Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Preparation preparation preparation!

Just that word repeated three times puts me in mind of Ben Kingsley playing Don Logan in Sexy Beast.  

However, I am referring to my preparation for the PCT in 2016.  Seems a long way off, but I will have to let my employer know about it before long - especially as I would like to begin fundraising midway through 2015, and if that scares the horses, I don't want to be out of a job for many months before the walk. My thinking is that I tell them straight after New Year that I will be leaving in a years time or so, and if they get the arse, I'll leave straightaway and do the walk in 2015 instead.  It gives me less time to get ready, get fitter and so on, but I could still do it at a pinch.

But, there is a huge amount to plan, so onwards and upwards...

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Looking ahead to the Pacific Crest Trail 2016

So, I've made the decision that I will hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016.  I'd love to do it in 2015, but I am in no shape to take it on, and have not done any prep yet, other than a bit of thinking and a few mappy things, so I feel I should be more prepared.  

There are three stages to doing the PCT...  

1.  Deciding you're going to do it.
2.  Really deciding you're going to do it.
3.  Doing it.

I've been in love with the idea of this walk since I read Chris Townsend's book about his walk on the Arizona Trail.  That is a shorter, but seemingly very tough walk (Arizona is modelled on Mordor in places) which got me thinking about long distance trails.  I then became aware of the PCT and the Continental Divide Trail; read some of the books written by thruhikers and finally got round to to Keith Fosket's book "The Last Englishman", and soon thought I'd like to be the next Englishman!

Recently, a film has been released dramatising the book "Wild:A Journey From Lost To Found" by Cheryl Strayed.  In her book she describes her experiences hiking the PCT or a good part of it, following some personal difficulties leading up to her adventure.  Its a decent read as a personal story, though not much in the way of a hiking manual (she makes nearly every mistake imaginable, but toughs it out nonetheless even if she consciously concludes the walk at the Oregon-Washington border).  Perhaps surprisingly, and to her credit, the author manages to come over as likeable despite setting up a rather unsympathetic account of herself and her behaviour.  In fact her candour about the adventure has earned her some negative reactions, which seem to be based on either exaggerated or ignorant conclusions about her.  The film stars Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, and has provoked good reviews - I haven't seen it yet as it is to be released in the UK in January 2015, but people are talking about Oscars so I'd like to see it and make up my mind.  One negative review described it as a feature length selfie, which I hope is off the mark, but we'll see.  When I first read the book I did feel it conveyed the feeling of "Look how wonderful I became when I rehabilitated myself", but subsequent comparison with other books reminded me that Strayed's writing manages to deliver sentiment without sentimentality which I think is important.

I confess I am worried the film might inspire a legion of fashion hikers thinking they can just get up and go - any exposure on TV or film for a sport or activity seems to create a brief flush of mad enthusiasm for it.  You only have to try to book a public tennis court during Wimbledon to know this, but walking 2650 miles is a more serious undertaking.  I visualise lots of clueless hikers setting off into the Mojave desert with one pint of water and running screaming at the first sight of a rattlesnake.  Maybe I am underestimating people's common sense, or overestimating the reach of the film, but I go walking for peace and a certain amount of solitude, so I wouldn't be delighted to see the trail become too busy. My hope is that it will have died down a bit by 2016, though numbers on the PCT grow year on year regardless.  When I reflect on the many thousands that walk in the lake district and how few people one sees on many fells, I can see an argument that the extra numbers will not be a problem.  On the other hand, there are some aspects of trail life which might be destroyed by a big surge in hikers - not least the fragile world of "trail magic" - favours offered by strangers for no reward.  Such generosity is to be deeply appreciated but never sought, and I wonder how fatiguing it could be for the kind souls who become known as "Trail Angels" to suddenly face thousands of demanding people.  I hope its a future I don't see realised.

On the matter of potential crowding, hiking guru Chris Townsend suggested to me leaving early or late, or even doing the North to South route.  He's right of course, but at this stage I don't know how much flexibility I have for the start time, with the well known issues of snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and the Northern Cascades.  Basically, if you leave too early from Campo, at the Mexican border, you risk getting to the High Sierra while there is still lots of snow from the previous winter. This could slow you down significantly, or even make the walk impassable and force you to wait for weeks - which obviously defeats the point of starting early.  On the other hand, if you start late, the High Sierra might be clear, but melt water could be an issue in some creeks running off the Sierra, and you also risk encountering next Winter's snowfall further North in Washington state, which has the potential to curtail the hike completely.

The ideal would be to start late, and walk at such a pace as to get to Washington well before the snow starts to fall.  Plenty of people do that, but they hike at a hell of a pace.  At my currently level of fitness and endurance I doubt if I would average much above 18 miles per day, even if I will do some 30 mile days at times.   And you have to factor in the "zero days" which one must take in towns near the trail to resupply.  From what I read, this is as often as weekly for many hikers, but occasionally longer on some sections.  I'll have to make a detailed resupply plan, and work how many days that represents and go from there.  If I conclude I need to average over, say, 25 miles a day then I will have to train up to that for the early section.  After a month or so, I imagine I will be as fit as I'll ever be, but the first section of the trail is in the desert, which is bound to slow things down, and I'll be getting my trail legs too.  I read in a PCT blog recently that an important early lesson to learn is that you don't have to get from Campo to Lake Morena in one hop.  Its the first 20 miles and many set out determined to be there for the first night's camp.  If that works for you comfortably, then fine I guess, but the point was you really need to listen to your body and settle into the walk if you stand any chance of getting to Canada.  This makes good sense to me, and I do not see making my feet into burgers as a great way to start the trip.  I'm hoping I can prepare well enough that water and heat will be the big challenges rather than trouble with feet. I can only recall ever getting one blister in the past which I treated with a Compeed, so maybe I have the knack of getting footwear right.  The unkown I need to better understand  is that of distance versus the weight of water its necessary to carry.  For twenty miles, with a camp at the end of it, I can see how I would be starting out with 6 litres or more. In the desert it is now common to find caches of water left by "Trail Angels" - former PCT hikers who voluntarily provide various conveniences, luxuries, supplies and assistance on the trail, completely for free.  I feel its risky to depend on water caches unless you leave them yourself and hide them well enough to be sure they are still going to be there.  I think Chis Townsend may have cached a few places in his Arizona Trail hike, which is even more brutal on water use, but I'll have to check.  Anyhow, the point is, to be safe, you have to carry lots of water, which affects your speed and distance.  If we do see a big increase in hiker numbers in the next year or two, the pressure on water caches will be severe, and put the emphasis on starting early to be ahead of the pack.

The notion of hiking North to South needs more research as I hadn't seriously considered it, but my initial reaction is that its a completely different project to the South-North approach.  It makes dealing with Snow a different proposition as the late start from the North must begin when you can comfortably navigate whatever is left on the ground, and its likely you will get to, and past the High Sierra before the next snows, leaving the desert till last.  However, the desert section would be horribly dry by the end of the summer, making dependency on water sources a bit patchy.  I hear that many hikers of the Continental Divide Trail walk North to South, and encounter this issue, though that trail is a bit longer and perhaps it necessitates the North-South route.

I may do a week in the summer of 2015 in Arizona or Nevada to get a feel for this.  There are actually some good hiking routes near Las Vegas in the Mount Charlston area, which would be easily accessible and plenty hot enough, or I could even do a hundred miles or so of the Mojave from Campo to try it out.  If I find I am going really slow, its no risk to the eventual walk, and I can factor it in my plan.  I did a little walking in Canyonlands, Utah last year and it was pretty hot.  I drank a litre of water in about two hours, and could have drank more - perhaps should have, but to be fair I had no real walking gear with me, and we stayed within two or three miles of the visitor centre on well marked paths, so could have walked out even with no water at all.  The real deal will be very different, and not to be underestimated.  I'm no camel, but I do find it possible to tolerate lack of water for a while, yet even the hottest days here are nothing compared to the desert.  I've been to Death Valley three times, and experienced crushing heat, although the hottest I ever experienced was in Arizona when I visited a native American archaeological site a couple of years ago.  The heat was so intense, it felt as though the nearly silent desert was "buzzing" - like Tinnitus.  Its hard to explain, but other hikers I've mentioned it to have agreed on the illusion of being able to "hear" the heat.  

Lately, I have noticed some soreness in my right knee when walking more than seven or eight miles on the flat, but its never a problem on the hills, so I conclude its an issue of my weight constantly bearing down on the same point of the joint - it goes away after an hour or two.  I think weight loss will fix this more than anything else.  I have a plan to monitor this over the next six months or so, and lose weight accordingly.  I have some Wainwrights left to do - about 60 or so, and will be walking the English Coast to Coast path next Summer, so this will give me some indication of any problems I might need to consider.  Funnily enough, they say don't start the PCT too skinny.  Basically, its hard to carry enough food to make up for the energy you burn, and people lose a lot of weight walking the trail.  Good.

I will have to give up work to do this, for which I can budget, but I need to work up to this with my employer.  Who knows - they might keep my job open for me, but I am assuming not.

Also, I plan to try raising money for Mountain Rescue so I need a bit of a run-up to that if its going to be effective.  I want to split whatever I get between the England and Wales MR and the Scottish MR.  I haven't yet done any walking in Scotland, but I will one day, and I've seen enough of their terrain to know it is not to be taken lightly. I'll write more about Mountain Rescue in another post so I can direct potential sponsors to it in the future.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Back from Lake District

Last week the wife and I, along with our two dogs went to the Lake District, staying at The Travelers' Rest near Grasmere.  For the first few days the weather was pretty good, even hot on Monday, but it deteriorated as the week went on, with fairly heavy showers on Friday although that was the only day with no respite.  Oddly, our room in the hotel was absolutely tropical throughout and we slept with a big fan blowing, and the windows open.  Not sure why it was so hot there, but had I known, I might have chosen somewhere different.  The Travelers is a funny place - benefitting from a great location, and seemingly very well presented, but the place is not really very comfortable in some respects, with lumpy beds, no armchairs etc.  It is saved by the lovely staff who are mostly foreign, Romanian, Spanish etc and who make the difference.  I must say I have been using the Travelers and its sister Hotel, The King's Head at Thirlmere for about three years now, particularly as they are very dog friendly, and the menu is becoming a bit tired - and its not always that brilliantly cooked at the Travelers either though it seems to depend on the dish.  Anyway, I suppose I will stay there again, but if I'm honest, it was a bit if a struggle for a full week.  

We did a little walking, though less than I hoped and I can tick off another three Wainwrights, having climbed Seat sandal with Leigh and the dogs, which I found a struggle as it was so hot.  Leigh got to the top before me - when I didn't appear for ten minutes, she went looking for me, and headed along the North wall, whereas we had ascended by the East wall, so when I went looking for her, she couldn't understand how I'd got to the top without her seeing me.  Her sense of direction and navigation skills are zero, so I need to help her become more familiar with maps and GPS etc.  On Thursday, Jocky and I went up back o' Blencathra to climb High Pike (Caldbeck) and Carrock Fell.  These were a real pleasure to climb and a nice breeze kept it cool enough to enjoy as the sun was out for the late afternoon - we started at about 4pm and got back to the car at around 7.40.  It was nice starting late as we saw only a glimpse of one person the whole walk.

In other news, I have more or less decided now that I will attempt the Pacific Crest Trail, probably in 2017 if I can work out the financing of it - and bearing in mind I will need to leave work to do it, and hopefully get another job when I return.  That is not to be sniffed at.  I am in terrible physical shape right now, so this is a great way to get back to some sort of fitness in preparation for the walk.

I will make occasional posts about this as things proceed. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

MLD Trailstar guy line slips - how to secure the lines with the standard line locks

Before Christmas I treated myself to a tarp - the Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar which is said to be a marvelous tarp and the best thing since the last quite good thing.

I pulled a face therefore when I read on the internet just now of a  catastrophic trailstar collapse event, by a fellow wild camper up Helvellyn in, shall we say, more than a light breeze.  Basically, he trusted the line locks provided with the tarp, and they slipped making his tarp collapse and letting him down like pair of cheap Japanese braces.  He wasn't injured, and had a back up bivvy.  But in the process the tarp got torn and he swore a lot.  No, I mean a lot - I saw the video he made from his backup bivvy.  He was indignant to say the least.  No it was worse - he lost some kit to the wind.  Titanium kit.  This is unacceptable and I panicked as I haven't even tried my new tarp out yet.  Checking a few other blogs, it seems the standard locks are known to be a bit suss when using thinner cord, but should be OK, with the 3mm supplied.  Well, evidently not, so I thought I'd have a look at this before venturing out with it.

I've examined the line locks and I think there's a couple of things to try before giving up and getting some other locks.  I've taken some pics to explain.

Here's the normal layout with the loose end of the line at the top and the tensioned line at the bottom, below left.  You can see that the loose end goes up through the rear hole of the line lock, over a plastic bar and down through the front hole. It has to be be this way round as explained in the third picture.

And here's a closer look.  On the left you can see the v-groove, indicated with the screwdriver tip, in which the two sections of the line sit under tension.  The loose end is in the bottom of the groove and the tensioned end presses down on top of it (or technically underneath it as these photos show the underside of the lock), and this is how the tension is maintained when all is well, but if the wind is buffeting about and blows the tarp in such a way that the tension is reduced briefly, the loose end can begin to slip (as per the right pic because there is nothing pressing down in the groove. Our hapless friend with the collapsed tarp thinks the friction of this system may have be overcome by strong gusts, but my guess is it was more to do with momentary release of tension that started things off!

Then when the wind stops the slack introduced will stop the tensioned end gripping the loose end and everything gets worse quickly, and all your pans blow away!

So, how do we deal with it?  Well the first trick is to take the loose end of the line and yank it back towards the tarp (see below left) so it doesn't sit in the V, and let the tensioned end sit in the bottom of the V.  Then what happens is the loose end of the line jams against the side of the V groove channel under the pressure of the tense line (see below right - loose end indicated by screwdriver agin).  This is a pretty solid arrangement and doesn't lose its locking effect if the tension is momentarily lost, but I don"t know how it will be affected by moisture, and I wanted more security....

 So, I found another way to arrange things.  Firstly, peg out and tension as normal.  Then grab the two line ends, between the peg and the lock, with your right hand, and the lock or corner of the tarp with the left hand and push them together - this will be pretty tight if you have already tensioned, but should be possible.  By doing this, you can make a loop of cord push up through the lock as below left.  Now, with the index finger of your right hand, pop the loop over the tab of the lock as below right, gently pulling the loop tight over the tab.

Now pull the lines fully tight to secure the loop as below left.  This is now pretty secure, but to be doubly sure yank the loose end of the line out of the v groove, and wedge the tensioned end in the channel as in method one, see below right.  Note, if the tension is making it tricky to slip the loop over the tab, you could peg-out and tension-up (this is sounding like a heart clinic now...), then slip the guy line off the peg. Carefully do this loop trick making sure not to alter the line length, before putting the guy-line back on the peg, pre-tensioned.

The final posture of the lines will be as below.  Its taken me about 15 minutes to write this and arrange the photos, but takes about 10-15 seconds to actually do it!

Hopefully, this will withstand the wind when I try it out.  I'm thinking of going to the Lakes next weekend and I was going to take the Terra Nova, but I think I might try out the tarp, with bothy bag back up of course!  I'll report back on how it worked out, and if its not as good in practice, I've lost nothing.

Finally, I have just discovered a really useful knot that looks to be about the perfect guy tensioning knot if you want to get rid of all the plastic bits completely - it's called the Farrimond Friction Hitch (google it - there's loads of descriptions and videos) and it's really secure whether tensioned or relaxed, but is also a quick release knot too.  It's effectively a Prussic knot on a bight - have a look if you are a knot fan.

UPDATE:  I took the tarp out a week or two after this post, and one of my dogs and I spent a very windy night camped on the Shoulder of Wether Hill.  I didn't get a lot of sleep out of being afraid the tarp might blow away or the guylines slip etc.

In fact the tarp stayed put all night and even though one peg pulled out of the soft peaty ground, the guyline never slipped and I was able to re-peg from inside, so it looks like this method works if you find the lines slipping.