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Notes From The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

by Ethan Linck and Peter Innes

Two weeks ago, we had the privilege of lining up to race the 20th annual Elk Mountain Grand Traverse. The “GT,” as it’s commonly known, is a 40 mile point-to-point backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen. Because of the stunning tableau of mountains en route, the unpredictable weather, and its midnight start, it’s hard to think of a more iconic ski mountaineering event in North America. As both of us have served as winter caretakers at the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, where daily life provides ample preparation for a long day of low-angle mountain travel at high elevation, the GT is near and dear to our hearts as a celebration of one of Colorado’s more beautiful landscapes.

Gothic Mountain and the East River Valley: home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab and yours truly, team Rocky Mountain Ski Lab. Photo (c) Ethan Linck

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Shorts: How to Wax Skins

This Saturday as we were skiing up on Mt Hood, I noticed that my skins weren’t getting amazing glide. The snow was a bit wet, and the skins are new, so it was no surprise. My solution to this problem is to wax the skins, a tactic stolen from the Euro race scene that is largely unheard of in the US. (Most US skiers will think of glop-stopper when talking about skin wax, but we’re talking about hot-waxing).

It’s hot-wax time.

The technique of skin waxing is simple and easy to do at home. It improves glide as well as water/glop resistance of the skins. It causes no damage to skins when done properly, and it takes just a few minutes to complete. I’ve waxed both nylon and mohair skins, though waxing nylon skins is pissing into the wind as far as glide goes. Read on →

Shorts: Hydrating for Running

Hydration can be crucial to happiness. But all things should be taken in moderation.

Seated at my computer in the ICU, I chuckled out loud while reading an interview with Kilian Jornet and Emilie Forsberg. When the nurse next to me asked what was so funny, I explained that this famous endurance couple clearly dealt with the same controversy as do Taylor and I: do you need to bring food and water with you to run or ski, and if so, how much? Kilian and I are on the same page: likely not, and if so, not much.  Emelie (and Taylor) say:

“He doesn’t like to eat when he is out! I take some food with me when I am out longer, like eight hours. And sometimes I wish that Kilian had some. I have been telling him that why can’t he have some chocolate in his backpack for me. Just in case. But it has not happened so far. So, I often take my own.”

Today I want to briefly address hydration for running, and my thoughts on the matter are governed by two observations. First, most people begin their workout dehydrated. Second, most people drink far too much during exercise.  I’ll add the caveat that you have to figure out what works for you, and you should be safe about it, but that said, here are some thoughts to chew on and a plan to be more effective with your hydration.  Read on →

How to travel like you can’t afford it.

Taylor and I have managed to do a lot of traveling. Enough so that our friends are always asking us how we make it work. Even now, as I wrap up the fourth week of a rural psychiatry rotation in Southern Oregon, we’re planning the final details for flying to Japan next week.

I think travel is pretty awesome. It expands your world. It expands your comfort zone. It brings you in touch with people and cultures that expand your appreciation for the human race. In the interest of persuading you to travel like we do, if only once, I’ve compiled a list of tips, hacks, and philosophies that make it possible to put together amazing travel experiences with less money than you’d expect. It’s not definitive, but it works for us. Over and over again.

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This adorable hut on the amazing Bomber traverse would never be here on this page if it weren’t for a half-cocked dream turned into reality by unbridled optimism and half-sane planning.

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DIY: Resizing Fixed-Length Ski Poles

I have a quick tech tip for you today. Fixed-length poles are becoming more popular for backcountry skiing because they’re stiffer and generally lighter than adjustable poles. They are, however, not adjustable. If you get too big a size, you’ll find yourself walking around with your hands up like a mummy, feeling like an idiot with cold hands.

When we were in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago, we stopped by Skimo.co to say hi. The store is amazing. If you like skiing lots of vert on light, capable gear, you’ve got to check the place out. When we asked Jason if he would shorten Taylor’s carbon ski poles, he suggested a simple home fix: boil the handles off, cut, reglue. Perfect!

Skimo.co: all of the lightweight european kit that you can't buy anywhere else.

Skimo.co: all of the lightweight european kit that you can’t buy anywhere else.

So, if your poles are too long, or you can find a great deal on longer poles and want to cut them down, I’ve got you covered, step by step. All you need is a big pot of boiling water, a hacksaw, and some glue. Buyer beware: some poles have a tapered shaft, and if cut too short you’ll have a hard time filling the extra space to glue the handle back on. Read on →

4 Tips for Ultralight Backpacking

I know what you’re thinking. It’s winter. Why write a post about backpacking?

admit this post is unseasonal. I’m trying to add more knowledge-based content to the site because I realized the majority of my posts have been general photo blogs–more valuable to me than to you. Backpacking seems a good place to start because Patrick hasn’t written about it. Although some may argue backpacking isn’t quite as exciting as skiing, climbing, etc, I believe it is the foundation of nearly all backcountry pursuits.

But hey, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere.  Maybe you are making last-minute preparations for a thru hike of Te Araroa in New Zealand. If not, it’s never too early to start planning for your big summer trip. Also, these tips can be extrapolated to other fast-and-light endeavors, such as ski mountaineering. If nothing else, I believe you can apply the ultralight philosophy to improve your daily “front-country” life as well.

Bring Fewer Things

99.9% of the different “camping” items in REI should not be in your backpack. Unless you are on an expedition, a heavy pack is like a garage that is cluttered full of junk you never use. Your possessions begin to control you. That’s not what we want. Gear should be a gateway to freedom.

The easiest way to make your pack lighter is to simply leave behind what you don’t need. How do you decide whether or not you need something? For starters, if it doesn’t serve a purpose directly related to keeping you warm, dry, or healthy, it’s probably superfluous. Second, as a rule of thumb, if you can’t envision using something every day (excluding first-aid/emergency items), consider leaving it behind. If it’s a really tough decision, bring it. After the trip, be critical of each item. What did it do for you? Was it worth the weight? Just remember that even small items can add up to pounds.

Many times, the question of “need” comes down to deciding how comfortable you want to be in camp. You carry fewer, lighter things in order to be more comfortable while on the move. Naturally, you must sacrifice some camp comforts in order to do this. However, this sacrifice becomes less of an issue the more time you spend moving.

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The author’s first true attempt at an UL backpacking kit, put together for a month on the PCT this summer.

 

Let’s talk concrete examples.

You don’t need a stove. It’s possible to reconstitute dehydrated food with cold water. Just leave it in a screw-top container with water while you hike. For rehydrating food, I like to use empty 18oz plastic peanut butter jars. “Near East” brand cous-cous rehydrates very quickly and is a tastier alternative to Idahoans instant potatoes. Alternatively, you can eat food that doesn’t need to be cooked or rehydrated at all. Nutella and peanut butter wraps, anyone? Cafe Fanny granola has an insane calorie to gram ratio. In my experience, I can never bring too much cheese. Eating cold food every night certainly isn’t for everyone, but you won’t know until you try. (Edit: this advice assumes you are backpacking in relatively mild summer conditions. With wetter/colder weather, leaving behind the stove becomes less sensible).

Ditch the stuff-sacks. Use a garbage bag as a pack liner and stuff your clothes in all the nooks and crannies. Not only will this save you several ounces in weight, it also helps form your pack into a svelte bullet. Look good, feel good.

Don’t bring doubles of any clothing item, other than socks. Face it, you are going to smell bad no matter what you do. For my summer backpacking kit, I bring some variation on the following: 2 pair light merino wool socks, 1 pair med-weight wool socks, light-weight long underwear top and bottom for sleeping, running shorts, wind pants, long-sleeve synthetic button-up sun shirt, puffy jacket, wind shell, rain shell (consider combining the two), hat, and light gloves. Your clothing system should be just warm enough to keep you warm on the coldest night, wearing everything while in your sleeping bag.

Ditch the rain pants. If it’s raining in camp, get in your tent. If you try to hike in rain pants, your legs will get wet from condensation anyways. Wind pants are a great alternative and provide surprising warmth when the temperature drops or the wind picks up. Another option I’m really excited about is the Z-Packs rain kilt.

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A week-long, stoveless food packout for two young guys. Yes, those are avocados. Not ultra light, but they keep you going for a long time. Bishop, CA.

 

Bring Lighter Things

It helps a lot to have lighter gear, no doubt, The best place to start upgrading is with the “Big Three”–your backpack, shelter, and sleeping system. This is where the majority of weight savings will be made. In other realms, big savings can be made by following tip #1. A typical 70L pack can weigh up to 5lbs. That is a lot when you consider the base weight (pack weight w/o food or water) of many experienced ultralight backpackers is less than 10lbs. The less weight you have in your pack, the less burly your pack needs to be. Ultra-Light Adventure Equipment (ULA) makes great packs. Their most popular pack is a great intro to the world of UL. It has around 50L capacity, weighs 2.5lbs, and carries a max load of 35lbs. I’ve used it and love it.

If you are backpacking somewhere with little or no mosquitos, ditch the bug netting and just bring a tarp. If you hike with trekking poles, find a tarp that can be set up with your poles (see tip #3). Tarp Tent makes some really great trekking pole shelters, most of which have waterproof flies than can be pitched on their own.

Sleeping quilts are a relatively new piece of equipment that have garnered a lot of appreciation from UL backpackers for their versatility and improved warmth-to-weight ratio. For insulation from the ground, I like to use a closed-cell foam sleeping pad cut to just above my knees. It’s light, I don’t have to worry about it popping, and it doubles as a sit pad. The Thermarest Neo Air is another popular option.

Besides the “Big Three,” an easy way to save some weight is to swap out your Nalgene bottles for a cheap, plastic bottle. My go to is a 1L SmartWater bottle w/ squeeze nozzle lid. If you use a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, it can screw right onto your plastic bottle, eliminating the need for an extra receptacle designated for unfiltered water.

Lastly, the less weight you carry, the less support your feet need. Rather than wearing ankle-high, thick-soled hiking boots, consider trail runners instead. I liken this to SkiMo racing, in which light skis and ski boots make all the difference. The same is true with your shoes when you are hiking 30-50 miles a day.

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Your pack should be light enough that you can send a V5 boulder problem while wearing it, at the end of a 30 mile day. Only partially kidding. Below Milestone Mt, High Sierra.

 

Bring Multipurpose Things

This is really an extension of tip #1, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. An easy way to bring fewer things is to have one thing be able to do the job of two things. For example, I use a mosquito head net (replaces tent bug net) to hold all my sundry items (i.e. toiletries, first-aid), rather than carry an additional stuff sack. At night I empty the headnet and then fill it with extra layers to use as a pillow (if there aren’t bugs). Also at night, I place my empty backpack under my legs to compensate for my extra-short sleeping pad. In a more extreme application of this idea, some companies make single-person shelters that double as rain ponchos. This is where backpacking becomes a creative exercise. Let you inner MacGyver shine.

Develop a Routine

Okay, so your pack is a lot lighter than it used to be. Now it’s time to make the most of it. With less time spent thinking about how heavy your pack is you can spend more time appreciating your surroundings. You can also walk further in a day and therefore see a lot more. However, having a 20lb pack doesn’t automatically let you start cranking out 30+ mile days. You still need to be efficient in your daily backcountry routine. In SkiMo racing, making fast transitions is key. The same is true with backpacking. A lot of daylight can be lost in the morning without an efficient system for getting out of bed, getting packed, and hitting the trail. Small actions can add up to a significant chunk of time. Good habits include changing into your hiking clothes as soon as you wake up, packing your bedding right away, etc. Another way I improve my efficiency is by preparing my lunch in the morning and packing it at the top of my pack. That way I don’t have to spend time unpacking and repacking my food bag (and often my entire pack) to eat lunch. Find what works for you and stick to a system.

It can certainly be energizing to take a break for lunch, but many UL backpackers prefer to simply snack all day. In that case, it’s critical to be able to eat and drink without taking your pack off. I like to organize the day’s snacks (bars, gummies, etc) in the morning. I keep them in a waist belt pouch so I don’t have to dig through my pack when I need a little boost. There are multiple solutions to having water accessible, but I don’t like bladders because removing them from your pack, refilling it, and putting it back in your pack takes a long time. Water bottles are better, but make sure your pack has side pockets you can actually reach. Alternatively, find a way to fasten water bottles to your shoulder straps.

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A small pack can take you to some pretty cool places. Rae Lakes, High Sierra.

 

A lot of ultralight backpacking is trial and error. There is no hard and fast solution, no magic gear list that will transform you. Don’t start by going out and buying a bunch of new UL gear. Start by leaving behind items you don’t need. Less is more. Live simply. Happy trails!


 

To give you some more ideas, here are some of my favorite lightweight items in my backpacking kit.

Sawyer Squeeze water filter

La Sportiva Ultra Raptor shoe

Patagonia Sun-Stretch long sleeve shirt

Petzl E-Lite Headlamp

Patagonia Fitz Roy down jacket

Black Diamond Distance-Z carbon trekking pole

Dirty Girl Gaiters

 

Also, here is a great opinion piece about UL backpacking from one of my favorite blogs.

Living, Working, and Running at 9,500′

I’ve been spending the summer living and working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL, pronounced “rumble”) in Gothic, CO. Life is good. First of all, I get to pursue my love for ecology while being immersed in an inspiring community of scientists and students. Also, I get to run in the mountains every day. Read on →

D.I.Y. Skimo Skin Tip Attachments

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Home-made race-style tip fix. Clean and simple.

There are a lot of skin options available these days with retailers like Skimo.co bringing more of the European variety to the USA. Unfortunately, tip attachments on pre-built skins are like cell-phone chargers; they’re unstandardized and are often poorly cross-compatible with other manufacturer’s platforms.

The recent availability of skins sold in bulk (from a roll) makes possible a solution to this problem. You can pick your skin, your width, your length, and put it all together by making your own tip attachment. This is easy, kinda fun in a dorky way, and produces an equal product that is both cheaper and lighter than commercial offerings.

The one caveat here is that we’re making race-style skins, which require a notch in the ski tip for fixation. This style of attachment also doesn’t use a tail-fix, so good skinning technique is required. The advantage of the “tip fix” is that it makes removing the skin from your ski while wearing the ski infinitely easier and faster than traditional fixation methods. The only downside to the system is that the lack of a tail-fix can lead to skin failures in certain conditions, such as breaking trail through steep, loose snow, which leads one to slide backwards slightly with each step.

Still, despite that downside, I’ve converted entirely to skins without a tail-fix. After a short learning curve, they’re just simpler and lighter. An added benefit of using race-style skins is that they are so thin and subsequently light that a backup pair can be carried without being a burden. Black Diamond nylon skins are Hummer H2s compared to these Porsches.

What follows is a step by step pictorial guide to making your own tip fix system at home. This is the second time that I’ve built skins at home, and the process took 25 minutes from start to finish. If this is your first time, allow yourself an hour and measure twice, cut once. Please comment with any questions that you might have. You will need the following equipment, or similar:

  • – Sharp knife
  • – Stout scissors
  • – Sharpie
  • – Scrap piece of paperboard
  • – Some virgin skins
  • – Lighter
  • – Two (2) soda bottle tops
  • – Three (3) feet of 1/4″ elastic cord
  • – Allen wrench or similar metal object
  • – A speedy-stitcher or riveter (see below)

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They Just Keep Dying: Why ‘Experienced’ Riders are Dying in Predictable Avalanche Accidents, and What We Can Do About It.

At about 10:15 in the morning on April 20th, 2013, five snowboarders and one skier met in the parking lot of the Loveland Pass ski area for a backcountry tour up the Sheep Creek drainage   They  were participants in the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering, an event organized to promote backcountry snowboarding and avalanche safety. The participants discussed the plans for the day and began to skin up an old summer road towards low-angle terrain at the other end of the drainage.

Within minutes, having skinned only a few hundred yards, all six members of the party were buried by a slab avalanche measuring 800 x 600 feet, with an average depth of 5 feet, in some places 12 feet deep. One was buried to his neck and survived, trapped for four hours touching two of his buried friends but unable to move.  The other five perished, some buried 10-12 feet deep.

sheep creek avalanche

Sheep Creek Avalanche Site: The group entered the toe of the path from the right, within a few hundred yards of the parking lot. (Photo: CAIC)

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Find a Good Partner, Be a Good Partner

Today, I want to talk about partners.  I have had the great fortune of stumbling into some life-changing partnerships through my development as a climber and a skier, and these partnerships have without-question helped to shape both who I am in the mountains as well as the rest of my life.  When I reflect on how I came to these partnerships, some of it seems like luck, but I also think that I found these wonderful people in part because I made an effort to be a good partner.  Being a good partner will take you far, without question, so I have tried to distill some of what I think makes a good partner, and what I look for before heading out with someone new.

Partnership is, to many misanthropes, a surprisingly appealing part of mountain travel.  Mountains don’t care about you. They’re simply an inert medium for exploring your own constitution.  On the other hand, sharing trying and glorious experiences with a partner amplifies the joy and minimizes the negative aspects of the mountains. While certainly there is a certain aesthetic and logistic appeal to traveling alone, a partner can take the edge off the hardest moments, turn suffering into laughter, and facilitate learning through mentorship.

“In 1961 I led this chimney in a state of metabolic uproar. At the base of the pitch I smoked several cigarettes (the first and last ones of my life). This was to calm me. Then I spooned half a jar of honey. This was to ensure superhuman strength. Mort Hempel, my partner, watched this silly ritual with mouth agape and eyes exploding with fear.” 

Steve Roper, about the 3rd pitch of the Worst Error

Partners should be complementary in skills, and matched in risk tolerance and expectations.  With complementary skill sets, the team is stronger and more capable than either partner alone.  Two minds can facilitate bother better and worse decision-making than one mind alone, but with matched risk tolerance and expectations, two minds will make better decisions together.  With complementary skill sets, the team is able to handle more and more-diverse challenges than either member.  Matched risk tolerance is also a must, because nothing can sour an outing quite as much as realizing that what one partner thinks is safe, the other finds appalling.

Breaking trail towards dragontail

The Author, breaking trail towards Dragontail Peak. When you know that your partners will be doing the brunt of the climbing, step up and do the grunt work.  (Photo: Colin Bohannan)

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