The photos that should have accompanied this article were somehow lost in transmission, and we have been unable to contact the author. We have found, in a public archive, this photo, which seems to have been taken about the time of the author’s helicopter rescue.
I guess I first realized my pack weight had to change when I was in intensive care recovering from a bad fishing trip. I’m not sure how much you know about fishing terms, but I was a depth fisherman. A lot of guys seek the perfect location, others think the perfect temperature is what counts. I believed the best way to catch fish was to have the hook hovering at just the right depth in the water. To that end, I usually carried a variety of floats and lead weights to bring the hook to that perfect hover location.
Sure, the other fishermen mocked me. Measuring success as they did by "total catch weight," "most fish caught and released," or "shortest interval between catches," they had degraded a beautiful and subtle art form to a mere game of numbers, a classically hierarchical system of male bragging rights.
I knew I could make my technique more effective if I could make it more precise. On previous trips, I’d been limited to the commercially available weights. But this time I was going to bring along my own small lead-casting foundry, with accurate scales, variable molds, and many cans of butane to fuel its smelter. I could make my own weights on the spot and get my hook to within 0.03125 inches of the optimal depth (Floats, which are pressurized at sea level, expand slightly and float higher as the air pressure drops with altitude, and weights, farther from the center of the earth, weigh less, due to the inverse square nature of the law of gravity). And, so equipped, off I set.
It was clear that something was wrong when I got to my favorite fishing lake and could no longer feel my legs. Things turned out all right, though. Another fisherman spotted me collapsed facedown beneath my pack among the boulders at the lake’s edge; the heavy-lifting Sikorsky helicopter ferried me safely back down the mountain; the small hospital staff worked their magic. When I came to, the doctor reassured me that, though he personally had never seen so many discs so ruthlessly collapsed, he was pretty sure that hanging me upside down by my heels would have me fixed in no time. Two weeks later, I was walking again.
My first, failed efforts to lighten my pack went, of course, in completely the wrong direction. Foolishly, I brought more, not fewer, things, specifically helium-filled balloons and valved rigid backpack frames also filled with helium. The improvements in pack weight were short-lived, quickly erased by the escape of the notoriously leaky gas. Even when everything worked, any gains were nullified by the weight of the necessary helium resupply cylinders. The next stint in intensive care gave me plenty of time to think.
For starters, I gave up fishing. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice, as I’d never caught anything anyway. I began to scour the internet obsessively. I spent hours, then days, mastering the intricacies of translating from grams to ounces and back again, from 95/5 to 850 fill down, from centigrade to Fahrenheit. I drew up spreadsheets cataloging the claimed advantages of almost everything. For example: sleeping bags sewn into empty shape in Tunisia from fabrics first designed by a failed British company and later improved and woven by a Japanese textile giant, following patterns from a Danish designer living in the border region between France and Spain, which were then returned to the Pyrenees to be stuffed with exquisite down by goose farmers’ daughters seeking a better life. Weighed against these were bags made by American firms more generous with their down but with less of a flair for extravagant product names. I compared the properties of goose down from China, where the geese were raised listening to Brahms, with down from small French farms, whose geese grew up to bedtime stories about Babar, or about the little goose who learned that "foie gras" really meant "goose millionaire."
My family, heavily burdened by my hospital bills, were initially very supportive of my new enthusiasm. Gradually, though, as I continued to weigh in their presence the advantages and disadvantages of lightweight but noisy fabric, or supple but slippery yardage, or non-stretching but hopelessly fragile tent goods, their attitude shifted to polite acceptance, then to ill-concealed boredom, and finally, to outright hostility, often accompanied by hurled cans of pale fruits in syrup. Except for my uncle, who was always the odd man out, a grasshopper in a molehill full of ants.
One day he took me out to an obscure alley, in a derelict part of town, where he kept a garage. "Go on, take that tarp off. Check this baby out."
Under the tarp was a complex array of shafts and small motors, brackets and pistons and levers and conveyors, whose purpose was hopelessly unclear to me. How was this going to help me lighten my pack?
"Here." He handed me a sheet of paper with a wonderfully fine weave. "Stick that in the hopper, press that button, and put your hand out."
I did as he said.
"Now get ready for perfection." His ferrety eyes gleamed.
The machine shuddered to life, wheezing and clanking. It swallowed the sheet of paper, agitated itself for several minutes, then went strangely silent. Minutes passed. Sharp chemical smells wafted warmly upward. Was this some kind of elaborate practical joke? More time passed, lights flashing mutely. Finally, six brand new 100 dollar bills slid noiselessly into my hand, still warm from their time in the drying oven. He was right. They were perfect.
"Don’t get greedy. You can stay on top of this game. Forever."
And sure, it wasn’t necessary to get greedy. For less money than a would-be bicycle racer might spend on a new set of wheels, or a car aficionado on a new cam-shaft, I could completely overhaul a major part of my quiver. I’m down now to a pack weight of about four pounds and heading lower. In my warehouse, where I store the things I no longer need, I have the entire recent product history of the world backpacking industry.
I don’t get out backpacking much anymore, though. I just don’t have the time. With the Americas Cup coming up, I’ve taken to lurking around the racing docks, buying drinks for the deck hands in the local yacht bars, hiring on as extra labor, anything to get a look at the new sail fabrics. Some killer stuff is coming. I don’t understand the technology yet and really am not at liberty to divulge what I do know, but major advances are coming – my pack weight is going to drop three, maybe even four, hundredths of an ounce as soon as the new fabrics show up as gear.