This story all started with a dog named Cupcake in Alaska's Denali National Park.
My wife and partner in crime, Christine, and I were working in the National Park in a particularly rainy month of August last year. We decided that the most appropriate thing to do with our free time was to volunteer by running with sled dogs (we didn't have many consecutive days in a row to backpack or see the rest of Alaska). During the summer, these natural athletes turn into pudgy pups due to their lack of work, which is primarily in the winter. Because I'm 6' 4" and wanted a challenge, I wound up with the biggest and most energetic dog of the pack, Cupcake.
I was told five volunteers had already given up on Cupcake this season, and they desperately needed to get him exercise. We were happy to volunteer, taking them out on runs to keep these adorable endurance athletes in shape.
After a few weeks of running the dogs, we got really comfortable with running, giving these dogs as much exercise as possible. Slowly, we built up our mileage–to about 10 miles.
I was feeling really proud with that distance, having never really run much before in my life. Then, while browsing the internet, I noticed that the Mount Mitchell Challenge lottery opened up, and I decided this was my shot to participate in a race that had caught my eye ever since moving to Asheville, North Carolina.
Wikipedia describes the race as such: "The Mount Mitchell Challenge is a 40-mile Ultramarathon run in February of each year from the town of Black Mountain, NC to the top of Mt Mitchell, the highest point in the Eastern US, and back down again. This race, intentionally run in Winter to ensure harsh conditions… the course has seen every type of weather imaginable… rain, ice, snow, sun… " unner. Having heard rumors about the lottery selection process from other runners, I knew there was no way I was going to get into run the race by just entering once. Many athletes enter year after year without getting in. So, without too much thought, I filled out the application. Under "best marathon time," having never run anything resembling the distance, I wrote, " hiked the PCT in 4 months."
A few days later, I woke up to an email saying, "Congratulations! Your entry into the 2019 Mount Mitchell Challenge has been confirmed!" I was dumbfounded, and immediately felt doomed. I had run a half marathon once many years ago, but that was about it. Now, I had to train for a 40-mile race up and down the tallest mountain in the eastern United States?
Enter the Gossamer Gear Kumo backpack.
In order to even start training, I needed a high capacity running pack. Looking at the packs I had, it looked like the Kumo could do the job. I could fit water, a purification method, an emergency blanket, a trowel for bathroom breaks, Lightheart Gear Rain Mitts, a Wind Shirt, Microspikes, and many layers, including an entire bag of clothes to be kept dry no matter what. In addition, I could stash plenty of Gu's and snacks (my favorite being microwaved red potatoes).
For me to train in the tallest mountains on the East Coast during winter, it would be absolutely necessary for me to be able to carry all of these items. The Kumo was the perfect choice because it could collapse to be comfortable with an empty load and also could carry way more than I could possibly need for a day-long run.
In training, I ran ultramarathon distances in the dead of winter. With highs around 20 degrees and windy, I wouldn't have had the courage to run in those conditions without the Kumo with a Nightlight Sleeping Pad and hip belt. It was a no-brainer to upgrade the pad for more support and potentially more insulation in case I got injured and had to wait for help in incredibly cold conditions.
On race day, the weather was 35 degrees and raining at the starting elevation. The Kumo allowed me to "comfortably" run in the harsh weather conditions, since we were not allowed to stash additional gear or layers at any aid stations. I was probably over-prepared, but still needed 80% of what I was carrying in my pack to keep warm on the rainy and freezing day. At one point, my fingers were so cold that I needed help zipping up my fleece at an aid station. The volunteers kept checking runners for hypothermia, but I was even more impressed that these volunteers were spending hours, some even spending the night at these remote aid stations just to help us complete this course.
The day after the race, I thought to myself: "I should run an ultramarathon in each month of the year in order to 'stay in running shape.'" I went from never running a marathon to committing myself to 12 more. Maybe not the smartest idea, but it made sense to me at the time.
In the following months, I continued to run on some of the toughest trails I had seen in the southeast, as I was not interested in running on streets or setting personal records, but rather my main intent was to enjoy the mountains. I mapped out routes each month that would take me over the marathon distance on-trail, and each time I took my Kumo with me. Some notable runs included running from my front door to the top of Mount Mitchell, an out-and-back on the Shut-in Trail, and a day run of the Art Loeb Trail.
Months down the road, a friend was interested in backpacking an approximately 28-mile section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The trip he planned involved meeting him late at night and driving another car to where we were supposed to start. I wasn't interested in staying up late and thought that this is a great opportunity to attempt a run with a full pack. I was going to run the shuttle on foot leaving my car at our finish point and setting up camp at our meeting location (which was their starting point). Problem solved! I got to sleep and get a nice run in.
I packed the Kumo with three days of food, a quilt, Gossamer Gear's "The Two" tent, and some rain gear, and then took it out on the 28-mile run. The pack weighed 26 lbs, but I definitely over-packed on food. Feeling hungry that morning, I bought a pizza and packed out half of it on top of the food I had already decided on bringing. Running that distance with a heavy pack definitely resulted in chafing, so it would have been smart to bringing tape to cover up those areas. In the end, I was able to run the distance one way in an afternoon and then walk back with my friends over the next two days. The perfect trip, really.
I would definitely recommend this versatile pack for trips similar to the ones I've described and for those expecting loads of less than 25 lbs (with small periods around 30 lbs probably being okay) on backpacking trips. For running, the hip belt can be raised to accommodate a more running appropriate ribcage hugging style along with tightening the shoulder straps. At this point, I have logged over 1,500 miles of running using the Kumo since starting my training for my first ultramarathon last year. The only way I can imagine improving the design for running purposes would be to make the shoulder strap and hip belt pockets slightly more durable. With all the bouncing, the items stored in those pockets wore holes in the pockets, which are my most accessible and favorite pockets.
It is now November, and I have ticked off 11 out of the 12 ultramarathons I told myself I would run this year. Meanwhile, in Denali, Cupcake the sled dog undoubtedly went on to run just as many miles as I did all last year during just the winter months, while he dragged a sled. Without a blog or social media, but with treats and praise from his fellow Denali rangers, he will have just started his working year dragging sleds full of gear and rangers into the backcountry and dragging debris and garbage out.
All that is left for me is December's ultramarathon, and I will have accomplished my goal. Any suggestions for my final run are welcome!
Editor's Note: On April 22, 2019, Andrew Glenn began a thru-hike connecting the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in the United States to the Great Divide Trail (GDT) in Canada for a 3,800-mile traverse along the spine of the Rockies. You can read about the origins of his trip here and his thoughts on hiking the CDT through Colorado during a high snow year here. Below, he shares some of his thoughts after finishing this journey.
The Details of Hiking Nearly 3,800 Miles along the Rockies
Southern Terminus: Crazy Cook, New Mexico (US-Mexico Border) Northern Terminus: Kakwa Lake, British Columbia Mileage: 3,700 - 3,800 mi (3,100 + 700 - alternates)
Start Date: April 22, 2019 CDT End Date/GDT Start Date: August 23, 2019 End Date: September 25, 2019
CDT Zeros: 14 (6 New Mexico, 7 Colorado, 1 Wyoming) GDT Zeros: 1 (Waterton National Park)
National Parks: 7 (Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Glacier, Waterton, Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, Jasper)
Favorite CDT alternate: Titcomb Basin/Knapsack Col, Wyoming Favorite GDT alternate: "Six Pass Alternate," Jasper National Park, Alberta
Favorite CDT trail town: Salida, Colorado Favorite GDT trail town: Jasper, Alberta
Beyond the Terminus of a Rocky Mountain Journey North
"The only way out is North. The only way out is North. The only way out is North," I repeated aloud while ascending Surprise Pass, my final mountain pass of the Great Divide Trail. Thigh-deep snow slowed my pace dramatically, every item in my pack was soaked, and it had been over a week since I'd seen another person. Empty wrappers of my emergency food ration peaked through my hipbelt pocket and acted as a testament to an unforgiving turning of seasons in the truest wilderness I had ever experienced. It was day 156 of 156, and the Divide was as angsty as ever.
Sometime in the peak of exhaustion and fear a few days previously, I picked up the above mantra in an effort to keep the wheels greased. At the time, my options included:
- Bushwhacking 3+ days in any direction to a traveled road
- Pressing the SOS button on my satellite device
- Hiking North
After a quick assessment, I chose the third and made it my only option.
Back near the crest of Surprise Pass, whiteout conditions broke. Wind tamed and powder steadied a bit. A dark slab of Mount Bastille bruised the horizonless white expanse, bringing clarity and orientation. I repeated the simple mantra a final time and felt it slip off my tongue and down the Divide with warmth. For a moment, the thirteen final miles ahead carried more weight than the 3,700+ behind. I was quickly running out of runway, out of North.
Hiking North was a heartstate that revealed itself in acute decisions every day–some subtle (leaving camp, getting up from a break, etc.), while others pretty notable (pushing out from the CDT's southern terminus, continuing through the Colorado's snowpack in May, stepping from the CDT onto the GDT, and passing the GDT's Mount Robson exit in September). Over time, maintaining a continuous northbound footpath was much less about the accomplishment, and more about the value it was bringing to my life. It was a goal that acted as a vehicle to seeing themost inspiring landscapes, loving myself with more care, and learning the spirit of Rocky Mountains via the communities it backdrops.
Nearly two months have passed since completing the #CDTtoGDT at Lake Kakwa, where the North ran out. I'm mourning the end of a beautiful project and embracing the tension of the runout as my northbound mindset lingers through the day-to-day. It reminds me to trust the course. It reminds me of challenges I've overcome, while gently leading me into the lessons to come. It instructs micro-decisions and is fueled by a greater hope.
I've heard it said that our hearts know deeper seasons than our memories. In each mile I hike, this resonates deeper and deeper. The visceral memories are cherished, but the impact of heart is why I hike. It'll feel the warmth of New Mexico's Ventana Mesa truer than my memory, and it'll carry the massive posthole that was Colorado longer than my recollection. I like to think my heart acts with motivations of alpenglow on glaciers and wildflowers opening to the sun. It responds having danced in sunsets and bushwhacked through the Jackpine. This idea gives grace to time and lengthens trail beyond a northbound direction. With this mindset, the runout isn't much of a runout at all.
Bonus: Obviously, Some Notes on Gear!
Okay, my people. Let's talk gear. Because of the seemingly infinite resources for backpacking gear, I'm just going to stick to a few categorical highlights–gear that paved the way to a successful, safe thru-hike.
Pack: Kumo (NM, WY, ID, MT) and Silverback (CO, GDT). The Kumo was an important move when wanting to cruise through miles. It pairs well with sunset dance parties and spontaneous urges to trail run. On the other hand, the Silverback is the adventure partner that pushes you further. Adding skis and boots? Not a problem. Snowshoes and crampons? Easy peasy. 10 days of food? No stress. Needing a security blanket on a very lonely stretch? "Little Spoon" is its middle name.
Shoes: Nike Wildhorse V - Covered 6,600 miles and counting!
Clothes: I freaking hit my mojo in comfy, layerable clothes this trip. An Arc'teryx puffy vest, Melanzana Microgrid fleece, and a Patagonia lightweight long sleeve kept me warm, while my OR Helium II attempted to keep me dry. Hikers, please don't rock the Helium on a long trail if the forecast calls for dicey conditions. Stay safe and consider another jacket!
Kitchen:I cold-soaked the entire CDT and the first few sections of the GDT. In the final weeks, I added an MSR pocketrocket and GSR pot to boil water in messy shoulder-season weather.
Other: I carried a freaking NALGENE from Chama, New Mexico to the end of the GDT and loved it so, so much. 100% recommend. Ttyl, Smartwater. I still love you <3.
The Ranger 35 and the Silverback 55 have become my go-to Gossamer Gear packs. I do a variety of outdoor activities–backpacking, canyoneering, day hiking, and photography–and have been using these two packs for the last ten months.
Field Testing the Ranger 35 and Silverback 55 on Arizona Trails
First, let's start with the kind of conditions I'm working with living in the Sonoran Desert in Tucson and recreating across Arizona. Despite what you may think about Arizona always being hot, we have a wide range of elevations and, therefore, temperatures. In southern Arizona, the Sky Island mountain ranges rise to over 9,000 feet with low valleys in between, and much of northern Arizona is on plateaus, which are 7,000 feet elevation or higher. I also had the Ranger 35 among the saguaro cacti in the snow on the first week of this year!
I am outdoors year-round in temperatures down into the 20s at night in winter, and as hot as 109 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Currently, I am researching and writing a book about day hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail, which will be released by Wilderness Press in Spring 2020. Though it is a day hiking book, I have been backpacking several of the hikes so I have time to do photography (and because sleeping under the stars is awesome)!
It's also important to note that I have Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition. It affects my upper back, neck, and shoulders, which makes it essential for me to be able to keep as much weight off my shoulders as possible and transfer the load to my hips. It also means that I'll never join the brotherhood of the beltless pack, but I'm ok with it.
Day Hiking and Canyoneering with the Ranger 35
The Ranger 35 that I use for day hiking and canyoneering has a 35-liter capacity and weighs 33.9 ounces. It has a removable internal polycarbonate frame for stability, lots of pockets, and a front-loading panel that can be opened wide. Adventures in Arizona often mean carrying a lot of heavy water, plus I add photography gear, plenty of snacks, and layers for the swing in temperatures. For canyoneering, add rope, a helmet, and sometimes a wetsuit. The Ranger really carries the weight comfortably and things are easy to access due to the panel opening and ample pockets.
There's a large mesh pocket on the panel that fits my climbing helmet, a zipper pocket on the outside where I keep things I want to easily access during the hike, a zipper pocket inside for things I want to keep secure like my keys and wallet, and a hydration sleeve with a hydration port for the tube. Two water bottle pockets with compression straps on the sides also help to hold in my camera tripod or umbrella. There are trekking pole loops, which I've used, and an ice axe loop, which I have not. Because frankly, if I'm going to need an ice axe for conditions on the hike I've got planned, I'm heading somewhere else with better weather.
The back of the pack is padded and has an integrated hipbelt with even more pockets. This pack makes me feel like everything has a secure place. The Robic material is tough and withstands the spiny plants and rough rocks of the desert well. I've carried 25 pounds in the pack comfortably and it's recommended for no more than thirty. Load-lifter straps on the shoulders can be adjusted to shift the weight.
Backpacking with the Silverback 55
For backpacking trips, the Silverback 55 has a lot of the same features that I like about the Ranger. Sturdy frame, ample pockets, and even more rugged material. I do a lot of bushwhacking through thorny brush, and this pack has the classic Gossamer Gear rear pocket, but without mesh. The fabric is custom 70 X 200 denier Robic Extreema and the pack weighs 43.4 oz in a medium.
The Silverback 55 is unique in that it has multiple configurations. The pack can be worn as a roll-top that clips to itself or the side compression straps, and there is a pack lid, or "brain," that can either be attached at the top, used as a stuff sack inside the pack, or left at home, depending on the situation.
The lid of the pack is for items I don't want compressed. I do a lot of nighttime photography and light painting and my tools–light wands, glow sticks, and photo accessories–are safe in the lid.
Desert dry camping, which sometimes requires carrying up to 9 liters of water, works really well with this pack. The Silverback is rated to carry 35 pounds comfortably, but can handle up to 40, which I carried during a trip this spring where there was no water on my route. The roll-top allows for a lot of room for expansion and is easy to compress during the trip when there is less food or water.
It's got trekking pole and ice axe loops, load-lifting straps, a hydration sleeve and tube port, and a removable belt with spacious pockets. The back is cushioned by an Airflow Sitlight pad that is easy to take out, use for a seat cushion, and put back into the backpack during breaks.
I use one of the side pockets for a water bottle and tripod and the other to store my LT5 trekking poles and umbrella. The big back pocket fits my first aid kit, toiletries, and camp shoes, or is a good place to store a wet tent.
The Ranger 35 and Silverback 55 are Packs for All Terrains
I enjoy using the Ranger 35 and the Silverback 55 on my desert journeys, but the rugged features would also work well on brushy or overgrown trails, off-trail travel, or areas with long distances between resupply or water sources.
Scary things can happen to you if you don't carry Gossamer Gear.
Many experienced backpackers seek new challenges. If you've focused on North America's spectacular trails, it's time to expand your horizons.
For this Halloween, let's focus on the world's scariest mountains. No, they're not in the Himalayas. Nor are they in the Andes, where in the early 1970s, a group of South Americans became cannibals.
No, the world's scariest mountains must be the Transylvanian Alps. The majestic Carpathian Mountains form a backward "C" in Romania. That must be the scariest thru-hike.
I lacked the courage to thru-hike the Transylvanian Alps. I barely had the guts to traverse them. I went from Busteni and hiked over the Transylvanian Alps to descend onto Dracula's Castle in Bran.
Unlike the other backpacking trips I took in Eastern Europe, I didn't do a loop. This was a one-way trip and so I had to carry all my gear. This meant lugging two big backpacks up and down the Transylvanian Alps. I carried one in front and the other on my back.
Had I had my high capacity Mariposa 60, I might have just had one backpack. Sadly, this was 2004 and the Mariposa 60 didn't exist.
In the afternoon of the first day, I reached Romania's highest hut. It's on the summit of Mt. Omul, which means "Mt. Human." It's Romania's second highest peak.
Instead of meeting Count Dracula, I was surprised to meet two friendly Romanian plastic surgeons.
They offered me some trail magic: bean and sausage soup. They would be camping in the hut, but with just four hours of daylight left, I had to boogie to get below the treeline and camp where it's warmer. I didn't have my Gossamer Gear shelter. I was desperate.
The Spooky Cabin
The daylight had nearly vanished when I got below the treeline and spotted a half-finished cabin. OK, that's a generous description. It reminded me of the cabin at the end of the Blair Witch movie.
It was dark and dusty. I only had a pathetic red LED to light my way. The wooden floors creaked. There were several openings on both levels for anything to enter. I hadn't seen anyone in hours. The cabin appeared empty, although a spider raced across the floor. I was in Transylvania. Dracula's castle was just down the mountain. This was creepy.
I lay down on the cold, dust-covered floor and eventually fell asleep. But, then, something woke me in the dead of the night–the sound of something chewing on either my sleeping pad or sleeping bag. It was as if it was making its way to my flesh.
My food was on my left side. This thing was clawing on my right. Could it be a bat? Will it go for my neck? Is this a dream? Or am I already dead?
The chewing stopped.
I couldn't see anything. I didn't have my glasses. Even if I did, it was so dark that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.
I fumbled for my red LED. I reached for my glasses. The air in the room was deathly cold.
I finally turned on the light. I could see my breath in the chilling air.
I scanned around.
Was it a bat? A rat? A vampire?
I'll never know.
Visiting Dracula's Castle
The next morning, I touched my neck. It felt normal. I packed up and took off in the freezing weather. Frost covered the grass.
I finally came to Dracula's Castle, Bran Castle.
It's kind of disappointing that most historians believe that Dracula (Vlad Tepes) may not have stayed here for long (if at all).
And, it doesn't compare to Peles Castle, which has a much nicer interior than Bran's.
However, it was still cool to see Dracula's Bazar and Skeleton's Tavern. But, I still didn't have evidence of Dracula, so I kept pursuing him in…
Brasov, a medieval Saxon town surrounded by verdant Transylvanian hills, is one of Romania's most visited places. It has the prettiest square I've seen since Czechia.
But, still no Dracula. I know, I'll go where he was born.
By: MarculescuEugenIancuD60Alaska, CC BY-SA 2.0
Sighisoara: Highlight in Romania
Like Brasov, Sighisoara is a Saxon medieval town surrounded by hills in Transylvania. However, it is more beautiful and less hyped than Brasov and has a greater amount of perfectly preserved medieval buildings. What drew me in was that within the walls of the medieval citadel lies Dracula's House, in which Vlad Tepes was born in 1431 and reputedly lived until the age of four. It is now a bar and restaurant. Not sure if fresh blood in on the menu.
I arrived late, so I decided to tempt Dracula for the second night in a row. I climbed to the top of Sighisoara, up a dark covered staircase with 172 steps, and camped without a tarp in the cold, damp air next to a Gothic Church. I lay in wait. I only heard the rustling of the leaves.
Although Dracula didn't suck my blood or even stop and say hi, I loved this little town.
Header Image By: Munteanu Anca - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
I did a thing. I took on the White Mountain Direttissima, what some also call the White Mountain Challenge, and I completed it. Not only did I complete it, but I set the women's fastest known time (FKT) for the route, while hiking it solo and unsupported. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
What is the White Mountain Direttissima?
The idea of the White Mountain Direttissima is to summit all 48 of New Hampshire's 4,000-foot mountaintops in one continuous footpath–my route had me traveling from the Gorge Brook trailhead to the Mount Cabot trailhead, carrying all the supplies I'd need on my back.
In September 2014, I completed my first White Mountain Direttissima, inspired by Matts Roing and Anna and Ariel Feindel. While I was happy I finished it, I was disappointed in my time. It took me 11 days and 19 hours. I also had my husband hike with me for a day over the Carter Range, which took away from my sense of a solo journey. I've been wanting to do a true solo in a faster time ever since. So, a few years ago, I tried again. I carried a much lighter load and was off to a better start, but feeling nauseous and less motivated, I quit the attempt on day three.
Recently, a few males have completed or attempted a supported, self-supported, or unsupported White Mountain Direttissima. Bill Tidd set an unsupported speed record in six days, seven hours this past July. A female tried to go for nine days recently, but didn't make it. My own husband recently finished his trek in just over nine days.
My FKT Journey of the White Mountain Direttissima Begins
When I set out for my third attempt of the White Mountain Direttissima this past September, I was hoping to do it in ten days; nine seemed out of reach with my slow uphill speed.
When I completed my first attempt of the White Mountain Direttissima in 2014, I set out with close to 40lbs. on my back. For my recent FKT, I set out with just under 30, including 13lbs. of food and a liter of water. Lowering my weight was important, though during the first three days of my recent White Mountain Direttissima, I regretted my choice of the lightweight Gossamer Gear Kumo backpack. No suspension meant that all of my load's weight was on my shoulders, which threw my balance off a bit on the scrambly downhills. After day three, however, my pack weight was down to a more comfortable level, and I was very happy with my choice.
One Day Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
Day two of my recent White Mountain Direttissima attempt was mentally the hardest for me since I knew what was still ahead and I was struggling going very slowly uphill on the Liberty Springs Trail. On top of that, the thought of going out of my way to get Owl's Head was slightly overwhelming. I dropped my food bag at Thirteen Falls Tentsite, but brought all my other gear to go climb Owl's Head in the dark just in I wouldn't have the energy to make it back. The planned bushwhack down Owl's Head got scrapped because I wasn't going to attempt that in the dark. Once back down, I made it to the first stream crossing and cowboy camped.
Two Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
On day three, I was focused on Mount Hale, where I had bailed on my second attempt a few years earlier. Once I made it past that, I felt a sense of relief and pushed on. I was now a day and several miles ahead of my first attempt. I was hoping to make it down to the Pemigewassett River (the Pemi), but after West Bond, I was so slow and sleepy that it made more sense to lay down my pad and bag and close my eyes.
Three Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
Being able to cross the Pemi on day four saved me about eight miles, and put me farther ahead of my first trip. I was behind my husband's schedule from the week before, but decided to focus on being ahead of my own, and not be frustrated. After summiting the Hancocks, I allowed myself a good break with a ten-minute nap. I didn't enjoy hiking the Osceolas after that with all the rock jumbles and slanted slab. I started asking out loud in Dutch: "Will these rocks ever stop?" (Oftewel houden deze klote rotsen nou nooit op?). There may have been some other choice words thrown in, as well. I was hoping to push on to the summit of Tecumseh, but slowed down to a snail's pace at the false summit and cowboy camped again.
Four Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
Day five had a glorious start with a pre-sunrise view from the Tecumseh Summit and amazing sunrise view from the ski slope. I was feeling good and strong–could I be enjoying this?
Then, my body decided to give me my period early and the skies opened up. Luckily, the two-hour monsoon didn't start until I was at the bottom of Passaconaway, so I was safe to keep hiking. The downside of being low was that the trails were now ankle deep rivers. I was sloshing around dressed in my underwear and rain gear. My torso and head were staying warm and mostly dry with my rain jacket and hooded pack cover over it. I was laughing at the ridiculous sight of me walking down the Kancamagus Highway in the dark in the pouring rain heading towards the Sawyer pond trail. I sloshed right through the Swift river since my shoes were soaked anyways. I was worried the water would have risen too much, but it was only knee-deep. Following the trail got a little more challenging when I got to more rocky creek bed sections. I wanted to conserve my headlamp batteries, but changing them out in the rain seemed like a bad idea.
I was relieved when I made it to the Sawyer Pond Tentsite. I briefly entertained the idea staying in the shelter and not needing to put up my tent in the rain, but wondered–would that break the being unsupported rules? I wandered around the tentsite in the dark, found the shelter with people in it, and decided to suck it up. Thank goodness there was a break in the rain as I set up my tent.
Five Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
I woke up all puffy from the humidity, and packed up my soaking wet gear. It did stop raining, but my shoes were still soaked, so the wet socks went back on as well. Such fun!
A short walk brings me up to the trail to Carrigain where luckily the sun is poking through. With a stiff breeze on the lookout tower, I'm able to dry out my gear. Even my shoes are starting to dry.
The Desolation Trail on the backside is one slippery mess and slow going, but the Shoal Pond Trail is fairly quick. Unfortunately, it also has a mess of flooded rotten bog bridges, and my feet get soaked again. The Ethan Pond Trail is a breeze, and soon I'm climbing up Mount Willey, annoyingly leap-frogging with a group of college kids. Finally, they wait long enough to give me some space. Field, Tom, and the descent to Crawford Notch are quick, and I force myself to get up Mount Jackson. I'm now back on my husband's schedule! I can't believe it! I crawl under some bushes and go to sleep.
Six Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
Three hours later, I continue on and soon see pretty morning skies. Near Lakes of the Clouds Hut, it gets busier with hikers, and on Washington Summit it's a zoo. I'm not going to stand in line for the summit photo, so I do a quick tag and take a picture of a cute Mexican family instead. Then it's down Tuckerman's over to Davis Path to tag Isolation. Another out and back.
To my surprise, I run into Philip Carcia, one of the few others who has done a Direttissima. How fun! We briefly chat before I move on. There is a threat of thunderstorms in the afternoon and it's getting really cloudy. Changes in weather/humidity often trigger allergic reactions with me in that the skin around my eyes gets puffy or red. It's red now, and feels like a sunburn. Otherwise, my body is holding up really well.
My shoes have gotten pretty sloppy after the rain, and my insoles are already worn out from me pounding them so hard. I wish I'd brought an extra pair of insoles. I can feel some friction and decide to put on an extra pair of socks and tighten my laces. Hopefully this will help going down the steep Glen Boulder Trail. It seems to never end.
Instead of climbing the steep, challenging Wildcat Ridge Trail, my husband had suggested going up the Wildcat Ski Slope. It's longer, but does seem to make sense, so I go for it. I prefer not to start the day with a big uphill, so am happy to make it almost to Wildcat before settling into my sleeping bag.
Seven Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
By the next morning, I'm moving great, but feel the first real signs of continuous sleep deprivation when I have trouble staying awake around 10am. I want to push through, so I try chatting with some Appalachian Trail (AT) hikers and try to keep the pace up. Just after the steep North Carter descent, I run into Bear Repellant, an AT section hiker I enjoyed guiding earlier this summer. I didn't know she was going to be out here, and I'm so excited to see her! It totally boosts my spirits. I wish her luck on her last little section of the Carters with a fellow guide, and promise to meet up after this is done.
Then, it's on to Moriah and I speed down the Stoney Brook Trail. In fact, I find myself jogging down the trail. What is happening? I'm not a runner.
A four-mile road walk brings me to the Daniel Webster Scout Trail. I feel a lot of friction on the balls of my feet, but only one little blister, which I tape up. A short food and nap break prepare me for the climb up to the Presidentials. All goes well until I hit the ridge and encounter thick fog and strong wind gusts. I know these trails well, but add in darkness, and it's easy to get disoriented. On a small sub-summit, I get blasted by a wind gust and wonder if it's safe to continue. I scan my memory for possible drop offs, and conclude that as long as I move slowly and carefully, I should be fine. I check my Guthook GPS app frequently to stay on track, and it happens a time or two where I'm at a cairn and am not sure where to go next. I'm relieved to make it over the summit and into even more familiar terrain.
At this point, my phone is doing double duty as an extra flashlight propped up in my shoulder strap pocket and as a navigation backup. If I'd had less experience with this terrain, I would have bivvied somewhere.
Knowing that after Madison Hut the trail is fairly easy to get to Thunderstorm Junction, I push on. Once there, it seems to clear and I start the out and back to Adams. To my dismay, fog rolls back in and I strain to see the next cairn. The Guthook app is again appreciated. Back at Thunderstorm, I wonder what to do. My gloves have gotten wet and I don't want to push on and get in trouble on Jefferson. I decide to bivvy behind the big cairn at Thunderstorm. I'm not very comfortable and everything gets soaked from the fog, but what to do? Finally, it clears and I continue on. The stars are amazing.
This stretch has taken a lot out of me, and once at Jefferson, I decide to crawl into a little cave and sleep some until sunrise. Caps Ridge Trail is better done in daylight anyways (in 2014 I fell off one of the slabs in the dark).
Eight Days Down on the White Mountain Direttissima
With a sub 9-day finish still within reach, I speed down Caps Ridge as much as I can and cross the parking lot like a bat out of hell. I must have been a strange sight for the early morning hikers starting up. A long road walk lies ahead. And, while it goes quickly, it's not good for the feet. About 12 miles later, I arrive at the busy Waumbek Trail. It's hot and humid and I can't stand wearing my dress any longer. I'm embarrassed for my shorts and sports bra look, but it is what it is.
I debated whether I wanted to do a Waumbek Summit tag and back, roadwalk to the old Mount Cabot Trail and tag Cabot out and back, or stay on the Kilkenny Ridge Trail to Cabot. I change my mind halfway up and stay on the Kilkenny Ridge Trail. It's much cooler on the ridge, and the trail won't trash my feet as much as a road.
I'm doing fine with this decision until just after Terrace Mountain. There is so much extra up and down that it's tough on the mind. I just want to go to sleep. But, I also want to finish in under 9 days. I dig deeper than I ever have, and keep going. But then, I'll sit down in the middle of the trail, closing my eyes for five minutes. And then I will myself to get back up. Once I'm moving, my speed isn't bad, but the struggle to keep moving is. I guess this is what endurance racing is like. I'm pretty sure this will be my first and last taste of that. After what seems like an eternity, I make it to the summit of Cabot. By now, my headlamp is almost dead and I've been using my phone as my main light source. It's awkwardly strapped underneath my headlamp strap until I stash my pole at the Mount Cabot Trail turnoff and just hold it in my hand. I have now become one of those people navigating by iPhone flashlight. Oh dear.
Back at the cabin, I laid down on one of the gross bunks and doze off. Probably no more than ten minutes later, I'm back up and soon my slow-mo pace going up is replaced by a speedy downhill pace. I surprise myself. I now have a sense of urgency. If I want to get to the trailhead within the nine days, I have to cover about two miles in 1.5 hours, and I need to finish before my phone dies. I splash through the muddy, unmaintained Mount Cabot Trail and feel all kinds of wrong happening to my feet. Even my fingers are blistering from gripping my trekking poles. When my phone does eventually die, I'm luckily almost to the trailhead, and my dim headlight gets me there– just barely.
I push the stop button on my tracker.
My total time is 8 days, 23 hours, and 9 minutes.
Special thanks to Rich Gambale and Rachel Lewis for being there to pick me up in the end.
Gossamer Gear Brand Ambassadors are an incredible bunch, if we do say so ourselves. Not only are they completing incredible physical feats in the great outdoors, but they're also always finding ways to give back to the public lands we all love so much. Nancy East, who previously shared about her work doing search and rescue in the Smokies for the Light Feet blog, is one of these bonafide badasses. Her latest undertaking? The Tour de LeConte Challenge.
Mt. LeConte is a 6,594-foot tall peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Five trails lead to its summit, where the hike-in only historic LeConte Lodge meets tired and hungry hikers. The Tour de LeConte Challenge involves hiking each of these five trails, which adds up to about 45 miles with over 11,000 feet in elevation gain, within a 24-hour period. So far, only around 22 people are known to have successfully completed the challenge. Nancy has had a blast watching them succeed, and is now ready to add her name to that list of Tour de LeConte Challenge finishers.
The sunsets from Cliff Tops on Mt. LeConte's summit are some of the best in the entire Park.
Photo credit: Up 'N Adam Adventures
While this challenge will be a fun and rewarding undertaking on its own, Nancy is adding another element to her Tour de LeConte Challenge attempt to make sure she's hiking with a cause. She'll be raising ( hopefully with your help!) $5,000 for trail restoration efforts in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a public land that she says has already given her so much.
Interview with Nancy East on Preparing for the Tour de LeConte Challenge
We caught up with Nancy to learn a little more about her journey to deciding to take on the Tour de LeConte Challenge, as well as how she's making this an opportunity to give back to the park she loves. She plans to begin her attempt at midnight on October 26, 2019, though the date is somewhat tentative depending on weather conditions.
Gossamer Gear: Can you share some of your history exploring the Great Smoky Mountains and why this public land is so special to you?
Nancy: I started hiking and backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the late nineties while I was in college, and a love affair with the park was born from those experiences. I moved to western North Carolina after I graduated from veterinary school, so I could hit the trails on a more regular basis. I eventually hiked every single trail in the park (currently 803 miles worth of trails), and it was one of the most meaningful endeavors of my life.
The last stretch of Alum Cave Trail leading to LeConte's summit is a visual treat at the end of a long climb!
What sparked your initial interest in taking on the Tour de LeConte Challenge?
I've known about the Tour de LeConte Challenge for quite awhile, but my interest piqued this past spring when three friends, who all happen to be named Adam, completed the challenge together. They have fun personalities and are amazing photographers, so they received quite a bit of attention on social media and in news outlets, and that's how I heard of their attempt.
After they finished, I couldn't stop wondering if I was capable of hiking that many miles in a day, and especially with that much elevation gain. I'm very I have a good friend and hiking buddy, Chris Ford, who thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail this year. He's the kind of friend who loves to push his physical limits like I do, so I was thrilled when he agreed to do it with me!
Chris on the PCT this summer.
How are you making your attempt of the Tour de LeConte Challenge about more than just a personal pursuit? What does it mean to you to hike with a cause, and how can others help support that?
After I finished hiking all the trails in the Smokies, I wanted to channel my energy into giving back to a place that has given me so much. In particular, I wanted to pay it back to the trail network of the Smokies.
About the same time I decided I wanted to attempt the Tour de LeConte Challenge, I heard about Friends of the Smokies, a nonprofit that supports the park, beginning extensive restoration work on the Trillium Gap Trail (one of the trails leading to Mt. LeConte's summit). Attempting the Tour de LeConte Challenge in an effort to raise awareness and funding for the restoration project felt like a perfect match!
Hiking with a cause is something near and dear to my heart. Our public lands give us so many rewarding and meaningful experiences when we visit them, and reciprocating that love simply feels like the right thing to do.
We are hoping to raise $5,000 for the Trillium Gap Trail restoration project through this effort, and donations can be made through this special link on the Friends of the Smokies website, where the funds will be earmarked for this project.
How have you been training for the Tour de LeConte Challenge?
I've been training for the Challenge primarily by increasing my mileage on hikes. A typical day hike for me used to be in the 15-20 mile range. I knew I needed to click it up a notch in order to do the Challenge, so I've steadily increased my mileage to upwards of 30-mile day hikes.
This past weekend, Chris and I both completed our longest day hike ever of 42 miles! It included two of the more challenging trails in the park–Jenkins Ridge and Eagle Creek. We both felt strong at the end, and it was a huge mental boost to know we could still walk after tackling some of the toughest terrain the park has to offer, as well as finishing the hike in under 16 hours, which is well below the 24-hour time limit of the Tour de LeConte Challenge.
I've also been incorporating some weight and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which is a mainstay of my exercise routine on a regular basis. I feel that this type of training reduces my risk of injuries and makes me a stronger hiker overall, especially as I get older.
Still smiling at the end of our 42-mile training hike!
How are you feeling leading up to the Tour de LeConte Challenge? Nervous? Excited? Completely Zen?
After our 42-mile hike, I feel much more confident that I can complete the Challenge successfully; however, I've hiked long enough to know that just because I felt great on one hike doesn't mean I'll feel as good on a different day. Uncontrollable factors like weather and temperature fluctuations, especially in the higher elevations of the Smokies, can also derail the best laid plans of any hiker!
So, overall, I'd say I'm excited with a healthy dose of humility for Mother Nature and my body's whims on any given day.
Will any Gossamer Gear items be hitting the trails with you?
Absolutely! My Kumo pack has been a mainstay through my training efforts. My Liteflex Umbrella is also a constant, and it has been invaluable during the summer on my hikes of the Bullhead Trail, one of the trails leading to LeConte, which is incredibly exposed to the sun since the 2016 fires in the park. And my LT5 Trekking Poles have protected my joints from the abuse I'm putting them through as I train!
What's the best way people can follow along with your journey?
On the day of the Challenge, I'll provide a link on my blog's Facebook page, where people can track us in real time through my Garmin InReach Mini.
Spending time in the backcountry can feel like a crash course in knowing a person. You learn things like their bathroom schedule, caffeine rituals, and food cravings very quickly based on necessity. For us, in the backcountry, a few weeks can feel like months in terms of getting to know someone on a deeper level. If we've learned anything, it's that there is always more to learn about the person or people you are with.
In partnerships of any kind, conflict is inevitable. We are no different. We have disagreements in big or small ways on most adventures we do. We are always working to relate to conflict in a more positive way, and make plans to mitigate it by anticipating areas that cause discord on expeditions. We happen to hike together a lot, but what we've learned also applies to many parts of our relationship, and any other shared endeavor, off the trail.
We met working in outdoor education, so we came together with a good amount of personal backpacking experience. We might teach different tips and tricks to our students, but overall neither of us is "in charge" when we plan an expedition; it's a collaborative process. The list we share here on what we've learned being both hiking and romantic partners might look different for us if that was not the case.
1. Set expectations upfront.
Are we doing big miles? Are we lake bagging and skinny dipping? Or, do we want to sit under a tree reading books and drinking tea all day? This forethought applies to big picture trip planning, as well as day-to-day discussion. Maybe some days or weeks the expectations need to change. For us, that's okay too. Managing individual expectations helps us avoid miscommunication about what we thought the day or trip was going to look like.
Who naturally hikes faster, and do we want to hike together always or not? If the faster person hikes in back, then we can stay together. If that will drive us crazy, then we need to make plans to adjust the pace or timing accordingly. Communicating a break spot or time to meet down the trail gives us a chance to balance walking together with walking our own pace and getting some alone time along the way.
When we hike, we get really hungry. How much and what foods do we want to share? If getting " hangry" is our reality, then planning ahead for shared versus personal food is important. If we know we're just rationing something for ourselves, then we can cherry pick the chocolate out of trail mix all day, but if we're rationing as a unit, then we make more equitable choices that won't cause conflict.
4. Make an effort to keep the romance alive.
Don't get us wrong, sitting in a laundromat and sweating in our rain gear while we watch hiking clothes dry can be super romantic… but, what really keeps the magic alive? Small gestures that we do for each other in a relationship regularly still need to apply to our hiking lives. It helps us a lot if we remember to do these things, even when (and especially when) we're feeling worked. For us, occasionally spending a few extra bucks getting dinner at a nicer restaurant helps us feel like we get time together that isn't always braving the elements and rationing food. This makes us feel a little bit more like a romantic couple–even if it's only for a few hours.
5. Fight assumptions and acknowledge our privilege.
As cisgender, heterosexual people, our relationship at face value challenges little about gender norms. We have tried to fight the assumption we often encounter that Jeff is the holder of information or the one who knows more about what we're doing. There are many ways to interrupt the " mansplaining" that we have encountered in the backcountry, and we're still learning about how to challenge it. This is also by no means the only category of stereotype in the outdoors that desperately needs addressing. Racism and white colonization in many of the places we walk through is what even provides the chance for us to have these interactions; the access we have to outdoor spaces as straight, white people is a privilege we need to recognize. Confronting oppression and discrimination needs to be a part of life wherever we go.
6. Honor our different approaches.
Even though we are doing the same activities all day, we both have our own reasons for walking, and our own personal style of how we want to do it. Honoring these differences and knowing they are important helps us feel like our individuality holds weight. Remembering that we are two individuals instead of only a collective allows us to have more compassion for one another.
7. Talk to other people.
Our friends and family are amazing resources to bounce ideas off of about our relationship and what we're learning. Walking all day with your partner for weeks or months is a lot of time to spend with just one person. This may be obvious, but it's immensely helpful to get more people involved, to gain new insights and learn from the people we love at home, as well as the new people we meet along the way.
8. Be grateful.
In the midst of challenging ourselves, we try to remember to express gratitude often–for the opportunities we've had to walk and celebrate together in these places, and for someone to help pull us through low moments along the way. Frequently, we are also grateful for having a person to commiserate with when things aren't ideal, such as walking through a downpour, running low on food, or waiting for an impossible feeling hitchhike.
Continuing to Add to Our List of Learning
We have learned a lot about ourselves and our relationship through expeditions, both short and long. When we hike together, we have separate but overlapping experiences, both with the world around us and each other. Conversations can flow easily, silence can be long, and heated debates can come and go–all in a handful of miles passing creeks or climbing through canyons. While walking, we've clarified our values, dreamed up ways to live into them together, and decided to move across the country two separate times.
In the words of Mary Oliver: "Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." We hope to continue learning how to do that.
Four years ago, I was accepted into our county's search and rescue team. I didn't expect it to be a profound experience, but between the forged friendships and camaraderie of our team, learning loads of new outdoor skills, and, of course, paying it forward to my fellow outdoor enthusiasts, it has become one of the most meaningful parts of my life.
Many of the people we help are in situations that are largely preventable with good ol' common sense (I'm looking at you, 20-something-year-old guys scaling slick rocks beside a waterfall in flip flops), but aside from the obvious lack of humility for the backcountry and the enormity of Mother Nature's power, well, sometimes, shit happens.
An Instagram-worthy trip can fall off the rails quickly with a single innocent misstep, either literally or figuratively. The misstep might happen when a day hiker unknowingly veers onto a game trail and ends up lost, or while cruising down a known trail and severely spraining an ankle when stepping off an unstable rock. At that point, whether the injury or degree of "misplacement" is large or small, the clock starts ticking and environmental factors like weather can make a significant difference in a person's outcome.
My Gossamer Gear Kumo pack is perfect for SAR operations and has held up beautifully in off-trail terrain.
The Essentials for Survival in a Search and Rescue Situation
If hikers spend any time at all educating themselves about preparedness and safety, they will undoubtedly come across a list of " The 10 Essentials" to pack for a trip in the outdoors. I can't stress enough how important it is to carry them, and even more importantly, knowing how to use them. Waterproof matches won't do you much good without knowing how to build a fire with wet wood (Pro Tip: Whittle a small branch down to its dry core for tinder shavings to help get one started). And a compass is dead weight if you don't know how to shoot a bearing or use it correctly with a map.
Think of it this way: Would you risk driving your car to get to the trailhead without insurance, or risk driving your car at all without learning how to drive first? The same principle applies to hiking: You need outdoor skills and an insurance policy in the form of specific gear for your survival, should the unexpected happen.
However, these skills and vital gear are only half of what you should carry when you enter the backcountry. The good news is that what's missing from the essentials doesn't weigh or cost a thing–because it's what you pack in your heart. It's called Positive Mental Attitude (PMA).
A search and rescue perk: Witnessing amazing sunrises and sunsets.
How Positive Mental Attitude and Remembering to STOP Impacts Survival During Search and Rescue
If there is one overarching theme to a person's survivability that I have seen play out time and time again, it's PMA. On more than one occasion, I've been convinced that our patient will be deceased once found, and my jaw practically hits the forest floor when they're found alive. Interestingly, some of our most nail-biting missions have had an inversely proportional relationship with a person's outdoor experience level and appropriate gear in their pack, and PMA playing a starring role in the story of their survival.
PMA doesn't translate to denial about your situation or pretending things aren't as bad as they may actually be. It simply boils down to this: Even if your skillset and knowledge don't match the challenges you face, you make a firm commitment to yourself to live to see another day. You have faith that you will survive your ordeal, despite the odds that may be stacked against you, and your attitude reflects that mindset.
The trickle down effect of PMA is that it subconsciously combats the physiological and psychological response to stress. It frees up and opens the mind to finding creative solutions and outlooks rather than focusing on how dire things may be.
A complement to PMA that we also witness is someone taking a moment to control their fearful mind from racing into a downward spiral of panic. Comments like, "I knew I was in trouble, but I just took a minute to stop and calm myself down," are typical from those we rescue successfully. The acronym STOP, which stands for Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan, is an incredibly useful tool hikers should also pack away into their mental toolkit.
Our search and rescue team on a rescue operation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
What Search and Rescue Can Look Like in the Field
A great example from one of our own operations is a woman we found after surviving a bitter night of snow, sleet, and rain with minimal gear and clothing to protect her, other than a cheap rain poncho. She was mesmerized by the epic views in the incomparable Shining Rock Wilderness of western North Carolina, lost track of time, and didn't make it back to her car by nightfall. Rather than panicking and frantically attempting to get back to the trailhead in the dark, she hunkered down in a grove of evergreen trees, turned off her phone to save the limited battery she had left, and in her words, she "became a tree hugger that night."
When she didn't return home as expected, her daughter alerted the authorities, and my team was dispatched. We found her the next morning on the move, using her phone she had wisely saved the battery power from, to navigate back to her car. She was shaken and exhausted, but she insisted on walking out on her own two feet. Despite her lack of backcountry skills and gear to protect her more adequately, she survived by stopping, thinking clearly, and, of course, with a hefty dose of PMA.
PMA isn't just reserved for those being rescued, though. Look no further than an extensive search and rescue operation to see the power of it in practice. It's likely the most universal quality a good search and rescue team possesses. I was reminded of this during a recent 5-day operation my team was involved in, as we searched for a missing gentleman with dementia in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I befriended the survivor of one of our most nail-biting winter searches who had incredible PMA during his ordeal.
As the search wore on, the National Park Service posted updates with photos on their Facebook page. One of the photos highlighted a search dog and her dedicated handler, smiling for the camera. Several people criticized her in the comments, stating that she should be more serious during such an emotionally charged search effort. Earlier in the day, before the photo was taken, I had counseled this handler on how to treat her dog in the field for multiple bee stings (I'm a veterinarian in "real life"), requiring her team to carry the weakened dog out of the woods. The fact that she was smiling at all after such a traumatic experience was not lost on me.
I wonder now if I should have commented in that thread to explain to the critics that the smiles on our faces during searches have nothing to do with disrespect and everything to do with PMA. On an extended, multi-day search effort, it can mean the difference between heading back into brutal and unforgiving off-trail terrain, or backing off the effort if the survival statistics are low for our patient. We smile, we joke, we laugh, and we search like hell for people, never relinquishing the thread of hope that someone will defy the odds and surprise us by calling back. PMA is what fuels every bit of it.
Prepare for Survival Now By Practicing PMA in Everyday Life
Never give up on yourself and your capacity to find a solution for your situation, no matter how dire it may seem at the time. PMA may not save everyone, but you better believe it has saved plenty of people before you. It takes practice with everyday stress to dial in your capacity for it if it's not your natural inclination. So, tap into it the next time you're stuck in traffic or faced with a seemingly insurmountable and stressful task at work.
When faced with the unexpected in the backcountry, PMA could truly mean the difference between living to hike another day or not. Or, at a minimum, it may make your predicament feel a bit less overwhelming until help arrives by way of a search and rescue team–possibly even with smiles on our faces.
If you'd like to read more about the study of survival psychology, the book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales is one of my favorites, and a fabulous read.
You know that feeling you get on the trail where time and space seem to fade into oblivion, and you begin to feel in harmony with the world around you? That feeling you chase down every time you step onto the trail?
Sometimes it seems like arriving at this sense of calm can take weeks. But, in the Olympic Peninsula, it can take just hours.
We recently linked up with Gossamer Gear Brand Ambassador, Michelle Zhang, in Washington's Olympic Peninsula for a weekend jaunt through the Enchanted Valley.
Here's what she had to say about it.
Being outdoors is a huge priority for me, and a big part of who I am. So, I was stoked to be escaping the emails and iCals of Silicon Valley and heading to one of my favorite places–the Pacific Northwest.
While my typical weekend recharge involves alpine starts, boulder fields, and summit views high up in the mountains, the fern-covered corridors of Olympic National Park's forest floors were nothing short of a magical "change of scenery" for me.
Walking through the Enchanted Valley is a hiker's dream. It starts out along the Quinault River, covered in ferns and fallen trees. Next, a little bit of cliff jumping and swimming in the mossy gorge easily work their way into the itinerary while stopping for a quick snack. A few miles in, we're then transported to a forest full of towering cedar and maple trees, engulfed in every shade of green imaginable.
After miles of hearing flowing creeks and feeling the soothing forest ground vibrating underneath my feet, the mountain girl in me squealed with happiness as we came up to jagged peaks and ridges that drew out the skyline above Enchanted Valley. The granite slopes were littered with trees and tall waterfalls, and we could see the snow and ice of Anderson Glacier peaking through the clouds. This was my happy place.
Plus, I hadn't taken Gossamer Gear's The One shelter through pouring rain yet, so imagine my excitement when I woke to the sound of pouring rain, and nothing had soaked through! Maybe next time, however, I'll pack some waterproof shoes.
We recommend visiting the Enchanted Valley in mid to late summer, and planning for a couple low mileage days to take it slow and explore the wilderness deeply.
If you're planning to backpack here, note that permits are required from the bear canisters are recommended.
On April 22, 2019, Andrew Glenn began a thru-hike connecting the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in the United States to the Great Divide Trail (GDT) in Canada for a 3,800-mile traverse along the spine of the Rockies. You can read about the origins of his trip here, and stay tuned to the Gossamer Gear blog for more updates from the trail like this one!
As many 2019 Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers can attest, the journey through Colorado began far before we reached its border with New Mexico. The San Juans of southern Colorado were all the talk for hundreds of miles–in fact, perhaps for the entirety of New Mexico. Given the high snow year, fear mongering was real. Some northbounders entertained the idea of becoming southbounders, and, really, nobody had reliable beta for the trail ahead.
I was optimistically ready to backcountry ski through the snowy conditions, so I built a setup around this idea and called it Plan A. As thru-hikers know, however, Plan A often becomes Plan B, C, or D–especially in a high snow year.
After I finished New Mexico on skis in a gnarly multi-day snowstorm, I quickly realized my setup wasn't right for the conditions. I contemplated flipping to Wyoming, but was pretty set on a northbound thru-hike of the CDT to the GDT. So, I swapped skis for snowshoes (thanks, Craigslist!), and followed a route through Elwood Pass and Creede before jumping back up to the official CDT for what would be the start of weeks of high-alpine light mountaineering.
Through all of this, my newly-acquired Silverback 55 adapted well to the gear swaps, and quickly became my favorite pack I've ever used. Seriously, gang. Don't let the full-frame scare you away. The Silverback is the crème de la crème of packs for a more aggressive thru-hike. (BONUS: It's hipbelt pockets can hold approximately 747,382,862 goldfish!)
The CDT's high route through the western side of the Collegiate Peaks, boasting fear-inducing passes and ridgelines, have been some of my favorite miles of trail so far. The miles didn't come easy (i.e., post-holing and side-sloping galore), but I understood the challenge as the cost of admission to the surrounding beauty. "Grab your ice axe, snowshoes, and crampons," Colorado said. "Let's have some fun!"
And so went Colorado, one incredibly aggressive day after another, each requiring a new tenacity and deeper desire to be out there. I was solo for the majority of the state, and grew to understand a new form of positivity, one backed by hope and an energy from time spent outside. Peaks and passes were crossed, alternates and audibles were called, but the footsteps were continuously kept, even through the surprises (like that 22-inch dumping of powder on the summer solstice in Rocky Mountain National Park!).
Looking back, I wouldn't change a single thing about this stretch of my journey so far. Getting to experience the Continential Divide early in the season during a high snow year is a privilege I will never forget.
I've just completed my second back-to-back, coast-to-coast hike across Scotland, hiking from west to east and covering more than 300km in the process. The Great Outdoors (TGO) Challenge is a unique event that runs every year. This year was its 40th year, and around 350 hikers of all shapes, sizes, ages, and nationalities trudged across the country. The TGO Challenge is defined by its ability to create close bonds between its entrants. It is the ultimate social hike, and almost everyone who completes it (and even those who don't) will feel the effects of the TGO family. I liked it so much last year that I decided to do it again this year, and embracing lightweight hiking this time was a real game changer.
The format of the challenge involves an entry ballot, with 350 to 400 places available. Once your place on the challenge roster is confirmed, route planning can begin. There are 12 potential start points on the west coast of Scotland, and the end point must be between two points on the east coast. Apart from that, you are free to roam wherever you please within the boundaries of the challenge. Some choose to go high into the mountains, ticking off the Scottish Munros and Corbetts as they go, others stick to lower routes, following drove roads and rights of way across the country. Whichever route you choose, you are bound to find another challenger along the way.
Every route is vetted individually by a team of experienced past and present challengers. They provide helpful tips and suggestions on your route, and advice on alternatives for bad weather. Once your route is approved, you can begin to plan the really exciting stuff, such as which kit to take, resupplying on the trail, and the logistics of getting to your start point (which sometimes can be tricky given the remote locations of some of them).
Prior to my most recent hike, I spent a lot of time thinking about the differences I would experience from my previous year hiking. Aside from my improved fitness and confidence, I'd made some pretty drastic gear changes over the past year. On my first TGO hike, I was carrying almost 16kgs over the first four days. I struggled under the burden. I felt its impact most when tackling steep ascents, as well as at the end of each day. Although I coped with the weight at the time, it was uncomfortable and held me back from making the most of my time on the trail. At the end of every day, my shoulders and back ached from the weight. I managed to cut the weight down to 14kg halfway through the hike, but it was still too heavy; I needed to get lighter to make the most of my time on the trail. I didn't want to just cope, I wanted to enjoy my time regardless of my pack weight.
The first thing I had to change was the weight of the actual pack that I was carrying. The Osprey pack that I used in 2018 was almost 2kg all by itself. Teaming up with Gossamer Gear, a connection I actually made during the 2018 challenge, I got my hands on the Gorilla 40 pack–weighing in at just 800kg–1.2kg saved already!
I also swapped out my heavy Luxe Hexpeak V4A tent for Gossamer Gear's " The One," which, compared to the Hexpeak, was over a kilogram lighter. I was now down over 2kg just from swapping out my two most important items of gear.
Thirdly, I invested in a down sleeping bag. After a lot of research, I went for the Carinthia D400. I sleep cold and thought a three season bag would make a lot of sense, especially in Scotland when the temperatures can be just as low in the summer as in the winter. This proved to be a great decision when I woke up to a frozen tent on the third day of the challenge. Swapping my sleeping bag saved another 400g of weight.
Combining the weight savings from these items and making smarter decisions on other aspects of my kit meant that I reduced my base weight from 11.5kg in 2018, down to 6.7kg base weight in 2019. Lowering my base weight meant I could allow myself a little extra weight for consumables; having compromised on this to lower weight in 2018, I was able to pack more food and therefore more energy for my 2019 hike. I also changed my water strategy, opting to take a 1L bottle over the 3L Platypus bladder, therefore carrying less water weight and refilling more regularly. This strategy worked really well; however, I did add a water filter to my kit to ensure I could refill whenever I needed to and without worrying about finding a totally reliable water supply.
So, what were the main differences between carrying a 16kg bag versus a 10kg bag? I climbed quicker, I felt fitter, and at the end of the day, I still had the energy to walk farther.
Unlike the previous year, my shoulders weren't crying from the pain of the weight that they had struggled under for days that were 16 to 18 miles long. The confidence I had in myself that I could complete a more than 200-mile hike was significantly higher than the previous year. It was no longer a hassle to take my pack off during the day. Last year, the weight of my pack took so much energy from me, both physically and mentally. This year, I wasn't worried about tackling difficult terrain. In fact, I planned a route with sections of pathless and often very boggy ground. I also added two unplanned Munros into my route–although I have to admit for these that I did stash some of the weight from my bag and return for it later. However, I only had the energy to do those extra summits because I was carrying less weight overall.
I definitely didn't make any compromises with the gear choices I made on this year's hike either.
The shelter I used, The One by Gossamer Gear, was a great choice for the walk. It's super roomy, really quick to pitch, and utilizes the LT5 trekking poles as its main supports–meaning no need to carry additional poles. It's also great for pitching in the rain, which we get a lot of in Scotland; it dried really quickly each morning.
The Gorilla 40 was the ideal pack for the two-week trip, fitting in everything I needed with space left over. Apart from the familiar ache of bearing weight over a long distance, that I felt on day one, the pack was the comfiest I've ever used. Its huge front pocket was my friend when I wanted to stash huge bags of M&Ms and Haribo to keep me going over long stretches of bog, and the built-in sit pad was great for taking breaks on the trail.
I still have a way to go with lightweight hiking, and there are definitely more changes that I could make to lighten the load even further. Every hike is a lesson, and I am definitely learning to take less and do more.
I used 2019.
What thru-hikers eat, and how they eat, can make the difference between making and not making it to the end of the hike. Feeding off the land, in addition to what you bring with you, can lighten the load and make your trek a little easier. Here are five tips for foraging and storing food on a thru-hike.
1. Don't Poison Yourself
The main thing to remember when you're foraging and storing food on a thru-hike is to be 100% certain a plant, berry, or mushroom is safe before putting it in your mouth. The best short hike nearby and show you how to find edible plants.
If you can't find a seasoned hiker, the next best thing is a book. Look for a field guide specific to the area you're hiking. It should include clear, color pictures of edible wild plants, as well as the dangerous ones. With some plants, you can only eat parts of it, like the flower and leaves, but not the stem. Others, like the deadly nightshade or belladonna (pictured above), are lethal from the berries to the leaves. The berries on these plants are also deceptively sweet. Be sure to pay extra attention to the poisonous plants you'll encounter, so you know what to avoid. The book should also talk about habitat and taste. After all, why eat something foul if there's something tastier available?
2. Know the Water Source
Water quality is crucial when foraging and storing food on a thru-hike. If the water feeding the plant is impure, the plant is likely to be contaminated and can make you sick, especially if you're eating it raw. Many hikers believe spring water is safe, but if the spring is near a polluted city, it may contain contaminated rainwater. Water near large farms may be tainted by pesticides and industrial waste. The best way to be sure is to boil the plant before you eat it. You can also soak the plant in a vinegar-water mixture to kill bacteria before rinsing it with clean water.
3. Get Permission
The Appalachian Trail is protected along 99% of the route by federal or state governments. The Continental Divide Trail is also on federal or state land, while the Pacific Crest Trail includes 300 miles that pass through private land. These three trails are the ultimate thru-hiking destinations, but some rules come with hiking on government land.
In some states, including New York and New Mexico, it's illegal to remove plants without a permit. On land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, you also need a permit to collect plants or plant materials. There may be certain stipulations, like specific locations where removing plants is a no-no. Some rare plants are also off-limits. The likelihood that you'll need a permit is high, so check before you start your hike.
Overall, do your best not to damage the ecosystem. A good rule of thumb when foraging and storing food on a thru-hike is to take no more than 25% of the plant.
4. Consider Insects
Plants and berries are often what come to mind when you think of foraging and storing food on a thru-hike. Eating bugs may not be your first choice, but when you're thru-hiking, they're a good source of protein. Know which insects are edible before you go. Grasshoppers, ants, cicadas, and crickets top the list. Stay away from bugs with bright colors, like yellow, red, or orange. Also avoid those with eight legs or more, like spiders, ticks, and centipedes. Make sure you're far from areas that have been sprayed with pesticides before you take that first bite. And while many insects can be eaten raw, frying or roasting them will make it a little less daunting.
5. Store Food Carefully
Of course, you're not going to head off on a thru-hike with no food at all. For all but the most experienced foragers, eating wild plants should supplement what you have, not be your sole source of sustenance. Keep your food in water-resistant, ultralight storage bags to make sure its well-protected.
When camping, put the bags in metal food storage bins if they're provided, so bears can't get to them. Speaking of bear protection, some parks allow you to hang food from trees, but there are specific requirements. In other places, you'll want to use a bear canister. Always check before you start your thru-hike on the rules for food storage. Happy hiking, and bon appétit!
Header Image Photo Credit