Who says that monocles are unsexy and out of style? Strip back the chain, the metal rod, your dignity, and any wire framing, and your antique monocle (or even your old pair of glasses) becomes an ultra-cool, super-efficient, lightweight backpacker’s vision tool. At least, that’s how it happened for me.
Before I chronicle the birth of the monocle, let me recap the metamorphosis that has taken place:
Fall of 2006, frustrated with the expense of typical backpacking gear, I set out to find a new, more efficient way of engaging in my favorite pastime. Inadvertently, I stumbled across Backpacking Light and was immediately drawn toward the ‘light.’
Spring and summer of 2007, I dropped from a total backpack weight exceeding sixty pounds to a respectable base weight of nineteen. Respectable, that is, until you consider that my goal had been to achieve ‘ultralight’ status, which meant a sub-ten-pound base weight. As 2008 unfolded, I knew I’d have to drop those last nine pounds, and that they could be the hardest. To meet that end, I made a few critical purchases:
- For its utilitarian nature, I chose the GoLite Shangri-La 3, a shelter which provides several configurations ranging from single wall floorless shelter to bombproof tent. In its lightest configuration (sans floor and using trekking poles instead of the ones provided), the Shangri-La 3 is barely over two pounds. Still a lot of weight, but large enough for three people.
- For those solo excursions, I purchased an 8-ounce Spinntex tarp for combination with my Bozeman Mountain Works VAPR bivy sack (6 ounces) for a shelter setup that is under one pound. (Note that dry nights could be dealt with by use of the bivy alone!)
- To supplement my sleeping equipment, I purchased the Big Agnes Horse Thief, a 1 pound, 11 ounce top bag which is, I confidently submit, the most comfortable sleeping bag I’ve ever been in. The way I see it, everything from warm weather down to the freezing point will mean the Bozeman Mountain Works Pro 90 Quilt. Freezing and down to single digits will find me in the Big Agnes Horse Thief. Sub-zero weather (and limited mileage) will have me zipped up in my 6 pound, 8 ounce Nebo sleeping bag. Hey, I’m all about lightweight, but I’ve gotten very used to having fingers and toes!
- For cooking, I chose the Tri-Ti Caldera Cone constructed specifically for my BPL Titanium 550 pot. My scale shows the whole mess (complete with a plastic Clamato bottle as a carrier) at under 5 ounces. Now there’s a beautiful thing to see…
Armed with these new toys and an urgency to break the ten pound barrier, I took the last three steps toward ultralight.
The author checks the map on the Lake Plateau.
Step One – The Lake Plateau of the Absarokee Beartooth Wilderness
The Lake Plateau trip had been in our sights since 2004, when an initial attempt had gone awry. After a nine-mile ascent to Columbine Lake at the southern edge of our intended loop, pouring rain turned to copious amounts of snow, causing us to rethink the wisdom of heading still higher over unknown passes.
On the morning of day two, we decided to stand fast and watch the skies for signs of an opening. On that cold September day, Gibbs and I gave life to the new Olympic sport of ‘Fire Standing’ as we watched the swirling grey sky. Hour after hour and log after log, we stood in wait. In a true Olympic test of endurance, we shifted weight, turned in continual rotation to evenly warm our trunks, and made brief forays for dry fuel. Being a dedicated athlete, I tried in vain to dry my socks on a branch near the heatless blaze, only to see them smolder. We stomped our feet and slapped our hands, deeply breathing the intoxicating aroma of wood smoke. We peered in anticipation toward the new winter sky, but the day passed slowly and with no resolution. By the close of the third day, Gibbs and I sat shivering in a booth at MacKenzie River Pizza Company in Bozeman, defeated and disgusted. We’d been thoroughly skunked.
Near Lake Columbine – A great place for Fire Standing.
We vowed to redress the defeat, and the bottle of Black Velvet that Gibbs had stashed in a nearby cairn was declaration enough that we’d be back. So, in the first week of September 2008, my buddy and I again rendezvoused in the Boulder Creek drainage south of Big Timber, Montana. This time it was our intention to complete the loop from north to south, reaching Columbine Lake at the end of our trip, rather than at the beginning.
Since the Anaconda Pintler Transect the year before, my base weight had changed little. I’d trimmed some fat to be sure, but the addition of the Shangri-La 3 was my burden alone. However, I can take some credit for Gibbs’ base weight dropping by fifteen pounds or more since I carried water purification tablets, the Shangri-La shelter, and the Tri-ti stove. Left behind was his Sierra Designs tent, his Pur water purifier, and his MSR stove and gas canisters.
With a twenty-pound base weight and a total weight of less than thirty, I anticipated no problem ascending the 1,500 feet from the trailhead of Upside Down Creek to the rim of the plateau. As we made our final preparations in the rain on the morning of our outset, both harboring white visions of our 2004 trip, a Forest Service truck rolled alongside my car.
"You guys fishing?" He barely cracked the window of his truck to inquire.
"Backpacking." We both responded in concert, wondering why our attire did not make this fact obvious. The ranger suspiciously eyed us for a moment or two.
"Sure doesn’t look like you’re prepared for backpackin’." He chortled while nodding toward my pack. "It’s gonna be cold."
I couldn’t think of anything smart to say, and probably would have thought the better of it anyway. No sense in seeding animosity when this same guy could be coordinating removal of our corpses from the high country in only a matter of days.
"I’m counting on it," I replied.
Waiting for more precip on Columbine Pass.
The ranger was right, but only up to a point. Our first day’s hike began in the rain, but gave way to slowly falling flakes once we’d gained some elevation. Sometime during the night, the front had passed and left a black, open sky into which every bit of warmth seemed to lift from the earth. The next morning dawned solid and frosted, but with the promise of blue sky from one horizon to the other. At a slow meander, Gibbs and I set out across the Plateau. The relative lack of burden on both our shoulders allowed us to easily clear eleven miles, a daily tally we’d not achieved since 1998.
Frosty morning on the Lake Plateau.
Three days and twenty calm miles later, Gibbs and I approached Columbine Lake from the high country that had so eluded us four years earlier. As we descended into the familiar surroundings, the sky was again swallowed by clouds. Soon the entire cirque donned the appearance that it had had four years before.
With cold and anxious hands, Gibbs removed several keystone rocks from the cairn that he’d chosen in 2004. To the sounds of laughter and shouting, a pale and unappealing bottle of Black Velvet was paraded in victory for nearly half an hour before the snow began to fall. I broke no weight threshold, but four years to the month, at the exact location of our skunking, Gibbs and I again spent the afternoon ‘Fire Standing’ – but this time, like champions.
The author and Gibbs are reunited with four-year-old Black Velvet.
Step Two: Utah Canyonlands with Dr. H
By mid-October, I’d still not reached my goal. With the desert washes in full autumn color and a weekend to spare, my friend Dr. H. and I tossed a few random items in the back of my truck and rolled out of Grand Junction and toward canyon country. Dr. H., a native of Vermont and being largely obsessed with the climbing of rock faces, hadn’t experienced much in the way of backpacking. I assured him that backpacking was a likewise enjoyable way to spend time out doors, even if the probability of meeting healthy ‘hippy chicks’ who live in VW busses was somewhat lower.
"Yeah, man, that’ll be cool." He agreed to give it a shot. "I think I might even like backpacking if it’s done ultralight like you’re talking about." Here’s a guy that’ll jump straight to the last page.
Dr. H surveys the desert near Canyonlands National Park.
Dr. H. and I made a few calculation errors. First, we departed the Grand Junction area far too late in the morning to make it to our destination. Second, we had unwittingly chosen the Needles area, not knowing that this is, in fact, part of the Canyonlands National Park. Lastly, (and this was my error), I hadn’t made the concerted effort at changing anything from my previous trip. I trimmed the number of Esbit tables that I carried and seriously cut back on clothing. In the end, I couldn’t decide if the purpose of the trip was to see the Needles area, to expose Dr. H. to backpacking, or to cross some weight threshold that Ryan Jordan would be proud of! The sad result is that all counts seemed to fail.
I learned that the Needles IS a part of Canyonlands National Park and DOES require a backcountry permit for entrance. I learned that there is a perpetual and total ban on fire in backcountry areas, and that a visitor may only camp in approved locations. Most importantly, I learned that on that day, no locations were available.
Four or five miles down a red dirt road into BLM land, Dr. H and I pulled off into the sagebrush and parked the truck. We had no map, the beer was getting warm, and the sun was within two hours of setting behind the elusive Needles area far to our west. My pack was the same miserable twenty pounds that it had been during a bonafide packing trip only a month before, but this was to be just an overnighter!
Fall colors near Indian Creek, Utah.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Twenty minutes into our hike, Dr. H. finished the beer he’d been drinking, crushed the can, and asked if he could stash it in the outside mesh pocket of my pack. All illusions of ultralight were already long gone, so I shook off the excess moisture and did the unthinkable: I added an empty can of Pabst Blue Ribbon to my base weight.
Several desert washes from where we’d parked the truck, Dr. H. and I made camp. Just to complete the bumbling and inefficiencies, we risked catastrophe and camped on the sandy bottom of a desert wash. To be completely honest, it was the best outdoor sleep I’d had in years. The next morning we scouted our way down the wash and picked a random route back to the truck, making a full circle. Once again, I’d broken no weight threshold, but the company was great, the pinyon campfire unparalleled, and the desert scenery spectacular. To make it ultralight, however, I realized I’d have to go it alone.
The Shangri-La 3 in a desert wash. Dr. H still asleep.
Step Three: Birth of the Monocle
I don’t want to become an intolerable snob, but I have to toot my own horn just a bit here – I made it.
The Spinntex tarp on the Grand Mesa.
In early November, two weeks after the first snows had kissed the 10,000-foot crown of Colorado’s Grand Mesa, I set out on my own to break the ten-pound barrier. I knew the trip would be just one night, so I confidently gathered only what I thought might be necessary.
My food on this outing consisted of one freeze dried meal, five granola bars, two packages of oatmeal, two pouches of instant coffee, and a small bag of nuts. I carried with me two full liters of water, the Tri-Ti cooking system and related titanium mug, and a cheap plastic spoon.
My clothing consisted of shoes, pants, shirt, socks, skivvies, a baseball cap, a long sleeve wool shirt, one handkerchief, and an LED light on a lanyard, all of which I wore from the outset, since it was quite cool at 10,000 feet, and I knew my route would not be vigorous. I also brought and used at night: a balaclava, wool gloves, and thermal underwear.
My sleeping arrangement consisted of the Spinntex tarp, the Bozeman Mountain Works VAPR bivy and Pro 90 quilt, and a Therm-a-Rest. I carried two REI trekking poles and one Nikon digital camera. And, OK, I’ll admit that the weight of the camera is NOT worked into the equation, but I only brought the thing to prove that I’ve done it. Cut me some slack here!
The new system of overnight necessities.
My random items included four Esbit tablets, a small pocket knife, a small strip of water purification tablets, a short length of rope, a small bundle of toilet paper, one box of matches, a tube of lip balm, one USGS topo map, and my first aid kit, which contained some aspirin, antibacterial cream, a few bandages, the head of a toothbrush and an eye dropper each of saline solution and Dr. Bronner’s soap. (Yes, I’ve gotten over the humiliation of brushing my teeth with Dr. B’s.) Also in my bag of tricks was one meerschaum pipe and perhaps four bowls’ worth of tobacco. If I can’t pretend to be Bilbo Baggins, really, what use is an adventure?
In a frenzy of weight slashing before departing my parked truck, I wrapped a leaf of paper around a pencil rather than burden myself with the entire notepad. I then turned to my assembled pile. My gaze fell upon those glasses… those old, nearly worthless glasses. How could I suffer with their bulk and weight only to use them in that short transition period between contact removal and ultimate sleep? Was it really that necessary to have glasses to peer through when inspecting something that goes bump in the night?
In only a moment my pocketknife was employed to loosen the screws on that old pair of glasses, and in less than a minute, they had been transformed to a single convex lens. The monocle was born.
The monocle at sunrise.
The quest I took that November day followed no path. Instead, I charted my own route across the Grand Mesa until I had reached the southern rim, where I positioned my tarp so to give myself a view across the North Fork Valley. I watched the sun set pink upon the West Elk mountains to the southeast and the San Juan’s far on the horizon. I watched the towns of Delta and Hotchkiss begin to glow as night swept over them. After dinner and a long warm fire, I stole away to my tarp and fell asleep listening to the wind take flight from the Mesa top.
An hour before sunrise, the navy blue sky gave way to promise of sunrise beyond the crisp outline of the Rocky Mountains. The first rays of sunlight found me reclining calmly in my shelter with a hot cup of coffee. I suppose that I tasted a certain measure of melancholy with my coffee, realizing that there was no one to share such a beautiful morning with. In fact, I realize that I’d delayed breaking the ten-pound barrier because something so much more important had always been at hand: friendship and the sharing of events rather than rigid goals.
Nonetheless, I had met my goal, and the morning was mine to celebrate. As I packed my things that morning, I marveled at how simple breaking the ten-pound barrier really had been.
I’d hiked mile after mile with no fixed destination.
I’d satisfied my hunger with simple sustenance.
I’d slept calmly with almost nothing to shelter me.
I’d rejoiced in a beautiful morning for no other reason than to see it.
It is amazing how removing so much from one’s hands puts so much at one’s fingertips.
Ten-pound barrier, broken!
|HIKING CLOTHES||Cotton T-Shirt||Generic||7.0|
|HIKING GEAR||Trekking Poles||REI||26.0|
|Water Bottles (x2)||1L Platypus||1.8|
|U.S. Forest Service Map||Grand Mesa USGS||1.8|
|PACKING GEAR||Backpack (no stiffener or lid)||GoLite Infinity Pinnacle||29.0|
|CAMPING GEAR||Insulating Pants||Generic Thermal||5.5|
|Spinntex Tarp||Custom, bought on BPL forums||8.0|
|Sleep Quilt||BMW Pro 90 Quilt||16.0|
|Bivy Sack||BMW Vapr Bivy||6.0|
|Mess Kit||Trail Designs Tri-Ti Caldera Cone, BPL Firelite||5.0|
|Water Purification||Blister Tabs||0.1|
|MISCELLANEOUS GEAR||Pocket Knife||Generic||2.1|
|Note-taking||Pencil, Leaf of Paper||0.6|
|First Aid Kit||Ibuprofen, Bandages, Antibiotic Cream,Toothbrush, Dr. Bronner’s, Saline, Contact Case||2.6|
|CONSUMABLES||Food||1.25 lbs/day of Freeze Dried Meals, Nuts, Granola Bars||32.0|
|TOTAL WEIGHT – FSO||338.2||21.1|
|TOTAL BASE WEIGHT||149.6||9.4|
|TOTAL WEIGHT – CONSUMABLES||96.0||6.0|
Read More of Nathan’s Transformation