Pacific Crest Trail

Gear Review: Katabatic Sawatch

Over the years, I’ve been asked repeatedly to write about the items in my backpack, especially those I’ve had problems with or have found that I’d rather not live without.  The Katabatic Sawatch backpacking quilt belongs to the latter category.

If you’ve missed out on the sleeping bag vs. quilt debate thus far, here’s an abbreviated version:  Sleeping bags have backs and, thus, give sleepers an extra layer between themselves and the ground.  But, that layer is so compressed that it can’t function as it should, so the back of a sleeping bag is actually wasted weight.

I became a quilt convert way back in my AT days, when Quiver used a lightweight, summer one.  At the time, I used a synthetic 15-degree Eureka bag — and, unless it was a balmy summer night in Pennsylvania, I was chilly.  (The cool, wet spring and autumn nights of Appalachia make for less-than-warm sleeping, especially in a body that is metabolizing more than it is consuming.)  Quiver’s bag was ridiculously small, ridiculously light, and much warmer than it seemed as though it should be.  And, while my knees or hips or shoulders or elbows often seemed to poke my sleeping bag, displacing stuffing and letting in the cold, the quilt seemed to have plenty of fabric to go around.  I came to see quilts not as backless sleeping bags but as a later species in the evolution of backcountry sleeping gear.

There was one big problem about Quiver’s quilt for me: down.  So, when I learned about the ethical down movement, I was intrigued.  “Ethical down” is a byproduct of the meat industry and is generally not the feathers of birds painfully forcefed for foie gras.  It’s not a perfect rating system, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.  And, I found it acceptable to my moral compass, akin to buying leather shoes at a secondhand store.

Katabatic Gear is a small company based in Colorado, and the down they choose to use is ethically sourced.  In winter 2015, with cash accumulated from long hours doing tech support at the local Verizon retailer, I splurged on the company’s 15-degree model, the Sawatch.  Because of my tendency to hike in moist environments, I chose water-resistant 850fp down for the filling.

When my quilt arrived, I couldn’t believe how light it was.  At home, I pile on the blankets in the winter, appreciating both their warmth and their weight.  Here was a piece of gear that I found unbelievably light, and yet, as I tested it on a winter evening, I could tell that its warmth was the real deal.

Ohana loves the Katabatic Gear Sawatach, too!

Ohana loves the Katabatic Gear Sawatach, too!

The Katabatic Gear Sawatch is one of my no-brainer pieces of gear:  It does exactly what it’s supposed to whenever I need it to and hasn’t let me down.  It kept me warm on snowy nights on the PCT; I slept when most other hikers were shivering.

It’s wonderful to pull it from my pack after a long day of hiking, wrap it around me, and watch its loft increase.  By the time the night’s temperatures start dropping, it’s one big, poofy blanket of loveliness.  On warmer nights (50-60 degrees), too, it hasn’t proven too challenging to sleep with, as it’s easy to lie under a corner of it or remove my feet from the foot box.  (Pro-tip:  On cold nights, shake the down toward the center of the quilt so that it is on top of you; on warm nights, shake it away from you to the sides of the quilt.)

The one challenge I’ve found with the Sawatch is laziness:  It comes with these tiny ropes to secure it to your pad for extra warmth, but I never seem to have the gumption to make that happen.  Even without the straps, I’ve found that, as long as I have a good, uncompromised barrier between myself and the ground, I’ve been warm enough to sleep on snow.

The Sawatch is made with the attention to detail that you’d expect from a small business.  The luxuriously soft fabric comes to a collar at the neck and can be fastened behind the neck with a couple of thick snaps, sewn in an opposing way to enable pairing them in the dark.  The quilt comes with an ultralight stuff sack, as well as an organic cotton bag for off-season storage.  To be honest, I’ve made use of the cotton bag for other gear, as I never put the Sawatch away.

PCT Reflections

Now that the leaves of the trees, already well colored, are falling, it seems high time to reflect on my hike this spring. It’s been more than six months since I left from Campo and more than four months since Pine Nut and I took a final string of zeros together by Rae Lakes. image

What a wonderful couple of months those were!

I have a great many memories of my time on the Pacific Crest Trail, lots of individual, special or fun or miserable moments. But, looking back, there are a few themes that stand out:

It was all about the people. Pine Nut, Ant, Teresa, Laurie, Sun Roof, Sherri, Robert, Mary, Dennis, Nell – my summer was full of so many beautiful people. Back in 2011, one of my very first on-trail interactions was with an AT thru-hiker named Grandpa, who imparted some wisdom to me: It’s about the smiles, more than the miles. Thanks to some amazing people, my PCT experience was full of smiles.

The desert enchanted me — so much so that the FoodCorps positions I’m planning to apply for next year are those in the high desert. I had no idea that my hike was timed to ensure I’d get to enjoy the desert bloom, and I would not have believed that this tree hugger would adapt well to a landscape bereft of trees. I never felt like I was home on the PCT (as I do in the eastern woodlands), but I certainly enjoyed my time on the trail.

The horror stories I’d been told didn’t hold up. The first seven hundred miles aren’t all desert; they weren’t always hot, and the water carries weren’t terrible. There’s not much unbearable solitude; I found myself wishing for quiet, contemplative time on more than one occasion. Death in the Sierras isn’t guaranteed; if you hike on a low-snow year, you might not even get to glissade.

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Someday, I’ll finish the PCT. Well, maybe finish isn’t the right word. I’d want to start at the beginning and do a full thru-hike. Pine Nut has already assured me that she’ll join me for the highlights.

When I was trying to come to terms with getting off trail this year, I tried to assuage myself by reasoning that I’d be back next year, but I don’t think that’s the case. Once I got back to Kentucky, I was terrified to learn that my bone marrow was failing. Several hematology appointments (and rheumatology and neurology appointments, just for good measure) later, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for that, but I haven’t gotten to see a Lyme specialist yet. At the moment, I feel well-ish, and my blood tests are looking normal again.

I really try not to self-diagnose. I swear I do. I think patients should be health-aware and self-advocate, but I think we shouldn’t — and shouldn’t have to — self-diagnose. But, I really, really think I’ve been dealing with a Lyme coinfection called bartonella. Coupled with Lyme, it explains literally everything: the bone marrow issues, the bizarre off-season shin splints, the dizziness, the lightheadedness, the twitchy and vibrating muscles, the headaches, etc. Now if only I could get treated for it…

That’s a whole other story, but it’s also besides the point. What isn’t is that my next couple adventures need to be at lower altitude. (Bone marrow issues + altitude = disaster.) So, while my sister is still at grad school in Wales, I’m dreaming of walking the Camino and at least some of the South West Coast Path.

The following year, Te Araroa, which has been pulling my heartstrings for a few years already, is calling my name. And, the next year — in what could become my most long-term plans ever created and followed through on — Pine Nut and I are planning to reunite for a summer spent hiking Colorado’s 14,000-footers.

Ah.

In the meantime, Kentucky. Farm life, family time, animal time, week-long hikes, doctors’ offices, factory work and babysitting, and the wonderful HeartFelt Fleece & Fiber.

Off the PCT

My final day on the PCT began inconsequentially, save for the Lyme trifecta of dizziness, tiredness, and nausea I was experiencing. I packed up and hiked down to Rae Lakes, enjoying again the spectacular lakeside trail. Near the Rae Lakes ranger station — where friendly Sam Webster was stationed — I marveled at the tranquility of three sleeping deer. I thought about my likely-imminent departure from the trail. How I would miss this wilderness!

Although the forecast had called for afternoon storms, I was only one mile into my hike when the skies opened up. For a few moments, there was just a light, cold rain, but soon the hail began falling.wpid-2015-08-01-06.03.55-1.jpg.jpeg

As I mentioned a few days ago, this hailstorm was unlike any storm I’d ever before experienced — and I’m from the unpredictable East Coast. The hail began falling and kept falling…and falling…and falling. I’m used to hailstorms accompanying warm rain in summer storms or the tumultuous air of spring frontal systems; I’m accustomed to hail falling briefly before giving way to rain. This hailstorm was a nonconformist: It hailed for 90 minutes or so and left inches of hail on the trail in its wake.

Throughout the storm, thunder resounded in the valley and lightning lit up the sky. The sparse tree cover overhead and nearby lakes didn’t exactly make the trail a safe place to be; however, I kept walking, remembering that denser tree cover awaited as I approached Woods Creek.

Crunching hailstones beneath my feet, I descended lower in the valley. By the time I was thoroughly chilled from the ice that fell from the sky, the ice was replaced by rain, a bitterly cold rain whose cold seeped through clothing even when its moisture did not. I traipsed through the increasingly green wilderness as I neared Woods Creek, wet and numb.

I fleetingly considered climbing Pinchot Pass after making it down to Woods Creek. I think my reasoning had been that the effort expended during an ascent would warm my core, but it seems more likely that the thought wasn’t reasoned at all. As I arrived at the Woods Creek Campsite, I recognized Ranger Webster through the rain.

“Has anyone come over the Pass today?” I asked, waving a numb hand toward Pinchot.

“Not since early this morning. I’m getting reports of a good bit of snow up there.”

Fortunately, the threat of snow travel made my brain surrender its idea of hiking over Pinchot. I accepted the fact that my day’s hike would be over after only seven downhill miles and began the challenging task of erecting my tent in the rain with immovable fingers.

After a good half-hour spent thawing my fingers and making campsite-creating progress in a stepwise fashion, my tent was up. As quickly as I could, I stripped off my rain gear and crawled into my tent and under my quilt.

The rain kept falling fast and furiously, and soon even my previously-dryish campsite became a shallow lake.   I hid under my quilt, willing myself to be warm.

Sometime in the afternoon, the weather broke.

wpid-2015-08-01-06.03.59-1.jpg.jpegEventually, I mustered the energy to take my belongings out of my tent and pack and set them in the sun to dry. Forty-five minutes later, the sun went away as more storm clouds moved in. Stumbling around the expansive campsite, I set up my tent on a drier patch of ground and crawled back inside.

It was 24 hours before I worked up the spoons (or, as thesweetadventurer said, “the titanium sporks”) to even consider leaving camp.

I spent most of that time sleeping and, if I’m being honest, feeling sorry for myself. I was below 8500 feet now; I still felt miserable, and my symptoms couldn’t be written off as signs of altitude sickness. I was definitely, positively, undoubtedly, absolutely dealing with a relapse of Lyme disease, a relapse that was definitely, positively, undoubtedly, absolutely forcing me off the PCT and back to bed. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was crying.

Then, sometime just before noon on the 10th, I realized how very ridiculous I was being, wallowing in self-pity. Yes, I was going to get off trail; yes, my plans were going to change again; yes, I’ve spent 13 of the last 23 months in bed. But, those 13 months haven’t been completely lost, and the other ten have been some of the most spectacular of my life. And, here I was, in a truly beautiful place. The sun was shining down all around me, the pendulous branches of the foxtail pines were swaying in the breeze, and the roar of Woods Creek filled the air. I began crying with gratitude — both for that moment and for the months I’d spent in the wilderness of California.

An hour later, I was ready for the slow, painful trek to Road’s End. I crossed the suspension bridge again, took a picture of the 800-mile mark again, and turned off the PCT and onto the Paradise Valley Trail again. With a pack-ful of memories of a wonderful hike, I was ready to head home.

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On the PCT: Kearsarge Pass, Take Three

My final foray on the Pacific Crest Trail this year was dramatic, to say the least.

After the Lyme relapse that sidelined me, I was feeling well enough that I wanted to get back on the trail by the second week in July. I spent a day bustling around Teresa and Laurie’s home, preparing to hike again: There was food to be packed and food to be eaten; Doxycycline-approved clothing to wash and Rainbow Dash-approved clothing to send home. Excited to be going back to the trail, I happily had my last night in an amazingly comfortable bed, watched my last Doctor Who episode, and had my last shower.

Feeling some tiredness and dizziness while loading the last of my belongings into my pack, the nerves set in. I worked to assuage them by thinking about all the antibiotics I’d taken and detoxing I’d done, but my efforts weren’t entirely effective. As Teresa drove me from Acton all the way to the Onion Valley Trailhead near Independence, I talked and laughed and worried.

Driving to Independence, CA

Driving to Independence, CA

At the trailhead, a previous year’s thru-hiker noticed my pack and struck up a conversation whilst I was giving my gear the final once over and taking mid-day medicine.

“You hiking the trail?”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t you a little late? Seems you should have been here a few weeks ago.”

That’s probably the last thing I needed someone to point out to me.

As we had done near Mojave with Pine Nut, Ant, and Laurie, Teresa and I set off down the trail together. With seven days of food in my pack rather than 11, the climb toward Kearsarge Pass wasn’t so arduous, but I could tell that the weeks of Lyme rest had taken their toll. We walked steadily onward, enjoying the trailside waterfalls, green rocks, and foxtail pines. The gathering storm clouds overhead were less enjoyed, especially when they began letting loose rumbles of thunder.

One hour into the climb, Teresa and I said our tearful goodbyes (“until we meet again”). Then, I turned and walked up into the storm.

Honestly, my tears remained for a good ten minutes. My goodbye wasn’t eased by my being so anxious, so worried that I was being too ambitious in returning to the trail. But, eventually, the endorphins of a good uphill hike started to kick in, and I neared treeline.

A deer bounded across the trail, the upper-atmosphere thunder rumbled a little louder, and tiny hail began falling. I walked on.

Kearsarge Pass was shrouded in clouds, giving it an otherworldly feel. Chilled from the hail, I snapped a quick picture before hurrying down the other side.

As a lot, thru-hikers despise “bonus miles,” any walking in addition to the 2,650 miles between Mexico and Canada. The Onion Valley Trail is more than 7.5 miles long, and I did it three times. However, there was something enjoyable about hiking a familiar stretch of trail, particularly now that it was so unusually misty.

As I’d neared the top of Kearsarge, my dizziness had intensified. Part of my rushing down the Pass was in the hopes that losing altitude would improve my symptoms; it didn’t. The PCT between the Onion Valley Trail and Glen Pass stays high, so I knew I needed to get up and over Glen before calling it a night.

I’d be lying if I tried to pretend those miles weren’t difficult. I resorted to counting my steps, rewarding myself with a break after every one or two hundred footfalls.

By the time I was atop Glen, the hail had stopped and the storm had blown over a bit; however, the evening was bringing chillier air with it. I marched onward, eager to get down to Rae Lakes and make camp, keen to quell my dizziness.

In the twilight of 8:30, I spied a small campsite next to a tree overlooking Upper Rae Lake and decided to call it a day. Too nauseated to eat, I crawled under my quilt without dinner. I thought sleep would come easily, but I was feverish and nauseated and dizzy and spent hours just trying to feel okay.

My fever broke in the middle of the night. In the morning, I considered my possible escape routes, in the event that I needed them: up and over Glen and Kearsarge Passes or, once again, a long, downhill trek to Road’s End. I decided that the best thing to do was to get to lower elevation — to tease the effects of altitude sickness from the effects of Lyme — and reevaluate my predicament there. I packed up and hiked northward.

A hailstorm unlike any I’d seen before soon accompanied me.

To be continued…

On the PCT: Back to the Trail

As it turns out, I made it out of the woods — off trail for 2015 — before this previously-written post was scheduled to go online.  This post was written while I was rallying with a course of antibiotics, just before I headed back over Kearsarge Pass for a third time.  After the beautiful words of encouragement, comfort, support, and solidarity that I received in response to last week’s post about Lyme forcing me off the Pacific Crest Trail, I felt it was necessary to explain the context of the words below, as without context they might indicate that I’m still trekking northward.  I considered not posting them at all, but I’d like this post to stand as evidence for myself that I am stubborn when it comes to fighting Lyme; I’m stubborn and resilient and sometimes even follow my own advice, as I tried intrepidly to return to the trail before calling it quits.  (The tale of my farewell to the PCT is a fun one, but I’ll save that for another day…)



Once upon a time — when I dared to hope that my case of Lyme had been acute, when I was healthy and training for a marathon, and when I was poring over maps and guidebooks in my family’s living room in Kentucky — I drew up a plan for the PCT that included less than one week of zero days.  Now, after taking two weeks of zeros in one go while fighting off a Lyme relapse at Teresa and Laurie’s in Acton, I’m heading back to the Sierra.

Sometimes, I think my PCT hike is supposed to be a lesson in flexibility.  Or maybe that’s just Lyme.
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In any case, I’m not ready to give up yet.

Thanks to antibiotics and detoxing, my symptoms have diminished significantly.  One week ago, I couldn’t walk to the bathroom without becoming so dizzy that I needed to lie down; now, I’m capable of walking at least four miles without issue.  (Standing still is more challenging.)  I realize that walking around the neighborhood is a little different from carrying a large pack up and over 12,000-foot passes, but I’m hopeful.

At first, it felt strange to be off the trail and frustrating to think that the future of my hike was in limbo.  However, once I was able to stay awake between meals, my zero days gave me lots of time to write and think and catch up with family and friends.  I also enjoyed cooking with non-dehydrated fruits and veggies and binge-watching Doctor Who, Orange is the New Black, and Chasing Life.  And, I took it upon myself to be introduced to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which seemed important, given that my trail name is Rainbow Dash.  (I may have absolutely loved the show.)
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I think the most important outcome of this relapse and the time I spent dealing with it is the fighting spirit I cultivated toward Lyme disease.  Up until this point, I’d just sort of accepted Lyme as part of my reality, figuring that the spirochete population inside me would periodically grow and rebel and I’d just fight it off again with some antibiotics when it debilitated me.  One-on-one and in small group settings, I’d spoken to people about the problems inherent in testing and treating the disease, but I’d basically been overtly complacent about those issues.

Now I’m angry, ready to fight, and done fighting alone.  I’m going to start seeing a LLMD, and I’m going to try to end this, even if doing so forces me to feel a whole lot worse before I can feel better.  I’m going to participate more actively in Lyme advocacy.  And, I’m going to figure out some way to leverage the outdoor community in fighting back against this epidemic.  It shouldn’t be that those who are most ill with Lyme disease are the only ones advocating for more research, awareness, and education:  Hikers, backpackers, hunters, fisherman, mountain bikers, geocachers, orienteers, nature photographers, wilderness therapists, naturalists, biologists, conservationists, foresters, etc. have a vested interested, too, even if they don’t realize it yet.

But, first, I need to get to Canada, at which point I’ll be able to give $2703 to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, which is a good start.  I’m not sure whether I’m more excited or nervous to hit the trail again.  I think I’ll choose the former.

Towanda!


I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to the trail angels who helped me through this relapse.  Certainly, Teresa and Laurie (and Frankie and Laci!) are spectacular friends.  Pine Nut’s mother, an acupuncturist and herbalist, gave me priceless advice and encouragement by phone.  And, Chloe O’Neill of More Than Lyme inspired me and continues to inspire other adventure-loving Lyme fighters.  Thank you all!