My first thought was, “Well, phooey. There’s a waste of $200.” I gazed forlornly at my new Salomons: crampon capable clodstoppers, still putting forth the odor of vulcanization, bought only hours before my discovery of lightweight backpacking. I could sense their vestigial hobnails. They would go the distance, I had thought; I would be tramping through some pretty rough country, to be sure. I was going to hike a thousand miles, I had argued to myself, all of it unknown.
Corps of Discovery
Perhaps that’s the source of it: I had always imagined my outdoor pursuits as ventures into the unknown. New horizons and uncharted territory have always demanded stout equipment and sturdy footwear. When Lewis and Clark set out to follow the Missouri River north from Saint Louis, they had forty-three men on three boats. Their meat rations alone amounted to fifty kegs of “porkie packed in barrels.” Fish and game would be taken, where possible, with their 10.5 pounds of fishing hooks and line and their fifteen .54 caliber Kentucky rifles, along with 410 pounds of lead for melting into bullets and the 176 pounds of powder needed to fire them, not to mention the enlisted men’s personal arms. And even this arsenal Clark worried was “not as much as I think necessary for the multitude of Indians.” To barter with and appease the “powerful and warlike nations of savages, of gigantic stature, fierce, treacherous and cruel; and particularly hostile to white men,” they carried among other things 4600 sewing needles, 288 brass thimbles, and a large store of novelty tomahawks that doubled as (peace?) pipes!
Theirs was not a lightweight journey; it was a military surveillance expedition, complete with the formal uniforms of revolutionary America. The Corps of Discovery was not some twenty-first century “journey of discovery.” Their task was to measure, map, and record. The expedition’s journals, though dotted with lively storytelling, are really meant as scientific logs, chock full of sextant readings, compass bearings, depth soundings, and so forth. Each month’s entry comes to a predictable close with a meteorological table of daily highs, lows, and precipitation. To us it’s clutter; to them it was the real substance of their report. Their shoes? Officers Lewis and Clark likely wore knee-high riding boots, “hussars” befitting their rank.
Scrambles in the Alps
In my library I have a copy of Scrambles in the Alps by Edward Whymper, whose ascent of the Matterhorn gave birth to modern mountaineering. The tent he devised to bivouac on the ledges of alpine peaks was “sufficiently portable to be taken over the most difficult ground and… combined lightness with stability.” This first tent expressly designed for backpacking was a tall A-frame of “ordinary plaid macintosh,” supported by “four ash poles, six feet and a half long, and one inch and a quarter thick… shod with iron points,” not to mention all manner of other tough iron hardware. It was as expensive at the time as lightweight gear is now, “about four guineas” (over $600 today), but quite a bit heavier at “about twenty-three pounds.”
Edward Whymper’s “lightweight” tent (twenty-three pounds) required its own porter.
This “backpacking tent” was just one item on a long list of hefty supplies, along with links of sausage, hunks of cheese, whole legs of mutton, and bundles of bread to serve as high-altitude rations. And if not entire casks (as on one occasion!), they at least carried sundry bottles and flasks of wine, deemed necessary to appease the French guides. Liquid rations had a different tenor in the 19th century. When a misstep abruptly landed Whymper’s companion Reynaud at the rocky bottom of a snowy chute, “brandy was trickling out one side of the knapsack, chartreuse out of the other-we bemoaned its loss, but we roared with laughter.” The macabre humor of seeping chartreuse aside, it’s not for nothing that the Swiss Army’s knives had corkscrews. Wine was as essential to those expeditions as… as, well, brandy.
Left: A mercury barometer, used by Edward Whymper to make readings throughout the “Giants” of the equator. Right: Whymper’s famous French guide, Jean-Antione Carrell, served as beast of burden for his patron’s fragile measuring instruments, which weighed a combined twenty-five pounds.
It was not all summits and conviviality for Whymper. Scrambles is full of speculations about glaciation, corrections of other’s altitude estimates. His knapsack frequently came home full of rocks for identification. His great mountaineering journey on the other side of the world, voluminously recorded as Travels amongst the Great Andes of the Equator, was overtly scientific, medical even: “the main object of the journey was to observe the effects of low pressure, and to attain the greatest possible height in order to experience it.” To do this required accurate measurements. So Whymper set off for the Andes, then thought to include the highest peaks in the world, with a kit measured in mule loads. To every summit went his “babies,” a pair (for establishing statistical error) of mercury barometers, which, with secondary swaddling and sturdy wooden cases, came to twenty-five pounds. This was in addition to the newer and much lighter aneroid barometer (which he was forever testing against the mercury ones), various thermometers, and a stout transit theodolite.
Map of Chimborazo constructed from altitude and sextant readings taken on Whymper's trip.
Whymper’s narrative is incessantly interrupted by temperature readings, inches of mercury, scientific names of floral specimens, boiling points, and so on, all of which are compiled in an extensive set of appendices. Whymper was not alone in conceiving of his journeys metrically; he shared with other early mountaineers an obsession with numerical observation, a sensibility peculiar to that generation and its clockwork universe. Their annals are annoyingly cluttered with odd, even embarrassing bits of geological and climatological speculation. And what did the well-provisioned Whymper wear on his feet? The ankle-height, full-grain leather hob-nailed boots favored by the English farmer and later used in the trenches of WWI. Modern hikers learned a trick or two from mountaineers and workman, to be sure, but there’s more than a hint of a military march left in today’s backpacking boots.
The Art of Travel
My travel shelf also includes that gem of jingoism, The Art of Travel, or Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries, by one of those indefatigable British academic-adventurers of the Victorian era, Francis Galton. This committed rationalist and later proponent of eugenics (for “humanitarian” reasons) had once, while a medical student, determined to take every drug in the dispensary, starting with the letter A. It was a quickly aborted experiment, but he transferred this keen observational sensibility to the Wild Countries of his world, promoting a scribal kind of extreme tourism. His traveling laboratory put Whymper’s to shame. Galton proposes a sum total of almost one hundred pounds of stationery, mapping, and natural history equipment (including “geological hammers,” brass sheeting for engraving specimen labels, and spring balances). The Art of Travel contains extensive instructions on how to survey the land through dead-reckoning, compass readings, and triangulation, for which are included charts of typical human, horse, and camel paces. He provides sample log pages for recording every possible measurement: temperature, precipitation, longitude, latitude, altitude, heading, boiling point, as well as various methods for error reduction (understandable from the man who invented the statistical concept of correlation!).
Francis Galton assumes the wilderness adventurer is going for scientific purposes, and will want a thorough, statistically accurate log for each day’s travel.
Exemplary of Galton’s observational sensibilities: average paces for Human, Horse, Camel, to aid in dead reckoning.
Of course it wasn’t all thermometers and sextants. One had to be prepared with other necessities: two axes, plenty of fishhooks, a dozen each of awls and sail needles, bullet moulds. In addition to these communal goods, a white man’s personal stores (including fifteen pounds of “emergency” jerked beef) Galton imagined coming to a modest sixty-six pounds; a black man’s would be slightly less. Each man, black or white, should have a pound of tobacco for each month in the field. Oh, and a stout pair of boots, made of hand-dressed (not tanned) skins, well greased.
Scouts and Muir
The early twentieth century Boys Handbook sought to equip city youth with the dying skills of the frontier.
Tobacco aside, Galton’s is the type of manly adventure imagined by Sir Robert Baden-Powell and his testosterone-inflamed inheritance. The Scouts, whatever they have now become, began after the heyday of British colonialism, in that decadent era when citified living had ceased to produce tough specimens - even though modern life itself had become “a jungle.” Every Scout remembered that Napoleon didn’t bring enough blankets to Russia; no Scout would leave home for the “wilds” without an axe and a good length of stout cordage, in case he would need to, by chance, construct a rope bed along the way. The Scout was encouraged to keep good track of his location, too. Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys lays out many exercises to help measure distance and direction and to make quick sketch maps of any location. It contains the requisite directions on use of thermometers, maps, barometers, and compasses. On a Scout’s feet? He’ll be shod in “boots or shoes, with good nails.” Whymper would approve.
The sturdy shoes specially designed for scouting, offered by the Boy Scouts of America.
John Muir, with his legendary forays into the Sierra carrying nothing but an anorak and a few oatmeal crumbs in his pocket, was one of the great exceptions to the rule of well-equipped wilderness exploration. But let’s not make too much of his monk-like austerity. The Sierra is blessed with weather that Muir uses as a metaphor for the radiance of his own soul basking in the mountains’ glory: “preternatural clearness.” Despite his meager attire and fare, Muir would never be caught without a notebook and a copy of Emerson. We tend to quote his spiritual musings upon nature and its preservation, but he was by sheer word count a naturalist devoted to studying, describing, and documenting plants, rocks, glaciers. As to his feet, they were much better supplied than his stomach: he was clad just as he might have been growing up, in the iron-bespiked workmen’s shoe of the Scottish lowlands.
The author, footloose and burden free in Glacier Peak Wilderness.
The exploratory forays of Muir’s Sierra Club into the unknown were more in line with Lewis and Clark than with their own founder. The bigger excursions numbered men in the triple digits, with whole trains of mules in tow, passing over seemingly impossible landscapes. Smaller parties ventured to the heights without livestock, of course. But base camps remained low near an abundance of forage and firewood to fuel the merry conviviality that made the wilderness camp an icon of American freedom and abundance.
We remember Muir’s spirit, but his geography is more spiritual than topographical. We might read him for inspiration, but it would be foolhardy rely upon his written legacy as a guide. And we should never forget that it was not he who named the Sierra’s luminous peaks and sublime valleys: Whitney, Hoffman, Gardiner, King, Goddard, Ritter. With important exceptions (the Solomons, LeConte, Hutchison), it was the surveyors who had that privilege, Lewises and Clarks all of them. Right down to the sextant. And probably the tall riding boots, too.
As to my own forlorn boots… I, too, had been dreaming of the West as if I were part of the Corps of Discovery. Headed into the unknown - at least unknown to me - I would need sturdy footwear fit for the challenge. Something about the call of the wilderness called forth a lot of baggage, mental and otherwise. In all my planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I had managed to forget that it was a well-graded path, eighteen inches wide, and that I would have maps, a rather complete guidebook, and a host of other human beings plying the same path every day. And all this without even considering TOPO or a GPS!
There’s not a corner on the globe that is now as empty as was Whymper’s map of Ecuador. My initial puzzlement over his barometric obsession has evolved into a distant admiration. I wouldn’t want to carry what he did - nor would I want to be responsible for a mule train. But I’m glad he, and the other more professional mapmakers that have come since, did.
It’s a bit of a mental letdown, though, not to be prepared for everything, not to be the first to map and to name. We hikers, especially the farther and wilder our outings, can’t help but put ourselves in the shoes of those first explorers. It’s why we go in the first place, our Romantic inheritance: to see the land as they did, so wild and remote as to be untouched by humankind. Our own journeys are never without the same wonder and awe of those pioneers.
But just because we follow in their footsteps doesn’t mean we have to wear their shoes.