Archive for April, 2008

Gear Review: Black Diamond Sphynx 42L pack

Score: 4.5
(1=give it away, 5=pry it from my cold, dead fingers)

Originally, I planned on using this pack for one five-day backcountry ski tour, and a second, larger pack for the second five-day ski tour, and then write a comparison review. (Both of these tours are described in the Backcountry Skiing section. – Chris) But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. The pack fit me so well, carried my gear so perfectly, that I couldn’t give it up on the chance that the other pack would only make me suffer.

First, this pack is designed well. It is top-down loaded, meaning that the things you need least get packed first. It also means that the space available can be completely utilized without trying to negotiate around dividers or worry about zippers busting open. It has a hydration pocket following the back, and the sewn on lid features a single pocket on the bottom and a large pocket on the top. On the outside it has two compression straps, a pair of ski-tail straps, and a sleeve/Velcro system for securing ice tools, axes, or mixed tools. Attachments were available add straps for crampons. The fabric seems to be a great compromise between abrasion resistant and light-weight.

Second, it fits well. The pack is offered in two volumes with matching sizes. The 32L is meant for backs 17-20 inches long, and the 42L is for backs 20-23 inches. Interesting, since Wayne Gregory measured my back last September I knew I had an 18.5-inch back. But the 42L pack seems to fit me perfectly, and I had no complaints about the comfort of the larger pack.

I was able to fit in a 20-degree down sleeping bag, a 2-man tent body and fly, a liter of fuel, food for five days, ½ liter of water, first-aid and repair kits, shovel, probe, emergency rescue sled, and spare clothes into the body of this thing. A couple of days I also carried the rope, secured by the rope strap under the lid. My foam pad was strapped to the left side. In the bottom lid I kept my wallet, keys, compass, toothbrush and toothpaste. In the top of the lid were my sunscreen, another ½ liter of water, a spare hat and gloves, and various bits and bobs.

The picture is from the first day of the second tour. Everything fit inside – another criteria of mine – and it really fit me.

And it skis great – I never had problems with it throwing me around, loosing balance, or dragging me toward the tails. Something that I can’t say for the packs a few of my clients were using.

To save weight on summit pushes (which never happened on these trips), the back panel can be pulled out and the padded hip belt can be replaced with a two-inch, unpadded strap and buckle that comes with the pack. I used this pack with the padded strap and a ice-screw quick clip slid into one of the convenient sleeves (like a BD Blizzard harness), as a utility holster for my camera, water bottle, ski crampons, etcetera. I’m probably going to take that two-inch strap and put it on my BD Speed 28L pack instead.

I keep looking for simpler and simpler designs – and this one is pretty simple. The only thing I wanted was for the compression straps to be two inches longer so that I didn’t need to fight so much to strap my foam pad in. I think it will work perfect for overnight alpine climbs this summer. I was going to buy a 55L pack for the Sierra High Tour (a seven-day trip) that I’m going to ski twice in May, but now I think I’m going to wait until this summer, when I’ll really need the extra space to pack a full rope and rack and supplies for a five-day trip.

Statistics: Black Diamond Sphynx 42L (2563 cu. in.). Stock weight 1.41kg (3lbs 2oz), stripped weight 950g (2lb 2oz). SRP $149.95 USD.


West Palisades High Tour, 16-20 April

SP Parker and I immediately turned around from the Mammoth-Tioga Ski Tour to join Eric Owen and three clients on the West Palisades High Tour, which runs from South Lake to Taboose Pass. Another photo essay.

Statistics: South Lake to Taboose Pass Trailhead via Bishop Pass, Thunderbolt Col, Potluck Pass, Chimney Pass, Mather Pass and Taboose Pass. Detour ski into Veneecher Needle North Bowl. 32 miles, 8470 feet elevation gained, 12480 feet elevation descended. Maximum slope angle 35+ degrees (on Potluck and Chimney Passes).

Backcountry Skiing from Mammoth to Tioga, 11-15 April

My boss and I guided five clients backcountry skiing from Mammoth Mountain to Tioga Pass. This is a photo essay of the trip.

Statistics: Mammoth Mountain to Tioga Pass via Minaret Summit, Thousand Island Lake, Island Pass, Lost Lakes Pass, Kuna Connection, and Dana Meadows. 33.6 miles, 6430 feet elevation gained, 7160 feey elevation descended, maximum slope angle 35+ degrees.

Busted on Elkhorn Peak

I’d love to tell you about how cool this run was, except for the part in the middle that wasn’t. I’ve been a smart-ass in earlier posts and had a little disclaimer about trespassing and not getting caught if you don’t have permission. Take this story as a lesson.

I connected the Jameson Canyon to Skyline Regional Park in Napa via Elkhorn Peak. I followed my usual routine: I picked a fenceline that wasn’t marked with “No Trespassing” signs every 1/3 mile, crossed through a gate in the fence, and started my run. I intentionally picked a spot farthest from farmhouses on either side – I don’t want the owners to think I’m coming to cause trouble, or casing out their homes, or something.

The run up towards Elkhorn Peak was bushy, with grass and plants up to my chest, slowing me down to a walk. It wasn’t until I reached a ridge-top dirt road, leading to another gate and cow trails, that my pace picked up. As I reached Elkhorn Peak I saw a farmer driving around the lower fields on a four-wheeler, but really thought nothing about it. There were three fences between him and I, and three barns and houses in sight, so I had no idea if I was even on the same property as when I started this run. The Scottish thistle on the final slopes of the peak, following an old road, were thigh-high and they hurt. After a cool scramble down the steep and wooded south side of the peak I stopped to shake the dirt from my shoes, tighten my laces, and take a picture of my legs.

Moments after I started again I saw a farmer – the same one it turns out – on a four wheeler with a cool Aussie cattle dog riding shotgun. He said, “I was going to find you!” and I replied, “Of course you would…”

“Why were you running away from me?” he challenged.

“Beg your pardon?” I said, stumped. Running away? He repeated the question.

“I wasn’t running away,” I tried to explain, “I’m running. Training. Trying to run from the highway to that cell tower over there.”

I won’t go into details, but his arguement was: 1) I was trespassing, 2) I had to have permission, 3) I may scare the cattle, and 4) He had one hand driving a pickup looking for me and another on horseback. He was one seriously pissed off farmer.

I stayed as polite as could be and told him how: 1) I wasn’t hunting or fishing, 2) I worked to avoid any building and cattle to avoid scarying owners or cows, 3) I used only gates and hadn’t climbed over any fences, 4) there weren’t any “No Trespassing” signs around the perimeter of the farm that I found and 5) I didn’t think it was reasonable to knock on every door in Jameson Canyon to determine who to ask “please” from. As I understood it, I wasn’t trespassing, and I was being low impact and quiet.

This very abbreviated synopsis reflects a conversation that last for about a half hour, with me getting more and more nervous. PG had dropped me off, and my car was parked at the end of the run. If this dude wanted me to walk out with him, it was completely within his right, and I’d be stuck with hitch-hiking to my car. You could see the same gears turning in his head when he learned about this.

We talked a little bit about where I lived (barely 10 miles away, but a world apart in realities), and what I did for work.

“You don’t get enough exercise with that?” he asked.

“Guess I’m not a very still person.” I answered. Phew – if he’s willing to joke about it, he’s willing to let me go.

And he did, but warned me never to be on his land again, and not to bother coming by and trying to ask for permission next time, ’cause there wouldn’t be a next time. So I’m stumped trying to find another way around Jameson Canyon to Skyline Park.

Which is too bad, because the rest of the run was beautiful. Old oaks trees hugging the hillsides, a loan small watering pond, and one for-sure-not-legal fence crossing lead me into the very southernmost tip of Skyline Park. I discovered a fawn who couldn’t have been more than a day old, trying to hide in the non-existent cover on the trail. Her mother watched anxiously 20 yards away wondering what harm I’d give her child. After a few photos I carefully stepped around the terrified baby and continued on. I followed the Skyline, Buckeye, and Ridge-To-River trails through the park and to my car.

Statistics: Elkhorn Peak – Skyline Regional Park Run. 9.4 miles on cross-country, unmaintained dirt roads, unmaintained trails, and maintained trails. 350 feet elevation gained, 860 feet elevation descended. 2:14 minutes (including a +30 minute conversation with an irate land-owner).

Disclaimer: Always make sure to gain permission before traveling over private property.

Post script 22 April: I had a conversation last week with a California District Attorney about trespassing (he was my client on a trip). Turns out I was right, but as soon as someone has notified you that you are trespassing, you’re required to leave the property. Still, its polite to get permission first, and I’m going to make a bigger effort to do so.

Another Trip to Mickey’s Beach

After my last ski tour, I was feeling a bit guilty about leaving Montana at home – did it show?

So I took him back to our new favorite beach, Mickey’s, for some rock & surf. I mean, seriously, is there anything wrong in the world when someone looks at you like this?

Statistics: Mickey’s Beach. The Cave Boulder: Red Tide, V0R. Orange Budha Boulder: Hammerhead, V0; #26, V1; #29, V0 (alt. stand start).

Leaving Friends Behind: Pyramid Peak

5:00am was early, and he didn’t come down until 30 minutes later. His eyes brightened and lost that What-did-you-wake-me-up-for? look as he remembered all the packing before finally going to bed after midnight. The packs and boots were piled up next to the skis and poles in the corner. He paced and grumbled as we ate breakfast and drank coffee standing at the counter. Anticipation started to take up space in the air between us as we loaded the car in the crisp end-of-night air.

I can still picture the hurt and disappointment across his face as I gently pushed him back inside and locked the door: I was going skiing without him.
I met Greg and Amy in Placerville, and piled into their car to drive up to Lovers Leap. The snow is mostly gone at 6120 feet, dirty piles left behind and shielded by the long limbs of pine trees. We strapped skis onto our packs and hiked up Pyramid Canyon, following the creek for a short while until leaving it to piece together a track up a buttress of granite slabs, manzanita, and the occasional lone pine. We put our skis and started skinning at 6650 feet, and gained the ridge proper at 7000 feet. Only 2983 more feet to climb.

I first met Montana 5 years ago, when he was living with the girl I had just started dating. A 55-pound Aussie Shepherd mix, his bright eyes hinted at the intelligence behind an expressive face. “Escapes for Freedom” proved it when he realized he was being left at home and missing out on something. Volumes were spoken with crooked ears and raised eyebrows, grumbles of dissatisfaction and barks of excitement. As my relationship with his owner grew, I eventually moved in with them and suddenly I had a partner ready to run and ski whenever I needed to get out. He knows what it means when we pull out skis, backpacks, or running shoes.

As we climbed the ridge, other ski tracks emerged from the surrounding woods. It reminded me of the photos I’ve seen in National Geographic magazine of animal tracks converging on an oasis. I looked down and saw a paw print, the track reached the edges of my palm. Some one big was ahead of us.

I had to stop taking Montana powder skiing after I watched him struggle to get down a slope I had just skied in early winter. Getting home required climbing back up the ridge behind us and skiing the other side back to the car, and I was worried that he wouldn’t make it, that I’d have to carry him on my shoulders. The following spring I had to stop the long trail runs after he simply refused to keep running, and we finished the route at a walking pace. Now we go out for 30 minute run/walks, and afterwards I help him climb into the car. He spends the next day following the sun light as it warms the wood floor, avoiding the stairs as much as possible.

The trees were well spaced and increasingly larger glades gave us views in the the Desolation Wilderness to the north and the peaks of Carson Pass to the south. The climbing was low angle and fast, and we’re made incredibly good time. I finally met the owner of those paw prints at 8800 feet. His owner was a bit remote and didn’t want to tell me his name, but he was a handsome German Shepherd, big with a just a little bit of grey coloring his chin.

Now 12 years-old, the white has spread across Montana’s face. He can’t jump as high, sprint as far, run as long as he used to. He takes rest days now – he stayed mellow for days after going spring skiing with us at Carson Pass.

We passed the dog and his two human companions and continued up the South Ridge to Pyramid Peak’s 9983 foot-tall summit. As I looked back down the ridge I can see him climbing up behind us, following the tails of the skis in front of him. I’m struck with a shot of jealousy, followed with a chaser of guilt. What is Montana doing at this moment? Sleeping in the sun on the back deck? Asking for a snack? Reminiscing on an old trip?

It was windy on the ridge and summit, and after a few moments to take photos and scout the descent we’re off. The east and south facing slopes had softened up nicely, so we followed those down toward Horsetail Falls, and decided to take a chance and try to continue down slopes we weren’t familiar with. We ran the risk of getting cliffed out, rather than following the more certain but less exciting option of simply following our tracks back to the car. Steep short shots and a memorable chute led to the lower basin and Pyramid Creek again.

When I finally get home that evening, Montana is there at the door. He’s been sleeping there for most of the day, she tells me. As if he’s waiting to hear about the snow conditions and the climbing, the ski descent and the route finding. I looked for signs that he’s upset with being left behind, but his ears were up, his tail was waving, his mouth pulled back in a grin as I said hi. Then he walked back to his pillow in the middle of the living room and sat down to watch me unpack.

Statistics: Pyramid Peak 9983 feet, Southeast Slopes. 6:21 car-car, 3:54 up, 2:27 down. 6 miles roundtrip, 3860 feet climbed and descended with Greg B. & Amy G.

Postscript, 28 April: Montana went to the vet last Friday because he couldn’t weight his left front paw. He’s been diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis, and won’t be able to go out on big skis or runs in the future.

Cows Are Cool: The Three Canyons Run

Spring in California, I’m quickly realizing, means hills that look like Ireland-in-the-movies. Rich green fields of grass only knee high, soft soil, and cows. Lots and lots of cows. But cows can be cool – they make trails.

Cow trails, I’m discovering, follow all the terrain features a trail runner would want. Along creeks and fence lines. Through passes. On top of ridges. Avoiding pointless elevation gains by side-hilling and following contours.

I learned this lesson last Thursday when I ran from American to Jameson Canyon via Lynch Canyon, a run I’m going to call (unimaginatively but poetically) The Three Canyons Run. This is going to be the next section of my Vallejo to the Golden Gate Bridge Trail Run.

The run was surprisingly short and fun. I followed a dirt road up a valley, through a eucalyptus grove to a cow trail that followed the hillside, contouring it perfectly, until directed by a fence line to a second grove of tall grey trees. Once past this second grove the trail continued to the end of the valley before turning to the right and crossing into the pass. Just before reaching that pass I was surprised to find…trail signs! Not signs of a trail, and not tracks of some wild animal, but actual signage. “Kestrel Trail,” and “Ridge Trail”. I crossed through the pass and entered a four way saddle, which was littered with more trails signs. “Canyon Trail”, “North Ridge Trail”, and “South Ridge Trail”, and “Bay Ridge Trail System.” I thought I’d be running through a bunch of farmer’s fields. Where the hell am I?

Running a little further, I had my “ah-hah” moment: A sign saying this was the boundary of the Lynch Canyon Open Space, maintained by the Solano Land Trust. As I finished reading the words and realizing what I was running on, a man approached me on an four-wheeler. It turned out to be a member of the family that donated Lynch Canyon! Fantastic. We talked about how Vallejo has been growing, and what my running was all about, and as I ran away from my first encounter with a landowner I felt a lot better about my plans.

I know that some of my running crosses private property, but I make a special effort to keep a low profile and not damage property or stir up livestock too much. I explained as much to the gentleman I met, who said it was no problem, and offered to let his neighbors know I may be around. I think I’m going to start carrying a name card to give in these encounters too.

After the farmer my run followed a long series of ridges, traced by – again – a cow trail that made for easy route-finding. The trail finally vanished at the final slopes leading into Jameson Canyon, and a quick cell phone call had my girlfriend coming to pick me up on Highway 12. Perfect.

Statistics: Three Canyons Run, from American Canyon to Jameson Canyon via Lynch Canyon. 5.25 miles on dirt road, trail and unimproved trail, 590 feel of elevation gained, 770 of elevation descended. 53 minutes.

Disclaimer again: You should always get a landowner’s permission to cross private property.

Check out for information about Open Space lands in Solano County. I only wish that there was one site for all the public open space in the North Bay!

banner photo: antarctica / mark allen

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