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Although each student came to the course with a solid base of outdoor experience, it is safe to say that there was much to learn about the finer points of the well-tested and researched theory ‘Less is more.’
Navigation proved challenging at times and often required input from several brains. As the course went on, instructors took an increasingly ‘hands off’ approach, allowing students the chance to refine their skills. Joe, Johannes, and Praveen work on finding the way together, while Martin resolves to figure it out on his own.
Instructors got to teach important skills, such as setting up shelters in pretty much the best classroom on earth. Instructor Ryan Connelly (right) shows Michael and Juliet the how to adjust guy line tension using Spectra cord.
The weather for the entire trek was gorgeous. Actually, ‘gorgeous’ doesn’t even really cover it. What word do you get when you combine gorgeous and ideal and perfect and sublime? Never mind – just take a look at Praveen’s smile and you’ll know.
With cooler temperatures and softer light, twilight is an exceptional time for hiking in the northern Rockies. (L to R) Praveen, Michael, Juliet, Joe, and Martin enjoy an evening stroll through an open field at 8,500 feet.
Accustomed to hiking trails on the east coast, including what he described as ‘the longest green tunnel in the world’ (the Appalachian Trail), Joe found the views in the Rockies to be truly spectacular.
Poets are known for their ability to transcend the common, the average, the mundane and enter into the world of magic. There, they unearth linguistic jewels from the depths of their experience and haul them back up to the rest of us through the labor of writing. Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian poet who entered that world of magic often and well, once brought us back the following nugget in response to the question, "Where, where can I be safe?" Rumi answered,
This is not a day for asking questions.
Not a day on any calendar.
This day is conscious of itself.
Of course, Rumi, who lived 300 years before the advent of the Gregorian calendar and never traveled faster than on horseback, probably experienced time in a very different way than we do today. Yet the implications of his observation – today is not a day on any calendar – gives us reason to pause and reflect on what it means to encounter time and place without the artificial grid of numbered days superimposed over our raw experience. Isn’t this altered and otherworldly encounter with nature what we time-starved moderns seek, at least in part, when we head for the trail?
Of course, just try using Rumi’s line on your boss next time you’re late for work and see what happens. Simply because one would rather be frolicking amidst tall grass and communing with nature on her terms doesn’t mean that August 22, 2008 didn’t officially come into being at 12:00 a.m. A critical mass of people believing something to be true can indeed make it so – especially in the case of a concrete organizational concept like a calendar.
So, as a fellow believer in calendars and a consenting party to their use (and misuse), I have to admit that Friday, August 22 had been weighing on my mind for the better part of the preceding eight months. This was the day that Backpacking Light’s very first Wilderness Trekking I course (WT1) was scheduled to begin. As part of the team of instructors that was helping to create, organize, and teach the course, I couldn’t help but feel a crescendo of excitement as the day approached. By the time the August 21 page of my Far Side daily calendar was lying face down in a recycling bin, there was a miniature orchestra playing ferociously in my stomach, and I had begun to suspect that the tiny conductor might have a drinking problem.
Yet there they were – students from all over the U.S. and even one from Germany, seeking to shed some pack weight and perhaps hoping to dive across that mysterious border to the place where calendars don’t exist. The five-day course was set to begin, and my stomach’s conductor was going to have to pull himself together.
Definitely a Day for Asking Questions
Although Rumi was probably right about calendars, his claim that today is not a day for asking questions sets off red flags and sirens in my brain. Questions form the very basis for exploring our world, which is but one reason we should hold them in the highest regard. In Rumi’s defense, though, Yoda once told Luke during his Jedi training to "clear your mind of questions," which in retrospect was probably exactly what Luke needed to hear. Maybe it’s just that questions have their own time and place.
If that’s true, then August 22, 2008 at 1:00 p.m. was definitely the time, and the northern Rockies near Bozeman, Montana was definitely the place for asking questions. Rightfully so, since ultralight backpacking is a decidedly scientific, and thus inquisitive, activity. As ultralight backpackers, we observe, we question, we hypothesize, we take measurements, we note, we experiment, we notice we were wrong, we discuss, we try again, we get it right, we celebrate, we later, rinse, repeat. As much as anything, WT1 was about imparting upon students a healthy regard for the scientific method.
Because we wanted to harness the knowledge and experience contained within the entire group, then elevate each member’s overall understanding, the classroom portion of WT1 was based largely on discussion and activity. Of course, much of the discussion in the course naturally gravitated to gear talk, but instructors were careful to initiate conversations centered on other important matters such as UL philosophy, safety, menu planning, cooking, and a wide variety of other ultralight skills. In all, there seemed to be a healthy balance between listening and speaking, between standing and sitting, between having fun and getting down to business.
Yet despite their warm and welcoming demeanor, when it came to pack weight, instructors could be downright ruthless. During one particularly productive gear-weighing session, instructor Mike Clelland encouraged a student named Mark from southern California to eliminate all redundant items from his packing list. Like an experienced magician dazzling his audience, Mike made extra gadgets, changes of clothes, alcohol gel, and even silverware disappear before our eyes. When it was all said and done, three pounds were gone from Mark’s back and everyone was looking at Mike like he had just pulled a rabbit from a hat, except that the hat was a stuff sack and the rabbit was gear that eventually hopped its way into Mark’s suitcase. Who wants to carry a three-pound rabbit into the backcountry anyway? (See below: Numbers Game.)
As the first day of class drew to a close, everyone was wiped out from the day and ready to turn in. Everyone, that is, except for Mike, who somehow always managed to remain ever vigilant and highly caffeinated.
A Day Conscious of Itself
As students woke to a delicious breakfast on August 23, there was still much preparation and classroom ‘work’ to be done. Although the sun was coming up in a cloudless sky in its usual way and from its usual direction, we could sense that there was something special about this day. This, of course, was the day that everyone had been waiting for, the day where we would leave the classroom behind and put all of what we had learned to the test in one of the most beautiful and rugged proving grounds in the lower forty-eight – the northern Rocky Mountains. After learning all about UL stoves and discussing the finer points of hiking efficiently, we concluded classroom activities around noon and enjoyed a wonderful lunch before gleefully grabbing our packs and making for the trailhead.
Prior to leaving for the trek, students were asked to turn in their watches and cell phones in order to help create a simpler and more authentic wilderness experience. Aside from a weight-saving measure, this was primarily a symbolic act meant to signify the official ‘unplugging’ of ourselves. As might be expected, many students experienced a small degree of separation anxiety when letting go of these items, and one student even half-joked, "my whole life’s in this thing," as he handed over his phone. Yet by the time we had been on trail for several hours, and this same student had felt the joy of a sub-eighteen pound pack on a perfect day in the Rockies, it’s safe to say that he had gained a different perspective as to the meaning of life – at least as far as it related to its location in his cell phone. The unsung heroes of this lesson were instructors Mike Clelland and Ryan Connelly, who took turns burying a satellite phone deep in their packs, bearing the weight silently and without complaint so that others might walk less encumbered.
At times the hiking was steep and intense. For starters, virtually the entire trek took place above 8,000 feet, which proved a hefty challenge for students more familiar with life closer to sea level. There were also a considerable number of ups and downs along the way, as we would follow the uneven ridge by day and drop down into drainages and canyons most nights. Wishing to maximize weight savings, instructors encouraged ‘tanking up’ at water sources, which was a foreign concept for many students and one that certainly pushed several past their current comfort zone. Nevertheless, stretching water supplies and reconciling expected drinking sources with the map became a big topic of conversation for the group, and many took to the challenge of trying to run out of water just before reaching the next source. Towards the end of our time in the field, one student, Joe from North Carolina, remarked, "I’ll probably never carry as much water with me as I used to, so long as I can reasonably expect to find more along the way."
Perhaps the greatest advantage of hiking with a light pack is an increased tendency towards meaningful conversation – a pleasure WT1 participants took full advantage of during their stay. Heavy packs are conversation killers for several reasons. Not only can they cause you to be out of breath, tired, and altogether uncomfortable, but they also force you to look down at your feet most of the time and miss out on all the interesting scenery and conversation starters. It wasn’t long before our ultralight group had moved well beyond the normal water-cooler chit chat that’s always comfortable (and usually meaningless) and found ourselves immersed in deeper discussions about life, philosophy, spirituality, hopes, and dreams. Occasionally, there were long-winded discussions, during which participants looked each other in the eye, smiled often, and continued talking despite prolonged uphill sections of trail – a feat only attempted by those carrying a light load.
For many of us, August 23 was the last day of the course. This is not because we canceled the next three days, but rather because backcountry days on trail without watches and phones have a tendency to blend into one other in a delightfully serene way. As August 23 wound down and presumably became August 24, our orientation to the world changed in subtly profound ways. Without watches, we measured time by the sun, often determining when to wake, walk, eat, rest, and learn based only on its position in the sky. We measured distance by the location of water sources, and even though, when discussing the map, our sentences contained words like "hours" and "miles," these words took on less and less relevance as we slid even deeper into the wilderness experience. By the end of the course, it was hard to remember what the actual day of the week was, let alone the date. Our calendars had indeed melted away, and somewhere Salvador Dali was smiling.
These three remaining days were nothing if not wonderful. Perhaps the most important lesson came from the integration of the science and the magic of ultralight hiking – these two opposing yet somehow complimentary modes of inquiry. As such, the greatest lesson of the course was an implied one: just because we love our scales, love weighing our gear, and love keeping track of how much we carry doesn’t mean that we carry our scales and spreadsheets with us into the backcountry. That would defeat the purpose. In the end, the same could be said for calendars.
|Rocky Mountain: Numbers Game|
|Days on trail:||3.5|
|Highest elevation:||Hyalite peak – 10,298 ft|
|Blisters:||Zero!!! (light packs + Hydropel = happy feet!)|
|Average initial pack weight for students:||17 lb. 13.7 oz|
|Average final pack weight for students:||11 lb. 2.9 oz|
|Lowest initial pack weight:||Johannes: 14 lb. 8 oz|
|Lowest final pack weight:||Johannes: 8 lb. 8 oz|