Gear

how to fix a tent zipper

Nobody notices it when your zipper is up, but everyone notices when it’s down.

Cynthia Lewis
The four zippers that close my doors on the alicoop all had to be replaced.

The tent I used for both the Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail – the alicoop – is made my Tarptent. Called a Notch Li, it’s a mix of Dynamee and Nylon. You can find out more of its specific and my review here.

She’s gone a whole lot of miles with me, and I’m hoping she holds up for one more thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail this season. Since there are no tears in the fabric except a few minor stress points where the tarp door closes, which I patched adhesive-back dynamee fabric, she just might. Though I am having a problem with the zippers which no longer pull the teeth together, leaving me wide open to bugs and whatnot.

Zippers fail because corrosion from due to dust and grit gunks up the teeth and causes the sliders to spread apart. I normally would clean the coils before I store the tent using a toothbrush – and then, very unwisely, use something like chapstick to help them slide.

Big mistake.

First of all, I should use soap and water with that toothbrush and never use chapstick which just adds a gluey layer that attracts even more dust and grit, thus speeding up the fail.

After a good soaping up, the next step would be to use a silicone spray, something like Liquid Wrench. Spraying it into a cloth and working it over the teeth gets the zipper pulls gliding smoothly with the added benefit that the lubricant itself actually removes grit and dust.

Clean the zippers when you’re ready to store your tent for the season:

  1. use soap and water to clean the teeth then dry thoroughly
  2. follow up with silicone spray on a rag to pull off any more grit and lubricate the teeth
A silicone spray helps remove grit from the teeth as well as lubricating the zipper.

But after so much opening and closing of the doors to get in and out of the alicoop night after night, the zipper coil can open slightly behind the slider. In that case, it’s pretty easy to crimp the metal “jaws” back closer together with needle-nose pliers.

When crimping a fussy zipper coil…

My advice would be to take care not to pinch too tightly, so pinch, and try, then pinch and try until it feels like it’s grabbing.

All good so far, except one problem: the alicoop zipper pulls were so full of gunk, they were grabbing anything – and besides, I wasn’t planning to take a set of tools with me on the trail for any MacGyver-ing, so I needed to replace the pulls themselves.

Good ‘ole Tarptent sent me four new zipper pulls and ran me through the steps, which were easy, so I will share with you!

Replacing the zipper pulls

  1. Locate the end of the zipper coil.
  2. Cut through the coil about a centimeter from the end and remove the zipper pull.
  3. PRO TIP: use toenail clippers rather than scissors so you don’t accidentally cut into the tent itself
  4. Slide on a new pull aligning the raised side of the coil to the flange side of the pull
  5. Work one side on a time and be careful to only pull it up partway, this ensures you don’t mismatch teeth when you try to place the second pull
  6. Here’s where the fun begins! Slide the pull onto the other side and wiggle it together so the two halves click in place.
  7. PRO TIP: I found this the hardest step trying to hold one side in place while clicking the other to lock in, but be patient and keep wiggling them, they want to slide together.
  8. Pull the slider and engage more teeth.
  9. Sew up the incision to create a new break and YOU ARE DONE!
The alicoop is an ultralight shelter that has seen torrential rain, heavy snow, masses of bugs and spectacular scenery.
hike blog

set your sights low

The secret to true happiness is low expectations and insensitivity.

Olivia Goldsmith
Falling into a bank of snow on a perfect January day five weeks after getting new hips.

I knew the title of this post would get your attention.

And if you know me, you know I tend to think big, go for it and make things happen – at least insofar as walking every step to the bitter end of two long distance trails that have a tendency to spit out the young, the brash and the fast.

So why on earth would I send out a post suggesting happiness comes from setting your goals low?

Let’s talk about that!

Recently, I’ve been in charge of spearheading a new podcast for the online hiking site The Trek. It’s been fascinating speaking with experts from myriad backgrounds and interests all addicted to my favorite sport, backpacking.

One such person is Dr. Elizabeth Andre who teaches in the Outdoor Education department at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. She has a Great Course called Outdoor Fundamentals: Everything You Need to Know to Stay Safe.

At first, it seemed logical that our conversation would cover practices every backpacker should know to manage risks, but what really grabbed me in her course was the psychology of risk – meaning our inability to control our emotions, habits and prejudices when making decisions, ones that often mean the difference between an uncomfortable experience and a devastating one.

My speed is increasing and I hardly notice my prosthetics.

As we spoke, I thought of the concepts of “summit fever” and “sunk-cost fallacy.” These speak to our obsession with a goal, to the point we ignore obvious dangers and might act recklessly to attain said goal. The thinking is often, “I’ve paid so much money –” or “I’ve taken so long to train–” or “I’ve come so far –” with the next sentence being I can’t give up now!

So much has been written about setting high goals and going for it. On the flip side, much has been written about the tragedies of “going for it.” See Deaths on Mount Everest due to Bottlenecks

But curiously, very little is written on setting realistic goals – or maybe I should rephrase that to say, realistic goals (aka low expectations) are not often celebrated as a more powerful means to an end.

Let me explain. When you set one big, hairy, audacious, lofty goal, your life tends to revolve around getting there. You push hard, focussing on it every day and yet, when you can’t reach it, you fail every day – maybe just a little bit, but those little bits, day after day, add up, and the goal begins to feel impossible to reach.

The irony, though, is that if you reach it, the joy you feel inevitably fades quickly and the cycle starts all over.

Day one after surgery number one. It’s a long pathway to being a “full time pedestrian” again, a goal best taken one step at a time.

In addition, that feeling of having to achieve the one big goal, puts blinders on us, feeding into “summit fever” that we need to get this one thing at all costs.

The solution is rather than set goals, build systems. Systems are tiny, bite-sized goals with built-in flexibility. When I looked at months of healing before I could return to some sense of normalcy as a backpacker, it was impossible to digest – too big, too long, too intimidating.

The same held for long thru-hikes, where the end was certainly in mind, but was too far away to comprehend. Every day required patience and a kind of gentleness with myself to make that particular portion a success.

Oddly enough, when we create a system, we find more joy in our accomplishments, because each day brings its own rewards and discoveries, especially if we stay more in the present, and focus ourselves in the “now” of our bite-sized goals.

So “set your sights low” within the context of setting them high, and stay insensitive – and flexible – to your emotions telling you that you have to go for that one goal no matter what. You will find more joy in the small victories, I guarantee it, and before you know it, you’ll be at the summit.

The day I walked to the end of Pike Island was a big (small) success.
hike blog

K2 basecamp trek, Karakoram, Pakistan – August, 1994

In the throne room of the mountain gods

Galen Rowell

When the news came that K2, the so-called “Savage Mountain” was finally conquered in winter, I was especially ecstatic that the successful summiteers were those often treated as “hired help,” Sherpas, who normally park their ambitions at the door in order to put wealthy clients on top of the world’s highest mountains. But this time, two teams of climbers went up, shoulder-to-shoulder, singing the Nepali national anthem and touching the top as one, showing the world that with team-work, focus, selflessness – and luck with the weather – they could make “the impossible possible together.”

I’m reprinting this blog post chronicling my adventure walking to K2 basecamp in the late 1990s when I got only within viewing distance of this monster peak, awed by its beauty and ferocity.


Forgive me if this story is very old. But the mountains are even older and not much has changed in the ensuing years.

It was the mid ’90s when my dad was called up to serve at the American Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. I was with him in Germany when he got the call and to be honest we weren’t precisely sure where Pakistan is.

Though I was familiar with some of Pakistan’s history – it’s prime trading position on the silk road, the clash of civilizations of Greek and Buddhist in the Gandhara period, the rise of Islam, India as Britain’s Jewel in the Crown and the violent partition after independence that created this separate Muslim country.

I knew right away I wanted to visit, and I spent a glorious two months exploring the stomping ground of Kipling in Lahore, watching polo in the Hindu Kush, meeting Kafiri women, driving up the Khyber Pass outside Peshawar and sneaking into Afghanistan.

But my biggest goal was to see the highest mountains in the world, the “Throne Room of the Mountain Gods” in the Karakorum.

Jahangir’s Tomb, Lahore, Pakistan
towers, Karakoram

The Karakoram is part of the Himalaya uplift where the plains of the Indian subcontinent smash into the Tibetan plateau. The Himalayas may have Everest, but in the Karakorum, a whole bunch of big mountains line up in the largest convergence of 8000-meter peaks in the world.

After many of days hard walking, you arrive at an intersection of glaciers with a 360-degree view named for the Place de la Concorde in Paris – in English, Concordia. Look left, and there’s K2.

From Germany, Manfred and Charlotte were traveling overland from Strasbourg to Japan. They’d begged on to a private trip arranged by a couple from the Netherlands, Bas and Engele, who invited them along simply to improve the food situation. More people going meant more money for porters to carry the food. If I went, it would appear, we could have oatmeal every morning.

My trek took place way before 9/11 when so much more was possible. I was young and trusting – and had no plan whatsoever once I arrived in Islamabad – so I linked up with some people I met in the high mountains near Gilgit on my first week in country.

porters having lunch – Cathedral group, Karakoram
The ninth largest mountain in the world is called the “Killer Mountain.”

That’s Nanga Parbat the “Killer” mountain, 9th highest in the world. My dad took that picture, not me. Perfect weather at the airport didn’t tell us a thing about the skies over the Karakorum. The mountains rise to nearly 30,000 feet, a comfortable cruising altitude. If you can’t see the mountains, you don’t fly.

Welcome to adventure travel – usually one challenge after another. We ended up renting a van and working our way north on the Karakorum Hwy. It’s shorter to go through Kashmir, but that’s simply not possible. Though you do pass through the Swat Valley, which is largely controlled by Taliban these days. Mostly just tribal skirmishes when I went.

Twelve long, bumpy, interesting hours on sometimes pencil thin roads with no guardrail. Or was it thirteen hours? Until we finally arrived in Skardu. At 8,200 feet, it’s a wild-west of a fort town right on the Indus River. Beautiful, dusty, a little cynical having seen it all. It’s the place to get supplied and acclimate.

dead serious
wash out on the road to Askole

It’s also here where you get your permits in order. Lots and lots of showing your passport in this part of the world.

And from here, it’s another jeep ride, interesting, beautiful, bumpier and more dead slow as we came upon a section of road totally washed out and being rebuilt under us. Our unflappable – but it would turn out, untrustworthy, guide was from Hunza and had us call him Imam. Our fearless leader.

The road ends in a place called Askole.

And that’s where the walking begins. It kind of came as a surprise after all that long driving. You just got out and start.  And it was here that the haggling was done with porters – how many would come, how much would they carry, and what food would we’d take.

At Askole, I met a team returning from the twelfth highest mountain in the world, Broad Peak. They had just placed a flag on the summit from their brand new country: Bosnia-Herzegovina. Then they gave back by removing tons of trash and human excrement from the mountain and glacier. I was impressed.

balancing act at landslide
flowers, smiles

The first days were hot and dusty, dangerous – due to an avalanche of sand and rock right onto our trail – and headachy. You’re already well above 10,000 feet. Sodas help, and we could get them just about anywhere there were houses of any sort.

But the ‘best thing against headache’ were dried apricots. You saw them everywhere just left out on the rooftops of the farmhouses as we drove to Askole, their deep reddish-orange juice dripping off the eaves. Worked better than Diamox.

The next day had new adventures awaiting us as we worked our way up the Braldu River. It looked like milk tea – boiling milk tea. It’s considered super extreme whitewater, which is why we stayed out of the water as much as we could. We climbed up and over if possible or loaded ourselves in a box and were pulled over. 

But eventually we had no choice but to cross a little stream of melt-water feeding into the Braldu. Five porters are on each side holding ropes tight so we had handrails as we stepped into the frigid, fast moving water. Imam tossed my boots across and I walked barefoot, the stones were sharp and cutting, though my feet were totally numb at a certain point.

What awaited after that ordeal were the mountains like you’d never seen. And after all that dust and boiling danger, finally grass and flowers.

At the beginning, I told you that Bas was willing to let me come along so we’d get better food. We brought eggs, the promised oatmeal, as well as a live chicken and a live goat. I wasn’t fast enough to snap a pic, but they just loaded the goat in the pulley box and sent him across.

But most days it was very simple eating – chapati and daal. Kind of a lentil/pea puree on bread. You’d wake up hearing the dough clapped between the hands and formed into flat cakes, like pizza.

The next morning, the glacier came into view – and the big mountains.

approaching the Baltoro Glacier
porters – Karakorum, Pakistan

The Sirdar was our chief porter. He had an assistant and then an assortment of basic carriers – who came with us until they were no longer needed – all the food the carried was eaten, so they raced back to Askole to try and get more work.

Some were young – some older – but all thin, dressed in raggedy clothes and wearing flip flops or sneakers – and you know, they were stronger than you can imagine. I gave them a lot of my stuff before I left. They became our friends – helping us up onto the Baltoro Glacier.

Almost 40 miles long, the Baltoro is one of the largest glaciers outside the polar region. It’s mouth yawns open as you approach it, and it’s alive and colorful, moving and shifting, even singing in your ear as you lay upon it at night. Right now, we had to get up on it and avoid the crevasses.

Once on the glacier the mountains really came closer and everyone’s spirits perked up. You’re above 13,000 feet now so maybe just light-headed. The first mountains you see are the Trango Towers. They put Yosemite to shame. They rise 3,000 feet above their base to a height over 20,000 feet. Some of the hardest climbing in the world on granite, like El Capitan, but in a frigid, changeable high-altitude climate.

seracs at campsite
Masherbrum and her pointy snow-cap
seat with a view

That night, we slept on the glacier – a frozen, shifting mattress that – in the spirit of Monty Python – goes “ping!” We had the place all to ourselves, the eerie seracs, erratics and the sunset. We spent an extra day here because it began to snow and we needed time to acclimate. You’re gaining altitude and it’s a cold night.

Just a word about the porters. They all slept in a rock shelter that likely had to be rebuilt every as the summer passed and the glacier shifted. They simply placed a blue plastic tarp over their heads and crowded in. Tough people – and kind, helping not just with your stuff, but with your spirits.

We had stunning weather – and we could see all the mountains. Beautiful Masherbrum. Only 25,000 feet high, but one of the most lovely with her little hat. She was formerly known as K1. You’re surrounded by the Cathedral group — the Gasherbrums known as hidden peaks or beautiful peak.s Gasherbrum 1 and 2 are both over 8000 meters high. In front of you is beautiful Broad Peak and to your left is the distinctive pyramid, and one of the hardest climbs in the world, the savage mountain, K2. That’s what we came for – with perfectly crystal clear weather.

After a rest day, we worked our way up Godwin Austen glacier to get a better look and catch the vibe – it’s a long, difficult, wheezing walk to the basecamp – at 17,000 feet – and a collection of climbers preparing for their attempts.

beautiful Broad Peak, one of only fourteen 8,000 meter peaks in the world
pulley box over the Braldu river

The Gilky Memorial is made up of tin plates and pans mostly, with names of those who died on the mountain hammered in. Gilky was an American climber who developed HAPE and had to be carried down from a very dangerous altitude. He slipped out of his bier and fell to his death, but some believe he sacrificed himself purposely to save his team.

I found it all deeply emotional – as did our porters who wanted to get out of there as fast as possible – right when we arrived, the camp was radioed the news that an American had fallen. A fixed rope gave way – his body was never found as far as I know. His name was Steve. While we drank tea, a Chinese team lost someone to HAPE. One in four won’t return attempting K2.

We headed back to Concordia and needed to touch life and joy again – so we all had our hair washed! That was the night before my trip fell apart. I did this trip on the cheap and as a meal-ticket add-on, so I took a risk and at the end, our group splintered. Charlotte got altitude sickness, Bas took my rope and went with his wife and Imam over Gondogoro La. I ended up pulling together a group of porters and hooking up with a French group led by a guide from Nagar named Shafi Ahmed to get Charlotte off the glacier and out of danger.

And me home.

I did get home – and I got there, too – one of the most staggeringly beautiful places in the world.


Pro Tips

You need a visa to travel in Pakistan

You need a guide as the Baltoro Glacier is in the restricted zone

It takes about 25 days, the best time to go is late May to early September

This is a very strenuous trek and dangerous with natural hazards and terroristic activity

Consult with the State Department before traveling

Get travel insurance

What to bring

Plan for intense sun and freezing cold

Women, cover up!

Wear good boots with ankle support and use trekking poles

Bring personal sanitizer/wet wipes/iodine – stay clean!

An umbrella gives you instant shade anywhere

Bring candy and snacks

Bring gifts and tip well!

and prepare for adventure!

Gear

Ibex merino wool review

Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak. 

Rachel Zoe
Blissful gives Ibex the highest rating, five Anitas.
Ibex makes all of its apparel from soft and odor resistant merino wool.

why merino?

Merino is a type of wool harvested from a special breed of sheep most often raised in New Zealand and Australia. This is not your grandmother’s wool, but rather soft and breathable, and has become the gold standard for hiking attire.

  1. THERMOREGULATING: Merino sheep live through cold winters with temperatures below zero (Fahrenheit) and hot summers with temperatures close to 100, all while wearing the same coat! The fibers, in turn, react to changes in our body temperatures.
  2. BREATHABLE: The individual fibers are naturally “crimped” and can absorb around 30% of their weight in water, wicking it away from the body. This means you say cool and dry even when sweating.
  3. ODOR RESIST: Because merino manages moisture, odor-causing bacteria are held at bay. This may be the number one reason for choosing wool since you’ll likely wear the same shirt for days on end before washing. My Ibex simply did not stink!
  4. COMFORT: Merino fibers are fine and never itch, snag or poke and are fantastic for people like me who have sensitivities to most wool products.
  5. DURABILTY: Merino fibers are elastic and flexible. They contain keratin just like our nails, hair and skin, and, like a spring, can be bent and flexed 30,000 times before tearing.
  6. UV PROTECTION: Did you know you can get a sunburn through many fabrics even if your’e completely covered? Not with merino which has a UPF rating ranging from 25-50.
  7. LIGHTWEIGHT AND QUICK DRYING: Merino packs to nothing and air dries quickly.
I wore this Ibex merino shirt through Washington and California on the PCT.

So, how did it go?

I wore one Ibex top – the Woolies Tech Long Sleeve Crew (the high collar style is no longer available) – through most of the Pacific Crest Trail plus on of the Te Araraoa. I found it lived up to the promise of being comfortable, moisture wicking and nearly completely odor free even after many days between washings.

That being said, in Oregon, I picked up a men’s dress shirt for a dollar because the mosquitos were able to bite me through the merino! However, that shirt had no UV protection and my skin burned, so I went right back to Merino when I hit the Sierra.

Ibex sells its product online only and this keeps the prices very reasonable. They make it their mission to treat everyone through the supply chain, from animal to person, ethically and ensure a fair, safe, non-discriminatory and empowering workplace.

And besides, if backpacking is not your thing, Ibex merino products mix fashion with comfort and you’ll love how you feel wearing their clothing.

pros:

  1. I stayed warm through many days of icy rain in the North Cascades and cool while hiking in blazing sun above tree line in California.
  2. Sweat wicked very well, and the shirt always felt soft and dry against my skin.
  3. I had my family do the smell-test when I walked right off the trail in Campo, California and into a sushi restaurant. No one could believe I hadn’t bathed in four days.
  4. Even after cramming my shirt into my pack, it looked clean and pressed once I pulled it out to wear. Not that thru-hiking is about looking good, but it does help when trying to hitchhike!

cons:

  1. Mosquitos can bite you right through merino, especially on your shoulders.
  2. Merino is durable up to a point. I was surprised the backpack didn’t wear away the fabric nearly as much as expected, though I developed holes in my under arms.
  3. Merino is very expensive. Plan to spend at least $100 if not more. That being said, its benefits make merino – especially extremely well-made and reasonably priced Ibex – a fantastic purchase.

Conclusion…

Ibex merino tops are some of the most comfortable I’ve worn and this is likely because they add the smallest amount of nylon and elastane to give the shirt even more flexibility, durability and softness. I will continue to wear merino when I backpack and highly recommend Ibex!

Blissful gives Ibex the highest rating, five Anitas.

Specs at a glance

  • 81% merino wool
  • 12% nylon
  • 7% elastane
  • Raglan Sleeve
  • Flatlock Seams
  • machine washable

Disclosure

alison young was given shirts to test by Ibex

Feeling stylish in my much-loved Ibex top just before crossing over the highest point on New Zealand’s Te Araroa.
hike blog

among the halls of malls

You have to go through the falling down in order to learn to walk. It helps to know that you can survive it. That’s an education in itself.

Carol Burnett
"Training" to walk the Continental Divide Trail this summer begins on terrazzo.
“Training” to walk the Continental Divide Trail this summer begins on terrazzo.

It’s been almost four weeks since I had my second hip replaced. What a drama! I inherited my mother’s laugh and my father’s wanderlust, but also a disposition for osteoarthritis. By the time my surgeon cut out the bad joint, there wasn’t any cartilage left!

When I asked Dr. S if I could walk the Continental Divide Trail this summer, he seemed pretty unfazed. I guess it’s not really up to him, but up to my body and how fast and thoroughly it heals.

Since my surgery used the anterior approach, no muscles were cut and my recovery – while not pleasant – was relatively short. The Physical Therapist gave me a set of exercises at the surgery center to strengthen the muscles then told me, after a few weeks, just walk.

The surgeon told me that simple walking is the best therapy as the bone grows into the prosthetic.
Har Mar Mall in Roseville, Minnesota hosts a whole subculture of mall walkers.
Har Mar Mall in Roseville, Minnesota hosts a whole subculture of mall walkers.

That was music to my ears, of course, but I live in Minnesota and the sidewalks are icy and dangerous. So, it was off to the halls of malls for my rehabilitation. Safe and full of eye candy, I enjoyed my time “thru-hiking” a variety of indoor locations using my trusty Leki trekking poles for balance, but also to strengthen my droopy arms.

I visited Har Mar Mall in Roseville sporting wide halls for an entire subculture of indoor walkers jazzed to move by the adult rock playing over the sound system. At the Saint Paul Skyway, magic doors would spring open as I arrived with a whoosh or a ka-bong. It’s a bit sketch downtown and most people were sadly maskless, but I never felt unsafe. I was approached by a couple of dudes wondering if I was skiing with my poles.

Mall walking is safe and always has lots of eye-candy.
Mall walking is safe and always has lots of eye-candy.
I timed my walks near sunset so the winter darkness didn't compound my feeling of isolation.
I timed my walks near sunset so the winter darkness didn’t compound my feeling of isolation.

Maplewood Mall has a lovely carousel and a carpeted second floor. That’s where I started to take long strides, no hands. Rosedale is the home to the glowing moose and fantastic eats from local restaurants. It’s all about history at Southdale with wall text and photographs telling the story of a time forgotten when people dressed up to go to the mall. They also have wide halls and a 3,000 pound floor-to-ceiling bronze sculpture.

The Twin Cities’ signature mall is the Mall of America or MOA. I have special affection for this monstrous temple to capitalism because it was the first place I walked after surgery. No stores were open when we headed over, but the halls were available to put one foot in front of the other.

Today, nearly four weeks after my second hip replacement, I'm ready to risk a bit of ice.
Today, nearly four weeks after my second hip replacement, I’m ready to risk a bit of ice.
hike blog

failure or savior?

Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.

Ed Viesturs
Feeling good the day before altitude sickness nearly killed me.
Feeling good the day before altitude sickness nearly killed me.

In January 2014, I attempted to summit Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. At Camp One, in the middle of the night as snow accumulated outside my tent, I developed HAPE, a deteriorating condition where fluid accumulates in the lungs and can be deadly within hours.


In the parlance of the mountaineer, I failed.

But in the language of the questing adventurer fully engaged in the game, my harrowing leave-taking of that snowy pile of rock was a success.

“The summit is optional, the descent is mandatory,” were my husband Richard’s parting words at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport two weeks ago, and they echoed in my fogged, lethargic brain as my lungs dangerously crackled and oozed, my strength dwindling precipitously, ever accelerating in a dance with death so unromantically called “HAPE” — High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema.

The "chicks" of the expedition protecting ourselves from blowing dust at base camp.
The “chicks” of the expedition protecting ourselves from blowing dust at base camp.

Was it Liszt in my head on that dark, icy morning as moans and coughing woke me? More likely, it was not a vision of my own demise but rather the promise of the rest of my life calling me — begging me — to return below the clouds and save myself.

“Evacuation” is a funny term implying speed and efficiency. Mine was a chaos of clothes found, boots pushed on, a rag-doll body forced to stand.

I then slowly put one foot in front of the other and walked thousands of feet down and down, tied by a short rope to a lovely Argentine guide who never stopped urging me, “Good job, Ali! You must walk now! Good job!”

Aconcagua is really just a huge rock pile.
Aconcagua is really just a huge rock pile.

What is it, I ask myself, that sends me to such risky places? Is it a testing of myself, or a seeking of indescribable vistas or is it maybe a desire, that in utterly stark and danger-filled places, I will somehow find who I really am and thus carry a strength and peace into the ordinariness of my life?

To these sorts of questions, George Mallory famously quipped about his obsession with summiting Everest, “Because it is there.”

The reasons I give shift over time and can’t be pinned down. Perhaps I simply don’t know why.

Walking to the helipad below. My face is swollen from fluid.
Walking to the helipad below. My face is swollen from fluid retention.

As I slowly recovered in Mendoza’s vineyards at the foothills of the Andes, I was surprised and a little amused that with the end of the adventure I sought in Argentina, I was thrust into a new one. But certainly not the kind to write books about or to develop an awe-filled following. It’s way more internal and private.

I know I’ll return to the wild and unknown one day; that’s a given. The brute strength, the grit, the confidence and determination and the hopeful attitude it takes to reach any summit, are skills I already possess.

In this case, I’d venture to add I picked up a new one – a demure graciousness that allowed me to decline the invitation to my Totentanz.

Recovering with friends in Patagonia.
hike blog

Colorado Trail – August 2014

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

John Ruskin
My friend Ted leading the way on the CT. We hiked it backwards and stopped at Buena Vista to bag a few 14ers.

As I train for the Continental Divide Trail this coming season, I thought it might be fun to revisit the Colorado Trail from seven years ago since it shares the path with the CDT for a good portion of the way, most notably through the magical high mountains of the San Juan in Southwest Colorado. We had a lot of rain that season, but by the time I arrive next September, it might be a race against time to avoid getting dumped on by snow.


going backwards

I wanted to walk another long trail, but I didn’t have quite the time for 500 miles. So, I decided to give the Colorado Trail a try, but start at the end and tick off as much as I could of the most spectacular scenery first before having to head back home and back on air.

My hiking friend from England, Ted, joined my husband and me in Denver and we drove to Durango for the start. We had a little joke about our crew; as the trail heads above 11,000 feet in the first 20 miles, we knew we’d need to go slow to acclimate. But that was mainly for my benefit as I take longer than average to settle down in the mountains. Richard has asthma and Ted is 17 years older than us, so in some ways, we were all at a disadvantage and a moderate pace wouldn’t crush anyone’s spirit.

A lotta rain = a lotta flowers.

Sadly, the altitude wasn’t our only problem. That August, a monsoon settled over the Rockies and wouldn’t let us out of her grip. We had days on end nearly completely socked in by constant precipitation, both rain and mist. Some days, there were no views at all, so when they finally opened up, we were on our knees with gratitude.

Wild flowers proliferated, including the state flower of columbine, which grew in huge bushes as we came off Blackhawk Pass. We camped below the pass the night before, with all of it to ourselves in dry conditions. The previous night at Taylor Lake was also deserted and filled with flowers as the storm clouds moved away, but someone left us a gift of their poop under a rock right at the campsite. Nice work!

Richard and Ted gossip during a break in the ever-present rain.

showers bring flowers

It seemed every time we were certain the rain was moving on and we had clear sailing, clouds would develop and quickly turn ominous. We did all we could to avoid ridges and mountaintops in the afternoon, but the pattern was confusing even in the light – but thoroughly soaking – rain.

And that brought up the issue of how to stay dry when backpacking. Sure, we had rain pants and raincoats, but inevitably we’d sweat inside the coats and feel clammy and damp. We came across people wearing umbrellas as hats and they seemed to be doing fairly well, but only in the woods. Once out in the wind, the hats lost some of their covering power. I have yet to give umbrellas a try and I welcome your feedback on that. My Kavu hat was brilliant with its wide brim keeping at least my face totally dry.

Storms build in the distance as we descend Mount Shavano.

One particularly long day of lots of rain and no views, we met a couple wearing giant mittens. They were all smiles, happy to be walking in whatever weather came their way – or just too much in love to notice much else. They told me they picked up these mitts made of eVent fabric from Mountain Laurel. I am now a proud owner and swear by these miraculous pieces of gear.

The mitt fits over your hand – plus any glove you might want to wear for warmth – and cinches tight around your jacket. If you have your hand up in front of you on walking sticks all day, you stay absolutely dry. I highly recommend them.

They also gave us beta on a snowmobilers hut ahead that might make a nice place to stay rather than set up the tents. We found it and claimed the little log cabin for ourselves, never quite figuring out how to start a fire in the stove, likely because the flue was stuck closed. We also noticed the rattraps around, so put one crumb in and set it just in case. Sadly, it was a matter of minutes before it sprung on a poor little beast.

Snowmobiler’s cabin near Marshall Pass Road.

gear for staying dry

But this was days away, below Monarch Pass and after Ted and I bid farewell to Richard who finds a week’s hiking – and shitting in the woods – enough for him. We made a good team that first week, acclimating together and passing the time all crammed into our Big Agnes talking up a storm while I cooked in the vestibule and the rain lashed down.

I was always on the lookout for a site with a view but the boys won out when they convinced me not only would we have no view in non-stop mist, but also, out in the open, we’d be soaked through and through. The tent worked well, as did packing the things that needed to stay dry – like clothes and my sleeping bag – in separate Granite Gear eVent stuff sacks. (Noticing a pattern here?)

I have never been a big fan of pack covers, which tend to blow off, rip apart, or cover only part of the rucksack. I also find simply lining the bag inconvenient, because you might want to remove contents and set them in the elements until you’re ready for them.

All smiles when the sun came out.

Things I did not do on this trip that have now become part of my routine is to wear trail runners rather than boots. If the sole is rugged and the toe box protected, mesh shoes dry faster than boots and are close to the same in protection. Gators help to keep water out of the shoe, but in constant rain, an ankle-covering boot will take in water just as easily.

We had an actual river form on the trail one day, rushing, pulling sticks and muck with it and creating its own powerful force to sweep us off your feet. Fortunately, the maintenance crew created exits for the rushing deluge and it plunged down a ravine off-trail.

While the rain was our nearly constant companion, there were plenty of sparkling clear days of long views, fields blanketed in wildflowers and superb walking. The three of us found decent sites near water and with terrific views (if clear) for six nights as we worked our way towards Molas Lake Campground, where Richard would take the historic Silverton narrow gauge rail back to Durango and the car and Ted and I would push on as far as we could get in two weeks.

For several days, the CT stays close to or above 12,000 feet.

Rocky Mountain high

I was disappointed that swimming was prohibited in Molas Lake, but delighted with the little store that we cleared out of its junk food. It’s rare when planning a hike that I remember how famished I am on the trail – or that I sometimes lose my appetite entirely and only want salt and sugar. Sated and rested, Ted and I left earlier than Richard to get a good start on a day that took us down massive switchbacks to 8900 feet and right back up to 12,000.

Richard tells us that all he needed to do was stand on or near the tracks and wave down the train. He reports it was a blast to ride back, though tourists gave him a funny look kitted out in backpacking gear and reeking after a week on the trail.

Columbine, Colorado’s state flower was in massive clumps all over the high mountains.

Ted and I had smashing weather all the way to Mine Camp, where we looked out on an approaching storm that thankfully fizzled while I made dinner and promptly spilled it all over the ground. Like good hikers, we just took our sporks and grabbed the clean bits.

The next days were the most spectacular, keeping us above 12,000 feet for a few days with wild, expansive views. We found great sites close enough to water and with plenty of solitude. It was spooky to cross a bowl and pump water from a trickle of creek, the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

The CT has wildly changing landscapes.

zero day in Creede

The CT high point at 13, 271 was totally shrouded in cloud, but that didn’t keep me from snapping a picture. Likewise, Snow Mesa was completely obliterated, but as an exposed ridge that oftentimes attracts some of the most savage lightning storms, we felt safe in rain, if not a little cranky and cold.

The trail meandered on and on, and up and up. As we got closer to the cut off for Creede and our resupply, I saw cairns marching up the mountain and out of sight into the clouds. “I can’t go up that!” But Ted urged me along and we popped up and over and into a long valley on a rutted rocky road.

Five miles to town, but this isn’t such bad walking, I thought, just as it started to really piss down. Conversation stopped and it was as if each of sucked our necks back into our shells to press on. We saw a car, but it was parked with a sun screen on the windshield, likely a hiker far away now.

Storm approaching at Mine Camp high above the Silverton-Durango narrow gauge railway.

Then rounding a bend, I spotted a truck – and the doors were open. I began running. “Wait! Hello! Wait!” I yelled. I must have looked like a crazy person. Two fellows were loading in some gear and gave me a languorously long look. “Who are you?” they asked.

I told them we had been hiking and needed a ride into Creede. What they were loading in their truck turned out to be gold mining equipment, but when it became obvious we had zero interest in their claim, they were all smiles and gave us a lift down, even helping us find a place for the night at the height of tourist season.

Of course, the weather cleared and we had a lovely night of food, showers and laundry. But we were up right when the post office opened the next day and back on the trail, the sky, of course, clouding back up.

A trail angel left several cases of soft drinks for weary hikers on this lonely stretch of the CT.

thirsty hikers

Things changed after Creede, with long stretches on high plateaus. The big mountains were behind – and ahead – but for now it was a new world. I liked it, but I imagine if you were really limited on time, you might want to avoid the flat parts – and the parts where you briefly walk on road. But as a thru-hiker, I love taking it all in, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Crossing Seargent’s Mesa was a favorite as it opened out with views to the peaks far in the distance, the ground crowded with fancifully weathered logs. We camped below at Tank Seven Creek when the wildest storm seemingly came out of nowhere. I raced to bring in my drying clothes before diving into the tent, a bolt striking far too close for comfort.

Tunnel of trees in mist on the Colorado Trail.

Later, on one long lonely section, a trail angel parked a horse trailer and filled it with sodas. Ted and I grabbed a couple of Fantas and he poured grape pop right into his water bottle. Of course it exploded a few minutes later as the pressure built up, a cause for much teasing.

As we approached Monarch Pass, we were delighted with views opening up of the spectacular Sawatch Range, one huge humping 14er after another in an elegant line. It was here that we met mountain bikers – and a group with special mountain motorcycles. I was impressed with their consideration. Signs on the trail tell wheels to yield to two legs – and wheels and two legs to yield to four-legs. From what we saw, everyone was accommodating. Nice work, Colorado!

Big Agnes after a storm.

peak baggers

By the time we crossed US-50 – where a motorcyclist’s chick took my picture crossing the highway and I gave her a one-fingered wave for the scrapbook – we knew peak bagging was in our future. There were a few days left before Richard would return to pick us up. So we thought why not hit two at once and the first ones on the trail, Shavano and Tabeguache. Our supplies were dwindling and we were pretty wrecked by that point, but we pushed our bodies to the trailhead, a spur off the CT, and planned to get an early start.

I’d like to mention one thing here about the map we used. The Colorado Trail Datebook put out by the CT Foundation coupled with Eric the Black’s CT Pocket Atlas. Combined, they provided all the information needed including the estimated state of the water supply, whether a trusted creek was full all season or only partially or – my most favorite – whether to expect only a “seasonal seep.” The areas where water was absolutely not available is, of course, critical. I am indebted to these people for creating such good resources.

Clowning around near Monarch Pass.

But there was no definitive answer on water near the trailhead. We knew about a mile further was a good source and we also looked for steams along the way, but we saw nothing. And then, just as we passed the cut off for Shavano, running right across the trail was a little burbling spring! Praise the goddess, we were good to go. The tent went up in the woods and we prepared for our first day hike in three weeks. Ted even tried a bath right there on the trail. Thankfully, no one was walking by at that moment.

It’s tough work getting up a 14er. The trail junction is just under 10,000 feet so it was all up through bristle cone pines to an eroded saddle, then rock hopping in high winds. The place was packed and it only took a little coaxing to get Ted to continue on to bag two peaks in a day. But once we came down, we could see the storms raging over the distant peaks and so picked up the pace. When it hit us, it was ice pellets in the face all the way to the tree-line, then thunder as we descended through the woods.

A perfect summit day for Mount Princeton, 14,197 feet.

CDT shares the trail

Having a little taste, we wanted more, so arranged a ride up Mount Princeton’s rutted road and took in another 14er before giving up the trail and awaiting Richard’s arrival. We then rounded up the trip with the little gem of Mt. Huron which the boys allowed me to run up as they kicked back at the meadow. It was there that Ted and I agreed next summer, let’s do ‘em all.

And one day, we might finish the CT. Or who knows, maybe go back and do it all over again and hope for clearer skies. NOTE: I’m hoping to repeat it all next season on the Continental Divide Trail, which splits off before Durango to head into New Mexico.

A quick shout out to Princeton Hot Springs resort. They offered to hold a resupply box for us for as long as we needed at no charge. They’re located directly on the trail and it’s worth a stop for at the very least a beer and a meal. You have a view in the shade of Mount Princeton and even though we were smelly and dusty, they let us hang as long as we wanted on their beautiful veranda.

Balega is a Zulu word that means "move with speed." I'm happy to move with comfort, blister-free and in a spectacular array of colors.
gear blog

Balega socks review

Balega is a Zulu word that means "move with speed." I'm happy to move with comfort, blister-free and in a spectacular array of colors.
Balega is a Zulu word that means “move with speed.” I’m happy to move with comfort, blister-free and in a spectacular array of colors.

Recently, a pal from the PCT named “Toast” asked me how my socks held up I did not lie, I still use a few of my Balagas from the hike, they’re practically indestructible! So, I’m republishing this review and offering a chance for you to win Balega socks as a kind of post Christmas bonus present. Just LIKE and SHARE The Pee Rag on Facebook and you’ll be automatically entered to win!


Sometimes it’s safer to read maps with your feet.

Kelly Link
Blissful gives Balega Socks the highest rating, five Anitas.

September, 2018 – If you want to hike with the ease, agility and the fleet-footedness of a seasoned ultra trail runner, and keep your feet cool and blister-free, Balega socks are for you. Balega means to move with speed and while that is not my ultimate goal as a backpacker, I appreciate that whatever is protecting my foot is indeed the ultimate arbiter of success in any walk.

Balega scores high for me because of a moisture wicking fabric they call “Drynamix” that is soft and breathable and just as advertised keeps my foot dry. I chose the slightly heavier Blister Resist sock that combines mohair with Drynamix. These socks are soft and cozy – and may prove to be a bit much for the beaches and rain forests of New Zealand’s Northland, which is why I am taking pairs of Enduro V-Tecs in my bounce box. They are synthetic and contain a compression band for the mid-foot, supporting just so without feeling too tight.

Both socks are made without seams, which help prevent blistering, but fit like a dream with a snug heel cup and elastic grippers that prevent slippage. And each have strategically placed ventilation panels that aid the wicking process which will be key as I walk in and out of rivers and find my feet caked in mud throughout my five-month sojourn. Sounds fun, eh?

But maybe more than just feeling thrilled that I have found the best sock for my long distance thru-hiking, I also have some real warm fuzzies when I think that the additional pairs of Balega socks I buy will help support Balega’s outreach programs in their home country of South Africa. There was even a little sticker on each pair with a picture of the person who inspected – and washed – my socks before they were sent out. Just like that beautiful Zulu word Ubuntu, meaning “shared humanity,” I feel there is a bit of this wonderful company’s energy walking each step with me on the Te Araroa.

Blissful gives Balega Socks the highest rating, five Anitas.

Specs at a glance

  • seamless
  • “drynamix” mohair and synthetic available
  • V-tech arch support
  • anti-microbial silver-infused

Disclosure

Balega supplied alison young with socks.

hike blog

peeps of the PCT: John, general store owner

Sometimes, you need to spell things out explicitly so people get the point.

In a few days, I’ll return to the surgery center at Summit Orthopedics in Eagan, Minnesota to have my right hip replaced with a titanium ball, socket and post. Osteoarthritis runs in my genes and I feel incredibly blessed to have walked around 7,000 miles since I first felt any pain.

The left hip is rock solid and I feel pretty confident my awesome surgeon will have good success with the right, which right now is officially bone dust.

It’s all been a huge drama, though, with my developing painful neuropathy from a bruised nerve during surgery that should go away over the coming months. Plus both Richard and I caught Covid in the first week of recovery from the left hip replacement. Thankfully, it was a ‘mild’ case with only non-stop coughing, fever, headache and life-draining fatigue – though never requiring a hospital visit.

The virus, at least, is behind us, and there does appear to be light at the end of the tunnel as I replace the tools I need to keep walking long distances. Starting from the vantage point of my beautifully healing and strong left hip, the time has come to put my game face on for Thursday morning’s procedure.

John has seen over 2,000 PCT hikers come through Mount Laguna.

The time off from walking more than a gimpy two miles on flat ground does put me in mind to revisit my hikes. I love these conversations I had on the Pacific Crest Trail at the instigation of my friend and supporter, John Reamer. For sure, there were interesting people everywhere, but it was usually the locals, who attended to us very needy hikers, that turned out to be the most interesting interviewees.

I’d heard about John at the Laguna Mountain Lodge and Store from my brother Eric, who lives close by in San Diego, California. John is a gregarious character and Eric was curious about the increase in the number of PCT hikers after the film “Wild” was released.

John answered his question by sharing the ‘10% rule’ theory, the one that says 10% of people in a group are going to be jerks. To Eric’s surprise – and my relief – John said it was more like 1% of hikers who he’d consider jerks.

Just another bit of hiker trash hanging out on the porch and day drinking. (John, the owner of Mount Laguna General Store, is on the right)

The PCT passes around the beautiful village of Mount Laguna, though it’s easy to take a side trip for a milkshake, a meal, resupply or a bed. John and his brother own the general store, a hangout that sees over 2,000 thru-hikers (including wannabes) each season. When I walked the trail in 2019, he told me there was a day in the spring when he counted over sixty of us ‘hiker trash’ hanging out on the store’s beautiful covered porch amidst the soaring Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines.

In typical fashion, John made me laugh about some of our shared foibles and how ridiculously seriously we take ourselves sometimes. I was definitely heartened to hear that he finds most of us thru-hikers a pretty nice bunch. It’s all a good reminder to me as I head into a bit of a trial over the coming weeks and months of two good rules to live by:

1. lighten up
2. be nice

Art of the State Parks

audio narrative: Walk in the Time of Coronavirus

But the beauty is in the walking – we are betrayed by destinations.

 Gwyn Thomas

Oak leaves seem to float atop melting ice.

an early March walk at Lake Maria State Park

As Richard and I recover from my our bouts with Covid 19 that we caught from who-knows-where due to the horrific increase in community spread, I’m reposting this audio narrative from March of this year. That was the moment when the United States came to terms with the presence of this novel and deadly Coronavirus within its borders.


Spring, 2020 – For many of us, early March was “before” and now we reside in “after,” or perhaps more accurately, “during.” It’s hard to remember so many freedoms we enjoyed only a few weeks ago. And I don’t speak simply to being able to come and go as we please, congregate and share activities without a thought, or that our lives had some semblance of stability.

What I refer to is the loss of our dreams, ones we could plan for and bring to life, ones that sustained our hard work and focus, ones that made life rich and worth sacrificing for.

Now, we isolate and we wait.

Believe me, I am committed to what it takes for our common welfare, but I wonder if we’ll lose something from this time. If that’s hubris, then ok. If it’s hope, I’m heartbroken.