by staying moving.

Trail lined with snow.
But the main thing I got from this trip was the wonderful feeling of having the "beginner" mindset-- maintaining curiosity, experimenting, and questioning my assumptions about the ways to do things.  It's about sticking with new things even though they are uncomfortable at first, and practicing until it becomes second nature.  It's also about laughing and not holding on to tight to anything.

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