Stranded In The Southland

Monday, March 21, 2005

Lessons Learned From Snow Camp

This was a great trip, and I definitely learned some lessons:

  • Single-walled tents -- one of our gear-crazed instructors lent us a single-wall tent. It was warm and toasty, and the price was right. We had no problem with leakage or ventilation, although we had so much wet junk in the tent that we wound up getting everything wet. This was definitely a comfy way to go in the snow (and the tent also seemed to work great in Joshua Tree in fairly heavy rain).
  • Down booties -- these were completely comfortable, and I could let my boots dry while I padded around the campsite, warm and toasty. They eventually absorbed some moisture from the wet snow, but they were certainly good for the two days I was out.
  • Silk sleeping bag liner -- this was expensive, but I could feel the difference when I used it. It did a great job of extending the range of my sleeping bag, even if it wasn't cold enough to really need it.
  • Laid-back leadership style -- I wasn't wild about it when I showed up to a hike at 4:45AM, only to find us dawdling our way to the trailhead at 6AM, but by the time it was all over, I really came to respect the laid-back, confident style of our leaders. When I found myself sick and miserable, I really appreciated the support and help. I was happy that the leaders were willing to change their plans on the spot, rather than sticking to some preconceived notion of what we should do. Big win!
  • Isobutane stoves -- I had the impression that white gas was the way to go for cold, high-altitude camping, but our isobutane stove (borrowed from the same gear-crazed instructor, who has something like 12 stoves) kicked major ass. Sure, we had a hard time starting it after abusing it in the snow, but at the same time, other folks with white gas stoves were similarly stuck. I'm totally sold, and plan to buy a JetBoil before my next camping trip.
  • Altitude sickness -- there's not much to be done about this, and I seem to be particularly susceptible to this. I had it when going from sea-level to 14,900 feet in Venezuela, when hiking up to 10,000 foot Mt. Baldy, and even while driving over some 10,000 passes in Yosemite. I guess I just need to get acclimated more carefully, and perhaps get some prescription diomox (sp?).
  • Lack of personal organization -- from now on, my motto for camping will be: a place for everything and everything in its place. I kept just throwing my mittens and gloves and liners into the tent, and couldn't find anything when I needed it. I misplaced my wonderful silk liners the first night, and didn't find them until cleaning up this morning. I also need to label everything, as lots of folks have the same kind of REI gear!
  • Small tents -- our tent was far too small. My tentmate was very mellow, and just put in ear plugs when I snored, but there simply wasn't enough room for us both. I crowded him out, without meaning to (and he never complained -- what a saint). There was just room for the two of us to lie down; there wasn't room for gear or anything else, and the vestibule was so small we couldn't really use it for anything. I definitely will rent a tent with more room the next time I go on one of these trips.
  • My lousy conditioning -- I have a bad back, and I ached by the end. I really wasn't ready to hump around a 45 to 50 pound pack, and it showed. I should've spent more time conditioning myself, taking a few simple 5 mile hikes with a 30 to 35 pound pack, until I got used to it. I'll do this now.
  • Breaking in my boots on the trip -- words cannot explain how stupid this was, and I know it, but I had to travel out of town and was sick when I came back. Fortunately, it all worked out (see "down booties", above), but it could've been a disaster.
  • Thermarest -- I really didn't need the full-length pad, and it was heavy. Even though I overinflated it, I still think that it was bugging my back to be on that soft surface for two days. On the other hand, I've found that sleeping on the my Ridgerest on the floor at home helps on those nights when my back is acting up. Oh, and taking my 2.5 pound yoga pad was a complete bust. That was useless weight -- I could've taken a full-length Ridgerest at half that weight.
  • Too much food -- I really didn't need a pound of chocolate and two pounds of nuts, in addition to nearly a dozen granola bars plus raman, tuna fish, oatmeal, and hot chocolate. OTOH, three hot chocolate envelopes were too few -- I could've used six or more, especially since I shared one with my tentmate.
  • 1.1 liter pot-- I wanted something lightweight, and 1 liter was quick to boil, but it meant that I took a million trips to the river for more water just fill a couple bottles and cook some food. Oh, well, I guess I'll go with a JetBoil anyway, even if it only boils 1-liter at a time
  • Handwarmers -- maybe my $0.50 handwarmers were too cheap, but they never got more than lukewarm. I'd hoped to dry out my boots with the handwarmers, but they just never seemed to generate any heat. I had better luck putting Nalgene bottles full of boiling water into the boots. Bummer.

I Survived Snow Camp

Pwhew, I survived snow camp! This was the culmination of the 10-week WTC class I've been taking; we headed up to the Sierras for a weekend of camping and frolicing in the snow.

I'd been looking forward to this with some trepidation. As a Florida boy, I've never camped in the snow. Heck, the one time it started to snow on us on a Boy Scout camping trip, our leaders bundled us up, threw us into the cars, and high-tailed home! And that was for less than an inch of snow! The forecast for the WTC weekend was for four inches of the white stuff, plus plenty already on the ground.

You would think that, since I'm on sabbatical, that I'd be completely ready for this trip. Alas, it was not to be. I had a cold coming back from my travels, so I was kind of out of it. I also had a mid-term in Spanish, for which I had studied not at all. It all turned into a massive last-minute scramble.

I'd been told to be prepared for temperatures down to zero degrees, so I was a little concerned about my 15 degree sleeping bag, especially since I'm a cold sleeper. I've been chilly in my 15 degree bag on 30 degree days! I tried to rent a -20 degree bag, but nobody in town seemed to have one. It seemed like a rental zero degree bag might be little better than my 15 degree bag, since the rentals get washed repeatedly and deteriorate.

After much hemming and hawing, I wound up buying a silk (eww la la) liner for my bag and a fancy Thermarest sleeping pad. I figured that this way I could use my good sleeping bag and would hopefully stay warm. Of course, for what I spent, I might've been able to buy a second bag!

I was also concerned about the boot situation. I had reasonable day hiking boots, but I badly needed some vibram soled, shanked, water-proofable boots. I'd been shopping for weeks without success. I have oddly-shaped feet, and there just aren't that many hard-core mountaineering boots for sale in LA. Anyway, I bought some compromise boots just before leaving for my week-long trip, wore 'em around my sister's house, and waterproofed 'em when I got back from all my travels.

Alas, I didn't go for a hike in 'em. I was just too sick for a hike when I got back from helping out with the baby, so I was taking some basically un-tried boots on the toughest hike I'd ever been on! Taking them without breaking them in fully was really not good, and I knew it.

I packed Thursday, and the pack didn't seem that heavy. Then, Friday morning, I repacked, and put in the food, and a few last minute purchases. Dang, was it heavy. I took forever to get those few last-minute things into the pack, so I wound up racing out the door late, with my regular watch instead of my exercise/camping watch, and without Advil or Aleeve.

I was terribly worried about being late for the bus, but, as usual, we left 30 minutes later than scheduled. Our leaders are so pleasantly slack! Normally I'm a "let's get this show on the road" kinda guy, but I'm coming around to the whole idea of relaxing and having a good time and not being upset about not everything going according the schedule.

Anyway, my pack weighed something like 50 pounds, all told. I was straining just to pick it up. On the five-hour bus trip, one of the leaders helped my discard some of the extra crap I didn't need (waterless hand cleaner, extra baby wipes, the huge squeeze bottle of sunscreen), so that helped a little, but I was still concerned about humping this monster up the trail.

We arrived in the dark, around 9:30PM (apparently our permit only allows us in after dark on Friday) and hiked a couple miles into camp. It was midnight before we got to sleep.

I woke up with a headache and nausea. Woo hoo, the signs of altitude sickness. I sat up in my sleeping bag, feeling poleaxed. I musta sat there for half an hour, before finally staggering out and asking the leaders for advice. The suggestion was aspirin and whatever food I could get down.

D., my tentmate, was very cool and got me some boiling water for hot chocolate and I begged some Advil from one of the leaders. Everybody was very cool about it, as most the leaders had suffered from altitude sickness at some point. It was still a lousy morning, despite being one of the few people in camp to see the bald eagle fly about 100 feet over our heads.

I actually lucked out with the horrible weather (and with the other folks in camp who felt sick), and the group leaders decided to forego packing up camp and moving a few miles and a 1000 feet higher up. Instead we just took a hike up to the place where we would have camped, if the weather was better.

Usually I'm an enthusiastic hiker, keeping near the head of the group, bouncing around and happy to be there. I try to be patient with the folks who are slower, and happily wait for them to catch up. Well, today, I got a chance to find out how the other half hikes.

I was incredibly slow. I could barely keep moving. I had to keep making deals with myself -- "If I don't see the dam for the lake around the next curve, I'm heading back," just to make it. I barely staggered up the last hill, with lots of encouragement from the leaders on sweep. It was amazingly tough -- my body just didn't want to go. Wow. I never woulda made it with my 45 pound pack!

I managed to make up and back, though, and then fell into my tent for a (well-deserved?) two hour nap. It kept snowing all day, burying anything and everything we left out. We had to keep clearing off the tents, lest they get over-burdened and collapse (okay, they were four-season tents, and that probably wouldn't happen, but still...).

After successfully boiling a fair amount of water, I left our stove out in the snow to cool (it doesn't pay to bring a burning hot stove into a borrowed tent). After the snow melted onto the stove and froze in, I couldn't get it started again. Everything was soaked. My waterproof matches wouldn't light. My cheap lighter wouldn't light. The fancy cool lighter I borrowed from one of the other guys wouldn't light. D. and I just went to sleep early after a cold dinner.

In the morning, everything was better. My headache went away. My stomach felt fine. I was up early, boiled a bunch of drinking water, and split a freeze dried (dinner) meal with D. I did considerably better on our short hike, although I still didn't feel 100%.

When we got back from our hike, we had to pack up. Luckily, the snow had nearly stopped. Unfortunately, the wind had picked up to 20 mph gusts, threatening to blow away the tents as we tried to pack 'em away. While D. and I managed to get packed up without too many problems, our neighbor's tent nearly went skyward.

We finished packing up, lined up for a few last pictures, and then headed down. This time I was right behind the leader, the first student, and I was determined to make it down like this. I didn't feel great, but I managed to stagger the couple of miles down to the bus without any problems.

The bus arrived just a few minutes after we did. Pwhew. I was delighted to get out of my gear (I didn't change my thermal bottoms for three days) and tuck into a Mexican dinner in Bishop, and finally cruise home to LA in a comfortably half-empty bus.

Wow, what a trip. The leaders said that the snow was worse than usual on this trip, but that we lucked out with the nice warm temperatures. It could've easily been down to zero. We certainly got more than the forecast four inches of snow, but it was kind of fun to realize that I could survive and thrive in those situations. I was delighted to see the bald eagle and to watch the snow pouring off the mountains. Plus, I survived. It wasn't nearly as bad as I'd thought, even with the altitude sickness. Yow.

[I realize that this should be cut down a bit, but I was just so anxious to pour it all out that I couldn't slow down. I shudder to think how long an entry this is!]