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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“You F@#$%&* s Left Me Behind”—Abandoned in the Wilderness

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

 

Note: Generally I avoid profanity in my posts, but some will show up in this piece in the interest of authentic dialogue.

As I mentioned in my last post, during my backpacking days, our group was dedicated to getting into Evolution Valley on the eastern side of the Sierras. The third time was the charm. Sort of.

It was Scott who spotted a shorter, but more difficult route to get there. It involved a relatively easy first day, a bruisingly difficult second day, and if all went well, we’d make the valley by lunch on the third day. But, once again, our well-rested enthusiasm while sitting around looking at maps in May overrode the reality of the trail we would face in August.

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I was cursing Scott vigorously (in my mind) on that second day as I stood at the bottom of the steep incline that we knew from the beginning would be the backbreaker of the trip. We had spent the day threading our way to the base of the route that would ascend about one thousand feet over the course of a mile, a cross-country trail, meaning narrow and at times non-existent, with the last 500 feet being through a snow field. This would lead us over Lamarck Col (above), elevation 12,900 feet. A col is a small saddle or crossing that is not big enough to be considered a full-fledged pass.

There was nowhere to go but go up. It was one, slow, slog for me, and I had never been at this kind of elevation, had never made my body work this hard. The higher I got, the more it felt like my heart was going to burst alien-like from my body. I started to think of all of the good-byes I had not said to my loved ones before leaving on the trip.

As I hit the snow field, I didn’t think about anything except the headache and nausea I was feeling, my very first bout with altitude sickness. When I finally crested the top of the col, there was no elation. If possible, going down looked worse. The same one thousand feet, straight down, with no real trail, just a broken field of thigh-crushing boulders that I had to pick my way through and hope that every one I hit was solid and was not going to tip and launch me forward into oblivion.

We lunched at the bottom of this scree, knowing we had just gone through the worst part of the trip. There wasn’t much conversation, but Steve, generally acknowledged to be the smartest guy on the trip, said simply, “I’m not going over that again on the way out.” I think there was a collective sigh of relief that someone had had the brains to say what we all were thinking even if it meant a longer, more round about route back.

We camped that night near a chain of lakes in a spot known as Darwin Basin, feeling much better, knowing that tomorrow it would be all downhill where we would join up with the main trail that would take us to the friendly confines of Evolution Valley.

The four of us set off in good spirits the next day. We had studied the map and decided that our first stop would be where our current trail hit the main trail, having learned the lesson from my experience with getting lost to always plan for places to gather up after 1-2 hours of hiking to avoid losing track of anyone.

It should have worked. As usual, Harvey and Steve kept up a pretty brisk pace, and I settled comfortably back in the third spot with Scott taking his time and bringing up the rear. It was easy hiking and we soon were pretty spread out when I came to a fork in the road that had not been on the map. I looked for markers but there were none to be seen. Having looked at the map, I didn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over it. As long as I was headed downhill, I was going to intersect the main trail. The left fork looked more well worn so I opted to take it.

An hour later, I discovered I had chosen wisely. Steve and Harvey were resting comfortably at the trail junction, waiting for Scott and I. We figured Scott to be maybe 20 minutes back so we snacked and waited. And waited. And waited some more. We were puzzled, but not overly alarmed. Scott was experienced and the hike was easy, the trail, well marked.

But there was that fork in the road. After considering all of the possibilities, we decided that the most likely explanation was that Scott was the only one of us who had taken the right fork and had actually hit the main trail ahead of us and had likewise been waiting for us to show up, probably ½ mile closer to Evolution that we were.

We decided to forge ahead and see if we could catch up to him. The entrance to the valley was breathtaking. A wide stream ran down the center with steep ridges rising in the distance. By now it was late afternoon and Harvey, with his crazy, savant-like ability to sniff out a premier campsite suddenly veered off across the stream and found a nearly perfect spot—flat, protected, and possessed of a spectacular view.

We gratefully eased out of our packs and again considered the need to find our missing friend. Since I figured I owed him one, I volunteered to hike up the trail and see if he indeed had ended up ahead of us as we suspected.

Sure enough, less than a half-mile up the trail, on the opposite side of the stream Scott was comfortably set up in a campsite at least equal in beauty to the one I had just left. I called out a greeting, glad to be re-united with my friend, but he was anything but a “happy camper.”

“You fucking left me behind,” he said glaring at me.

“No way, Scott,” I tried to explain. “We waited for an hour. We could still be waiting and it wouldn’t have mattered. You came down to the trail ahead of us. If anything, you left us behind.”

But by now he had had a couple of hours to stew about this and had entered an alternative universe where logic had no place.

“You fuckers. I can’t believe you guys did this.”

I quit trying to convince him with logic and told him we were in a great site, less than twenty minutes back down the trail.

“No way. I like it here. I’m not moving.”

I saw there was no convincing him, so I told him I’d let the other guys know that I had found him and where he was set up and maybe we’d come up there and join him.

I shuttled back to Harvey and Steve, finding that they had begun to set up camp and while happy to know that Scott was safe had no interest in putting their packs back on and re-joining their disgruntled friend.

“Fuck him,” said Steve.

“Fuck him,” said Harvey.

I was torn, but tired of trying to be peacemaker.  “Fuck him if he can’t take a joke,” I said registering my vote.

So that night, in two campsites not twenty minutes apart, we separately enjoyed a peaceful evening, a gorgeous sunset, and a star-filled evening in what we had convinced ourselves was maybe one of the most beautiful spots on Earth.

After a leisurely morning, Harvey, Steve, and I packed up and headed up to Scott’s campsite. Scott, in better humor, renewed his list of the egregious wrongs we had done to him by abandoning him on the trail, but a night alone had completely changed his view of the event.

From that day forward, that night became “the best night of backpacking I have ever had.” He had savored the isolation, the quiet, living the experience of the valley without the distraction of his asshole friends.

To this very day, the story of this trip (if he is telling it) begins with “you fuckers left me behind” and ends with “best night ever.”

 

Wandering in the Wilderness (Without Wisdom)

Camping-gear

 

I did not ever imagine over the 8 or 9 summers during the 1980’s when a small group of friends and I planned a yearly backpacking trip that I could possibly get lost.  After all, I was hiking with guys with a lot of experience.  Getting lost seemed the least of my worries.  Mosquitoes and having to eat freeze-dried food were much higher on the list of unpleasant realities.

This happened on the first of three attempts we made to get into and spend some time in Evolution Valley, one of the prettiest spots in the backcountry of the Eastern Sierra.  It probably remains so pristine because there is no quick way into it, at least not for guys like us who were not up to 10 mile, full-day hikes and 10-day trips.  But when planning the trip in May we were always much faster and more ambitious than once we strapped on the 50-pound packs in August.

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

 

I officially became trail-stupid on the second day of the trip. We reached a stream that did not have an obvious safe crossing spot and had to stop and scout both up and down stream to find a suitable place. We finally found one upstream, crossed, and then stopped to pull out our rain gear as it began to drizzle steadily. I was a bit slower getting geared up, and Scott and Jan started back downstream to pick up the trail. I assured them I’d catch up in a minute.

I was probably two or three minutes back when I also headed downstream. Somehow, though, as I angled cross-country away from the stream, I missed the trail. Even though we were in fairly flat terrain there were enough hillocks to block my view of the other guys and in the open like that, they could not hear a thing when I called out.

I alternately decided that I was above or below the trail and then would adjust my direction, certain the trail must be just over the next rise. I would stay the course for 10-15 minutes at a time before I’d be forced to stop, survey the landscape and try to figure out “if I was the trail, where would I be?”

Like a man refusing to stop and ask for directions, I would decide on a new angle and plunge off once again, sure that I was just minutes away from the security of the trail. Even as I did it, I knew I was making a fundamental mistake. I refused the one sure way to get back on track, which was to go directly back to the stream and slowly hike up and down the shore until I saw the trail, the smart and sure thing to do. No, it was going to be just over that next hill. Keep moving forward.

As my misdirections continued, panic began to creep in. I mentally checked for how many of the “10 Essentials” of backpacking I had (things like firestarter, emergency blanket, food, etc.) and figured I was at about 50%. Part of backpacking as a group was to split up all of the “common” gear so I had the tent poles, but no tent. I had food, but Jan had the stove, and Scott had the cooking kit. As the hour got later, and the rain continued to fall, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I would be spending a very cold, wet night exposed and on my own.

And then, as I was staring at my misguided path, I saw hoof prints. On previous trips we had seen, and often cursed, campers being packed in on horses, with guides, good food, and cold beer. We celebrated our manly misery and ruggedness as they passed us while secretly harboring intense jealousy that we hadn’t thought far enough ahead to book one of these trips ourselves.

I knew that these guided trips might go off-trail for a bit, but that they would always return to the trail for greater ease of riding. The path of hoof marks was easy to follow and when it suddenly veered to my right, I looked up and there, like a broad pencil mark traversing the rolling landscape, was my trail.

I had officially been lost for maybe an hour, but it had felt much longer. It was getting into late afternoon, and the steady drizzle had not let up. I knew the guys had probably found a campsite by now, and all I had to do was to keep plodding toward it.

It was funny how once the crisis was over, I quickly forgot about all of the dire circumstances that I had begun to imagine for myself, and the anger at myself for being so foolish and instead became fiercely focused on the keen skills of observation that I had shown and the clever deductions that had saved me.

I owe my friend Scott for many things. He brought me back to the wilderness, taught me so much about backpacking and about how to laugh at myself. We taught at the same high school for over twenty years and then played as hard as we worked. But my most enduring memory will be of that day, as I trudged along, tired and damp and weary. I looked ahead and there he was in his blue rain jacket, smoking a cigarette, and scanning the trail for me. He and Jan had set up camp and soon realized that something had happened to delay me. Scott volunteered to walk back up the trail, tuck himself under a tree, and wait. I was enormously happy to see him.

So as we ate and I told the story on that soggy night, we realized that we had collectively learned an important lesson. We now realized that we must always establish fixed stopping points where, knowing we would get stretched out on the trail because we all walked at different paces, we would meet up and carry on. We’d never again make the mistake of possibly leaving someone behind.

But what I quietly learned was a lesson in self-reliance. I had screwed up. I had fought through the panic. And, most importantly, I had figured it out and gotten back to camp safely.

But I had also learned that I was never truly out there on my own. If I had not been able to find my way, Scott would have been there to find me.

Next up! Scott Gets Abandoned—Or Thinks He Does!