Mike’s TMB Gear List – June to September

TMB MarkerHaving just walked the Tour de Mont Blanc, I thought I’d share gear recommendations.

You’ll find it easier walking 110 miles (170 kilometer) up and down through mountain passes if you keep your gear light. And on the TMB, you’ll have ready access to shelter, beds, and food, so you don’t have to carry that stuff (unless you want to).

This list should work from mid-June to mid-September, but do check the weather forecasts. If you’ll have extended periods below freezing or are expected to be walking through heavy snow for longer periods, you may need another warmer layer and heavier footwear. With care, you can easily keep your pack weight below 15 lbs (7kg) without the need for a lot of expensive gear—pretty much all you need to carry is extra layers, clean clothes for the evening, and a few sundries.

Sound like too little? On my trip, I bumped into several runners, completing the TMB in 4 days, with even smaller/lighter packs.

This is a gear list for those who intend to stay in refugios/hotels, rather than camping.

Gear

  • Pack. Think roughly a 30L pack. If you get much bigger, you’ll start finding other stuff to put in. So don’t get a bigger pack! Bigger than 40L? You’ll probably fill it, and now you no longer have a light pack. Use something that fits you well and is comfortable. Get an HMG Windrider 2400, and your pack is waterproof. Otherwise, I prefer a trash compactor bag in the pack rather than a pack cover. If you’re not in the market for an expensive bag, look at the Osprey Exos 38 or similar.
  • Boots/Shoes.  I don’t think you need boots. (As someone who hiked for yers with bad ankles, I also don’t think boots helped with ankle support.) Even if there will be some snow. Get a good, comfortable hiking shoe with GoreTex surround. (I’m not normally a fan of GoreTex in footwear…but with a good chance of rain and snow, they’re worth it here.) Don’t use a lightweight trail runner unless you’ve absolutely kept your gear weight down—and you’ve tried hiking the ups/downs in them, with your weighted pack. See for example, La Sportiva Primer Low GTX, North Face Ultra, or Salomon Ellipse GTX.  
  • Sleep sack. A comfortable silk sleep sack for the refugios.
  • Hiking Poles:  I like two, Leki Corklite. Smaller people will like lighter carbon poles better. (Some people don’t use them at all—I like them for uphill and downhill alike.)
  • T-Shirt. Not cotton. Just one You do not want to carry too much.  Weight is your enemy.  And we won’t notice the smell! I really like wool (Smartwool, Ibex, Icebreaker). Rinse your hiking shirt out at the end of the day (it will dry quickly) in your hotel/refugio (where permitted), and put on your clean shirt for hanging out sleeping. Change back before you start hiking in the morning.
  • Long Sleeve Top, wool or synthetic.  Again, just one. Lightweight. It the forecast calls for warm temps, I bring instead a second T-shirt and a pair of sleeves like cyclists use.
  • Rain Parka—Light shell, per your taste. I like GoreTex, with pitzips and pocket vents.
  • Rain Pants. Marmot Precip are a good, light, value choice.
  • Fleece Jacket or light down sweater, with hood. You do need to be prepared for snow, even in the summer.
  • Tights (or long johns). One pair—These are my post shower pants. In warmer temps, I’l omit these for a very light second pair of shorts. This is extra weight—but a nice comfort item when staying in the refugios/hotels.
  • Shorts. one pair. This is want I hike in, down to freezing. If it’s cold or nasty, pull on the rain pants.
  • Light gloves, preferably waterproof. Optional: add a waterproof over-glove.
  • Two pairs. One pair to walk in. One pair for the refugio. Fast-drying so you can rinse and reuse!  (Rinse the walking pair in your shower.) I’m partial to wool, but go with one of the synthetics if you like ‘em.
  • Socks. Two pair, plus a light liner pair. Again, a pair to walk in, a pair to rinse. Liner as a spare or if you think blistering is a problem. (Get the right shoes, and it shouldn’t be!) I prefer wool. NOT COTTON.
  • Hat with brim. Long sunny stretches (or long rainy stretches)
  • Warm Hat. Nice for cooler nights, and emergency backup. Or one of the adapted head/neck gaiters.
  • Bandana. Cotton—multiple uses.
  • Wristwatch. If you want…helps coordinate meet up stops and just useful to know how long you’ve been going to help gauge distance.
  • Flashlight, preferably LED headlamp. With fresh batteries in light.
  • Duct tape. several feet wrapped around your trekking pole or water bottle, or folded into a small rectangle. Also a small role of coaches tape.
  • Any special meds, and maybe a micro first aid-kit/emergency kit…., just a few Advil/allergy/bandaids..
  • Emergency Blanket. Mylar or similar. I don’t think you should backpack in the mountains without one. If you, or someone else gets injured or stranded, this could make a big difference. a few oz. piece of insurance against unexpectedly very cold weather in a sleeping bag or wrapped between clothes. Also a signal device in an emergency. A must-have.
  • And guide book if you want. I used Kev Reynolds two-way guide, but careful cut out the direction I wasn’t using and some of the supplemental material. Definitely helpful at a few confusing spots along the way. And a nice aid to plan your day.
  • Passport, credit card/ATM card, and cash.
  • Toothbrush/Paste: A small tube of paste. Small soap/shampoo. And any other toiletries—but don’t go overboard. Blistex or something to keep the lips soft
  • Small tube, high SPF factor. You don’t want to carry the 16oz bottle. Pay a couple extra dollars for the small amount.
  • Toilet Paper/hand cleaner/Ziploc bag to pack out your toilet paper if needed. A few small stuff sacks and Ziplock Bags: Keep your stuff dry and organized.
  • Water Bladder/bottles. You shouldn’t need to carry more than 2 liters. Bring some tablets to treat water in an emergency.
  • A few ounces of snack food—you can replenish as you good, especially if you like bread and cheese.
  • OPTIONAL: Knife/Swiss Army Knife/Leatherman:  I carry a micro leatherman.
  • OPTIONAL: Camera. If you want. Can use smart phone, which can also hold a backup map. If you bring a smart phone, bring a way to charge it. (Refugios generally have a few outlets you can jockey for…but you may need an adaptor.
  • OPTIONAL: Pen/Pencil/Paper/Book. (Another use for your smartphone.)
  • OPTIONAL: Traction device, which you may carry or not, depending on conditions. If you plan to camp.

Camping Gear—Only If You’re Camping!

  • Tent, tarp, or Bivvy sack.
  • Sleeping Bag—appropriate for season
  • Sleeping Pad.
  • Stove/Pot, if desired.
  • Bowl/Cup, spoon, if desired.

If it’s not on this list, and you think you need it, reconsider. Chances are you don’t need it. And you don’t want to carry extra weight. Extra weight is bad.

Don’t Bring

  • A lot of extra stuff “just in case”
  • Too many extra clothes—any extra is probably too much!
  • A 42 pound sleeping bag.
  • Camping stuff if you’re not camping.
  • More food than you need–and remember, you can buy food along the way, often every few hours.
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The Tour de Mont Blanc (or how much risotto could a woodchuck eat if a woodchuck could eat risotto?)

Irises around Mt Blanc

On the final day, I glimpse of what I thought the walk of the Tour de Mont Blanc would be…

There are different kinds of challenges. Sometimes you might want to see how much scuba gear you can carry through the desert. Other times, you want to see how the newbies fare on long Grand Canyon hike.

After my friend Joe pointed me to an article on the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB), I decided that in might be an interesting challenge to see how much wine and cheese (and risotto and lasagna and…) I could consume while hiking through the mountains.

The answer is, as it turns out, a lot!

The TMB is a 110-mile loop around the tallest mountain, really the Mont Blanc massif, in Europe, featuring beautiful views, tranquil lakes, and alpine villages, passing through France, Italy, and Switzerland on the way. Or, as I did it, a 120-mile loop, through rain, snow, and mist, with visibility occasionally dropping down to a couple of meters. The “normal” itinerary is 11 days, but needing to fly to Chicago, I didn’t have that much time, so I planned on 6 days. (I wound up opting to take 6.5 days…with a glorious bit of sunshine and some of those views on the last half-day!)

The hike is generally on well-maintained trails, and often roads, more roads than I’d imagined. While camping is possible, there are a series of Refuges/Refugios and villages where most people sleep. The trail is generally obvious and well-marked, although on occasion some critical junctions aren’t posted, and the route can be less obvious when walking through town. The refugios worked well for me, but I think this is mainly because I went before the main season so they weren’t crowded. I suspect the nasty weather kept even more people away.  I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much with the crowds.

For example, the Refugio Elisabeta, parked at 7,200′ (2195m), with views of views of Mont Blanc, the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey and the valley below, was delightful. The mushroom risotto was amazing–and you’d better believe I embraced the offer for seconds. Our host Marta was delightful. And both the house wine and the surprising Italian microbrew (an oatmeal stout), were delicious. But the Refugio only had 12 guests that night–it has a capacity of 90, and often hits that during busy season. I had a room to myself, and it wouldn’t have been as nice sharing it with a bunch of other stinky people. (Yes, some people might like that, though.)

This certainly isn’t a wilderness experience, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an enjoyable hike. There is the potential for a good deal of elevation gain and loss, especially if you stretch the miles each day, and some of the high passes can challenge the lungs of someone who lives near sea level. And inclement weather can add an element of excitement.

For example, near the end of a long first day, not at all acclimated to the elevation, and already wet hours of downpour, I started walking up the Col du Bonhomme, in the snow, in my mesh approach shoes. The temps dropped below freezing. The rain turned to snow. The visibility dropped. At the top of the col, I entered a small warming hut to get out of the wind and wring out some wet clothes. Inside the hut were a couple Israeli guys, one of them in full-body shivering mode. They didn’t know what they were getting into. I encouraged him to take off all his wet clothes and put on dry clothes. And eat something. When it seemed like things were under control for them, I left for the final push to the Refuge du Bonhomme, telling them that if they didn’t make it by 8pm, I’d come back to help. I confess to being quite happy when they trudged in at 7:58, meaning I didn’t have to go back out. It’s probably good to have some experience hiking in snow in the mountains, especially when the forecast calls for snow in the mountains you’re hiking in!

The advice given by many I bumped into along the trails was not to go over the high passes given the weather and poor visibility. I sure wouldn’t have if there were a thunderstorm risk. But generally, conditions were passable, if not ideal. That said, because of the lack of visibility I didn’t cross the Col du Fours or the Fenêtre d’Arpette, both variations to the main route.  On the plus side, I did get to test the subfreezing limits of my summer backpacking gear–no problem except for the inappropriate footwear choice. (For those looking for gear recommendations for this hike, I’ll provide them separately.)

The hike provided an opportunity to dust off my rusty French. It helped. While often there were English speakers, it wasn’t always the case, and frequently the French helped gather richer details on routes, conditions, and where to find more cheese.

I suspect it would have been awesome walking in the warm sunshine with expansive mountain views. All told, though, it was still a great way to spend the week, sometimes focused on the small things, enjoying the moments differently, and enjoying the contemplative meditative benefits of walking through whiteout conditions. For someone looking for a taste of backpacking through the mountains, and a taste of Italian dinners, French cheeses, and Swiss…well let’s maybe not talk about the Swiss food, the TMB ain’t a bad choice!

For those looking for more info on the TMB, do start with Kev Reynolds’s The Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide. I will post separately, a breakdown of my itinerary, reviews, and gear recommendations.

(More photos.)

Cheers.

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Review: La Sportiva TX3

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La Sportiva TX3 after being pushed hard for several days in the Grand Canyon

Very impressed! Awesome shoe! Sticky. Comfortable. Protective. Durable. Breathable. Did I say awesome?

Over the past few years, I’ve primarily hiked, backpacked, and done canyoneering in various Five Ten models. First, I love the grippiness of their Stealth soles. And second, they tend to run on the wide side and fit my paddle feet. Unfortunately, I’ve been very underwhelmed with their durability, and that seems to be getting worse rather than better with newer models.

Several people had suggested La Sportiva as a worthy replacement, and I’m always admired their shoes. Unfortunately, La Sportivas just haven’t fit my wide feet. Until now. Enter the TX3.

The combination of TX3’s wider forefoot and the very adjustable lacing scheme means these shoes fit me very well. Initially, they didn’t seem quite as “comfortable” as say the Five Ten Camp Fours or Savants right out of the box, but they felt good. And the fit seemed much more secure than the Five Tens. In fact as I actually started walking with them, the TX3 seemed more comfortable than just about anything I’ve every worn–I love them!–and they’re quite comfortable on the trail. (I think part of the Five Ten initial comfort comes from them often being a bit too cushy and sloppy-loose on my foot, a huge downside once the terrain gets rough.)

I opted for the TX3 over the TX4 because of the synthetic uppers. Spending time in the water in canyons, I wanted something that dried a bit faster, and I didn’t want to worry about leather shrinkage. I also expected the synthetic would be more breathable than the leather.

Impressions from the Field

I’d worn these around town for a few weeks to verify the fit was good and that they felt comfortable lugging a huge pack around. Last week, I had the chance to test them out in a more challenging environment on a several-day trip canyoneering in slots of the Grand Canyon (a great test for any shoe!).

Stickiness/Traction. The Vibram Mega-Grip sole did not seem quite as sticky as the Five Ten Stealth soles on either wet or dry rock, from sandstone to polished limestone, to wet river rocks…but it was very close, and I found it worked well. In addition, the tread and heel design on the TX3 worked much better than something like the Camp Four on other terrain, and this was particularly notable on loose rock or mud. For example, on the exit from Scotty’s Hollow, my feet slid all over on the talus slope in Five Tens last Fall, but fared much better last week with the TX3s. A small smooth area by the big toe worked also well smearing. The overall net result is I felt generally I got better traction with the TX3.

Support and Lateral Stability. The TX3 provides great lateral stability compared to the Camp Fours or Savant. The sole seemed more rigid without sacrificing comfort. The shoe edged better than any Five Ten approach shoe I’ve worn. Overall the support was great. There was just enough sole stiffness to help with the ridiculously heavy packs (hard to be ultralight with a lot of rope, webbing, wetsuit, and other canyoneering gear) and yet flexible enough for both comfortable walking or busting a move. The sole provided a great balance between being able to feel the ground and, well, not being able to feel the ground! That is, I felt I always knew where my foot was, but every sharp edge and pebble didn’t telegraph through.

Durability. After a good pounding, these shoes still look great. The rubber rand around the entire shoe covers the most common failure points I’ve had with Five Tens, and there is little exposed stitching in the critical areas. The synthetic mesh looks and feels a lot more durable, and the time in the field proves this out. One trade off is that the rubber rand and tight weave of the mesh make it a bit less breathable than something like the Savant, but that’s a trade off I’m absolutely willing to make to avoid having the shoe disintegrate off my foot as the Savants have. The sole’s rubber also seems a bit harder than the Stealth, and it seems to be wearing better–I should get a lot more miles out of these shoes than anything from Five Ten.

My friend Bob, whose Savants blew out on approaches in Red Rock Canyon right before our trip, at the last minute grabbed a pair of the TX4s (leather upper, rather than synthetic, because there were no TX3s available in stock) for the Grand Canyon trip. While I don’t want to speak for him, he liked them straight out of the box and onto the trail. Previously, he’d found that La Sportivas didn’t fit his feet well, either. (Update from Bob: “Good review. Real leather is my only complaint with these shoes, but that’s a minor issue.”)

Conclusion

The TX3 may not be for everyone, but I found it to be a great shoe, and it will now be my go-to choice for a wide variety of activities. With its wider forefoot and adaptable lacing, it’s worth checking out even if you haven’t found La Sportivas fit well in the past. Two enthusiastic thumbs up!

Update, September 2016

About about 250 canyon and trail miles on these, some quite rugged, and the uppers are still in great shape. The stitching has help up, the rands show some minor scuffing from the abuse heaped on them, and the sole is still tightly laminated. Concerns about the mesh upper holding up don’t seem warranted–they are solid.

The tread on the sole is wearing rapidly, as I’d expect on rubber this soft and sticky, and I expect to get less than 100 miles more until these are relegated to street/packed trail use. I still love these. I wouldn’t wear them for everyday use because the soles would wear too quickly, but for off-roading, the TX3s are awesome!

 

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Great Big Kanab and a Few of Her Slots

Bob Davis on rappel in Crack Baby

Bob on the third rappel in Crack Baby

The rains and flashing canyons prevented the intended exploration of the Kanab Creek area last Fall. (See Scotty’s Bail.) But if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (And who wouldn’t jump at the chance to stay at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel at Kanab Creek!)

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Sunset at Kanab Point

So Bob and I saddled up in Vegas and headed out. First we needed a longer rope, and Bob needed some new shoes (see TX3 review), having blown out his approach shoes climbing in Red Rock Canyon fro several days as a warm-up. After a quick stop at Desert Rock Sports, we were on our way for night camping near the trailhead (I use “trailhead” a bit loosely–it more of a “go that way” route than a trail) out on Kanab Point.  Nice big view of the Kanab drainage and up and down the Colorado including glimpses of some of our favorites canyons, Olo, Matkat, and SOB.

After a windy night on the point, we stuffed the bags too full of rope and webbing and 5 1/2 days of food. Dang, a third person would have been great to share both some weight and volume. But it was time to HTFU and start walking. There was a big weather system to the northwest, dumping snow in Utah, and potentially bringing some rain our way this day. We’d have to keep a watch on things as we went, but after Day 1, the forecast for the rest of the week was good.

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Two-stage rappel in Supai of Kanab Zero

Picking our way down to the Esplanade was pretty straight forward. We made our way to the head of Kanab Zero. And then down we went.

Down, down, down. Kanab Zero is probably about a mile long, but it has about 1200′ of rappels in that mile. After a bit of scrambling, it’s one drop after another, really helping you understand the depth of the GFC. The second set of rappels is a two-stage drop totaling 400′. I went first, admittedly with a few butterflies as I started the big drop without much warm-up to test friction of a new and unfamiliar rope (we had Imlay’s 8.3mm Canyon Fire, rather than the 8mm rope I was used to). As I was about halfway down this drop, the rain started. Not heavy, but it was rain. Bob came down. It was early afternoon. We discussed the next step.

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Concerned about rain, we opted to pull up short for the day and camp at the top of the Redwall rather than head into the slot.

We walked to the top of the Redwall. The light rain continued. The wind stiffened a bit. The now narrow slice of sky that we could see was gray. The latest info we had said the only real potential for rain was that afternoon, and evening, tapering into the early morning. High winds were also expected through the morning. We knew we still had a lot of vertical in a narrow slot, but we didn’t no exactly what it looked like or how long it would take to finish. Being old and wise–or maybe just old–we decided it was best to wait it out on the nice Redwall bench. The rain sputtered off and on. We set up camp.

As it turned out, no heavy rain came. Stopping for the day still seemed like the prudent decision.

It did have one implication, though. Plan A called for visiting Kanab Zero, Whispering Falls, Crack Baby, and Rattlesnake canyons. To fit these in, we expected long days with everything going well. Losing a half day, it now seemed like fitting in Rattlesnake would be too much for our frail constitutions. The good news, however, was that meant we now had a much more leisurely trip on our hands. And plenty of time for Bob’s tasteless jokes. Ask him about the horse… It also meant we were woefully under-supplied with rye. Amateurs!

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210′ 3-stage rappel in Redwall of Kanab Zero

All was not lost, however. Fortunately, given a choice between the hard route and the easy route, on any approach, bypass, or even water run, Bob picks the hard route every time. This meant we’d still be able to get a bit a suffering in to make the whole trip worthwhile.

Day 2. Morning came, with blue sky and and. We continued down the Kanab Zero Redwall, drop after drop, with not much walking between. The slot isn’t as drop-dead gorgeous as others in the Grand Canyon, but it’s still quite nice, and stunning in its pace, one 200-footer after the next right on through the Temple Butte. I’d do it again.

(Side note: there were a couple of new(-ish) and unnecessary bolts at the top of one of the larger Redwall drops when a suitable natural anchor was available. Please don’t do this!)

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With a late morning exit from Kanab Zero, we set up camp right across Kanab Creek, lunched, and headed for Whispering Falls.

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Whispering Falls Rap

The Whispering Falls sneak route was by far my least favorite part of the trip. This wasn’t just because Bob dislodged a bowling ball sized rock (OK, more like a large grapefruit, but the guy on the receiving end of the rock gets to exercise a little poetic license) came crashing down toward my head in yet another failed attempt to do me in. I deflected it with my left hand, way too close for comfort. Even beyond that, clawing up the powdery, crumbly slope just wasn’t fun–it was the one time during the excursion that my adrenaline spiked, and that kept me jittery even as the climb topped out and we walked along the relatively prominent path for the drop into the Whispering Falls slot.

The slot itself was nice, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others on the itinerary, even with the lovely falls and grotto. But boy, if this is the worst slot on your trip, you’re in for a good time! Bob did try to hit me with another rock during the rope pull. It landed within 2″ of my right foot. Wear your helmets, people! Especially if Bob is out to get you.

Day 3 was a stroll up the Creek to the mouth of Crack Baby. With our relaxed itinerary, we hardly needed a blistering pace. Kanab is a virtual highway by Grand Canyon standards, fairly level, and not too many boulders to negotiate. Arriving at Crack Baby, and having left the last water in the creek bed almost two hours earlier, we were delighted that the large pothole at the mouth of the slot had lots of water for drinking purposes…and that we’d get to swim through the following day. (Note, this is a potential important source of water located about 30 minutes up from the confluence with Jumpup Canyon.) Bob climbed up, down, and filled a dry bag for us to carry that short walk back to the creek bed where we camped for the night.

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Preparing at the head of Crack Baby

On Day 4, morning found us walking around to Flipoff Canyon, making the short climb to the top of the Redwall, and then the easiest walking of the week on the well-worn path to the head of Crack Baby. Bob added to our growing collection of trash pickup, finding a hat and a neoprene  sock. (We’d cleaned up some webbing and strangely left-behind rope, reusing some of it we were comfortable with for a few anchors. Add to that three balloons, a locking biner, and some tiny rusty rapides, etc.) Hitting the head of CB, we suited up.

What a fun technical canyon! Just five raps over a short distance, through a narrow, dark, and polished corridor. You’ll definitely want some good natural anchor skills here.

Some ado is made of the 4th rap, a 90-footer, off an overhanging ledge with sharp limestone teeth making the start a bit awkward and sporty. (Based on the reports, I’d used a little calming tree pose in anticipation.) The anchor is a knot chock in a depressed crack (pictured above, right). I decided to overcome the awkwardness of the start with a second anchor for a hand line, in the same crack. Not only did this help ensure the primary anchor would stay put, but it allowed us to provide a modicum of control as we eased ourselves into position with one hand on the hand line (using the anchor line would be a problem–your hand could easily get smashed and trapped in the crack as the anchor weighted). A bit of extra webbing, but it made the start pretty smooth. Relatively speaking, anyway.

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Bob on the 90′ Rap #4 in Crack Baby. Watch the awkward start over a sharp, toothy, limestone edge

Exiting Crack Baby, we took an hour to dry out ropes and gear before repacking for the stroll down Kanab Creek. On our new slacker itinerary, we only had to get back to Showerbath Spring for a quaint afternoon watching hummingbirds. Along the way we saw a flock of about 20 white birds that appeared to be cattle egrets. (Bob suggests snowy egrets. Bruce–we needed your ornithological skills here) First time I’d seen anything like them in the Grand Canyon. Alas, didn’t have a long enough lens for a good photo.

Day 5 was the hump through the beautiful Scotty’s Hollow. Damn, those packs were heavy now that we were carrying them uphill. While we could have schlepped all the way out that afternoon, we still had a budgeted half-day the next day, we figured there were worse places on the planet to sleep, so we stopped on the Esplanade, with water just a short 90′ rap away. Bob rapped down and filled up. He could have downclimbed/upclimbed this sans rope but that probably wouldn’t be advisable for mere mortals.

The next morning, with an early start, we ground up the talus slope to exit, found our way to the road, dropped packs, and seemingly flew back to the trailhead, covering the last four miles in just over an hour of walking.

Next up? Maybe back to Marble Canyon. Or a pontoon boat in the Caribbean?

See a bigger set of photos.

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Back to our vehicle and a coolish beer at the Kanab Point trailhead

 

 

 

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Scotty’s Bail

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October 2105.

Alex and I had a great idea to loop through a bunch of the Kanab Creek slots, starting and exiting via Scotty’s Hollow.

A great idea. But it didn’t work well. The biggest challenge was the late season thunderstorms rolling through. We kept are eyes on the forecast and the sky, and opted to delay a bit, probe a bit, and bail a bit.

The first day was a late start because we decide it was too risky to hit the slot in the afternoon as the expected storms rolled in. Good call. They came. As it turned out, it didn’t matter, because we blew the entry! Not having been the way, we relied on some good beta, 2 or three cairns, and some footprints. We should have ignored the footprints! They led us in the wrong direction, and we spent a few hours looking for the break…getting further and further from the real way down. A long afternoon side hilling on loose crap. Quite sporty!

(The correct route is laughingly obvious from the bottom, less so from the top.)

DSC_00scottys hollow rim route

As we called it and headed back, we saw the storms come in and the washes feeding the Scotty’s slot flashing. With the rain and wind and looming dark, we bailed, pitched the tarp, and spent the night sliding out and crawling back in!

With the forecast calling for more storms the next day, we decided to abort, and retry two days later when things were supposed to be clear.  Good call.

Hot shower, cold beer, and a restart. But now we knew the trip would be shorter, and we’d have to cut out a few slots. Having restudied the beta, we quickly found the right break, the only break really, and headed down.

We opted to descend the North Fork of Scotty’s knowing we’d come back up the other side. The North Fork is nice, but not spectacular. Below that, though, Scotty’s is gorgeous and fun. No ropes needed, but fun scrambling, wading, and a bit of swimming in the recently replenished pools.

Kanab Creek was supposed to be the highway for this trip, allowing us the loop among the slots. By the time we got there, a good 24+ hours after the rain, the creek was still swollen. You’ll sometimes see photos of people walking in the less than ankle deep clear creek. We saw bubbling chocolate milk that ranged from just below the knee to the collarbones at one point. We were able to navigate and made it laboriously upstream to Showerbath Spring, but it was clear the going was too slow and sketchy for us to really make the distance needed.

Spending the night at Showerbath, we decided just to leave it for another day. We turned and took a leisurely time up Scotty’s and actually met two groups coming down. One group was Keith Peterson and Co., on their way down to what would be a successful climb of Scotty’s Castle–awesome! It was nice having Monkey Boy Alex for the climb up the chockstone’s in Scotty’s. The wet mud at the bottom of each chockstone made for some slippy feet. But we perfected sending the climby boy up the large man’s back, and then using a hand line to get to big guy up.

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It seems the other group we passed was a couple of guys who apparently cairned the heck out of the trail down. Big cairns, and tightly grouped. While that would have made our first probe easier, I confess to returning a few of them to their natural state (when you can see five cairns from one spot in the wilderness, I consider that overkill).

Didn’t come close to the trip as planned. But not a bad way to spend a few days in the Hole.

And we’ll be back to tackle the original Plan soon.

(Here’s a bigger set of photos and a set of bigger photos.)

 

 

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Mike Rogers’s Draft Comments on Proposed Backcountry Management Plan

GC 2015 - Tanner to Grandview MR DSC_0891

See the GCNP Backcountry Management Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement

Mike’s Draft Comments, 19-Feb-2016. Note to Myself and Others: Comment period extended through April 4, 2016

As an avid hiker and backpacker, and frequent visitor to the Grand Canyon National Park, and U.S. citizen, I have reviewed the November 2015 Backcountry Management Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Plan/EIS), and I am respectfully submitted comments.

I support the goals and objectives delineated in the Plan/EIS. There are several worthwhile elements listed in the Alternative Plans. However, none of Alternatives as listed are acceptable. Each contains serious problems, as spelled out below. Because of the significant reworking that would need to be done, the National Park Service (NPS) should discard the proposed Alternatives and substantially redraft the Plan. With the revisions needed, the redrafted Plan should be submitted to another round of public review and comment.

Following are some of the major issues with the proposed Plan/EIS along with alternative recommendations.

RABT (Packrafting)

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

Under all proposed Alternatives, “portable, personal watercraft used on the river for RABT would be carried in and out by the user on the itinerary where RABT takes place” would be permitted. A limited number of permits would be issued for day hikes involving river travel, excluding certain closure areas. Across all proposals, maximum group size would be six. Maximum trip length varies by individual Alternatives B, C, and D.

Comments:

The zone-based approach, taking into account realist routes for backcountry travellers is certainly preferably to the arbitrary current limit of 5 miles. The zones in alternative B are smaller and may prevent reasonable crossings on very reasonable itineraries. While I’m not in favor of the 11-mile limit on Alternative D, some hybrid approach with a total river travel limit may be needed to balance reasonable use by backcountry hikers using RABT on genuine backcountry hiking routes with those on traditional river trips.

Proposed Revision:

The final Plan should use the Zones in Alternative B, but modifying the last four zones to allow exit on the north side of the river rather than via tribal land.

Great Thumb Access

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

Under Alternatives B, C, &D, the Plan/EIS proposes to permit ten groups of no more than 1-6 hikers per group to access hiking routes off of Great Thumb each year.  These permits would be limited to the months of March through May. Groups would be limited to two vehicles, and would have to be accompanied by a tribal escort from the Havasupai tribe.

Comment:

This proposal does not conform to the Act of Congress, signed into law by President Ford, which expanded the Havasupai lands to include Great Thumb, but maintained a park boundary and imperative to maintain public recreational use and access. Per the Act, the rim of the canyon around Great Thumb (the one-quarter mile from the rim) is within the Park and not within the tribal lands, and should be open to backcountry visitors. NPS has presented no information or analysis in the Plan/EIS to support either the seasonal limitation or the group size limitation as proposal.  Further, the requirement for a tribal escort does not fit within any objective for protecting park resources, since the escort is across tribal, rather than the Grand Canyon National Park.

Proposed Revision:

The rim of the canyon around Great Thumb (the one-quarter mile from the rim) is within the Park and not within the tribal lands, and should be open to backcountry visitors.  Areas below the rim fall within existing Use Area definitions and no change to visitation or permit limits is needed.

Boundary Road

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

Under Alternatives B and D, the Boundary Road would remain closed.  Under Alternative C, the road would be reopened.

Comment:

The Boundary Road should be reopened. The proposed Plan/EIS states that this road could be used occasionally for emergency vehicle access, and this is true. Opening the Boundary Road, however, would also allow access to more trailheads between Hermit’s Rest and the Grand Scenic Divide. This could potentially reduce traffic on Hermit Trail, spreading use over a wider area. In addition, opening the road would allow access to areas of the GCNP such as the South Bass trailhead, and by allowing hikers to travel to and from South Bass without encroaching on Havasupai tribal lands, would alleviate impact of these tribal land.

Proposed Revision:

Open the Boundary Road to provide access within the GCNP boundary all the way to the South Bass trailhead. You can consider keyed/gated access as a way to help monitor and control traffic.

Commercial Guided Hiking

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

The Plan/EIS offers many possible changes to the way hiking guide companies (“Commercial Overnight Backpacking Services”) are regulated.  One of the most significant changes would grant concessions to selected guide companies. Concessioners would be reserved a specified number of user-nights and will no longer be required to apply for permits on an equal footing with hikers who are not using guide services.  A number of other changes include:

  • Commercial use not allowed in Wild zone
  • Caps on groups per night
  • Concessioners allowed to reserve trips one year in advance
  • Limitations on CUA holders (as distinct from concessioners)

Comment:

This change seems to hurt both self-guided hikers and those who prefer guided hikes alike by dividing the potential user nights into bifurcated commercial and private categories. Commercial guided hiking, whether under the CUA or with selected concessionaires, should compete fairly for the limited pool of permits with hikers who prefer to go on their own.

The Plan/EIS uses the phrase “visitors that prefer to travel independent of commercial services” to self-guided independent hikers.  In Alternatives B and C, independent hikers would lose availability for user-nights of backcountry camping in some areas as these would be reserved for commercial concessionaires.  The user-nights thus transferred fall primarily within the high-demand Corridor management zone.  A smaller number of user-nights are removed from commercial use (in other zones) and freed up for independent hikers.  Not only is the number of nights unbalanced, with more nights taken away than freed up, but the nights taken are in use areas with high demand, in which independent hikers already have difficulty obtaining permits. These areas, including the Corridor are areas where many independent hikers would like to gain the experience and confidence to hike own their own. Limiting the user-nights here risks potentially shutting independent hikers out of these popular areas not only denying them the opportunity but also potentially pushing first-time hikers into more remote areas. This potentially increases the impact in Wild areas, and also may raise safety concerns as more inexperienced hikers are in effect encouraged to go where traffic, ranger patrols and park services are far less prevalent by definition.

Proposed Revision:

All hikers should have equal opportunity to get permits for Corridor and other high use areas, including during the popular Spring and Fall hiking seasons.

Day Hike Permits

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

Under all action alternatives (B, C, and D) day use permits would be required seasonally for hiking beyond three defined locations:

  • Bright Angel Trail: East Tonto Trail junction.
  • South Kaibab Trail: Tip-Off
  • North Kaibab Trail: Manzanita Resthouse

The expected cost of the day use permit is at least $5 per person per day.

The Plan/EIS indicated that will be subject to Adaptive Management with future changes to include possible limitations to group size, daily total use limits, designated days for groups, year-round permit requirements, and expanding the policy to include additional trails.

Comments:

From available data it appears that during busy Spring and Fall weekends an estimated 400 to 600 people hike or run Corridor Zone trails rim-to-rim or rim-to-river. The highest impact from extended day hiking and running is concentrated l the Corridor trails and Phantom Ranch during Spring and Fall weekends. Any mitigation strategy should thus be focus on these areas and times.

As proposed, only Corridor trails are affected, and I agree with this recommendation. However, it seems many people hike only a couple miles down the major trails. Subjecting all of these hikers to a paid day-hiking permit would likely push them to use other trails not subject to the permit fee. These could very predictably adversely impact to soils, vegetation, wildlife and visitor experience in those areas, and potentially create safety issues as less experienced hikers increasingly venture into more wilderness areas.

As the worded in the Plan/EIS, through the Adaptive Management process the NPS could than significantly and continuously increase affected areas and costs with little or no public input. This is addressed more below.

Proposed Revision:

Because the stated objective of the day hike permit is to reduce impact on Phantom Ranch facilities, the permit should be required for day hikers crossing the river (from the south) or passing the Clear Creek trail junction from the north rim.

River Zone/Human Waste Management

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

The NPS proposes to adopt a River Zone consisting in essence of the shoreline along the Colorado River up to the historical high water line.  Under Alternatives B, C, and D the Plan/EIS would require human waste to be carried out from River Zone backcountry sites.  Commercially guided backpacking trips will be required to carry out human waste from all use areas without toilets.

The Human Waste policy will be subject to Adaptive Management, with possible future actions to include replacing or removing existing toilets, installing toilets at additional sites, or a year-round waste carry-out requirement at all, or specified, use areas or zones.

Comment:

The intent to mitigate the impact of proper human waste in the river zone, and in beach camps like Hance Rapids in particular, is much appreciated and necessary. However, the carryout provision is fraught will challenging management and enforcement problems, especially in “at-large” camping areas. I’d prefer to see some of the more accessible, high-use, high-impact areas have designated hiker campsites with composting toilets rather than pack out rules, which I feel serve both the public and the resource better (given the enforcement and compliance issues).

Hance Rapids is a site at which a composting toilet could be justified, as is already the case at Tanner Beach. Hance Rapid might benefit even further from designated campsites within something like ¼ mile of the river to prevent social trailing to creative camping just to avoid pooping in the River Zone. Some additional mitigation might also be warranted outside of the River Zone. For example, Hance Creek has seen a big increase in obvious toilet paper blossoms, from too much pooping, and too little packing out toilet paper. (Evidence of why pushing more hikers out of the Corridor and further into the backcountry might not be a good idea.)

Proposed Revision:

A new composting toilet at Hance Rapids should be incorporated. A proposal for designated campsites within ¼ mile of Hance Rapids should be considered. A composting toilet for Hance Creek should also be considered.

Deer Creek Narrows Closure

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

The draft Plan/EIS proposed different treatments of the Deer Creek Narrows. Under Alternatives B and D, the existing closure of Deer Creek Narrows will be made permanent, while under Alternative C, the Narrows will be open and unrestricted.

Comment:

The 2012 Superintendent’s Compendium effectively closed the Deer Creek Narrows. “Deer Creek Drainage, river mile 136.9, right bank of the Colorado River… Rappelling or ascending and descending on ropes, webbing, or other climbing and rappelling devices, whether natural or man-made, within Deer Creek is prohibited. This restriction extends from within the watercourse of the creek beginning at the Patio (northeastem-most part of the Deer Creek Narrows) and extending to the base of Deer Creek Falls. (This restriction is a necessity for the protection of a significant cultural resource).”

This was a contentious decision, as was acknowledged by the Superintendent. And yet the Plan/EIS does not explain the basis for the present recommendations to either close or open the Narrows. Further, the Plan/EIS mistakenly indicates that “Ethnographic resources located in the narrows are disturbed by trailing and vandalism, crowding, inappropriate behaviors on-site and altered access to traditional use locations”. Certainly as “The Patio” is a stop for as many as 100 river runners frequent daily in the summer months, it is almost just as certainly incorrect in the lower Narrows, accessible only be technical canyoneering techniques. Closing the Narrows does not provide significant additional protection to the area.

Proposed Revision:

A revised Plan should mirror a an effective solution the National Park Service has used elsewhere with regards to the cultural collisions between First Nations, and the general public that finds significant spiritual appreciation for nature and wilderness in places like the Deer Creek Narrows. For example, the NPS allows climbing on Devil’s Tower in Devil’s Tower National Monument part of the year, and promotes a climb-free season as well. See http://www.nps.gov/deto/planyourvisit/climbing.htm for details. Devils Tower National Monument has incorporated a seasonal permit system, combined with a strong climbing education component, to sensitize climbers to First Nation concerns. We encourage NPS to explore an approach involving voluntary seasonal limitations on canyoneering in Deer Creek Narrows.

Canyoneering

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

Definition of fixed anchors not given.
Webbing color requirements not given.

Proposed Revisions:

To avoid confusion, NPS should define a fixed anchor as an anchor that is left in place after use. NPS should also make a distinction between removable fixed anchors that do not alter rock surfaces (for example, webbing around a rock) and permanent fixed anchors that require alteration of the rock where the placement is to occur (for example, a bolt).

With regard to authorization for placement of new permanent fixed anchors, we propose that Grand Canyon NPS take a programmatic approach, as provided in Director’s Order #41, p. 15-16: Authorization may be issued programmatically within the Wilderness Stewardship Plan or other activity-level plan, or specifically on a case-by-case basis, such as through a permit system.

An example of a programmatic approach is the anchor policy in use at ZION NP, which has been in place since 2007 and is working well. NPS should programmatically authorize canyoneers to place and remove permanent and removable fixed anchors, with a strong emphasis on clean canyoneering techniques and practices. Likewise, the Plan/DEIS should define a process for making park-level decisions regarding the placement or removal of fixed anchors. (See further comments in the Adaptive Management section, below.)

A black webbing rule should be included in the canyoneering anchor policy. Black always works due to the universal presence of shadows, cracks, mineral streaks and other black features, independent of rock color, and avoid the mismatched color issue. This simpler, more specific approach has a greater chance of success than the traditional color-matching plan, and thus greatly limiting the visibility and impact on other users. 

Dividing Boysag Use Area (LB9)

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

This has not been addressed in the plan/EIS, although it was requested in the public scoping prior to the plans release.

Comment: 
Use area LB9 in the western Grand Canyon is needlessly large under current use limits, and even moreso under proposal that would limit the area to two small groups of 6 within the area. For example, as defined, hikers in 150-Mile (SOB) Canyon can be blocked from access by hikers in Tuckup Canyon 14 river miles away. The chance of overlapping in the current use area is practically zero. This can also create a safety issue in that canyoneers descending 150 Canyon may try to get through the entire canyon and across the river in one day to avoid needing a permit to camp in LB9 when it would be safer to allow more time and camp within the canyon.

Proposed Revision:
LB9 should be split into two use areas with a new boundary between the two at Cork Spring Canyon. Both of these use should be designated Wild.

Adaptive Management

NPS Plan/EIS Proposal:

Develop and implement an adaptive management process that includes monitoring natural, cultural, and experiential resource conditions and responding when resource degradation has resulted from use levels.  This process allows the park to address increasing demand for access and uncertainty of how different recreational uses impact park resources.

The adaptive management process would be applied to

  • Climbing
  • Canyoneering
  • Extended day hiking and running
  • Tuweep day use
  • Use area management
  • Human waste management

Comment:

I understand and agree with the need for the Superintendent of GCNP to adapt to both new information and changing use patterns in the park to best meet the goals and objectives outlined in laws, regulations, and the Plan/EIS. In some cases, it will be necessary for the Superintendent to make quick reactive decisions to this end.

However, such decisions should wherever possible include an opportunity for public input and user group dialog for any Adaptive Management changes as the default rule.

The 2012 closure of the Deer Creek Narrows provides one good illustration of why this is necessary. The Deer Creek closure was very controversial, and a variety of users would have been able to flag relevant issues very quickly. And yet the Superintendent noted in a letter discussing the issue “When I made the decision to put the restrictions in the Superintendent’s Compendium, neither I nor park staff believed the restriction would be controversial in nature. However, based on the number of letters and emails we have received since implementing the restriction, the number of participants on the conference call last week, and the content of the conversation on the conference call, it is clear that the decision to restrict access to Deer Creek is more contentious than we initially understood.” Exactly. There was no imminent threat or emergency situation. And yet the Superintendent issued a ruling that was very controversial and well beyond the understanding of the Superintendent or park staff.

The public deserves an opportunity to provide input wherever possible.

Proposed Revision:

Any future management actions involving the implementation of the elements of Table ES.1b “Implement as Needed Through Adaptive Management” should go through a public comment period of no less than 30 days, with due notice given.

Further, included more generally in the plan any additional measures should be subject to the same level of public comment, with all final decisions made in full consideration of these comments. The Superintendent may from time to time need to put in place immediate measures to fulfill the duties of the NPS to comply with laws, regulations and meet the goals of the management plan when time is of the essence. However, even these emergency decisions should be in effect for a short time only, three to six months, during which, the decisions can be offered for a public comment period as described above before long-term adaptive management policies are established.

 

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New Grand Canyon Resort Opens!

Four Season Kanab Creek

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