Day 22: Back in South Lake to Dusy Basin , over Bishop Pass of 11,972 ft. 2100 feet of climbing. 7 miles
Our layover with Nana and Papa hugged us close and cradled us in the delights of city life and sweet family time. Unusual daily rain and thunderstorms, kept us out an extra day waiting for the weather to hopefully improve. As always, the goodbyes were sad as we started up the trail. It was hard to leave family but they kept it fun, snapping pictures and cheering us on as we faced our last 61 miles.
They had shuttled us from our last pull out at South Lake in Bishop, CA to our truck so that we could resupply and have some layover days together. Their final “job” was to shuttle our truck to the Onion Valley Trailhead where it would wait for 6 days for our final exit. The two trailheads were 90 minutes apart by car, 5 days by foot.
Through hiking versus hiking over trail twice to start and end at the same spot requires a little support team to help shuttle vehicles or hikers. A lot more planning is involved but we fell in love with through-hiking. Every turn is new. Connecting trailheads as we move from basin to basin proved to be so rewarding.
A mile in, we could see that the clouds were dark and gathering fast. We needed to get over Bishop Pass before any lightening started flashing. Being one of the high spots during a thunderstorm is more adventure then this nervous mom could handle.
As we pushed toward the saddle, Bekah observed, “This is really just a day hike ‘cause I spent time in a car today, was in a town today, woke up in my own bed today….but tomorrow, will be a real backpacking day!” A few minutes later she added, “Hey guys, just so you know, I’m going to be real sad on the last day. There’s no doubt about that!” This summer of long miles was pulling things out of our kids that amazed me. Our daughter is one determined girl and when given high goals, such as hiking 200 miles, she will stop at nothing to make sure she accomplishes what she set her mind to do. Up until this point in her life, she really hadn’t had an opportunity to buckle down and attack a goal like this.
I quietly mused that we must be doing something right for her to feel this way, despite just ending a fun camping layover with grandparents and having a heavy pack on, as it was loaded with food, she was expressing how much she loved what we were doing.
Further down the trail, I began noticing how easy the hike felt. “Well, we got your pack down to 28 pounds, fully loaded with food,” pointed out Cory, “Cade’s is 21 lbs, Bekah is at 16 lbs, and mine is 42 lbs.” For a six day trip, 54 pounds of our total weight is simply food. We are not a superhuman family with superhero kids – even though people continue to look at us in awe as they see us marching up the hill, declaring euphemisms like, “you rock!”, as we pass. I know we are fit and strong but really, the truth, the little secret we pack in our backpacks is that despite their girth, they really don’t weigh much.
A sign at the entrance of the backpacking gear at REI asks, “What kind of backpacker are you?” and lists various tents that match up to one’s style: weekend warrior to light weight to ultra light weight (These folks are directed to a simple tarp as they forgo a tent completely). We aim for light weight packing these days because it’s simply more fun when you don’t have to strain and groan up a trail. Getting to camp still smiling is a good thing!
It wasn’t always this way. We nearly collapsed under the weight of our packs when the kids were babies. With Bekah on a front pack and Cade riding the luxury line on my back in his own pack, all I could carry were a few supplies for the kids. We sacrificed Cory’s knees, loading his load monster backpack with 90 pounds of gear and walked (slowly, very slowly, and I think at times we crawled) in. Looking back, I am amazed at the lakes, fairly deep into the wildernesses, we were able to lug our caravan to. Indeed, our very young kids crawled on the shores of gorgeous high mountain lakes but at a price we realized we couldn’t pay for much longer if we wanted to hike much beyond their 4th birthdays.
As I went about my business of taking our babies to play groups, MOPS, and playgrounds, Cory’s engineering mind mingled with his years of experience as a boys camp wilderness guide/counselor and began working overtime to devise plans to reduce our loads. It was our only chance at making this sport we loved doable.
That fall, after the 90 pound pack summer, Cory engineered, designed, and sewed our new ultra-light tents. Out went the Eureka, 4-person mountain tent weighing in at 9 pounds and in it’s place were 2 ¾ pound, sill-nylon original creations, by a desperate to hike dad. Most light weight tents of the time weighed between 3 ½ and 4 pounds.
One night I found Cory in the garage, cutting up tuna cans. “What are you working on now, MacGyver?”
“Our new stove!” Weighing in at ¼ of an ounce, our new stove consisted of a couple of imbedded tuna cans, a penny, and denatured alcohol. We used our tuna stove for years but as the kids got older and ate more, we found that the amount of denatured alcohol we needed to bring in order to cook the quantities that the 4 of us were eating outweighed other stoves, using isobutene. We traded in our tuna stove for a MSR Pocket Rocket. It’s efficiency allows us to boil water fast, using much less fuel. Our total cook kit consists of four sporks, four 1 ½ Tupperware bowls, a 12 cup aluminum cook pot, and our Pocket Rocket with a fuel canister. It all fits inside the cook pot and weighs 2 ½ pounds.
Each year we’d trade out a few items for their lightest possible alternative. Some years I’d score a new sleeping bag, others a new light and warm jacket, and finally, I was ready to lose 2 pounds and trade in my super comfortable Osprey Ariel backpack for a Golite. To spread the cost out, we’d hit clearance sales, Craigslist, and the ever-anticipated “REI return sale” where any item that someone decides to return gets sold at a deeply discounted price.
To even have a chance at this sale, one has to know exactly what they are hoping to score and once the doors open, they need to make a beeline to that item, using all their willpower to not get distracted en-route. This has 2 benefits: 1. limited options get snatched up fast so being first to the item assures it’s capture, and 2. staying focused allows one to avoid all the tempty, heavy, full priced gadgets that line the aisles, that may allow one to create a genuine latte on the trail, but add unnecessary pounds to one’s pack.
This all happens after standing in line outside of the store, if you live in the northwest, in near zero degree temperatures for hours in order to guarantee one’s place in line. But it works. We scored a $280 sleeping bag for Cade that weighs 1 ½ pounds for $19.95. Even the person at the counter had to double check on that one, leaving the register for a few minutes to consult with management, only to return saying, “Ok. That’s an amazing price. But it’s what the tag says so congrats on that!”
Unlike the Boy Scouts who proudly train their members to pack even the kitchen sink so “you are always prepared”, we choose to find creative ways of covering all the bases so we can assure we are safe, warm, and dry, without packing the lawn chairs or the kitchen sink. Ultimately, staying warm, dry, and well fed are the most important factors in staying safe on the trail.
Converting to ultralight was not a trendy decision. It was a decision based on survival. Families that want to backpack have to embrace light weight philosophy. Parent’s packs will be unmanageably heavy if they don’t. The kid’s won’t have fun if their packs are too heavy either. Ultimately, without going light, families hardly stand a chance at making a go of backpacking.
This is a continual work in process. Our packs this summer were not light enough so during our last layover, clothes were switched out for lighter clothes, gear was redistributed more evenly between the 4 packs, and some gear was left behind completely. In the end, our total pack weights dropped even lower.
Leaving the kitchen sink and the espresso machines behind has meant that after 10 years of refining this art of light weight backpacking, we are still able to hit the trail (YES!) and our youngest is promising us that when the 200 miles are behind us and we leave the Sierras, she will, for sure, break down in tears.
I’ll happily leave the lawn chairs for that.