Friday 20 December 2013

On hiking poles

I can be brief on hiking poles: I don't like'm. Let me elaborate: I don't like'm for anything that involves going up or down loose rock, following sheep trails, and travelling across any type of angled country where you might slip and slide. The only times that I use them, or rather a pair of ski poles that I picked up for free, is when snow shoeing in fairly flat terrain.

Here is why I don't like them: they are awkward in terrain where you need support the most; they are not strong enough for the way I hike; if you actually use the straps, they are dangerous; and if you find yourself sliding down a chute of ice, they are possibly useless as a means of stopping your descent.

You are traversing a steep scree slope. The pole on the mountain side is too long, the pole on the valley side is too short. Sure you can adjust length, but who wants to be doing that all day long. Just think about doing switch backs down a slope.

Not strong:
Of course they are strong enough when you lean on them straight down. Just don't fall on them sideways. If you have never slipped and fallen, you probably don't venture off the beaten trails very often.

They teach you in avalanche courses to never use the straps on ski poles. I would extend that warning to hiking poles. In the extreme event of an avalanche you would to ditch those poles ASAP, as they limit your movements, they can become dangerous pointy objects when they break, and they can become like big tent pegs, pinning your arms down when you are covered by snow, rocks and ice. The same goes for your skis by the way, you will want to ditch those too before the avalanche hits you, but avalanches are not a topic I feel comfortable of giving advice on. Go take a course if you want to learn more.

Possibly useless:
Here is an example of when your strapped-on poles become a liability in a simple hiking situation. You are crossing an ice-filled chute and you slip. Easy to do on the best of days. You slide down the slope, a free toboggan ride, only without a toboggan, and very likely with a pile of rocks waiting for you at the bottom. And even if there were nothing but lush grass waiting for you, if you happen to be in shorts, by the time you reach that grass, most of your skin will be nothing but a bloody smear across the ice. Trust me, I've seen what it can look like. It's nasty.

So you want to stop that motion, and you want to stop if fast. Depending on the hardness of the surface, you will want to jam something into the snow and ice as deep as you can, and lean on it with all your might. While shooting down the bobsled track. With a pack on. Your ski pole could have worked, if only your hands hadn't been tied to the very end of them. So if you decide that ski poles are for you, don't use the straps.

After all that, what's the alternative. I'll be the first to acknowledge that some sort of support really helps on the rocky trails. I use a pole, cut from a young pine, or a poplar, or any other straight piece of tree. Well-dried and sanded, for me it's the most versatile support tool there is. The photo below shows how I use it during side-hilling on uneven ground. The pole here is actually about a foot too short, but I can make it work. It is amazing how much support you get, placing your pole horizontally into the mountain side. You'll need to try it to believe it. Going down hill, because of it's length, I can place the pole below me and take some weight off the knees, or I hold it behind me, and get extra support that way. I also find it invaluable when doing some impromptu glassing on the trail. I just place the pole in front of me, put the binoculars on top, and get a much better image than from off-hand glassing, especially if you are glassing uphill and your shoulders are pushing against the weight of a multi-day pack. And if you suddenly find yourself on an eight-second ride to broken bones or worse, cramming the pole into the snow, and sliding down to get as much weight on top of it as possible, is a lot easier and intuitive than with two hiking poles uselessly strapped to your wrists.

The only downside is that you cannot collapse it and strap it to your pack. I found that to be just a minor inconvenience. The other situation where the wooden pole might meet its match is in extremely icy/hard-packed conditions. If you can't get the tip of the pole jammed into the ice on a fall, you might be in for spectacular ride, with a very unpleasant ending. In those cases you might be better off carrying something like this: touring ice-axe. I haven't used it, so I can't comment. The folks on the old continent will equip the wooden pole with a metal spike, to deal with those conditions. Again, I have no personal experience with that.

Whatever you pick, be safe!

Please take all my comments in the spirit in which they were made: my personal experiences and preferences, not endorsing any particular product, or claiming expert knowledge about issues like avalanches, fall arrest, etc. Always check with the manufacturer about the specs of any life-safety tool you plan on using, to see if they are fit for the conditions you will be facing. Clearly there are no safety specs for saplings, so if you chose to go that route, don't sue me if you break anything. To paraphrase Jim Shockey: "I trust my life on my wooden hiking pole, and you should make up your own mind!"

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Aftermath - Gear in Review Part 3

After the climb the difficult part started: basically stand hunting in the cold and the wind, with occasional forays to peek over the ridge or around the corner.

As I indicated, if conditions allow you to change into a dry shirt, do it!

While sitting, I wore the merino-blend base layer, merino second layer, fleece jacket, Browning 700 fill down jacket, on the coldest day I added a KUIU superdown jacket, Sitka Kelvin pants, and the KUIU rain gear as the outer layer. I had bought another hooded jacket that maybe didn't make too much sense in the whole scheme, but I panicked. I never carried it up the mountain, as the gear I listed above was sufficient.

Two layers of down were required on the coldest, windiest day, one layer sufficed the other times. The Sitka pants (with Primaloft insulation) were nice and toasty, especially once the base layer on the lower back had dried up. I didn't bring dry base layer long johns, as I didn't feel like standing on the ridge in my boxers while changing pants... at all. I also never brought additional insulation layers for the legs up the mountain, such as a pair of woolen long-johns.

Arctic Shield boot covers on the boots, they helped and worked fine. They are clearly not made for walking much, and certainly don't go running around icy surfaces, or you'll be boot skiing down the hill in short order, but for a bit of extra warmth on the stand they are great. I never added a chemical hand warmers, which was my back-up plan. We just got lucky that after four days the weather got better, and in those four days we were still a lot more mobile, trying to figure out the game plan.

I wore a light beanie-type hat for the climb and switched to a neck and cheek covering fleece hat once sitting (came free with a case of Kokanee beer!). And kept the hood of the rain gear up most of the time. I also wore a light neck gaitor always, to keep the winds off.

And ski goggles! A must-have. They protect part of your face from the biting wind, and the grit and ice in the air. Snow shoes might come in handy. Hiking poles, if you like them, or if you don't like me, a hiking "staff" made out of a sturdy sapling, to give you support when the winds try to throw you off the mountain.

That's about it. The rest is not so relevant. If you can manage to stay warm, you can manage to find the patience. And if you can find the patience, they say you will get your chance during the late season in Cadomin. It worked for four out of five hunters, in the last ten-day stretch this year.


Monday 2 December 2013

Aftermath - Gear in Review Part 2

Clearly this hunt consisted of two completely different phases: grinding up the mountain, working up a sweat, followed by hunkering down in a snow drift, in the howling wind, waiting for the rams to move.

To complete the picture the the climbing phase, I wore summer-weight hiking pants over top of the base layer, a mid-weight fleece jacket, and a set of KUIU Chugach rain gear. You don't need a lot of insulation when you are hiking, but you do need protection from the wind. A set of good rain gear can do the trick. I have no complaints about the KUIU rain gear, it has held water out during days of downpour in the fall, and kept the nastiest of winds out during this trip.

Despite all the claims of modern fabric and gear makers, I'm convinced that total waterproofness, and breathability are two mutually exclusive features, or at least largely incompatible. On opening day I pushed fairly hard to catch up with a hunter and his companion ahead of me. I managed, it turned out to be someone I knew, and we hiked to the saddle together. When I wanted to take my rain jacket off, I found that it had frozen to my fleece jacket! This proved to me a few things:
  1. The insulation layer was working, the outside of my clothing got cold enough to freeze sweat.
  2. The moisture transport to the outer layer was working (at least to a certain extent, because there was enough of it there to freeze two garments together. 
  3. The breathability of the rain gear could be improved, something that KUIU claims to have accomplished with their new line of rain gear: Chugach NX. Unfortunately I won't be able to test that for a little while longer, with the price level of these high-tech garments I need to use them till they fall apart before thinking about getting a replacement.
That said, this rain gear has possibly become the most important part of my mountain gear, as an outer layer that keeps you absolutely dry (from rain) and keeps the wind from stripping away the heat from your insulation layers. It's not super quiet, but for chasing sheep in the krags, or rifle hunting elk in open, semi-alpine terrain I have never found that to be a problem.

To be continued...

Friday 29 November 2013

Aftermath - The Gear in Review

Well, it is done. The cape is at the taxidermist, the horns in the garage, gear cleaned and in the basement, and all I can think about is going back. In retrospect, it was easy. As others told me: "It wasn't easy, you were just well-prepared".

Let's have a look at the gear, and see what worked and what didn't. I can be brief about the real weak link in this adventure - the hunter: next time I'll be fitter and stronger! I spent five days on the slopes, one day before the opener and four hunting days. Temperatures ranged from about -25 oC in the morning to I-don't-know-what in the afternoon, and winds were between none-existent-almost-never to knock-you-down-on your-face-in-the-scree kind of strong pretty much the rest of the time.

Starting at the bottom: the Schnee's Hunter Extreme boots worked. Period. In deep snow, through the scree, on hard rock, never did I feel that I made the wrong choice. It was only with the heavy load of sheep head and cape, that I felt I needed a bit more support from the relatively soft rubber-bottomed boot. I didn't suffer from cold feet. I added the Arctic Shield boot covers, except for the one day that I thought I forgotten to bring them, and the feet stayed warm. That one day I put some chemical toe warmers in the boot, when in the afternoon, my feet started to get chilly. At night I needed to take out the felt liner to let it dry, it did absorb quite a bit of moisture.

A big shout-out for the Kahtoola Microspikes slip-on crampons. I only used them once, when coming down heavy, but they provided a lot of grip, and stayed on the boot well. If you go late-season mountain hunting, I'd recommended getting a pair of these or something similar.

For socks I did nothing special, just a liner sock and a smart wool sock over top.

For a baselayer I wore a set of long underwear that COSTCO had on sale, a blend of merino and some stretchy fabric. I won't be buying shirts with zippers anymore, but that was the only thing they had at the time. This worked well, it got wet a bit but not drenched, and didn't itch (I itch easisly, even the so-called no-itchy merinos still bug me).

The advice I got was to at least switch into a dry shirt at the top, and I did once. Good advice! Other times I didn't and it took up to an hour for the cold feeling along the spine to disappear. I tried another time, but it was so cold and windy that I barely had time to got extra layers on before my hand turned cherry-red and stated losing dexterity.

I had a 260 weight long-sleeved merino shirt with me, that I actually wore on the first two days during the climb, and used as an extra layer during sitting on the other two days (the fifth day we didn't have time to sit, as soon as we hit the ridge it was game on!).

I wore gloves with windstopper during the climb, and switched into liner gloves, fleece gloves and mitts once settled in on the ridge. For me, putting on dry gloves was an absolute necessity, the climbing gloves just got too wet.

To be continued...

Sunday 24 November 2013

Day 4 - It was a good day to kill a ram

Chipper. We had named him when we saw him on the mine. We actually thought he was not all that big. But we found him outside the mine this morning. And it felt like a good day to kill a ram. As I was walking up a sheep trail, I was enjoying every step, feeling good that I was here, on a high windy ridge, and thinking "I don't care if this is going to take ten days; I'm ready to take on whatever the mountain throws at us".

And it's almost like the hunting gods were waiting for that revelation. I wasn't going to quit. So they sent a group of rams our way, and Chipper was in it. And it felt like I needed to shoot him. The stalk was easy, the shooting too. He turned out a lot heavier than we had thought, a beautiful, beautiful ram.

As we were admiring our ram, the wind stopped blowing, and the sun came out. Someone was telling us we did good, and granted us gorgeous stable weather to cape and butcher and carry the heavy load down the mountain. It was a good day to kill a ram.

"...because while you think you could maybe face dying, you can't deal with the idea of one day becoming too old and weak to ramble among these summits any longer." Douglas H. Chadwick - The Wolverine Way

Saturday 23 November 2013

Day 3 - it's all about the wind

Did I mention that I got knocked off my feet by wind for the first time, on Day 1? Well, it has become a common occurence as of today.

We were first on the mountain this morning. Come early afternoon however, the winds had picked up so much that merely standing up required a major effort. By the time we made it back onto the trail to go home, it was gusting so hard that both of us got knocked down several times. One big gust bowled us both over, and we looked at each other splayed out prone in the scree, with big smiles. Smiles of a madman... or sheephunter; they are pretty close. I can't count the number of times we just had to hunker down, on hands and feet, on our knees; or the wind just pushed us over ten or twenty feet, with our feet scrambling to stay underneath the centre of gravity. Fun times! Dream tag!

Some well-meant advice: if you have never climbed a mountain before, don't put in for this tag!

Friday 22 November 2013

Day 2 - Where are the big rams?

Gorgeous day on the mountain today. Kyle arrived during the night and after a healthy two hours of sleep for him we were up again, and off to Cadomin. Though we weren't especially early, we were the first at the trailhead, not counting the husband and wife who are camping on the other side of the mine somewhere.

There has been a large group of sheep hanging out along our access trails, with plenty of rams. Some look really good at first glance, but after a good close look (sometimes no more than 20 feet away!) they don't look exceptionally large. Nobody appears to be seeing the really big rams that Cadomin is famous for.

The plot is thickening as access to one area is still tricky, even with big trucks and tire chains (neither of which I have). Tomorrow will likely see more people congregating in the same area.

All we can do is head out there again, hike up high and wait for things to happen!