top of page
  • Writer's picturebalzaccom

April to July 2012

Post date: Jul 2, 2012 8:48:57 PM Lassen Volcanic National Park is a favorite of ours, and we spent many a summer vacation here with the kids when we were car camping. We went back this last weekend with our company, so that everyone could enjoy this great park. And we did enjoy it!

Major hikes included the trail up Manzanita Creek on the first evening...a wonderful seven miles up towards Lassen Peak and a series of meadows, and with views of Chaos Crags, Lassen Peak, and Loomis.

And the next day we were the first hikers of the season to hike into Bumpass Hell--always a memorable hike. Below is an overview of the gelthermal activity. Thanks to a very cooperative co-worker, we were able to through hike all the way to the southern entrance station, via Crumbaugh Lake, Cold Boiling, Lake, Conard Meadows, and Mill Creek Falls. That's a total of about 8 miles of great hiking and wonderful views. The flowers were out, the streams were gushing, and we were delighted.

Post date: Jun 28, 2012 1:45:30 PM We've always really enjoyed the process of planning a trip: allowing our minds to wander over maps, tracing tiny dotted lines over passes and through valleys, carefully reading the contour lines to see where the steep climbs are going to be, and imagining each campsite as perfect. But we've never taken a hike that turned out to be just as we planned it. And a lot of the time, it's because we choose to make some changes mid-stream.

Which is why it really isn't necessary to plan out every campsite and every day's hike on your backpacking trip. Some people seem to want to know where they are going to stop for lunch and stop to sleep every night, as if they need a reservation at a restaurant or a hotel. That's not the way it works in the back country (at least, in most places).

You can camp anywhere you want, and there are almost always lots of options. If there are too many people at one lake, you can always go to another. If the mosquitoes are fierce, you can always try going higher...or camping farther away from the water. If the stream is too high you can turn back.

And if you don't feel like hiking those last three miles to the lake, you can always just camp along a stream nearby, and start again tomorrow. All you really need is a flat spot for the tent and a source of water within walking distance. Those are not hard to find in the Sierra.

We generally plan to hike about 8 miles a day, but have done many days of more than 12 miles, and a few under 5 miles. Sometimes it was because we wanted a better campsite, or wanted to make the next day shorter. Or simply felt great and it seemed like the thing to do.

Or we loved what we were seeing and decided to enjoy more of it. And we loved the fact that we were free to do whatever we wanted.

One of the great joys of backpacking is that you don't have to be anywhere at any given time. You don't have to complete your full itinerary. You can always climb that mountain or see that waterfall on another trip. Or you can decide to climb over the mountain to see what's on the other side. It's a freedom that hard to find in our daily working lives.

And we feel sorry for people who backpack on a tight schedule and an hour by hour itinerary. Seems like they are kinda missing the point of being up in the mountains. We certainly let them hike their own hike...but that's not why we go backpacking in the Sierra!

Post date: Jun 26, 2012 9:22:10 PM Spending so much time on airplanes isn't a great way to relax...even if P has learned to sleep on airplanes...but it does give you a new perspective on the Sierra Nevada.

And that's especially true this year.This has been an odd year, with rainfall only reaching 2/3 of our normal annual rainfall...And the snow levels throughout the year were just plain measly. See our posts of hiking in Yosemite in late December (when we spotted wildflowers at 5500 feet at the foot of Ribbon Falls) or in the middle of January (when there was almost NO snow in Tuolumne Meadows, at over 9000 feet!

But just in case you were under the impression that the snows of this spring, including the brief storms in late May and even in June, were enough to make up the difference, you are wrong. Sonora Pass is not only open---there is very little snow in sight. And Sonora Peak, at over 9,500 feet, is practically bare.

Sure, there are lakes in the high country that are still frozen, because it is still cold at night. But there simply hasn't been enough snow to stick to the ground, and what was there is now melted away.This should be a great year for hitting the trail---but we are a little worried about water later in the summer.

Our advice? Get out there now, while the getting is good!

Post date: Jun 25, 2012 9:49:19 PM P travels quite a lot for business, and he is just back from a week in Northern Italy, in the wine region of Franciacorta. It's a pretty scenic area...

Why is this of interest? Because Franciacorta is in the lake region nears the Alps, and he even managed to get in a hike through a wildlife preserve near lake Iseo. No, it's not the Sierra Nevada. In fact, it's pretty darn civilized in comparison. The walk takes you past the ancient Monastery of San Pietro...part of which dates to the 15th century.

But it did feel good to get out and stretch the legs for a little bit--especially after all that time sitting in airplanes. And while the wilderness experience isn't much like the Sierra, the food and wine in this part of Italy sure does make freeze dried dinners seem like fare fit only for prisoners of war. Amazing food. Wonderful wines. And did we mention the art?

Not surprisingly, there was a lot more culture than wilderness here, but that's not always a bad thing. Check out the photos via the link below...There were frescoes everywhere...most of which date from before the Pilgrims landed in New England...including one of a starry nighttime sky in the Oratorio of Santa Giulia in Brescia, which reminded him of the sparkling stars over the Sierra...Photos are here:

Post date: Jun 8, 2012 4:26:48 PM Since we live in the wine country, we know all too well that Mother Nature always laughs last. You can plan all you want, but the weather and conditions are subject change. And this is true even in a low snow year like 2012. While everyone has been getting very excited about the fact that there isn't much snow up in the Sierra, that doesn't mean that the weather has suddenly turned balmy.

Case in point? Sonora Pass has been closed twice in the last couple of weeks because of snowstorms. So yes, it's a great year to get up into the mountains. (it's ALWAYS a good year to do that!) But don't assume that since the weather has been milder this spring, that it is going to be much milder every single day from here on out. It can always get snow at high elevations in the Sierra, and from what we've seen, most of the lakes over 9,000 are still at least partially frozen over. It's still a good idea to plan on lower elevation hikes for early in the summer, unless you are experienced and know how to find your way when the trail is under snow....and the north slopes are slick and icy. But even lower elevation hikes aren't weather proof.

Post date: May 20, 2012 1:38:02 PM Normally by this time of year, we would have done at least one or two backpacking trips into the Sierra. And this year, with the lower snow levels, we had plans to really hit the mountains early and often. But those plans have been put on hold.About two months ago we were idly scanning the real estate ads for Tuolumne County...and the next thing you know, we found ourselves buying a cabin up by Twain Harte.

It's a nice location, with easy access to both Yosemite some of our favorite wilderness areas, like Emigrant, Hoover, and Carson-Iceberg. The price was right, even if the cabin needed a lot of work.

And what the heck, it was just a cabin, so how complicated could it be, right?Well, it was a lot more complicated than we would have guessed. And after working through some ridiculous details with the fine public servants at Freddie Mac, we finally closed escrow about a week ago. Of course, that meant that we couldn't leave town until we closed escrow, which was supposed to happen "any day" for over two weeks.

And now there are a million things that we want to do up there...and so our last two weekends have been spent tearing off old plywood, ripping out old carpet, cleaning, connecting the water, electricity, septic and gas, and refinishing the woodwork... sigh. And we aren't even really getting started. sigh. That's P at right, admiring the view now that we have taken off the rotting and very definitely not OEM roof over the rear deck.But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We've found a great contractor to take over some of the larger projects, and we're making good progress on some of the others. Unfortunately, we're also going to be out of town for much of the month of June, so we still won't be doing much backpacking.But we have a new schedule of dates and our old list of destinations...and we have new hope of finally getting out on the trail this summer!

Post date: May 10, 2012 3:49:37 PM Have you ever noticed this? The minute a story comes out about someone who needs rescuing in the mountains, the internet message boards are filled with people who never, ever make that mistake, and here’s why. These posters are quick to point out all the things they do right, and how smart they really are about all this. OK, fine. We’re not so sure. In our experience, most disasters in the mountains aren’t caused by a single bad decision, but a combination of decisions that slowly lead to a really bad situation. And if you read the accounts carefully, you can usually find about three or four points in every story where a different decision would have led to a different result. Of course, not always for the better—but still. There were options. There are almost always options.

We’ve been on lots of trips where we took stock of where we were and decided that it was time to back off, back out, or back down. No, we weren’t facing certain death. But we just decided that we had gone far enough, pushed our luck with the elements far enough, or simply didn’t like the way things looked. Or we’ve been slightly off trail, confused about the map, separated from our hiking partners, running out of water, getting cold, or worried about how late it was getting. None of those are very dangerous situations in and of themselves. We just didn't like the odds.

So we bailed. We turned around. That’s not very adventurous or determined, but it always seemed like the right decision at the time. You might read this and think that we are just like everyone else on the internet—that we’ve never made a mistake and we can’t imagine finding ourselves in a situation that requires rescue. You'd be wrong. In fact, we’d suggest just the opposite.

We CAN imagine ourselves in that situation, and that’s why we turn around (or chicken out.) We never like being in a situation where there is only one possible option to get out. The first option is always that you can turn around and go home. That’s a pretty good option in many cases, even if it doesn’t lead to epic or heroic adventures. Epic is over-rated.The single best piece of survival equipment is your brain. And the best way to use it is to avoid situations with few potentially good outcomes.

(You might explain that to the idiots who star in those outdoor survival shows on TV. They are clueless about this.)

The most famous example of all might be the Donner Party. They started a bit late, took an ill-advised cut-off, lost more time in the desert, and started up into the mountains when they were weak, low on food, low on energy and out of time. And that’s when the snows hit. Lots of people made similar mistakes, but not all on the same trip, and not in a year when the snows were massive. They left themselves with only one option, and it wasn't a good one.

Of course, if the Donner Party happened today, we would hear lots of explanations about how stupid they were, and how the various posters on the internet never find themselves in any trouble whatsoever when they travel, because they always make sure that …yadda yadda yadda.

Post date: May 4, 2012 1:32:08 AM There is some discussion these days among backpackers about the number of people that are allowed into the wilderness. The concern, of course, is that if there are hordes at every lake and stream, we quickly lose the sense of wilderness that we love. And we agree with that.

But that doesn't mean that we would EVER discourage anyone from taking a backpacking trip. Quite the opposite. When it comes to getting people out of their houses and cars, and into our National Parks and Forests, the more the merrier. Because once someone has experienced the joys and beauty of backpacking, they will become fans for life. And that means voters.

Let's face it. If we could depend on our elected politicians to do the right thing every time, life would be a lot easier. But we can't. Politics is a dirty, ugly game, and politicians make all sorts of deals every year. One offer we never want to see on the table is giving up our parks and forests. As Ken Burns noted, those are in many ways our greatest American idea.

So take someone backpacking today. Introduce them to the charms of the trail by day and the stars at night. Help them find their way around in the woods, and invite them to come back again with their friends. We do, and are we convinced that it will encourage more people to protect these wonderful places.

True, we often find ourselves hiking to distant locations these days, off the beaten path and often off-trail completely. And when we do that, we find the solitude and wonder that is always there. There are a lot of mountains up there. We need to protect them all. And we need all the help we can get.

More thoughts on the rock climbing course with REI.

P writes: Since I am pushing sixty, I was worried that I might not be able to keep up with the rest of the group--most of whom were half my age and had some good experience in climbing gyms.

They were so full of energy and confidence, and I was well aware of the fact that I was certainly among the weakest climbers in the group.

No worries--everyone was really helpful, and in the end, I didn't do too badly, but I was surprised about two things:

1. I seemed to focus more on finding an easier route, rather than powering up things. Which isn't to say that I kept up with them...but I was surprised at how willing they were to simply power up over a stretch. Impressive! At the same time, our guide mentioned that the routes we were climbing were 5.7 to 5.10. While I did NOT finish the climb on the toughest routes, even the 5.7 seemed pretty easy to me. I am convinced that I found ways up that rock that were simply easier. Slow but sure, always looking for the easy way up--or out!That's me on the left, looking for an easy way up. And Peter on the left, working a different route that required a clever and difficult move through that overhang.

2. I didn't feel as if I lacked the strength to do any of the moves ( although arthritis in my hands made me think about a few things) but I was surprised that sometimes a lack of flexibility hindered my options. I knew where I wanted to put my leg at times, I just couldn't get it up there!Maybe I should do more yoga, and less cycling... nah!

Post date: Apr 29, 2012 4:53:35 AM Six of us stood in front the vertical wall of rock on the side of Mt. St. Helena, staring sraight up. That morning we'd been tutored and outfitted, trained in all the techniques and commands of rock climbing. There was only one thing left for us to do.

Somebody was going to have to start climbing. The first ten or fifteen feet looked easy, but then things got more complicated. Elijah, our charmingly calm and competent guide from REI, explained that sometimes you just have to get up there to see what to do. But then, he was an expert, and had climbed this same face many times.

None of us had ever really climbed much outside of a gym. The younger four people on the climb all had experience in a rock climbing gym, and some of them looked very comfortable with all of this. That would pay off on the rock, too. I hadn't ever climbed in a gym, and hadn't been on a rock wall in forty years.

I generously volunteered to belay the first climber in our group, allowing one of the younger guys to climb first. It was the least I could do. Really. He started up quickly enough, and before I knew it, he had hoisted himself over the lip and up to the top of the rope, sixty or seventy feet above us. While he had been climbing for some time indoors, this was a pretty good show for the first time on real rock. I eased the rope out to let him back down the cliff and let the next guy climb.

Sooner or later, I was going to have to start climbing like everybody else. I watched a couple more climbers, tried to learn from their mistakes, and finally stepped up to the wall. The first few feet were obvious. And then there was a tricky little section where I couldn’t really see any handholds. I made it two thirds of the way up the wall before I decided that it was far enough. As I was being lowered away, Elijah pointed out that I didn't have to hang onto the rope with both hands. After all, if it broke, my hands weren't going to stop me from falling. And it wasn't going to break.

Trust the rope, he advised. I did, but it took a conscious decision on my part to do that.

Over the next couple of hours we took turns on different routes up the rock walls. My favorite route seemed complicated right at the start, and I eased over a bit to the left, to see if things were any better over there. A couple more feet up, and then I rested on my knee, easing over to another ledge. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece getting you just a bit closer to finishing. There was a nice crack going up to the right, and another that took me a bit left. And then as I stood up on that last foothold, I realized that I could touch the carabiner at the top of the climb. I gave it a pat, took a nice long look around, and let my belayer know I was ready to get lowered back down to terra firma. One thing I loved about this day was that our group was a wonderful combination of four young gym climbers from three different countries, and two of us “older” men who were just there for the ride.

The chemistry of the group and the leadership of Elijah could not have been more supportive and fun. There were lots of handshakes, hugs, and plenty of reassurance to those who were climbing up the walls. It really does make a difference to know that the person belaying you below is not only paying out rope, but also paying close attention.

I didn't fall during any of these climbs, nor did I try any complicated moves that struck me as being risky. I was more interested in seeing what felt comfortable up there, sometimes fifty feet high. And so I didn't make it to the top of a couple of the climbs.But next time…

Post date: Apr 17, 2012 4:23:13 PM In which P gets really geeky!Is there a mathematical solution to the challenge of ultralight backpacking? It seems that an engineer would be able to develop an equation that could be used to fine tune our equipment. It would have to address a number of variables.

I am not an engineer, nor do I play one on TV, but I did have some fun working through this problem:W = the weight of your pack when you leave the trailhead.

The goal is to manipulate the other variables to achieve a very low value for W. Lighter is better

P = the price you have to pay for your equipment, in dollars. Please convert from Euros, Rubles, etc. if required. And somehow our equation needs to reflect that as W is reduced, P usually increases. In fact, as W approaches zero, P probably arrives close to infinity—or at least beyond the reach of normal people.

In other words: Priceless. Ouch.

Instead, let’s set up the equation to reward people who do this lightly and CHEAP. So with all that in mind:

LET W = Weight in number of pounds you carry. Note that this will NOT be what you WANT to carry which will always be N-1 (where N = # ounces you are carrying).

C = $800—the rough price we paid for our backpacking outfit. You will have to use your own numbers here to see how you compare.

P = the Price you must pay for the gear (in dollars, pesos, rubles, etc.) per poundSo the final equation reads like this:

P = C/WDo you want to buy a new tent? What if the new tent weights three pounds? P= 800/3 = $266.67. Is that a good deal? Let’s compare that to staying with your old, four pound tent: P= 800/4 = $200.00

Is paying $66.67 worth it? Maybe. Most of us would agree that paying $20 would be worth it, if we could save a pound on our pack weight. Many of us would pay a lot more for that!

What about a new 1.5 pound tent? P= 800/1.5 = $533.33 That makes some lightweight gear seem like a screaming deal! Now let’s look at my own list, bearing in mind that we are NOT ultralighters, and that my wife and I certainly believe in some creature comforts. So we carry about fourteen pounds each, not including water and food. P = 775/14 = $57.26 cost per item per pound.

So I am presenting that as the BTS (Backpack the Sierra) constant. Let’s round it off to a nice round $60 per pound. How does your pack stack up? The real goal here isn’t to get the pack weight to zero—it’s to see how cost effective your kit is. Do you get by with lower cost equipment, but stuff that might weigh a little more? Or do you go for the ultimate lightweight gear, even if it costs you more?And how do those answers fit into the equation?

I would assume that other regions, which require more or less equipment, have somewhat different answers. Our own answers for winter camping would be like this:

P = 1000/18 = 55.55. That’s pretty dang close to the BTS constant!

Post date: Apr 6, 2012 2:28:51 PM This story in the Fresno Bee was brought to our attention:

Here's the headline and first few sentences: Judge suspends horse packing in national parks Says packing in Kings Canyon, Sequoia violates federal law. By Marek Warszawski - The Fresno Bee Wednesday, Apr. 04, 2012 | 11:56 PM The High Sierra Hikers Association has an established history of suing to protect wilderness areas. The 600-member nonprofit successfully sued the Sierra and Inyo national forests in 2000. That court ruling resulted in new mandates for commercial horse packers that effectively trimmed trailhead quotas by 20% in both the John Muir and Ansel Adams wilderness areas, which are managed by the Forest Service. Our concern with horses in the backcountry has less to do with the droppings they leave on the trail, and more to do with other impacts. We have encountered many of the usual horse-packing camps in the parts of the SIerra we love. They are heavily used, with barren, compacted earth, no living vegetation, and often will idiotic "camp furniture" as well. The furniture is the fault of the people, but that compacted earth with no vegetation is pure horse damage. In Emigrant Wilderness the whole north side of Grouse Lake has been turned into what looks like a parking lot for a car campground by horse packers. They literally ride there every day, tether the horses there so people can "enjoy" the lake, and the ride home again. In no way is it wilderness. (Camp Lake in that same area is currently closed to camping to allow it to recover from habitat damage, and Grouse Lake should be closed as well! ) And if you do the math, a single horse on the trail with its heavy weight and small footprint does 20 or thirty times more damage than a human hiker. If we limit trail use to a certain number of hikers per day (which we do via quotas) then we should certainly limit horses in the same way. Currently, those quotas are left up to the discretion of the owner of the pack station. Where hikers over use an area, that area gets closed and protected to allow it to recover. But because pack stations always operation out of the same location, this doesn't seem true for them. The damage that these animals do by repeated use on meadows and loose rock trails is huge, and that trail damage never seems to get repaired effectively. We are not philosophically opposed to horses in the High Sierra. There is a long history of horse riding in the mountains, and these animals do allow access by people ( and voters! ) who might not be physically able to enjoy the wilderness. But they should be under the same regulations and restrictions that limit the activities and impacts of rest of us Read more here:

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Group Size and Hiking Speed

There is a nice Spanish expression that came up during my hiking of the Camino Primitivo to Santiago de Compostela. I thought I'd post it here and see what you think: “Si quieres ir Rápido, ve Solo. S

Sonora Pass Open

From CalTrans Highway information; SR 108 [IN THE CENTRAL CALIFORNIA AREA & SIERRA NEVADA] No traffic restrictions are reported for this area. Backpackers, start your planning. Only Tioga Pass in Yose

Where to?

One of the great joys of backpacking is planning a trip.  We love to pore over maps, imagine or identify water sources, worry about the steep terrain, and dream of secret campsites with the perfect co


bottom of page