Publisher's Blog: Ryan Jordan's Backcountry
Last spring, I spent 10 days exploring the water, canyons, slots, and mesas of Glen Canyon. One of my fondest memories was taking my friend and his 70-year old parents on a little bit of a day hike.
I didn’t divulge all of the details of the hike – I was too afraid they wouldn’t come. But I did scout it the day before, so I knew what I was leading them into.
So I sold them on things like “incredible beauty!” and “fantastic sand!” and “smiling lizards!” and other flowery descriptions of landscapes that indicated nothing but sheer awesomeness.
Being responsible, I did follow all of this up with…”(Oh yeah, bring your PFD.)” And then with, “It should be really sunny!” and “I’m pretty sure we’ll be back before dark!”
It turns out that swimming a deep and shady slot canyon filled with freezing cold water, followed by a twisty walk where body contortions were required to go from points A to B to … Z, was the right amount of adventure for an American Senior Citizen. Boy, will my friend’s mom have something to tell her book club group back in New York City.
No normal person wakes up and says, “You know, I think I’ll go swim a slot canyon today. There’s just something about wearing neoprene and PFDs in algae-choked waters and then coming up onto a hot sandy shore with scorpions and snakes that really makes me feel…alive! Back by dinner!”
People do this because they want to live an intentional life and enjoy the unexpected benefits of taking intentional risks where the outcomes are unknown.
This is a particularly difficult thing to impress upon both youth, and seniors.
My experience as a Scout leader tells me that if you leave a group of boys to their own devices, and allow them to plan some sort of activity without restrictions, I can almost assure you that the activity would include a cabin with electricity and a wood stove vs. a remote trek in a wild place. So, as a leader (guide, Scout leader, father, husband, etc.) you sometimes have to offer a framework in which the people you are leading are stretched a bit – so they have that opportunity to experience that beautiful thing I call quite simply exploring your wild side.
As a wilderness guide, this is the part I love the most. I have developed a reputation amongst my clients (at least, my repeat clients – ha ha!) of providing experiences that are completely unexpected. I really, really like this part of guiding. And, I really like the clients that come back a second (or third, or fourth…) time – these are the ones that crave the growth that intentional living reveals.
My wife and I reviewed most of our photos from 2012 this year, and she kept gravitating back to one. It’s a picture of our family hiking in the snow in May. I looked at the photo and remembered being cold, and wanting a hot cup of coffee back at the car. She looks at the photo and remembers how incredible it is to feel alive out in the hostility of a wild place.But this is what we like to do, so we don’t allow the weather to negotiate with us (very much).
We know that making the intentional choices to pursue our passions comes with a bit of risk in what might be revealed when things don’t go how we expect them to go.
Therein lies the beauty of living with intention. It’s not about what you are able to control, but about jumping into an unknown abyss and being excited for what will be revealed in the end.
Last year, our troop’s high adventure expedition was to be a hard one. We were doing a traverse of the Spanish Peaks, which are steep. We had days where we climbed several thousands (that’s plural) of feet per day in elevation. That’s a hard sell to a youth culture addicted to video games and easy living.
Only five kids in a troop of twenty signed up for the trek.
Some will argue that we pigeonholed our high adventure program into an experience that excluded (by nature of their “interests”) most of the kids in the troop because of physical ability, personal preferences, or skill level.
Sure, we could have shortened the duration of the trip. We could have shortened the mileage. We could have traveled during a season where the thunderstorms would have waned. We could have changed our route to something easier. We could have camped closer to the trailhead. We could have camped at the trailhead. Heck, we could have camped in a cabin at the trailhead and taken day hikes! We could have brought two-burner car camping stoves for gourmet meals! Or a solar shower, or a …
But we didn’t.
We planned and offered something big so the quality of adventure was preserved for those that wanted it, rather than something small for all that provided a more diluted experience.
And for the five kids that went, they experienced something at a level most kids will never, ever get to experience…
…by choosing instead, to take it easy. And by not living an intentional life and seeing what’s beyond that next pass.If you’re in a position of leadership, consider what you do to provide a framework that allows for these unexpected paths of self-discovery. All you have to do is trust that the outcomes will be what they will be, and that your character is revealed in how you respond to them (for better or worse, right – but heck, who of us willfully admits to “bad” character – we all want our character to be developed and revealed, no?!).
In Scouting, we just call this “being Brave” – the tenth point of the Scout Law. Choosing the lower trail, the easy trail, the sanitized trail, the trail where you control everything – this is quite the opposite of bravery, is it not?
Trust what these experiences might have in store for you, and pursue them with intention.
You just might like what is revealed.
I was originally going to write this as a letter to my Ultralight Life subscribers but the advice is too valuable to keep private.
Stephanie and I don’t have a perfect marriage but we have a marriage that people notice, and ask questions about because they like what they see enough to overlook our blemishes.
I’ve thought about this a lot: what one piece of advice could I tell people to improve their marriage? There’s the usual things you read in the supermarket magazines: take out the trash, do the dishes, keep the gas tank in her car full, cook dinner, protect her, stay fit, comb your hair, write mushy cards, etc. etc. These are all good things and yeah, you need to do them, pal.
But my answer to the questions always comes back to the fact that we’re best friends.
It really is that simple.
I’m not a marriage counselor and I’m not a touchy feely sort of guy. I’m an INTJ, an engineer, and an intensely practical man. If you ask me what the secret to a good marriage is, I’m more likely to write down a mathematical formula (yes, I do have one, if you are interested) than to give you some flowery description of love under the Big Blue Sky of Montana in a mountain meadow with snowy peaks framing the scene and chirping birds etc.
But I’m no dummy either.
You want marriage advice, then I’ll distill it for you, and keep it simple. Make sure you share this with your spouse, because if both of you don’t agree to it, then you’re short selling the potential of what your marriage could be.
OK, ready? This won’t cost you a dime.
Here it is:
Make serious sacrifices (time, mainly) to do what you have to do to invest into a best friend relationship with your spouse. Be best friends, and realize that your second best friend should be way down in second place. Is your best friend not your spouse? That’s a problem.
It’s not the whole story, but it’s a simple recipe that can take you a long ways.
What are you doing to invest into a best friend relationship with your spouse today? What are you giving up to do it?
Photo: Teenagers are social creatures. Why not let them enjoy each other on top of a 10,000 foot ridge instead of a bunk bed in a cabin down in the valley? When they earn and work and suffer together, they just might be more likely to stick together. This photo features the high adventure crew from Troop 676 of Bozeman during our August 2012 traverse across the Spanish Peaks in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness of Montana, standing atop Indian Ridge listening to our oldest Scout tell an animated story about another adventure from the past.
As a Scoutmaster, I’ve heard this one a lot: “I just want to be with my friends.”
Usually it’s in the form of an excuse not to go on an outing, because maybe the outing activity just isn’t their thing.
That’s why as a Scout leader you have to aggressively develop a sense of loyalty and brotherly love amongst your kids.
Loyalty and love – both of which require self-sacrifice – are key ingredients to true friendships. Kids are learning about loyalty and love – they may not have a strong sense of what either really means.
This is why I think high adventure activities in remote wilderness are an essential ingredient to a successful Scouting program.
Wait – what does loyalty and love have to do with wilderness trekking?
You see, when you drop kids into a wilderness, they are put in an environment without temptations for selfish ambition. In wild places, self-serving interests not only result in a failure in group dynamics, but a failure in self-gratification. Remember, Scouting is about cultivating the Patrol Method, which requires cooperation, and if that cooperation is missing, a lad will get mightily uncomfortable mighty quickly on a long trip in a wild place.
But when they have a sense of love for each other, they see a need to serve each other, and they understand what self sacrifice means. Loyalty is a logical outcome – loyalty results from love in action. Some might say that loyalty leads to love in action. Maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg argument. It may not matter, because neither loyalty nor love should be earned, but given freely.
The result of unconditional distribution of loyalty, service, and love? The building blocks for friendship, perhaps.
Then, the next time an opportunity for high adventure comes along, you just might hear “I wouldn’t miss it for the world – my friends will be there.”
About the Author
Ryan Jordan is an Eagle Scout, a former High Adventure and Program Director at Camp Parsons (Chief Seattle Council), a former Scoutmaster, and currently – an Assistant Scoutmaster with Troop 676 in Bozeman, MT and the Montana Council BSA’s High Adventure Committee Chair. Ryan is a frequent author and speaker in a number of Scouting venues, and focuses his Scouting outreach efforts on preserving and cultivating High Adventure as a critical component in the development of Scouting’s young men.
Trail Journal – May 12, 2012
I’m in the midst of a nasty flu and I’m sweating, and extremely dehydrated. I ruptured a disk in my back three weeks ago. I miss my wife, she’s a thousand miles away. I’m in a psuedo-wilderness, camped in an alcove in the Escalante Arm of Lake Powell.
My Jewish companions are on lockdown, it’s the Sabbath. I feel the need to rest, but the opportunity to explore. I get in the powerboat and deliriously navigate to the end of the canyon, the whirr of the gas engine lulling me to doze while Abbey screams in my head about the disaster that has risen up the walls of Glen Canyon. I ignore the guilt, and floor the throttle.
After idling through a maze of flooded tamarisk, I beach the boat on a tiny sandbar and flop out, wavering like a drunk, struck by a combination of physical debilitation and desert heat. I look for my water bottle. I forgot it back at camp! How stupid. Certainly there’s a creek, or a spring, or something up here. I check satellite phone reception. Nothing. So I leave it in the boat. Dead weight.
There’s only one direction to go. The end of the canyon.
I look to what I think might be a horizon (horizons don’t exist in this canyon, as I think on this later) and see heat waves. My mouth is dry from thirst and I spit out grains of sand delivered there by a hot wind. Whiptail lizards are darting here and there. They stand on their tiptoes, cock their heads, and (I think) they blink at me. I yearn to know what they are saying so I invoke mental license and hear them clearly: “dude, you gotta drink.”
That’s when I hear the trickle of the stream.
I wade down a steep slope of loose sand past the rarely blooming prickly pear and unmistakably aromatic juniper, tumble through broken talus, and ignore the game trails though the willows when I see the shimmer of the water surface. I remove all of my clothes, enter the deepest pool I can find (18 inches), lay on my back, plug my nose, and drink.
I think I fell asleep in the water after making my way to a shallow sandbar. I woke up to the tickling of minnows against the sides of my stomach. I had a clear head, but a mouth that tasted of algae and grit. My groin was exposed to dry air, and hot sun, an oversight for which I’d pay dearly for the next day.
I emerged from the cool water and searched for my clothes. Fifteen minutes passed before I found my second shoe.
I let out a belch that echoed off the canyon wall, reminding me that I was hydrated enough to continue. I nibble on a piece of sun-dried smallmouth bass from my snack stash, a tenkara catch from two days before. I walked up the creek towards the seep-stained walls of the amphitheater, and discover a bit of healing in having reached my destination.
Five hours later I return to camp.
“How was it?” they ask.
“I feel better”.
First, a definition.
To some, like my friend Glen, the fringe season means that period of weeks where the pool temperature in San Diego creeps from its wintertime low in the 60s to its barely tolerable springtime comfort of 80. When my family hung out with Glen and his in a February, we were eager to enjoy the ice-free water while he donned a parka and watched us frolic incredulously from the safety of a lawn chair.
For most backpackers, the fringe season seems to be defined by that period after Labor Day and before Halloween when the prospect of inclement weather is a reality.
For me, the fringe season on the fall side is that period of time when snow starts to fall regularly, but is intermixed with the reality of freezing rain. Sure, there may be snow on the ground, but for the most part, it’s less than a foot or two deep and I’m still using tent stakes. The fringe season ends when I can no longer walk without snowshoes or skis, and I have to anchor my shelter with deadmen. That’s when winter starts.
Dressing for the fringe season is challenging because everything has a tendency to get really wet.
Wet clothes means that low temperatures and high winds amp up the discomfort and insecurity level a bit.
I’m constantly searching for some sort of optimum in the fringe season. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve found it, but here’s a system that’s been working for me for a while, and the list below reflects my fine-tuning made in 2012.
- I’m agnostic on brimmed caps in the fringe season (there doesn’t seem to be a lot of sun anyways) and prefer a simple, merino wool beanie cap. My favorite is the now-discontinued BPL Merino UL Beanie, which weights 0.6 oz. I’m a big fan of Buffs, too, for their versatility.
- When it’s really cold, I’m also wearing a hoody hood (see below), and when it’s really windy or wet, I have hoods on my wind shirt and rain jacket, too.
- I can’t say enough good things about the Brynje Merino Long Sleeve Crew. It’s fishnet, and a radical departure from a conventional wicking system. Look for more story next week at BPL about the philosophy.
- In cold (maybe in the 30s and less, perhaps, with nasty weather of course), I add a Patagonia Capilene 4 hoody. It’s light (6 oz), and grid fleece. It layers nicely over the Brynje top.
- In bad weather, I’m nearly always wearing a wind shirt (Patagonia Houdini Jacket), over just the Brynje shirt for mild conditions, or over the Brynje + Cap 4 hoody for colder stuff.
- When it’s wet or really windy, I’ll top the whole bit off with an old Patagonia Specter Anorak, but am looking forward to seeing what the new Westcomb eVENT 2L jacket can do, as my last Specter is now starting to seam-fail.
- The camp and sleep garment is a new skunkworks gig, built for me by Ben over at Goosefeet. Breathable Cuben Fiber, 900 fill down, hooded anorak, kangaroo pocket, parka-length, massive amounts of loft. Twelve oz. This replaces my 19 oz Feathered Friends Helios most of the time.
- In addition to the usual stretchy underwear, I almost always wear something like Powerstretch in winter conditions as my pant. I’m not a fan of the usual soft shells – they are cold, thin, and when it’s wet, you can’t seem to pump moisture out of them fast enough.
- I don’t fool around with low gaiters in the winter. I started off with a set of Mountain Laurel Designs eVENT gaiters, and although I like the weight, the durability was lacking and they were easily shredded in the bush. I eventually moved to the REI eVENT gaiters but the balling underfoot was abhorrent due to the use of absorbent nylon webbing. I’m going back to what has worked for years: outdoor research Gore-Tex with Cordura lowers and PU impregnated straps.
- I almost never, ever wear raingear, even in the foulest conditions. Powerstretch works that good while you’re moving. I do add rain pants in camp – my version is a knicker length breathable Cuben Fiber. Zpacks. 2.6 oz.
- Thick socks. I’ve been trying Smartwool PhD Expedition socks but can’t resist the plush warmth of Smartwool Mountaineering Socks. I’ll probably go back to them for hiking days where the temps are less than 40F and I have to hang out in camp in single digits.
- Inov-8 288 GTX UL boots. Reliably waterproof, flexible, and oh-so-light, with great tread for snowy trails.
- Kahtoola Microspikes – for steep climbs over high passes on icy trails. I yearn for a titanium version with less chain, less rubber, and less weight.
- I’m blessed with good hand circulation. I use, almost universally in the winter, Powerstretch 400 gloves. My favorites are made by OR.
- When things get wet and windy, I add MLD eVENT overmitts, which fit poorly and offer no grip but stay in my pack most of the time so the light weight is appreciated.
As you transform from a novice ultralight backpacker into a seasoned ultralight backpacker, you will find yourself saying this less:
“Oh no! I forgot ___________”
And saying this more:
“What gear and knowledge can I use to solve this problem?”
Most manufacturers of ultralight shelters love to put all sorts of contraptions on their shelters that inhibit ventilation and views, which I think are the two most important attributes of the basic tarp setup.
You name it, they’ve thought about how to destroy ventilation and views: doors, flaps, beaks, nests, awnings … the list goes on.
So before you moan in agony the next time a little snow starts blowing in your beakless tarp, consider instead what you might not be using that could serve … well enough.
For me recently (see photo above), a snowy night in a windy meadow meant that I had the opportunity to rig a bead curtain door thing to the front of my tarp. I lashed my free trekking pole near the top of the front ridge pole, and stuck the other end down on the ground angled down. I then tied my pack to the two poles, and added a spare inflation bag to the other side, anchored to the ground by a piece of extra guyline cord and a Snowclaw (not shown), secured by a stick shoved into the meadow grass roots.
I slept fine. Especially after I buried my head inside my windshirt body for full coverage, since I didn’t have a bivy sack.
Earplugs topped it off, then I wouldn’t have to awaken at the wind howling up in the tree tops right before it slammed into my tarp.
I know, it sounds dramatic, but it really isn’t. It’s just your basic ultralight ethos. Doing awesome things with what you have, so you can be graceful as you travel through wild places.
Life’s trials are like a paddler’s swims.
Other times, you try to roll, and can’t. You try again, and can’t. You’re head hits a rock here, a rock there. Maybe you cut a gash on limestone above your brow, or break your nose or mandible. Maybe (gasp!) you have to pull the ripcord and take a big swim, and, as Sam wrote, enjoy the grit of that humiliating beverage drank from your rank old bootie.
I have to laugh a little whenever I hear a young person think that life is like a box of chocolates. Sure, you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s still chocolate, they say.
I don’t know about you, but that’s not how life has been for me. Sometimes, the chocolate just ain’t chocolate, man.
I think we’re all between swims.
And the swims – that’s what’s makes us, you know?