Competitive Backpacking

Mount Mendel, Mount Darwin and the Hermit, Evolution Valley, Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada, California

In the late 80’s and early 90’s every summer meant one week away from the family for the annual “guy’s backpacking trip.” Three or four of us, depending on availability, would gather together and plan a trip, usually in the Eastern Sierra. You would think that backpacking would be the ultimate in collaborative camaraderie, but for some reason, in our group, there was a strong streak of competitiveness.

Part of getting a “win” meant spending the year scouring backpacking and sports stores for some gadget that would make one’s life better for the week on the trail and inspire jealousy among all of one’s partners. My friend Scott was consistently the most creative and that’s why we generally hated him. His one epic fail was a “solar shower,”  a small, black, plastic bag that one was supposed to fill with ice cold stream water, lay out in the sun for an hour or two and then experience the joy of a steaming, hot shower in the wild. In truth, the water never reached anything warmer than tepid and drizzled out in a stream that wouldn’t be strong enough to shower a moderately-sized rat.

But in subsequent seasons, Scott was first to discover the Thinsulite air mattress, a “self-inflating” waterproof sleeping pad far superior to the 2-inch foam pads that we had lugged around for years. He followed that with a sling chair that weighed about 1.5 pounds and allowed him to sit in comfort while we perched on rocks. By the next summer we all had Thinsulite mattresses and sling chairs and that’s when Scott came up with his most perversely successful innovation. He spent an entire $1.95 on an insulated plastic mug.

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Until that moment the Sierra Cup was considered state-of-the-art. Generations of backpackers used this dysfunctional piece of crap convincing themselves that it was as essential to the backpacking experience as a Swiss Army knife. The angular, wire handle was meant to hang on your belt so that at any thirsty moment one could dip the cup into a stream and be instantly refreshed. In truth, there was no place to hang the cup without it banging about and there are no streams in the Eastern Sierra that are considered free from contamination. No one drinks unfiltered water. In addition, if you were to use it for soup or food you had two choices. Wolf down the meal while it was still hot, scorching your mouth and esophagus or wait 60 seconds and eat your food cold.

It wasn’t enough that we recognized his genius immediately. At every meal, Scott had to make a production of blowing repeatedly on his soup or hot chocolate or coffee and explaining to us that it was just too hot for him to eat. For six days, he went through the same thing repeatedly no matter how loudly we cursed him.

Finally on the last night, we were in a cold and windy pass with little protection, and he started blowing on his cup again.   Before he could even start in on us I interrupted.

“Scott,” I said, “if you say one more word about that cup, I’m going to kill you and bury you up here under a pile of rocks and when people ask me what ever happened to my friend Scott, you know what I’m going to say?”

“What?”

“Scott who?”

Six days of freeze-dried food and taunting can bring out the worst in a man, but he just smiled, biding his time until he would be able to outfox us again the following summer.

 

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2 thoughts on “Competitive Backpacking

  1. He’s probably still searching for that “left handed smoke shifter” one of the older scouts told him to go find on his first camp out. Either that or the “sky hook” that was needed for the “snipe hunt”. Ahhh, those were the days.

  2. Pingback: “Retired, Not Dead” Turns 100!  My Ten Favorite Posts: A Retrospective | Retired, Not Dead

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