On the PCT: Forester Pass

The Pacific Crest Trail has been called “the trail of extremes.”  It winds through seven ecozones, from sandy deserts to the alpine zone of the Sierra to the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest.  It takes thru-hikers through deep sand and deep snow, and it’s not unusual for a hiker to worry about heat exhaustion and a freezing water filter in any given day.  The trail reaches its lowest point, 180 feet above sea level, at the Oregon-Washington border, and it climbs to its zenith, 13,153 feet, at Forester Pass in the Sierra.

Apparently, I was so excited about reaching the hike’s high point that I needed to climb Forester twice.

Pine Nut and I reached Forester Pass the day after we’d hiked Mount Whitney.  After feeling some altitude sickness on the top of the contiguous United States, I woke up feeling weak and a little dizzy but no worse than I’d been feeling for the previous week or so.  Next to lower Crabtree Meadow, we packed up and then headed northward.

The day was warm, and the woods were beautiful.  After spending the entirety of the previous day above treeline, I was so grateful to be back among foxtail pines, in a forest full of life.  But, as long trails do, the Pacific Crest Trail (particularly where it and the John Muir Trail are one and the same) is always going up or going down; it wasn’t long before we were once again climbing above treeline.

This time, the barren world we found above the trees struck me as unusual.  I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it was that was odd.  It may have been that the climb from Lower Crabtree to Forester Pass took us over a high plain, which was unlike the peaks and passes we’d seen before.  Walking there, I felt as though I was back in the desert:  The sun beat down on me, vegetation consisted of a few clumps of green things, and the air felt hot.  Granite peaks towered above me, and I felt so little, so insignificant in the vast emptiness.

But then, I climbed over a rise and was nearly as awe-struck and confused as Pi must have been when he spotted that flowing island.  In the middle of this desert-like expanse was a grassy meadow, and in the middle of the grassy meadow was an alpine lake.

If someone were to tell me that I imagined the whole scene, I would believe her.  The still waters of that lake, the soft and lumpy meadow surrounding it, the marmot running through the grass — it all felt surreal.

I hesitated for a moment, disbelieving, before I hurried over to the water’s edge.  I took off my pack, slipped out of my socks and shoes, pulled off my shirt, and waded into the crystal clear waters.

How is this my life?

It was with a heart so full of this Sierra beauty that I approached Forester Pass.  Pine Nut and I snacked near one of many alpine lakes at its base and then began our ascent.  Forester Pass is a behemoth, and it would, no doubt, be particularly formidable in a high snow year.  However, after climbing Whitney, Forester felt almost easy.  My altitude sickness remained manageable, the switchbacks were gradual, and the footing was good.  At least in my memory, it didn’t take long to make it to the top.

The north face of Forester had a bit more snow, but there wasn’t much post-holing as Pine Nut and I descended.  Seeing the trees and grasses below us, my heart felt happy, and we laughed and chatted until we were roughly a mile from the summit.  At that point, I realized that I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses, which I’d taken off while taking a photo.

I’d left them on the top of the pass.

Now, my sunglasses aren’t anything special.  I got them for tree planting crew from Wal-Mart a few years ago for $5.00.  The trail has taken its toll on them, and the temples of the glasses are held on with little safety pins.  But, I wasn’t about to “leave a trace” by letting them stay atop the ridge.

That’s why, at 5:30 in the afternoon, I set off up Forester Pass once more.  I left my pack with Pine Nut, who (in spectacular friend fashion) decided to wait for me before hiking to camp, and climbed with just my trekking poles.

Twenty-five minutes later, near the top of the pass, I met Whatever, a young hiker and friend of ours.  He called up to two JMTers at the top of the pass, inquiring about my sunglasses:  They were, indeed, still up there.  As the shadows darkened the north face of the pass, I hurried onward; as I did, a generous JMTer began hiking back down the pass.  He met me a few hundred feet below the ridgeline and handed off the dilapidated sunglasses.

After thanking the JMTer, I put the sunglasses on my head and took off down the trail.  Feeling strong and weightless without my pack, I ran.  I scurried over the snow, jumped over rocks, and zigzagged down the switchbacks, enjoying every moment.

Twelve minutes later, I reached Pine Nut, exhilarated and elated and high on life.  Then, I grabbed a pack of crackers to snack on while walking and shouldered my pack, and we headed down into the shadow of Forester to make camp.

Finding My Way to Orienteering

I think I may have found a new outdoor athletic passion.  On the registration form for Orienteering Louisville‘s Return of the Otter meet, there should have been a disclaimer warning about addiction.

A few months ago, I had no idea that orienteering was a sport.  I was still planting trees up in Vermont and dreaming of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.  I was researching desert hiking, West Coast flora, wilderness first aid, and compass skills.  Looking for some instruction regarding the latter, I googled “compass class.”  Because Google thinks class and course are synonymous, most of the resulting links were about compass courses, which weren’t instructional but rather routes through the woods that people followed with maps and compasses.

Intrigued, I clicked from one website to another, reading through lots of orienteering jargon to figure out just what orienteering was.  How had I never heard of the sport before?  How, in all the time I’d spent outdoors and with adventuring types, did I not know anyone who’d mentioned it?  What was I missing out on?

While I’d hoped to attend a class teaching compass work with a bunch of other newbies rather than head off onto a competitive course and figure it out as I went, I vowed to embrace vulnerability, venture to a different edge of my comfort zone, and attend an orienteering competition once I returned to Kentucky.

The first opportunity I had was this weekend, when the nearest orienteering club hosted a meet roughly 2.5 hours away.wpid-wp-1426456080184.jpeg

Excited and nervous all at once, I waded down our very long and very muddy driveway in the dark to get in my car and make it to the meet in time for Orienteering 101.  When I entered the meet headquarters building, I was immediately greeted by warm and welcoming people, and I began to feel just excitement.

Louis, an older member of the group, took me through the basics of the sport.  There were maps with more detail and more symbols than I’d ever seen; a map lover at heart, I was fascinated.  There were courses of various levels and hieroglyphic markings denoting the various “controls,” or checkpoints, along each.  Then, there were these magical devices called “fingersticks” that recorded each participant’s journey through the forest.

I decided to enter at the advanced beginner level, cleared and checked my magical fingerstick, plunged it into the start control, and headed off into the woods.

Three minutes into my first run, I was covered in mud, my feet were soaking wet, I had a scratch on my leg, and I had decided I loved orienteering.

Yesterday and today, I attempted four courses. I completed my first in surprisingly good time, was less speedy and more tired on my second, and couldn’t complete the third yesterday. During today’s long events, I attempted the 8km orange course (which was more difficult than either of the courses I’d completed), but I had to stop halfway through because I was too tired and had a very sore IT band. Basically, I wimped out, but, given that it was only 10 days ago that I was able to start working out (lightly) again after this past Lyme flare-up, I was proud of myself for running through the woods for a few hours.

I was more proud of how much my orienteering skills had improved in two days. I’d gone from being unable to confidently take a bearing to being able to navigate (by either compass or landscape features, albeit a bit slowly sometimes) to controls sprinkled throughout the forest. On today’s orange course, there were a number of controls that I couldn’t see from the place in the forest I’d arrived at while searching for them, but I was confident in my navigating and simply looked over a knoll or into a ditch to find them nearby.

Conversational blue blaze: I am a firm believer that the right level of confidence is essential in outdoor adventure settings. While it’s important not to be overly confident and get in over your head, it’s also important not to have your actions rooted in fear.

All of the little result print-outs I got from the weekend declare that orienteering is “the sport for the thinking runner.” That really seems to be a perfect description! This meet was point-to-point style, and the thinking comes in when you realize that the shortest route to the next control isn’t always the fastest; it’s essential to consider alternative routes to avoid obstacles and the chance of getting lost. Some meets are called “rogaines” or “score-os.” Those have mass starts in which all participants go into the field for the same amount of time; each control has a point value, and participants choose which controls to search for.

By the end of this weekend’s meet I was bruised and bloody and sore and exhausted but completely exhilarated. I got in my wagon, turned on the radio (to “Carolina in the Pines”), and headed east, oddly unable to stop mentally transforming the “lone trees,” “gullies,” “knolls,” and “man-made objects” I passed into features on a topographic map.

To learn more about orienteering, visit Orienteering USA’s website.

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.

Q&A: How to Physically Prepare for a Thru-Hike

When talking with aspiring thru-hikers, it rarely takes long for the conversation to turn to the physicality of an end-to-end hike.  Hiking a long trail is seen as a physical feat, one worthy of as much respect as an international competition of any other sport.  But, here’s a secret:  A thru-hike is really just a really long walk.

The best way to prepare for a long hike is to hike for a long time.  Now I’m not trying to sound pretentious or unhelpful here; that’s just the truth.  After being in the woods for a month or two, carrying a full backpack over mountains, a body is hardened and able to withstand the rigors of the trail.  Thru-hikers talk about getting their “trail legs,” at which point they’re able to hike at full speed.  While getting their trail legs takes first-time backpackers up to six weeks (with dramatic improvements in the first several weeks), it often takes seasoned hikers half that time, at least in my experience.*  If you’re planning a thru-hike, it’s a good idea to, at least, take a few backpacking trips to prepare (and to get familiar with your gear).

That said, the first time I headed out on the AT, when I intended to hike from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin in 2011, I had hiked my fair share of 4000-footers but had never backpacked.  Not once.

So, if you can’t squeeze in some backpacking experience before your thru-hike, there are other ways to prepare for your time in the woods.

1) Take up long-distance running or cross-country skiing.  When you’re on the trail, you’ll often find that you’re too hot or too cold or too hungry or too thirsty or too tired or too sore.  You’ll be rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and sleeted on.  You’ll experience blistering heat and gale-force winds.  In my mind, the best way to stay strong and keep smiling through all of that is to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  In modern America, many people are fortunate enough to very rarely find themselves physically uncomfortable; endurance sports are a good way to mentally condition yourself to keep plugging along through thirst, cold, some pain, etc.

2) Tackle the stair master — or, as one of the older men who watches me sweat for hours on it at the wellness center likes to call it, the “machine from Hell.”  As far as preparing your body for the actual activity it will be spending months doing, no machine beats the stair master.

3) One of the commonalities of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is the enormous packs the authors’ carried.  With any luck, today’s aspiring thru-hikers will not be carrying loads that are nearly so heavy.  Nonetheless, it’s worth practicing lifting, putting on, and carrying around your pack.  Your shoulders and hips will thank you for any conditioning you do with your pack before you hit the trail.

Finally, if, come April, you realize that you’ve neglected the physical aspects of your trail preparations, don’t worry.  Many other thru-hikers have set out with the intent of using the trail as a fitness program; this is an especially realistic perspective if you’re hiking northbound on the Appalachian Trail, since the early portions of the trail are very forgiving.  Happy trails!

*I think some of this is due to seasoned hikers’ having mastered the “technique” of backpacking, but I won’t bore you with that hypothesis.