Climbing toward the Continental Divide on day one, with less weight than ever before.
Editor’s Note: Metamorphosis #1 and #2 were first published in the BackpackingLight Print Magazine, Issues 7 and 9, respectively. All four installments are now also available online.
Montana Highway 1, just west of the town of Anaconda, maintains an excruciatingly slow speed limit. For nearly ten miles, as it creeps toward the Georgetown reservoir and the shoulder of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the highway is posted, on average, twenty-five miles per hour lower than most drivers would consider fair. Making this snail-like progress even more aggravating is the close proximity of so much good stuff: high mountain lakes, thickly forested canyons, and wind-blown ridgelines… if you could just get there already!
That was essentially my state of mind last September as I ascended the last twenty-mile stretch to meet my buddy Ryan Gibbs by the shores of Storm Lake. I drove eleven and half hours from western Colorado, and the prospect of being freed from the vehicle, feeling the chill of alpine air, and toasting our upcoming trek held considerably more allure than keeping my speed below forty miles per hour.
Gibbs and I have been regular visitors to the Storm Lake area during the last decade or so. At the eastern edge of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, it’s a bit far from the area where we did most our backpacking as boys, but provides quick access to the most dramatic portion of that mountain range. It’s also within a few miles of where Gibbs took a severe fall in 1995, resulting in compound fractures to both his tibia and fibula. He narrowly escaped with his life.
Thanks to the Deer Lodge County Search and Rescue, a military chopper from Malmstrom Air Force Base, and a good dose of grit on his part, he still owns a left leg. That leg carries an impressive mark from that day, but I suppose the incident really marked us both. Storm Lake will always represent a time and place where two reckless young guys discovered their mortality and thereby became young men. We raise our drinks in tribute to it pretty regularly, whether or not we’re anywhere near the Pintlers.
The view across the Queener Basin.
This year, our annual packing trip was in the Pintlers, and this familiar place was about to serve as a testing ground for my fledgling new lightweight system. Two years ago, Gibbs and I decided that September of 2007 would be the year we’d complete a transect of the Anaconda-Pintler (AP) Wilderness along the Continental Divide Trail from west to east. We’d be walking the edge, so to speak. It was only one year before, however, that I’d heard of Backpacking Light for the first time.
As I navigated the last jumbled potholes and drove into view of the lake, I saw Gibbs seated casually, legs hanging from the passenger side of a dusty Subaru. His head turned slowly to witness my arrival, eyes shielded by sunglasses, cheek clearly full of sunflower seeds. Expressionless, he hoisted a can a beer as if to say, "Nice you could make it."
The fact is, I wouldn’t miss it, especially this year. At the onset of my affiliation with Backpacking Light, my base weight stood at a whopping sixty pounds. After several months worth of hand-wringing and basic re-education in the art of backpacking, I’d dropped my base weight to nineteen pounds. On the day I rolled up to Storm Lake, my pack sat on the seat next to me, looking trim and sporting a base weight of seventeen and a half pounds.
Should I have dropped more? Oh yeah. Do I feel guilty? Well, old habits die hard. The AP transect had grown to mythic proportions in my mind over the last two years, and I really didn’t want to find myself twenty-five miles back, wet, freezing, and hungry. So, seventeen and a half pounds seemed reasonable for a week-long trip.
To that base weight, I added:
- 7 lbs, 6 oz of food
- 2 lbs or so of water (fluctuating daily…)
- 2 lbs or so of rum (decreasing daily…)
Gibbs climbs toward Goat Flats with his traditionally sized pack on the last day. Fifty-seven miles must have been a grind!
I felt as though my pack was still pretty streamlined at a total weight of twenty-nine pounds, give or take. I’d foregone the weighing of the clothes I intended to wear while hiking and the trekking poles that I planned to carry. After all, my total weight, food and drink included, was down to less than half of my previous base weight. I was feeling pretty smug until Gibbs caught sight of my pack and put a match to all the insecurities I’d kindled about penetrating the wild with so little.
"Hey! You got a new pack!" He flung open the passenger side door and lifted my GoLite into the cool evening air. His eyes widened. "No WAAAAAY." He tested its weight with one arm.
"Yup." I replied, waiting for the deluge.
"No waaaay, dude."
"Yep, things have changed."
"No way. You’re gonna die."
Gibbs proceeded to quiz me on the functionality of my new gear. When I proudly displayed my Bozeman Mountain Works Pro 90 Quilt, he hung upon it a term which would endure throughout the transect: Kleenex, as in, "Sleep good in your Kleenex, man."
When I displayed my Esbit wing stove, his comments amounted to "I’m bringing my MSR anyway."
When I proudly held my bottle of Klearwater between my forefinger and thumb, his comments were slightly more encouraging: "Good." He tossed his water pump back into the trunk of his Subaru. "I’m leaving this behind."
His reticence was not without impact, however. His words, combined with his more studied knowledge of the immediate forecast, caused me at least a moderation of panic. In a last stab at prudence, I shoved a tattered, hooded jacket into the lid pocket of my pack. This, along with the my portion of the communal goods – ground cloth and poles for the tent, two small canisters of gas (for the stove he refused to abandon), and fishing gear over which I hemmed and hawed – spiked my total weight to around thirty-five pounds.
The author at Storm Lake Pass, ready to make the final descent toward a waiting cooler of steaks and beer.
I know you guys aren’t impressed. However, thirty-five-ish pounds as a total weight was about to make a universe of difference.
After a short morning drive to the western edge of the wilderness near Sula, Montana, we set off toward Surprise Lake, nestled beneath the Continental Divide ridge. Only minutes into our ascent, it became clear that my low-weight advantage would change the outlook for our trip. I maintained my breath while both hiking and chattering on about this and that. The tingling sensation of heat and sweat were conspicuously absent. Instead, my body warmed to a comfortable level, and I walked as if taking a purposeful stroll down a country road. As I pulled further and further ahead of my packing partner, the difference between lightweight and the status quo began to shine. I could go anywhere. My enthusiasm grew proportionally with each new vista.
We reached our goal on the first day, but arrived far later than anticipated. Maps unfurled on the soft alpine ground near the shores of the lake, we began taking calculated measurements and setting benchmark goals for subsequent days. It became evident that Gibbs and I had somewhat misjudged the time required to hike from one end of the wilderness to the other.
We’d estimated that five nights and six days of hiking would allow us ample time for lounging, fishing, and exploration. It may have, had we both been carrying thity-five-pound packs. His, however, was still closer to the sixty-pound end of the spectrum, and making his progress all the slower was the unfortunate configuration of the bones in his legs ever since his fall.
Limited range of movement in his left foot and a set of knee-caps that don’t line up leave Gibbs in considerable discomfort after only five or six miles. His pain worsens while going downhill, a prime reason he was the first to adopt the use of trekking poles a few years back. This year; however, Gibbs must have been distracted by the birth of his third son. In short, he wasn’t paying attention to his packing before departure and forgot his trekking poles. It wasn’t long before I hung a name on him that stuck: Limp.
A comparative look at old and new packing methods. Gibbs’s pack (left) is the size that my pack used to be. The trekking poles are mine, but a day or two into the journey I loaned them to Gibbs, who had forgotten his own. My lightweight pack allowed me to get by with a found walking stick!
When we arrived at Surprise Lake that first night on the trail, we did so under ominous tendrils of yellow smoke that curled upward from the Rat Creek Fire only a dozen miles to our southwest. We nervously debated the prudence of making camp within range of a wildfire, but agreed to trust a press release that indicated the fire to be more or less under control. Ultimately, it was of little concern, and the smoke didn’t last. By dawn of the second day, western Montana experienced its "fire-season ending event." Turning northeastward, Gibbs and I struck off along the Continental Divide Trail under a veil of icy rain and low-slung clouds.
Icy rain and low-slung clouds pretty much sums up the scenery we enjoyed for the next five days. It was occasionally punctuated by slow falling flakes, which kept me looking toward the sky for any clue as to just how severe it could get. By day three, Gibbs and I were far enough into the wilderness to make any change of direction a wash: twenty-five miles from either of the vehicles, one to the northeast, the other southwest. Twenty miles, at least, to any paved road large enough to hope for a ride. Essentially, retreat or abandonment was never really an option. Instead, we crossed our fingers and kept our eyes to the sky.
Our primary concerns were the passes. The CDT only really follows the physical Divide in the southwestern region of the wilderness. To the northeast, the physical Divide becomes a razor’s edge, tracing the rim of one alpine cirque after another. In this half, the trail drops and rises in and out of each cirque, essentially hop-scotching from one ocean drainage to another. The passes, steep and exposed, can be unsettling with even a brisk wind. Any heavy snowfall above 7,000 feet would have made attempting them unwise, at the very least.
The weather tested my lightweight gear, though. Each night, I pulled a face mask over my head, tucked my thermals into my socks and gloves, slipped a silk liner into my Pro 90 Quilt and bedded down in less than one pound, two ounces of sleeping gear. Each morning, my soft sided water bottle was slushy with ice, but I was well-rested and warm.
Gibbs’s take on my sleep set-up was, as expected, somewhat harsh. In bedding down on our second night when the temperature first dropped below freezing, he set off on his usual tangent about my "Kleenex."
"Listen," I protested, "all a guy needs is to supplement with this!" I extracted my face mask and proudly pulled it into position. "This thing is great," I explained, "I think I might even start using it at home. Limits noise, keeps you warm, cradles your entire head…"
"Makes you look like the Gimp from Pulp Fiction," he finished my sentence. "I’m scared to be in here with you, dude. Next time you’ll be bringing a little red ball."
The tent, nicely insulated with snow at the foot of Pintler Pass.
His tone softened over the next four days. On the third day, I donated my trekking poles rather than watch him do even more damage to his bum leg. On the fourth day, I heard Gibbs begin to mutter about the weight of various items within his pack. "Shouldn’t have brought that… this thing weighs a ton… if I were carrying a Kleenex…what does Backpacking Light say about…?" The writing was on the wall. By the time Gibbs and I were preparing our fifth meal, we’d brainstormed the development of whole new lightweight cooking system that we figured would do for two packers: The F.I.D.D.C.E.S. (pronounced "fid-cuss") would integrate a windscreen, two cups, one lid, and a apparatus large enough to heat four cups of water. What else could it be called other than the Fully Integrated Dual Dude Cooking and Eating System?
Before the trip was through, I heard Gibbs say that, indeed, he needed to go light. The evidence was, quite literally, painfully clear. It was better to be Gimp than Limp.
The trip ended up being much more of a forced march than we’d expected. It took Gibbs and I the full six days of hiking to clear the fifty-five or so miles from the western to the eastern edge of the wilderness. Three of our nights were in the snow, and two were in the rain. The passes were fine, visibility and footing adequate in most cases. On our last day, of course, the storm blew out, and we were graced with brilliant sunshine and blue skies as we crossed Goat Flats and began our drop toward Storm Lake, where a cooler of beer and elk steaks waited.. In hindsight, there were plenty of items I could have excluded from my pack. With the transect now behind me, I imagine my potential miles per day without the following:
- One volume of Edward Abbey’s short stories: approximately one pound. I never even cracked it open.
- One Crazy Creek camp chair: one pound, six ounces. It snowed and rained on four of the five evenings we spent in the backcountry. Lounging around the fire was done on foot, thereby facilitating the rotation of the body to evenly warm all sides… The chair served as an additional layer beneath my sleeping pad at night, but would have been better left at home.
Stunning tamaracks, Warren Peak, and a lightweight pack.
- One Princeton headlamp: three ounces. It got so soaked on the third night that, to this date, it hasn’t functioned correctly. Besides, I had my LED light, which weighed a matter of grams. Granted, it wasn’t easy holding the LED between my teeth while trying to aim the light by pursing my lips. I managed to drool on the little unit a fair amount, but with its lanyard I was able to wear it around my neck while I slept, keeping it handy.
- That very same fishing pole/reel/tackle that I’d debated so much at the trailhead: two pounds, six ounces. It never touched the water.
In the same vein, I discovered that some of my lightweight backpacking alterations were so helpful that I plan to adhere to them religiously:
- I really enjoyed the face mask, despite being slandered for using it. I’ve already replaced it with a more appropriate balaclava that should serve the same purpose and not startle my tent mate.
- Zip-off pants/shorts are the way to go. This item provides beautiful double duty use. During a long uphill grind in the snow when getting too warm, just unzip and tuck the legs down beneath your gaiters.
- Gaiters: I’ll never go packing in the shoulder seasons without them. Having them prevented me from needing any rain pants, and they kept my shoes dry when slogging through six inches of wet snow.
- Klearwater or similar substitute. I’ll never pump water again…
Lastly, there was one thing that I’ll avoid like the plague: I’ll never again use Dr. Bronner’s instead of toothpaste. Each night, as I wrapped myself up in my facemask and quilt, I suffered the humiliation of having just washed my own mouth out with soap.
Gibbs and I have already discussed the changes that we’ll incorporate into next year’s trip. We plan to split the sleeping arrangement, not because he is intimidated by my face mask, but rather, because he’s intending on moving on to a lightweight, single-person tent, while I’m more inclined to experiment with a bivy and tarp. In either case, we’re both looking forward to more, or rather, less.
My own intentions are keep the weight going down. Since moving back to the Rocky Mountains last May, I’ve managed to sleep outdoors at least once every month. Here in western Colorado, I’ve got high mountains and deserts to play with. Metaphorically, though, I think I’m ready to stop walking the edge, and ready to drop down into some single digit base weights.
I bet the desert around Moab is beautiful in the winter, especially when carrying an ultralight pack…
|Nathan’s Somewhat Lightweight Gear List|
|FOOTWEAR||Socks (2 pair)||REI||2.3||2.3|
|LW Hiking Boots||Vasque Gore Tex||39.4|
|HIKING CLOTHES||Cotton T-Shirts (x3)||Generic||7.0||14.0|
|Convertible Pants||REI Long Convertibles||13.4|
|Cotton Underwear (x3)||Generic||2.7||5.4|
|Insulating Top||Generic Thermal||6.5|
|Insulating Bottom||General Thermal||5.5|
|HIKING GEAR||Headlamp||Black Diamond||2.9|
|Trekking Poles||eBay Special||25.4|
|Water Bottle (x2)||1L Platypus||1.8|
|Map||USFS – Anaconda Pintler||3.0|
|PACKING GEAR||Clothing Stuff Sack||Kelty||5.3|
|Waterproof Pack Cover||Too Old to Remember||5.8|
|Food Storage||Waterproof Bag for Hanging||1.7|
|Libation Storage||1L Platypus||0.9|
|CAMPING GEAR||Shelter||Sierra Designs||8.0|
|Tent Poles/Stakes||Sierra Designs||32.0|
|Sleep Quilt||Bozeman Mountain Works Pro 90 Quilt||16.0|
|Sleeping Bag Liner||Sea to Summit||5.5|
|Camp Chair||Crazy Creek||23.1|
|Fuel Bottle (x2)||Generic||16.0|
|SUL Stove and Fuel||Vargo Stove, Esbit Tabs||8.5|
|Cook Pot||Titanium Mug With Lid||3.1|
|Water Bucket (2 gallon)||Sea to Summit||2.6|
|MISC GEAR||Fishing Rod, Reel, and Tackle||Generic||19.4|
|Pocket Knife in Small Carrier||N/A||3.7|
|Glasses||Old, Broken Pair||3.0|
|First Aid Kit||Ibuprophen, Band Aids, Antibiotic Cream, Toothbrush, Baggy||2.4|
|Contact Case and Saline Solution||N/A||1.8|
|CONSUMABLES||Food (Freeze Dried Meals, Clif Bars, Jerky)||1.25 lbs/day||60.0|
|Total Base Weight||377.2||23.6|
|Total Weight – Consumables||124.0||7.8|
|Total Weight – FSO||583.0||36.4|
Read More of Nathan’s Transformation
- Metamorphosis #1: Confessions of a Heavyweight Backpacker
- Metamorphosis #2: A Change in Attitude
- Metamorphosis #3: Walking the Edge
- Metamorphosis #4: Monocle