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Archive for August, 2013

Chased off a high pass by hail, lightning and high winds (again) I got back to my camp in the Wind River range soaked and cold to find my tent looking like cross between a shredded garbage bag and a windsock.

This was the exact minute I learned how far I was willing to push solo mountain travel.

A squall had it’s way with camp, toppling the tent and exposing all the gear inside to an hour-long downpour.

I always figured (hoped?) the moment would come in mistakenly wandering into a Class 4 pitch above 1,000-foot cliff on a high peak or in near-miss with an avalanche. You know, something cool.

Instead, it couldn’t have been something simpler.

For the past two months, I’ve been backpacking and trail running my way around the West after quitting my job.

Shockingly enough, it’s not easy to find mid-career professionals willing to toss aside their jobs, families and beer fridges to live out of a truck or tent and bathe in lakes and rivers for three months. So I’ve done it all solo.

This isn’t out of character. I started down this path the first summer out of college. Living with my parents and with friends scattered about, I’d spend the weekends paddling a borrowed kayak along the coastline and inlets of my former New England home or riding my bike through the rural forests and farmland in the surrounding area.

Most of these were places I’d been through a million times as a kid, but they looked entirely more detailed and rich as an adult, like I was seeing all three dimensions for the first time. It reminded me of coming to the “The Great Gatsby” as an adult and realizing how brilliant it is after using a pirated photocopy of the Cliff’s Notes to slog through the test in high school.

The time alone was equally eye-opening. The quiet focus that came from having only yourself as a feedback loop was a perfect counterweight to the nonstop intellectual jousting that is the sport of the working journalist.

Over the years, I ramped up to backcountry skiing, trail running, backpacking further afield, moved out West and changed careers.

All along, I had my best days in the outdoors with friends, but I still craved my solo missions.

I’d ski Cascade volcanos solo with some regularity, go on random weekend backpacking trips, 20-mile trail runs and even a pair of two-week ski trips that were mostly solo.

To be sure, many times, it was simply a choice of doing it solo or not at all as partners were hard to find for exactly what I wanted to do, and I’m a brat that way.

Only occasionally did I feel tinges of doubt about going solo:
-When I put my leg up to mid-thigh through a glide crack on Middle Sister near Bend, Ore.
-The time I rolled my ankle on a run to the point where it swelled to softball size. 10 miles from a road. At 4 p.m. Without a headlamp.

But none of those twinges were because I was actually just lonely. They were about risk mitigation.

When the concept of this “vision quest” trip I’m on now came up, I didn’t really question that being solo for much of it would be an issue. I’d manage the risks conservatively: Back off overly technical climbs, play the weather smart, don’t drive at night a lot.

All at once, in a tangled mess of silnylon and wet sleeping bag buffeted by slushy hail and icy wind in Wyoming glacier basin, that changed.

I wanted to ruefully laugh and curse with someone at the ridiculous scene. I wanted to make dark jokes for a minute before dealing with the mess. I wanted to fantasize about tropical all-you-can-drink/eat buffets with someone. Some help drying all this crap out would be nice, too.

It was as unexpected as it was intense a realization, and I haven’t been able to shake it since: I’d crossed from being “solo” to “alone.”

On my other solo trips, friends or family were never more than a couple days away. On this one, it was weeks, and there was no job to counterbalance the social scales. Marmots are much more talkative than you’d think, but they weren’t getting it done.

Going solo for this long just isn’t as fun. As good as the scenery was and as satisfying as the athletic side of mountain travel always is for me, the whole experience began to feel a bit thin, as if skipping across the surface rather than sinking in.

After years of wondering just how much solitude I could take and still feel sane, I now had the answer. I felt the balance point acutely. It was time to come home, knowing that I was perfectly capable of pushing even further, but not wanting to.

I repitched the tent, and, just as I started soaking up the puddles on the floor with a towel, the sun came out.

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Bears

Anyone who travels in the Western mountains gets asked The Bear Question. It can be accusatory (“Aren’t there bears there? You know where there are none? My couch.”) or matronly (“Aren’t you worried about bears?”), but it’s essentially the same.

And it’s fair. Bears are land sharks: scary monsters that awaken the part of our psyche that reminds us that if you take away clever toys like shotguns, there are many species against which humans have absolutely no shot in a fight.

The reality is that, like most mythic fears, bear attacks are exceedingly rare. Wikipedia (insert veracity joke here) shows fewer than 10 in the past three years in North America.

But no one wants to be No. 11, so I take the recommended common sense precautions like not cooking near camp, hanging food as far off the ground as possible and not covering myself in glazed doughnuts before bed like I do at home.

As it turns out, the people who manage our public lands are as concerned about bears as your mother.

However, they’re more concerned about the bears than about you (Much of the messaging on signage regarding bear issues focuses the fact that if bears get ahold of human food they might ultimately have to be euthanized, rather than the potential of a grizzly turning your head into a Jack O’ lantern. A miss, in my opinion.) and manage that concern with as much consistency as your friends’ mothers did when you were a kid: Yellowstone National Park is the one that lets you drink underage so long as you don’t drive anywhere, while Yosemite doles out 9 p.m. curfews and groundings for an “A-.”

One example: In Grand Teton and Yosemite National Parks you are required to use plastic bear canisters, pony keg-looking things that are the exact opposite of the fun that implies. They’re designed to be impossible for bears to open. However, bears, black bears in particular, are clever enough that hard for bear is equally hard for human. They’re at least as effective at generating human tantrums as preventing bear incursions.

Meanwhile, in Yellowstone National Park, which is physically connected to Grand Teton, ask if you need a bear canister and people look at you as if you asked if wearing Chicago Bears gear as a show of solidarity would help.

A summary of the “spirit” of the bear regulatory environment in the places I’ve been so far this summer:
-Yosemite: Use one of the bear canisters we like or we’ll kill you if the bears don’t, man.
-Yellowstone: Why the hell would you use a canister? Just hang that shit up. No biggie.
-Grand Teton: You’re going to use a bear canister, right? (Wink). Eh, there aren’t going to be any bears in alpine anyway.
-Bridger-Teton National Forest: If the signs were at all legible I bet they’d say something about bears.
-Kings Canyon/Sequioa National Parks: Put everything in the bear box (metal boxes designed to melt everything placed in them). If you leave a Chapstick in your pocket, you’ll definitely die. And if you come upon a marijuana plantation, report it. Immediately. In fact, call this number and ask for Big John.

Layer on the jaded local advice (everything from “I’ve worn a t-bone raincoat for years and never had problem” to “I wear a suit of armor, but it’s pretty light because I drilled a bunch of holes in it.”) and it’s tempting to throw up your hands.

As is the case in almost everything, the correct answer becomes: Don’t be an idiot and don’t get fined. And call Big John.

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