mountains

Wordless Wednesday: Massachusetts

The dock of Upper Goose Pond

The dock of Upper Goose Pond

A quiet spot on a busy mountain

A quiet spot on a busy mountain

The lighthouse atop Mount Greylock

The lighthouse atop Mount Greylock

A chipmunk atop Mount Greylock

A chipmunk atop Mount Greylock

The view from one of my favorite spots on trail

The view from one of my favorite spots on trail

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was scheduled rather than created tonight.  I’m currently on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.  You can read more about my PCT thru-hike here.

Wordless Wednesday: Connecticut

Morning in the mountains

Morning in the mountains

Some creative trail marking

Some creative trail marking

The rolling hills and blue sky of southern New England

The rolling hills and blue sky of southern New England

Sage's Ravine, at the Massachusetts border

Sage’s Ravine, at the Massachusetts border

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was scheduled rather than created tonight.  I’m currently on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.  You can read more about my PCT thru-hike here.

On the PCT: Wrightwood

Before I set foot on the Pacific Crest Trail, I’d imagined that walking through southern California would involve plodding through lots of gently rolling chaparral.  Sometimes that’s exactly what it’s like, but most of the time southern California is full of surprising variety.  That has certainly been the case in the last few days.

After thawing in Big Bear following a snowstorm, Pine Nut and I hiked northward to Wrightwood, where we’d meet Pine Nut’s partner, Little Ant, who was working on healing a nasty case of plantar fasciitis.  The days between Big Bear and Wrightwood sounded miserable in the guidebook, but we were pleasantly surprised time and time again.

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Big Bear

The snowstorm had frozen itself into our memory, and Pine Nut and I both spent the first five miles out of Big Bear in awe of sunlight and warmth.  The trail was easy, and the pines and cedars lining it were beautiful.  We camped in a clearing in the hills and woke up to frost on our tents, which blessedly warm sun melted and evaporated as we breakfasted and prepared to hike.

According to my journal, the day was “generally perfect.”  The cedars along the trail were huge, the sky was the sort of Windex blue I’d never seen outside of New England, and, perhaps most astoundingly, the trail we were walking on was dirt — not sand, not rock, but dirt!

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The fire-scorched valley

Rounding a corner and looking over an expansive valley, behind which gigantic peaks towered, I was amazed at the loveliness of southern California.  But, then, I looked more closely at the trees rising from the valley and noticed that they were all scorched.  I was staring at the aftermath of an enormous fire, and each of the trees in the valley was a victim.  It was so very sad.

The highlight of the day was Hulcomb Creek, which Pine Nut and I arrived at toward the end of the day.  The stream was cool and clear and riffled; it was shaded by cottonwoods and bordered by herbaceous plants.  I spotted a water penny, a macroinvertebrate found only in healthy streams, under the first rock I overturned.  Hulcomb Creek was perfect.

While the next day involved carrying more water, it also involved looking at a lot of water, as the trail spent miles and miles following contours above Deep Creek.  We took a break from contour walking to enjoy some hot springs, a favorite destination of nylon-clad hikers and unclad locals alike.  Sitting at the water’s edge, enjoying the contrasting sensations provided by the hot springs and the cool creek, I appreciated the natural beauty of the area and the company of the other swimmers and waders.

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A rainbow bridge over Deep Creek

The feelings of community persisted that evening, when Pine Nut and I, scared off a ridge by intense desert winds, found ourselves at a large crowded campsite, surrounded by many other friendly hikers.  We saw some people we hadn’t seen for miles and met others who’d been ahead of or behind us until that night.  While I was happy for the hiker culture, I was even more glad about the warmth of the night.

The next morning saw us contour walking on white sand above the Mojave River Valley, which was so green that it looked out of place.  Once we left behind the valley, we found ourselves staring at the sparkling water of and green mountains surrounding Silverwood Lake.  The allure was too great:  Pine Nut and I waded into the water as soon as we came to a beach.  I barely blinked for fear that I’d miss a moment of seeing the landscape around me.

The next day, which took us down to and up from Cajon Pass and toward Wrightwood, was more trying.  It involved an early stop at a McDonald’s that the guidebook listed as the “last on-trail water before Wrightwood,” some 27.5 miles away.  The day also included  around five or six thousand feet of climbing beautiful mountains.  The day was oddly tiring, and coming upon poodle dog bush, a plant whose rash-inducing oils have been the subject of trail horror stories for years, at the end of the day was especially trying.  Pine Nut and I did an awkward dance down the trail as we worked to avoid the poodle dog bush that seemed to be coming to attack us.  We collapsed, exhausted, at the first campsite we came across.

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In Wrightwood

And, then, there was yesterday, when we woke up to a chilly morning of blue sky and puffy clouds.  A couple hours later, the clouds moved in, grew darker, and opened up, letting loose fierce winds and ice-snow of the variety that stings any exposed skin.  Pine Nut and I kicked it into high gear, covering what would have normally taken us six hours in less than five, as we dashed to Wrightwood.

So, here we are, taking a zero day in town with Little Ant as the snow continues falling on the mountains.  We’ve done our errands and spent much of the day eating and watching a mix of the Disney Channel and “Naked and Afraid.”  But, tomorrow, we’ll be in the woods again, heading toward Canada.

Wordless Wednesday: Entering New Jersey

Sunfish Pond, the southernmost glacial lake on the AT

Sunfish Pond, the southernmost glacial lake on the AT

Another view of Sunfish Pond

Another view of Sunfish Pond

Pond-side cairns

Pond-side cairns

Looking out on the fields and forests of New Jersey

Looking out on the fields and forests of New Jersey

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was scheduled rather than created tonight.  I’m currently on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.  You can read more about my PCT thru-hike here.

Q&A: How to Calculate Pace

I think I should preface this post with a disclaimer:  Even though I’d been an Environmental Studies major in college, I spent the two years before my thru-hike working as a TA for the local community college’s math department.  Alone, that might not have been hugely problematic.  However, I hiked with Quiver.

Boots McFarland

This Boots McFarland cartoon has been posted by several thru-hiker friends on my Facebook Timeline to tease me. (Incidentally, Boots McFarland is fabulous and totally worth following.)

On the trail, Quiver (my 35yo Austinite hiking partner) and I were two unofficially-appointed resident geeks.  We were some of the go-to hikers for vocabulary questions, plant identification, fact checking, and trivia games.  I’m not entirely sure how we earned these roles, but I suspect it might be due to the overhearing of our pace calculations.

I must admit that it was Quiver who got me addicted to calculating pace.  When he first demonstrated his methods, I was fiercely determined to prove them unnecessary and unwieldy.  You see, like most every other hiker on the Appalachian Trail, I thought of my pace as a flat mile-per-hour rate; however, since I’d noticed that it would often vary with elevation, I expected my time estimates to even out over the course of each day, rather than be accurate each hour.  My preference for my way of doing things wasn’t so much because I preferred a simple way to plan where I would be making camp each night; Quiver and I just had playful competitions going from the beginning, and I didn’t want to be the one to acquiesce and give him another point.

My resistance was futile.  After hiking together less than one week — during which time I found Quiver’s ETAs to be consistently more accurate than those of any airline I’ve every traveled (let alone Greyhound’s!) — I’d gone over to the dark side and become a pace-calculating fiend.

I thought it would be fun to share the magic of our ways.  A word of caution:  Once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back.  When you find that you arrive at a water source, summit, or campsite within three minutes of your projected time, you’ll be won over, too.

The way Quiver and I calculate pace might be familiar to some former Boy Scouts or western hikers.  After asking dozens of East Coast hikers and thru-hikers about pace, I found that this method is virtually unheard of out here; however, Quiver adapted it from an old Boy Scout handbook, and it’s employed by Craig Giffen in his outstanding PCT Planner.

So, here’s how it works.

1) Calculate your flat pace — Hike around on a flat stretch of trail, carrying a pack, and determine how many miles you go each hour.  Remember, we’re talking “Appalachian Trail-flat,” not road-flat or Florida-flat.  Generally, I go 3mph when I’m just hiking along comfortably; I’ll do 3.25mph without much encouragement.

2) Calculate your elevation pace — This is where it gets fun.  Once you have a solid grasp of your flat trail pace, you’ll be able to determine your elevation pace with some simple calculations.  So, go hike a mountain with a measured trail and a good topo map and determine how much elevation slows you down.  I know that I gain 2500 feet in one hour comfortably; when I’m really sweating and feeling good, that figure can easily exceed 3000 feet.

Once you’ve calculated those figures, you can put them to use.  For example, using 3mph/2500ft as my pace, in four hours I could hike 12 miles on flat trail, 9 miles with 2500 feet of elevation gain, or 6 miles with 5000 feet of elevation gain.  And, that is why Quiver and I were often overheard talking about hours rather than miles.  In the summer, we’d plan 8-hour days of, say, 21 miles and 2500 feet, and know that we could take a two-hour siesta in the middle of the day and still make it to the shelter by dinnertime.

That’s all there is to it.  Almost.

I’ve got a couple important caveats:

  • While descents and flat-ish trails generally get the same consideration in the equations, that doesn’t work on trails with exceptionally steep descents, such as the rocky, cliff-side trails of the White Mountains.  Similarly, if you have an injury that slows you down disproportionally on the descents, you’ll have to take elevation loss into account in your calculations.
  • Thru-hikers talk about getting their “trail legs,” and that process can easily be figured into the equation.  While it would be possible to calculate an initial pace and speed it up over 3-6 weeks, it is generally simpler to just start off a backpacking trip doing 5- or 6-hour days and increase the hours over the trip.

And just like that you’ve got a new shelter party trick.