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Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting

"I guess I first realized my pack weight had to change when I was in intensive care recovering from a bad fishing trip."

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by Jim Sweeney | 2009-01-13 00:01:00-07

Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeneys Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting - 1
The photos that should have accompanied this article were somehow lost in transmission, and we have been unable to contact the author. We have found, in a public archive, this photo, which seems to have been taken about the time of the author's helicopter rescue.

I guess I first realized my pack weight had to change when I was in intensive care recovering from a bad fishing trip. I'm not sure how much you know about fishing terms, but I was a depth fisherman. A lot of guys seek the perfect location, others think the perfect temperature is what counts. I believed the best way to catch fish was to have the hook hovering at just the right depth in the water. To that end, I usually carried a variety of floats and lead weights to bring the hook to that perfect hover location.

Sure, the other fishermen mocked me. Measuring success as they did by "total catch weight," "most fish caught and released," or "shortest interval between catches," they had degraded a beautiful and subtle art form to a mere game of numbers, a classically hierarchical system of male bragging rights.

I knew I could make my technique more effective if I could make it more precise. On previous trips, I'd been limited to the commercially available weights. But this time I was going to bring along my own small lead-casting foundry, with accurate scales, variable molds, and many cans of butane to fuel its smelter. I could make my own weights on the spot and get my hook to within 0.03125 inches of the optimal depth (Floats, which are pressurized at sea level, expand slightly and float higher as the air pressure drops with altitude, and weights, farther from the center of the earth, weigh less, due to the inverse square nature of the law of gravity). And, so equipped, off I set.

It was clear that something was wrong when I got to my favorite fishing lake and could no longer feel my legs. Things turned out all right, though. Another fisherman spotted me collapsed facedown beneath my pack among the boulders at the lake's edge; the heavy-lifting Sikorsky helicopter ferried me safely back down the mountain; the small hospital staff worked their magic. When I came to, the doctor reassured me that, though he personally had never seen so many discs so ruthlessly collapsed, he was pretty sure that hanging me upside down by my heels would have me fixed in no time. Two weeks later, I was walking again.

My first, failed efforts to lighten my pack went, of course, in completely the wrong direction. Foolishly, I brought more, not fewer, things, specifically helium-filled balloons and valved rigid backpack frames also filled with helium. The improvements in pack weight were short-lived, quickly erased by the escape of the notoriously leaky gas. Even when everything worked, any gains were nullified by the weight of the necessary helium resupply cylinders. The next stint in intensive care gave me plenty of time to think.

For starters, I gave up fishing. It wasn't much of a sacrifice, as I'd never caught anything anyway. I began to scour the internet obsessively. I spent hours, then days, mastering the intricacies of translating from grams to ounces and back again, from 95/5 to 850 fill down, from centigrade to Fahrenheit. I drew up spreadsheets cataloging the claimed advantages of almost everything. For example: sleeping bags sewn into empty shape in Tunisia from fabrics first designed by a failed British company and later improved and woven by a Japanese textile giant, following patterns from a Danish designer living in the border region between France and Spain, which were then returned to the Pyrenees to be stuffed with exquisite down by goose farmers' daughters seeking a better life. Weighed against these were bags made by American firms more generous with their down but with less of a flair for extravagant product names. I compared the properties of goose down from China, where the geese were raised listening to Brahms, with down from small French farms, whose geese grew up to bedtime stories about Babar, or about the little goose who learned that "foie gras" really meant "goose millionaire."

My family, heavily burdened by my hospital bills, were initially very supportive of my new enthusiasm. Gradually, though, as I continued to weigh in their presence the advantages and disadvantages of lightweight but noisy fabric, or supple but slippery yardage, or non-stretching but hopelessly fragile tent goods, their attitude shifted to polite acceptance, then to ill-concealed boredom, and finally, to outright hostility, often accompanied by hurled cans of pale fruits in syrup. Except for my uncle, who was always the odd man out, a grasshopper in a molehill full of ants.

One day he took me out to an obscure alley, in a derelict part of town, where he kept a garage. "Go on, take that tarp off. Check this baby out."

Under the tarp was a complex array of shafts and small motors, brackets and pistons and levers and conveyors, whose purpose was hopelessly unclear to me. How was this going to help me lighten my pack?

"Here." He handed me a sheet of paper with a wonderfully fine weave. "Stick that in the hopper, press that button, and put your hand out."

I did as he said.

"Now get ready for perfection." His ferrety eyes gleamed.

The machine shuddered to life, wheezing and clanking. It swallowed the sheet of paper, agitated itself for several minutes, then went strangely silent. Minutes passed. Sharp chemical smells wafted warmly upward. Was this some kind of elaborate practical joke? More time passed, lights flashing mutely. Finally, six brand new 100 dollar bills slid noiselessly into my hand, still warm from their time in the drying oven. He was right. They were perfect.

"Don't get greedy. You can stay on top of this game. Forever."

And sure, it wasn't necessary to get greedy. For less money than a would-be bicycle racer might spend on a new set of wheels, or a car aficionado on a new cam-shaft, I could completely overhaul a major part of my quiver. I'm down now to a pack weight of about four pounds and heading lower. In my warehouse, where I store the things I no longer need, I have the entire recent product history of the world backpacking industry.

I don't get out backpacking much anymore, though. I just don't have the time. With the Americas Cup coming up, I've taken to lurking around the racing docks, buying drinks for the deck hands in the local yacht bars, hiring on as extra labor, anything to get a look at the new sail fabrics. Some killer stuff is coming. I don't understand the technology yet and really am not at liberty to divulge what I do know, but major advances are coming - my pack weight is going to drop three, maybe even four, hundredths of an ounce as soon as the new fabrics show up as gear.


Citation

"Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting," by Jim Sweeney. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/testimony_jim_sweeney.html, 2009-01-13 00:01:00-07.

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Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting on 01/13/2009 22:34:09 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
I...... on 01/13/2009 22:52:17 MST Print View

I just don't know what to say.

Adam Kilpatrick
(oysters) - MLife

Locale: South Australia
Obesession... on 01/13/2009 23:47:56 MST Print View

...often comes at the princely price of one's sanity.

Bravo!

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: I...... on 01/14/2009 00:47:23 MST Print View

> I just don't know what to say.

I do ...
but I can't...

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting on 01/14/2009 05:15:17 MST Print View

[tears of laughter running down my face]

No way I can let my family see this article, they'll want to know where I found someone to write that article for me.

I DID almost end up in the hospital after my first return to backpacking trip eight years ago (subtitled "The Pack Mule at age 50")

David Stenberg
(dstenberg1) - F

Locale: South
very well done! on 01/14/2009 08:12:56 MST Print View

This was an excellent article. A new monthly column?

Devin Montgomery
(dsmontgomery) - MLife

Locale: one snowball away from big trouble
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting on 01/14/2009 08:28:06 MST Print View

I think this came a bit early - the first of April is still a few months off.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting on 01/14/2009 08:40:36 MST Print View

I'm speechless too.

Sigmund Freud

Edited by jshann on 01/14/2009 08:41:10 MST.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting on 01/14/2009 15:15:14 MST Print View

WOW!

Another speechless reader.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting on 01/14/2009 15:46:25 MST Print View

Let me understand this.

Did the author of this article just write an essay documenting for the world a declaration that he has funded all of his backpacking purchases with counterfeit money from a printing press built by his relative???

Edited by Valshar on 01/14/2009 15:50:16 MST.

Judi Henson
(ritzhenson) - F

Locale: The Deep South
Busted! on 01/14/2009 16:05:37 MST Print View

That's what it sounds like to me...So, where does your Grasshopper Uncle live again?

Jim Sweeney
(swimjay) - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Macro Economics on 01/14/2009 17:43:03 MST Print View

Tony and Judith, I can't say I pretend to understand economic theory, but my uncle explains that the Treasury Dept actually (tacitly) encourages what they call the "orderly entrepreneurial enhancement of the monetary supply". What they object to is sudden, dislocating currency infusions. So, for example, when I suggested to him that we might let everyone at BPL use the machine, he explained (with a stiff left hook) "Now that would be getting greedy, wouldn't it?" The orderly, low key use of his machine stimulates the economy and saves the treasury dept the cost of printing and distributing extra currency. After all, my uncle says, where do I think the money for the current economic stimulus packages is going to come from?

David Gore
(davgor) - MLife

Locale: Central CA Coast
RE: "Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting" on 01/14/2009 17:46:52 MST Print View

Thanks BPL editorial staff for printing the funniest thing I've read all day. Its style reminds me of books authored by Tom Robbins, whose paperbacks have on occasion gone into my pack. In all cases, well done, Mr. Sweeney.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: RE: "Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting" on 01/14/2009 20:27:40 MST Print View

Tony, I'm confused too.

The accountant here is still trying to figure out if we have to report Jim's purchases as ... legal sales ... to the IRS ...!

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
Lightweight Testimony-Jim Sweeney on 01/14/2009 20:54:44 MST Print View

There is a lot to think about in his article and then agian there is not. SPOOF!! UL is a waste of time-Right!!

John Whynot
(jdw01776)

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: Lightweight Testimony-Jim Sweeney on 01/14/2009 21:04:13 MST Print View

Will there be a sequel on April 1st?

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife

Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment on 01/17/2009 21:57:09 MST Print View

ROTFL!

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Lightweight Testimony: Jim Sweeney's Enlightenment via Lead Weights, Helium Balloons, and Yachting on 01/20/2009 15:03:00 MST Print View

Hard to believe this article wasn't listed as members only. To think I skipped over the Cowboy Coffee article for this.