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Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking III Program

BPL members and staff trek - off trails and off maps - through the snowy Beartooth Mountains

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by Don Wilson | 2007-12-11 03:00:00-07

Photos by Ryan Jordan, Don Wilson and Ryan Connelly

Click here to view a photo gallery from the November 2007 Wilderness Trekking III course.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 1
Mike Clelland and Don Wilson discuss route options on day 1. The Beartooth Range was hit by a series of early season storms prior to the trek, resulting in the accumulation of up to three feet of snow.

When I first heard about Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking III course I knew right away it would be a fabulous way to spend a week; big wilderness, avid hikers, and a curriculum designed for shared uncertainty and maximum learning. When I learned more about how the course would push our limits, I got even more interested. There would be no trails, no GPS, no watches, no canister stoves, no matches, no lighters, no toilet paper, no down-filled insulation and only a mysterious, less than complete map. Winter conditions were likely. Pack weights would be 12 to 14 pounds, even if we had to carry snowshoes and avalanche beacons. Perfect. Count me in.

It all started back in August when ten course participants were chosen for the program from a pool of several dozen applicants. All were experienced hikers, but they represented a diverse set of skills, ages, and geographic origin. Soon after selection an email dialogue began, focused on the gear and technique challenges we would face. Each person completed an online gear list, and all were challenged to minimize pack weight and the number of items we would carry. The two course facilitators, Ryan Jordan and Ryan Connelly, led a series of online discussions focused on navigation, sleep systems, packing systems, footwear and group behavior. Each participant posted a short online biography. By the time we all met in Bozeman, it was almost like a reunion of old friends.

Upon arrival in Bozeman there were still plenty of unknowns. We knew our trek would be somewhere in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but we had no idea of the specific mountain range or terrain. We knew there would be navigation challenges, but we did not know the scope of the challenge. We knew our maps would be “different”, but nothing else was shared with us about map content. The unknowns were all part of the course, and I think we all arrived with a sense of anticipation to learn more about the challenges ahead. I certainly did.

A week before our scheduled start date a series of early season storms swept through the northern Rockies. Notes from Ryan kept the group informed and a slew of last minute gear changes were put in place. Early on, it was uncertain whether we would carry snowshoes, but now there was no doubt. Avalanche danger also became a concern. We would have to carry avalanche beacons, probes and snow shovels, adding about 12 ounces to our pack weights. But for me, the storms were welcome. I have spent most of the past 20 years in the desert southwest, cursed with constant sunshine and warm winters. I relished the idea of snow and nasty weather - and the chance to learn from others in those conditions. Besides, it was easy to welcome the storms from the comfort of my cactus-filled patio in the Sonoran desert.

I flew into Bozeman a day early, arriving on October 8th. The storms had passed but the local mountains were decorated with significant snow. Good weather looked like it would prevail during the trek, with some possibility of storms on the third or fourth day. I enjoyed a delightful day strolling through Bozeman, checking out a significant portion of the local eateries. Most of the others flew in the next day. Late in the afternoon we were transported to a cozy retreat outside of Bozeman where we spent a full day in seminars and packing. It was nice to finally meet my coursemates. We were all excited by the prospects for the week ahead. After introductions and dinner, our first seminars focused on hiking in grizzly bear country and avalanche safety. Because the course had so many experienced hikers, it was more like a series of group sharing exercises than a one-way lecture dominated by a teacher. As someone who hikes solo or with my immediate family most of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of anticipation, passion and learning within the group of experienced, like-minded trekkers.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 2
Ryan Jordan leads a group seminar. We enjoyed a thoughtful series of discussions covering avalanche safety and grizzly bears on our first evening at the lodge.

After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast we spent the morning in more seminars, discussing footwear, clothing systems, sleep systems and expedition nutrition. Finally we packed up and drove out of Bozeman, through the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park. Northern Yellowstone is a magical place: ground zero for wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies. The late afternoon drive was filled with golden light, roaming bison, magnificent elk and snow-covered wilderness as awe inspiring as anything else in the lower 48. We left the Park near dusk and soon arrived at our destination for the evening, an old hunting lodge near the starting point of the trek. Here we had a navigation seminar and were finally handed our maps. We were eager to see the mysterious maps. They had been the subject of much speculation for the past 6 weeks, and we dove right into them. They were topographic maps, but had no scale, no trails, no roads and no geographic names. In the lower right was a small red S - our starting point. In the upper left was a small red F - the finish point. Our task was simple, walk from start to finish in four days. By this time we had been divided into two trekking groups. Each group carefully probed the maps for weaknesses. But alas, the map was not complete. Much of the southwestern quadrant was blanked out. An obvious high plateau could be walked northwest of the start point, but soon the plateau dropped, and a jagged divide guarded the entire northern section of the map, with peaks up to 12500 feet and very complex terrain. In the corner of the map was printed a hint - go off the map. It looked as though we might have to enter the blank zone and cross the divide somewhere on the west side of the map. With that in mind we hit the sack, planning to rise at 5:30 am in order to be at the start of the trek by sunrise.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 3
Maps were distributed the evening before the trek began, and were marked only with partial terrain and a start and finish point. Here the author’s group looks for a route - and can see an obvious weakness for only the first few miles.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 4
The map used in the Wilderness Trekking III program. The challenge was to find the most efficient route from the start (lower right) to the finish point (upper left) through very tough terrain and several mountain divides. The terrain allowed us northwest, then forced us west from the start point. Both groups spent much of the trek in the blank zone west of the start point.

My group consisted of Mike Clelland, from Idaho, Brain Doble, from Maine, Jorgen Johansson, from Sweden, myself, from Arizona, and Ryan Jordan, who would be our facilitator. Right away it was clear to me that it would be a fun group; experienced, relaxed, diverse, and eager to go. A day or two later we would dub ourselves The Beach Boys, a result of Brian and Jorgen both living at sea level. Brian, especially, would suffer from acute mountain sickness on the first day.

The other group was made up of Jim Bailey, from Massachussets, Darin Banner, from Oregon, Mike Martin, from Idaho, Kevin Sawchuck, from California and Ryan Connelly, their facilitator. Somewhere along the way they began to call themselves The Light Wipes. I don’t know where that name came from, and I’m not sure I want to know.

Expedition group dynamics was an important part of the course curriculum and was something we discussed in much detail in preparation for the course. On a group trek in difficult conditions, the dynamics of the group are critical to the success, enjoyment and safety of the expedition. Skills and fitness are important traits for team members, but so are other fundamentals such as empathy, work ethic, humor, persistence and humility. As we nodded off to sleep, I think both groups were curious how well they would function together in the days ahead.

Day 1

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 5
For most of day 1 we could easily map our progress, but late in the day we would have to enter unmapped terrain in order to drop in altitude and camp near firewood. Here Jorgen, Don and Mike plot their route across the high plateau.

We were in the bus at 6:30 am, winding our way uphill, with snow depths increasing and the temperature dropping. I was excited by the beauty of the terrain; high peaks, clear lakes, and alpine vegetation. Though it is far from my home, I feel like I’m visiting an old friend when I arrive in high country. But I was still ignorant of even what mountain range we were in. Upward wound the road, cresting at nearly 11000 feet. Finally we reached a gate where the road was closed for the winter. Small snow drifts were already beginning to claim the road for themselves. It was just before dawn and it was cold. As we sorted our packs and got ready to walk, I began to shiver. The temperature was somewhere in the mid-twenties, thirty or forty degrees colder than a typical October morning in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. I wasn’t used to the cold and I was anxious to get going. Our team huddled for a quick conference just as the sky began to light up. We scanned the terrain and chose to head northwest, across a small basin, aiming for the high plateau that was our planned route to start the day. The plateau would push us up to 11500 feet, but looked like easy walking once we were on top. It would give us a good look at the topography to the north and west, which we considered important since we would be walking along the edge of our map and had no idea what to expect to the west.

The route across the plateau was all we hoped for; easy walking and great views. The high divide that was evident on the map was visible to the north; complex, steep, daunting and not to be crossed until we had traveled further west. By mid-day it was clear that our suspicions were correct; we would drop off the plateau and head into the blank zone on the map in order to move west and camp near firewood. Our cook kits had only a small amount of alcohol and some esbit tabs - enough for an emergency ration or two of hot drinks or food. Cooking over wood using our custom titanium 2-liter Caldera Cones was necessary for the majority of our meals. High on the plateau we could see that the unmapped terrain to the west was a complex jumble of ravines and drainages. One very prominent drainage moved nearly straight west, but our preferred bearing was more northwest. We dropped off the plateau without a clear plan to cross the blank section of the map, and without gaining compass bearings to some prominent landmarks. We assumed we would be able to use high points on the divide to navigate, but this proved a crucial mistake; one that would leave us without a fix on our position for the next two days.

As we dropped down a steep and deeply drifted slope, another surprise reared its head. The snow got deeper - much deeper. At one point I sunk down below my hips. Though beautiful, deep snow would be a drag on our pace in complex terrain. In the back of my mind I began to wonder how much the snow would slow us down. I’m sure my teammates did the same, but we were silent on the topic. Everyone was having a good time, except Brian, who developed a roaring headache and nausea in reaction to the altitude. The quick rise to 11500 feet had given him a classic case of acute mountain sickness. He sat quietly during our breaks, but persevered and by the following morning he was much improved.

Our objective for the evening was a small clump of trees, the first trees we had seen since early in the morning. We moved quietly across the deep snow in the afternoon, surprised to see many lakes already frozen over for the winter. Late in the day we had considered pushing harder to cover more terrain. The snow would certainly slow us down. I was anxious to cover as much ground as possible and to hike until dark or even beyond. But Jorgen quietly reminded us of Brian’s headache. We wisely chose to call it a day when we reached a point with running water and a small supply of wood from a tiny collection of dead, waist-high subalpine fir. In retrospect, Jorgen’s subtle reminder was important; reminding me to focus on the needs of each team member. Health, safety, speed - in that order. It would serve us well in the days ahead.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 6
By afternoon of day 1 it was clear that the snow cover was more complete and deeper than we had expected. We wore snowshoes for the majority of the trekking.

Once at camp, we split into two groups. Two people began the process of gathering wood and boiling water. The others prepared our shelter. My group was using a single GoLite Shangri-La 8 as our shelter. This is a floorless eight-person shelter that weighs about eight pounds with its two poles, and will be on the market in Spring 2008. The Shangri-La was easy to pitch in snow and offered cavernous space. No, that doesn’t do it justice. It was a palace. We delighted in having plenty of room for five people and all our gear. After a warm meal we headed for the shelter, knowing that we needed to take a close look at tomorrow’s route. Ryan said we had made excellent progress for the day. But after an hour poring over the map, we could see no better option than to continue moving west by northwest through unmapped terrain. We hoped to find some landmarks along the divide that would help us pinpoint our location. With that feeble plan, we dozed off. Uncertainty reigned.

Day 2

We arose before dawn to take full advantage of the rapidly shortening daylight hours. We could have hiked immediately, but we chose to cook a hot breakfast in camp - a choice we would repeat every day. It would be less efficient to stop and cook later in the morning, and starting the sub-freezing day with a cold meal was simply unappealing. As we warmed water over the wood fire the sky lit up in a flowing swirl of red, orange, gold and white. It felt good to be packing up, going light, eating warm food and watching the morning alpenglow welcome the day.

There is a special feel to hiking in snow on a completely calm morning. Snow muffles the sounds of walking and adds a velvet smoothness to the wilderness. In this quiet world we started out the day, hoping to feel our way across this unmapped section of the Beartooths - maybe locating our position along the way and pushing the uncertainty into the far corners of our minds.

We were now well off the charted portion of the map, traveling across the blank zone. We joked that this was somewhat like early explorers, whose blank sections of map might be labeled, “There Be Dragons Here.” Dragons were not a concern, but complex terrain was most definitely a problem. We had a single good landmark to navigate from. The large plateau we had traversed the previous day culminated in a flat peak, which we dubbed Headache Peak, after Brian’s altitude induced headache. Using Headache Peak, we knew we could reach a large lake if we maintained a rough 280 degree bearing from the peak. Upon reaching the lake, which we named Finger Lake, we would be back on the charted portion of the map and we could take a northerly turn through several passes, then emerge into lower elevation valleys that would take us to the finish point. But first we had to find a way to stay on our heading, crossing a continuous series of small drainages.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 7
As we entered the second day, both groups were navigating in unmapped terrain and moving slowly through the deep snow. Here, Mike Clelland takes a compass bearing to Headache Peak.

Early in the morning we came across a large fin of granite. At the base of the rock, walking in deep snow and almost invisible in its white coat, was a solitary mountain goat. We had been following the tracks of the goat for a few minutes before we came upon him. He paid little attention to us, looking up, but slowly continuing on his way. The goat traversed around the fin of rock to the right. But I saw a more direct line to the left and I suggested we explore the direct route. Exploring this line, I soon came upon a very deep ravine, which the goat had avoided, but we could explore if we wanted the most direct route. After a short discussion we reversed course, still following the tracks of the goat. Again, safety ruled over speed.

All morning and into the early afternoon we struggled with terrain and navigation. Following our desired bearing was difficult due to a maze of cliff bands and ravines. We considered dropping lower and following a major drainage, but that would reduce our visibility and take us well away from our desired objective. Mike felt pretty strongly that staying high was our best option, and we all agreed. Twice during the day we took long navigation breaks, scanning the terrain beyond for natural weaknesses and trying to locate peaks that we could use to triangulate our position. We could see Headache Peak quite often, but we lacked a second known landmark. To our north lay the 11000 to 12000 foot peaks of the divide, but many of these peaks were non-descript or were within the blank section of the map. Despite a lot of effort, we were unable to use the peaks to help us nail down our position. This was something we had not expected and which frustrated us all day.

As we struggled to locate our position, Ryan, our facilitator, posed a few questions. But he was admirably quiet as we discussed options, not giving the slightest hint, even when we made bad decisions. At times I felt like a lab rat in a cage as Ryan watched the group discuss our decisions. We all knew that he had full knowledge of our position and that he had a complete map. Though he was silent about navigation, in all other aspects he served as a normal member of the team. The facilitators both carried a GPS to plot our courses and a satellite phone in case of emergency. But they did not share any of that information with us.

In early afternoon we reached a high ridge and Mike pointed out a possible break in the terrain. It looked as though this natural cleft also closely followed our desired bearing. We would have to drop across a valley to reach the weakness, then climb back up the opposite side. The valley below harbored a series of lakes, and was blocked on the north side by a wall of streaked rock. As we scanned our route, a Bald Eagle glided silently across the void, looping effortlessly above the range with no apparent destination. Dropping into the valley through deep snow was loads of fun. Silently, each of us was wondering about the uncertainty that lay ahead. We were moving very slowly. With only one landmark we did not know our exact position and we had no idea if we were getting close to Finger Lake. Could we make it to the finish point? I doubted that we could. But for now, I kept my doubts to myself. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, regardless of the uncertainty.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 8
The Light Wipes, Kevin, Jim and Darin, gather around their maps to assess their route and locate their position. Both groups suffered navigation problems from failing to locate known landmarks on day 1.

Nearing the valley floor, five figures came into view, hiking downstream. It was the Light Wipes, whom we had not seen since early the previous day. Our reunion proved to be a pivotal moment in the trip. The Light Wipes were clearly concerned about their pace, and struggled with the same navigation challenge as we did. Neither of us knew our specific position but both groups had a strategy to get back onto the charted portion of the map and head north to the finish point. Our question now was simple. Was the slow pace of snow travel going to keep us from the planned finish point? Ryan J. and Ryan C. held a private mini-conference and soon we all met to discuss a change of plans. The deep snow was indeed slowing us down. A new finish point was drawn on our maps. The new point was further south, but still in line with our plan to reach Finger Lake. We chose to continue on our planned exploration of the terrain weakness above the lake. The Light Wipes chose to follow the drainage of the valley, a more circuitous route, but possibly also more efficient. We wished each other good luck and headed our separate ways.

Our choice would keep us on high ground with good visibility, which we found aesthetically pleasing. But it was a risk. We crossed the river and climbed a steep, grassy slope. Happily for us, this geologic cleft turned out to be many miles long. It was an obvious stripe in the rock that happened to follow almost exactly along our desired bearing - a stroke of good luck. All afternoon we moved quickly, up and down small valleys and around lakes and rivers. Uncertainty was pushed a little more into the background. Just stay on this bearing until we reach Finger Lake. Simple.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 9
Jorgen extracts his leg after plunging into a gap in a snow covered boulder field. Crossing these boulder fields was slow and a source of concern for both groups.

But a new challenge for both groups now arose from the terrain. Each valley harbored a lake, and each lake was bordered by fields of talus and small boulders. Sometimes a steep cliff completely closed access to one side. These boulder fields were covered with shallow snow, treacherous to walk on. South facing slopes could sometimes be crossed more efficiently without snowshoes. Navigating these difficulties was slow and littered with many group decisions. Which way around the lake? Snowshoes on or off? At one point we reached a large lake with a dubious band of rock slabs protecting the short way around. We suspected we could traverse it, but we were not certain. The longer route involved another series of nasty, snow-covered talus. After a long discussion we again chose safety over speed. Again it proved to be a wise choice.

Late in the day we chanced upon a perfect campsite. Perched on a small ridge between two lakes, it had flat ground, fresh water, dead wood, and a stunning view. It took no time at all to reach a decision to camp at that spot. As we prepared dinner and set up camp, clouds began to fill the sky. We felt better about our progress during the afternoon, and we knew our plan for the next day was to continue our march toward Finger Lake - as long as the terrain would allow us.

Day 3

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 10
Early in the morning on day 3 we continue along our bearing. The natural weakness we followed for much of days 2 and 3 is obvious to the left of Jorgen.

A dusting of snow coated our shelter in the morning. It was warmer than the previous two mornings. We were all sleeping reasonably warm during the nights, with the possible exception of Mike. Mike carried only a single quilt and a half bag, and also lacked synthetic insulated pants. In the early mornings we could hear Mike doing a few abdominal crunches to keep himself warm in the last hours before dawn.

Early in the day, we were delighted to see that our natural path kept on going. We would climb to a small pass, then peer over to see the stripe of snow continuing on; down to a valley and up another rise. Our team was getting along well. We were constantly sharing ideas and comments about techniques, gear and navigation. While we were still struggling with navigation woes, the course objectives of maximum learning while pushing us out of our comfort zones was clearly working - and we were all pleased to be in such a beautiful environment and doing the thing we loved. Throughout the morning Mike entertained us with a mind-boggling array of palindromes that he spouted from memory. Here are a couple of samples:

Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog.

Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to a new era.

He went on and on with these. Good fun.

We expected that by the afternoon we would reach Finger Lake or cross to the south of it and reach other charted portions of the map. We moved reasonably well all day, slowed only by navigation around lakes. But we were able to stay close to our desired bearing. Late in the afternoon there was still no sign of Finger Lake and we assumed we had passed to the south of it. Uncertainty began to creep back into our conversations. In late afternoon we reached a cold and windy lake and stopped for water and some food. The fissure we had been following seemed to end here. What next? Only 24 hours remained to reach our finish point. We held another group discussion and Ryan gave us another update on our exit point. He revealed that our pickup would be in Cooke City, and Cooke City lay 8 miles southwest of Finger Lake. We asked for one more piece of information - our bearing to Finger Lake. We were surprised to learn that we were almost due south of the lake, revealing that we had not traveled as far as we thought. Unanimously, we decided we needed to turn south, dropping in elevation, looking for a drainage that would lead us to the south and west. This was a turning point, as now we were headed out of the wilderness, downhill. We dropped down a treacherous drainage full of slick rock and deadfall, targeting a lake below. Reaching the lake before dusk, we felt confident that we would soon find a trail. We came upon a nice campsite that was obviously heavily used during the summer.

I took a turn that night at firestarting and cooking with the Caldera Cone. Cooking over a wood fire is fundamentally satisfying; it feels more like a primitive art than a technologically enabled meal system. I learned a few tricks about starting a fire in wet conditions and efficiently keeping heat on your pot as you work to boil the water. I enjoyed the wood fire cooking and committed to build more experience with it on future trips.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 11
Hiking though varied terrain in snowshoes quickly became a habit, but we stressed our lightweight snowshoes to the limit, and beyond.

Day 4

The next morning we picked up a trail at the outlet of the lake, as we had expected we might. We dropped rapidly, heading south, then west. Ahead of us on the same trail were the footprints of the Light Wipes. We passed their campsite and followed them out of the wilderness. The challenge was mostly over now, though we were still on terrain for which we had no map. Uncertainty melted away and we began to discuss our thoughts on the course and future trips. I had enjoyed each and every one of my teammates and hoped to cross paths or share trips with them again. We walked the final two miles into Cooke City along a road, completing our transition out of the wilderness. Not everything had gone smoothly, but there were smiles all around.

Walking into Cooke City, we were greeted by the Light Wipes. They had chosen a lower route along natural drainages that would have taken them slightly south, then west. They had planned to walk around the highest portions of the divide, then follow an easy route north to the finish point. In good conditions their route might have been more efficient than ours, but they suffered from difficult navigation around several lakes and the same fundamental navigation issues that my team faced. But they too were smiling.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 12
Wrapping things up - Mike Martin, Darin and Kevin take a look at a map when they reached the trailhead

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light's Wilderness Trekking III Program - 13
After a rewarding walk into Cooke City, both groups relaxed, shared experiences and filled up on food. In back, Kevin Sawchuck, Mike Martin, Jim Bailey, Darin Banner, Don Wilson. In front, Jorgen Johansson, Brian Doble, Ryan Jordan, Ryan Connelly, Mike Clelland.

On the warm ride back to Bozeman I reflected on the week and how it might impact my thinking. Most significantly, the course reinforced my growing belief in the value of wilderness and the types of experiences that it can provide. Exploring the Beartooth range on the edge of winter, with a few kindred spirits, carrying only the simplest of essentials, is rewarding in ways that can’t be duplicated outside of wild places. Good learning experiences also open up new possibilities and expand the horizons of your future. This experience had done exactly that for me. Already I’m planning new trips that will push me in fresh directions, perhaps being joined on those trips by some of my coursemates. And I have a newfound respect for outrageous palindromes.

In part 2 of this series we’ll explore the details of the gear we carried, techniques we used and our approaches to navigation during the Wilderness Trekking III course.


"Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking III Program," by Don Wilson. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2007-12-11 03:00:00-07.


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Out of Your Comfort Zone: Through the Beartooth Mountains with Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking III Program
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Don Wilson
(don) - MLife

Locale: Koyukuk River, Alaska
Nighttime spillage on 02/13/2008 11:03:14 MST Print View

Yes, I did not mean to imply any personal "leakage" with Mike's nighttime wetness :-) It was indeed a leaking water bottle. Several of us slept with warm water bottles to keep us warmer at night.

Since Mike was carrying the lightest sleep system, he suffered more from that incident than would have been the case if he had a warmer setup.

I don't want to give anyone the impression that Mike was seriously suffering. He is very experienced with winter backcountry travel, and he intentionally pushed the envelope with his system - knowing that he might be cold, but would not be dangerously cold.

I think his experiment helped all of us learn about the limits of what would be comfortable in those conditions.

Darin Banner
(dbanner) - MLife

Locale: Pacific North West
Comments On My Gear Choices on 02/13/2008 13:06:18 MST Print View

I was on this trip and part of the Light Wipes team. I have three comments about my own gear choices: For water purification, I brought a SteriPEN Adventurer. It weighs just a few tenths of an ounce more than the Klearwater and I’ve really enjoyed using it on other trips. On this trip, however, I could not get it to complete a full purification cycle. I’m guessing that was due to cold temperatures. I ended up using Katadyn Micropur tablets, which I always bring as backups. They worked great for me.

Although the Atlas Race snowshoes are well made, I would not recommend them for this type of outing. They were way out of their league. I had three failures with them—one of them catastrophic. I have since purchased MSR Lightenings and have been very happy with them.

My footwear consisted of a RHB Bonded VaprThrm liner socks, Merino wool socks, Gore-Tex trail running shoes, and OR Flex-Tex gaiters. I believe this system would have been warm enough, but the back of the gaiters rose above the back of my shoes and let snow come down inside my shoes making my socks wet and cold. I have since modified the gaiters by putting a grommet in the back bottom edge and running a cord under the back of the shoe and tying it onto the cord that runs from the sides of the gaiter under the arch of the shoe. This has kept the back of the gaiter from rising and letting in snow.

Edited by dbanner on 02/13/2008 13:08:56 MST.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Hmmm - UL 240XP on 02/14/2008 09:41:04 MST Print View

Jonathan -

Members will notice that the UL60, PRO90, and UL180 quilts are being closed out right now (check your email for the closeout coupons), thus paving the way for a single new quilt that will land here in June/July: the UL 240 XP.

This is a 240 gsm insulated quilt using Climashield XP and a 15d shell and lining fabric.

This is what I've been using, in combination with the UL Hoody and UL Pants (or PRO Parka and PRO pants for ski/snowshoe/alpine climbing trips) for most of my trips this year - eliminating or lightening up the clothes for summer - and adding a stouter parka in the winter.

Frank Perkins

Locale: North East
Re: Out of Your Comfort Zone on 02/14/2008 10:04:34 MST Print View

"I will state here - for the record - that I did NOT pee on myself during the night. I got a suspicious email (hinting that MAYBE it wasn't just water that I spilled) from a certain team member who will remain unmentioned, except that he lives in Sweden."

If Andy admits to peeing while hiking, why not do it while sleeping.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Glad it wasn't me on 02/14/2008 12:57:40 MST Print View

I'm so glad I wasn't on this trip, as I don't think I would have survived without my nice thick WM down bag, Skaha down hoody and Montbell down pants :(

Why the requirement for synthetic only insulation? Were you expecting to sleep in puddles without bivy bags?

Ryan Gardner
(splproductions) - F - M

Locale: Salt Lake City, UT
Ryan... "paving the way for a single new quilt" on 02/14/2008 13:40:13 MST Print View


From your comment of "paving the way for a single new quilt" I interpreted that BMW will only be offering one quilt. Is that correct? In other words, there will no longer be an uber-light 11-13oz quilt offered? If you could let me know that would be great as it would affect my decision on whether to get a quilt on closeout.


Don Wilson
(don) - MLife

Locale: Koyukuk River, Alaska
Re: Glad it wasn't me on 02/15/2008 11:30:03 MST Print View

Alison -

October in the Northern Rockies is a challenging period. It could be cold, snowing, raining, icy - just about anything. Synthetic insulation gave us the best strategy to easily deal with the worst case scenario. Given that this was a group trip in those conditions synthetic insulation seemed like a good solution. There were a number of rules on the trip oriented toward making a group trek in tough conditions more successful - such as the rule disallowing watches, and a pre-arranged strategy for rest breaks and daytime meals. Without those type of arrangements, a group trip with individuals who have never met before can get dragged down by little decisions. So a pre-arranged strategy for some things, including the insulation rule, helps these types of trips to go more smoothly.


Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Out of Your Comfort Zone on 02/15/2008 11:54:02 MST Print View

Hi there,

I was part of the team on this trekking trip.

I was very impressed that team at BPL was so dedicated to our experience. It's easy to call the "rules" an artificial challenge. But there was a huge value to those "rules" (no watches, GPS, down gear, non-detailed maps, etc)

I teach for NOLS, where we are encourage to take all kinds of extras to combat ANY potential challenge. This is similar to any "traditional" instructional book, or even just our habits. I've found that backpackers feel they NEED a lot, and that they CAN"T do without certain "essentials"...

This experience really brought home the very real truth that, with a little bit of perseverance and clear-headedness, you can be totally comfortably in extremely harsh conditions. Yes, downright jolly, even with an extremely sparce load.

THis is a lesson that very few organizations will even look at, let alone DO!

I came away with a renewed ability to LOOK AT my own practices, and make clear decisions from a place of INSIGHT. I gained more than just knowledge, I feel I have a little more WISDOM.

I encourage folks to continue to challenge themselves. It's rewarding!

peace from Idaho,

Edited by mikeclelland on 12/12/2008 11:04:29 MST.

Kathleen B

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Out of Your Comfort Zone on 02/15/2008 12:18:37 MST Print View

Excellent and helpful comments, Mike. I was also wondering what the purpose of using incomplete maps was. I teach navigation for the Mountaineers, and the thought of traveling with incomplete maps leaves me panicky. Based on your comments, I assume it was part of the learning experience to use resourcefulness to its maximum.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Re: Glad it wasn't me on 02/15/2008 12:19:46 MST Print View

Thanks for the clarification Don

I agree that some ground rules are essential for a well run group trip. However I have hiked in a region of the world that is reknowned for throwing 4-seasons in one day at you, any time of year, and without warning. I would never leave home without my down insulation in these conditions, and have never had a problem. Since I would have thought one of the goals of your trip was to go as light AND warm as possible, I am surprised at the dis-allowance of down as a superior insulator for the weight. Then again, I realise Ryan is a big fan of synthetics...

Of course, I'm a chick, and we tend to run colder than most guys. Maybe us chicks should be allowed a weight penalty for that, or a special dispensation to carry down instead???

I otherwise thought the trip sounded 'fun' in that satisfyingly challenging way. I enjoyed the write-up a lot, and it's interesting to see what everyone carried given the limitations imposed in the ground rules.

Don Wilson
(don) - MLife

Locale: Koyukuk River, Alaska
Re: Re: Re: Glad it wasn't me on 02/15/2008 19:04:22 MST Print View

It certainly would have been possible to do this trip with down insulation. Or watches, or better maps, or matches and lighters.

But the course was designed to challenge us, make us think, get out of our comfort zone. And in that regard, I think it was a huge success. Certainly for me it was one of the more interesting trips I've done in a long time. It has literally changed my thinking for future trips. If we had carried all the normal gear we bring, it would have been a totally different experience; much less interesting. And working thru the challenges with my team members was FUN!

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Glad it wasn't me on 02/15/2008 20:06:16 MST Print View

Concerning taking no watch into the backcountry: YMMV but for this snail, that is its own reward.

Don Wilson
(don) - MLife

Locale: Koyukuk River, Alaska
Re: Re: Glad it wasn't me on 02/15/2008 20:24:01 MST Print View


Agreed. Not carrying a watch is incredibly refreshing.

Full disclosure - we could get the time from the digital cameras we carried.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Out of Your Comfort Zone on 02/16/2008 09:11:00 MST Print View

(MAP and NAV question) Kathleen B:

The reason for the wildly edited specialized maps was simply to challenge us, and create a multilayered puzzle. It was a navigation, challenge, a problem solving challenge and a (mostly) group-dynamics challenge. The entire focus of the WT3 was to prepare the team for EXPEDITION challenges in extremely remote places. I gotta say, I really LOVED the map challenges.

And, we were dropped off at the road head, in the early morning in the DARK. The bus had foggy windows, and stepping out, I had NO idea where we were. We had to climb a little hill just to make sense of our edited map.

I live in this part of the country, and I thought I had a pretty good idea where we were after we drove thru one town I recognized, I was way off.

And - I loved the game (the PUZZLE!) of trying to navigate using the non-USGS map. Plus, we had all those other challenges (artificially imposed, though they be) like: broken snow shoes, minimal fuel, altitude illness, no watches (Yippeee!), no GPS (Right ON!), ultra-light loads in a WINTER environment, etc...

If you teach navigation, this would be a cool way to challenge the advanced students.

Also - Don the author is a jedi-knight of map skills.

- - - and - - -

(DOWN question) Allison M:

The entire focus of the WT3 was to prepare the team for EXPEDITION challenges in extremely remote places. A DOWN insulating layer (clothing or sleeping) has the potential to loose loft on a long expedition. We used synthetics as a way to "mimic" and "prepare" for longer outings. Ryan J. made a lot of references to the challenges (and lessons learned) on his arctic trip from 06.

That said, I use a down sleeping bag on 30 day trips in the North Cascades. I spent one 30 day trip with 29 days of precipitation, and I slept soundly every night in my down sleeping bag. But, i needed to take good care of it! (care of equipment is a skill!)

ALSO - - - Are women REALLY colder than men? Anecdotally, I think you may be right, but I have never actually seen any data to back this up. That said, I know some women who HATE it when I leave insulating gear behind as I proclaim: "No worries, I don't get cold." Their response to my cavalier (albeit true) statement is, shall we say, emotional.

peace from idaho,

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Out of Your Comfort Zone on 02/16/2008 11:29:40 MST Print View

As someone who never carrys a watch or GPS anyway, I can understand how liberating that aspect of the trip would be.

As far as women running colder than men, that is just not anecdote, though I don't have the data handy at my fingertips. Individuals will vary, but in general women run anywhere from 15-20% colder than men. So, yeah it makes me shiver to consider leaving my down bag at home. Maybe this is why there were no women wanting to go on the WT3? Or was that a policy from the beginning? Certainly easier living in mixed groups like that without having to dance around the niceties of mixed genders...

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Re: Out of Your Comfort Zone on 02/17/2008 11:10:52 MST Print View

I think this could be the subject of a new thread as it's getting off topic, but for now here is some base data:

The overall AVERAGE difference in RESTING heat output in NORMAL men and women is:

Men:1638 calories per day
Women: 1355 calories per day.

This is 18-20% less output per day for women. As noted below, the exception seems to be older (post-menopausal) women, presumably due to their decreased estrogen levels. There is a plethora of research showing estrogen's negative impact on basal metabolic rate...

Thermal adjustment to cold-water exposure in resting men and women.
McArdle WD, Magel JR, Gergley TJ, Spina RJ, Toner MM.

Thermoregulatory responses were studied in 10 men and 8 women at rest in air and during 1 hour immersion in water at 20, 24, and 28 degrees C. For men of high body fat (27.6%), rectal temperature and oxygen consumption were maintained at all water temperatures. For men of average (16.8%) and low (9.2%) fat the change in rectal temperature (delta Rectal temperature) was inversely related to body fat at all water temperatures with oxygen consumption increasing to 1.07 liters per minute for a -1.6 degrees C delta Rectal temperature for lean men. For women of average (25.2%) and low (18.5%) fat rectal temperature decreased steadily during immersion at all water temperatures. The greatest changes occurred at 20 degrees C with little differences in delta rectal temperature and oxygen consumption noted between these groups of women. In comparison with males of similar percent fat, rectal temperature dropped to a greater extent in females at 20 and 24 degrees C. Stated somewhat differently, lean women with twice the percentage of fat have similar delta rectal temperature as lean men at all water temperatures. For delta rectal temperature greater than -1.0 degree C men showed significantly greater thermogenesis compared with women. The differences in thermoregulation between men and women during cold stress at rest may be due partly to the sensitivity of the thermogenic response as well as the significant differences in lean body weight and surface area-to-mass ratio between the sexes.

Influences of age and gender on human thermoregulatory responses to cold exposures.
Wagner JA, Horvath SM.

To delineate age- and gender-related differences in physiological responses to cold exposure, men and women between the ages of 20 and 29 yr and 51 and 72 yr, wearing minimal clothing, were exposed at rest for 2 h to 28, 20, 15, and 10 degrees C room temperatures with 40% relative humidity…... Changes in rectal temperature and mean skin temperature during cold exposure were largely related to body fat, with the exception that, despite greater body fat, the older women maintained a constant rectal temperature at greater metabolic cost than men or younger women.

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
WTIII and Women on 02/17/2008 15:55:39 MST Print View

There was no policy against women attending WT3. Having done lots of backpacking (including a 28 day trip where shelters were sometimes shared) with a mixed group of men and women, I doubt women being present would have made much difference in how the course ran. I think each WT3 group will have its unique personality based on the members' personalities, be they male or female.

Of course if I'd been on the trip and in Mike C!'s group there would have had to have been muffins!

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: WTIII and Women on 02/17/2008 18:13:27 MST Print View

Yeah, I didn't really think BPL would exclude women, or old folks, or anyone really. but it IS interesting how few BPL women were interested in going to camp in the snow with nothing but a thin synthetic blanket for cover ;)

On the other hand, if you REALLY want to talk about going outside your comfort zone, then spare a thought for the poor souls who partook in the above experiments....sitting in cool-cold water with a mask over your face and a thermometer up your rectum-THAT's pushing anyone's comfort zone!

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
WT3 and ... on 02/17/2008 19:03:55 MST Print View

It's also interesting to see how few BPL men wanted to go :)

And just because synthetic bags were used, doesn't mean they weren't warm. Two guys were carrying nearly 3 lb, 15 degree F bags - pretty cozy for the low 20's.

As to the cold water and rectal thermometers - I was thinking the same thing - yowza!

Don Wilson
(don) - MLife

Locale: Koyukuk River, Alaska
WT3 and Women on 02/17/2008 21:38:17 MST Print View

Carol is correct, there was no policy keeping women out of WT3. It would have been great to have some women in the group, and I don't think it would have impacted our approach at all.

I hope we'll see plenty of women in future Wilderness Trekking courses.

Carol is also correct that we were plenty warm for the most part. I had a toasty 15 degree bag (not a quilt), plus synthetic fill pants, a hoody and a jacket. My total kit was very light, but I had plenty of insulation. I was completely warm at night, with the only exception being that my pad was a little thin for sleeping on snow. In the future I'd bring a thicker pad than the 1/8 inch 3/4 length pad I used in combination with a torso length ridgerest.