Wonderland Trail Snow Outlook 2016

Donning skins above Fryingpan Cr. bridge

Donning skins above Fryingpan Cr. bridge

This is the earliest I've posted a Wonderland Trail conditions report or snow outlook. On May 10, 2016 I biked into the still closed White River entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park and hiked to Summerland and Panhandle Gap. More precisely, I hiked through the forest section but donned skins just above the Fryingpan Creek bridge and skied from just below Panhandle Gap to the bridge, then reversed the process for a 12 hour day. Some of the information I'm writing in this blog post is not science based, I am offering an opinion based on years of experience hiking in the park. However, this is a measured fact from the USDA:

•  April experienced record high temperatures throughout the entire Pacific Northwest, causing much of the remaining snowpack to melt and runoff. Over 80 percent of all SNOTEL sites with at least 15 years of data set all new melt rate records for April.

•  Temperatures recorded at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reached 87 degrees Monday (May 2) afternoon, tying the day’s record set in 1945, meteorologist Josh Smith said.

Temperatures have remained high for the first part of this month; when I left for this trip the local forecast was for mid 70's, warming to 80 degrees by Friday (May 13). It is probably safe to surmise that if these seasonally warm temperatures continue in May and June, then the melt off will continue to set records. The upshot of this is that Wonderland Trail snow conditions will be weeks ahead of a "normal" year. Anecdotally I put the levels on May 10, 2016 slightly above June 3, 2014, when I did this same trip that year. 2015 was such an unusually low snow year that comparisons to a year ago would be moot. I have compared video and photos for these two trips to come to this conclusion. Here are a few shots or video screen grabs:

reference snow levels on the background hill

reference snow levels on the background hill

skiing from just below Panhandle Gap

skiing from just below Panhandle Gap

I found the hike through the forest (I hesitate to say trail as most of the trail was buried) had sections where the snow was up to 7 feet deep. This may reflect that this winter's heavy snows dumped heavily at lower elevations and the sun does not penetrate this thick forest; melting relies on ambient temperature. However, I could see the difference in my own tracks just hours later as I descended, losing definition in just half a day's melt.

It's still early to make concrete predictions, but June's forecast looks to be about normal or slightly above concerning temperature. This is from accuweather.com:

June forecast: the bolder lines are the forecast highs and lows

June forecast: the bolder lines are the forecast highs and lows

As a general outlook the hiker can expect successful Wonderland circumnavigations starting the last half of June; this of course comes with the caveat that one must be prepared for navigation in snow, prepared for camping in snow at the higher elevation camps, and perhaps contend with ongoing trail maintenance issues like blow downs and possible bridge outages. The usual snow areas should see rapid melting out for a more "traditional" hike the latter part of July on. I'll make one more observation concerning trail conditions, and that is this side of the Cascades saw high winds and heavy snow/rain at times this winter. There are many roads that need repair, and reports of blow downs on various trails point to an above average task for trail crews this year. Factor in shrinking budgets and the "manicured trail" expectations for the Wonderland may fall short. In my hike there were still a bunch of blow downs that needed to be cleared from the road, and the forest trail area saw a fair amount of downed trees.

Stats for BHS (bike/hike/ski): 8 miles bike/9 miles hike/3 miles skin-ski, 3500' elevation gain

Summerland shelter on May 10, 2016

Summerland shelter on May 10, 2016

Bike Shock Session: Mt. Rainier

snowbanks are still high near Paradise

snowbanks are still high near Paradise

I did my first shock session of the season on April 19th, where I biked with a buddy on a mild ride (@400' climb/30 miles) using my classic Gary Fisher hard tail mountain bike, then continued on to Mt. Rainier National Park to hit the West Side Road for another 1000' climb and 9 miles, then continued to Longmire where I biked to Paradise for another 2600' climb and 22 miles, for a 100K day with 4000' of climb. If you are interested on my philosophy on shocking the body then refer to this blog post from 2010: Going Longer: Shock, Body Memory and Mental Toughness. When I shock my body I go at least twice as far as my longest session since last summer/fall season. I have been doing some occasional rides and gym sessions that generally don't exceed 50K. This is one of the techniques I use to keep all the moving and thinking parts in working order with the goal of enjoying an active lifestyle after retirement, still 4 years away.

But this session was far more than a training ride. I got to hang with my STP buddy for a few hours, enjoying the recent record breaking heat (my vehicle thermometer still read 82 degrees F when I entered the park at 2 PM), yukking it up and stopping halfway through for a coffee shake. Then the bike up the West Side Road, checking the snow levels and enjoying solitude on the road (road is still gated until opening to vehicles for the first 3 miles on April 29), checking out the washouts, enjoying teeth rattling sections where I wished for full suspension, and ending with a speed limit busting romp back to the vehicle. By now the heat was subsiding and I tried to time my descent from Paradise just before sunset, and indeed the traffic thinned considerably. I started uphill at 5 PM and there were only 4 vehicles in the Paradise parking lot when I blasted off at 7:15 PM...not one car overtook me on the way down so I basically had the road to myself, reveling in alternating icy breezes, warm pockets, setting sun and a dry road. I even had to keep my mouth closed on the final miles as the bugs were a flyin', hard to believe this was April.

Mt. Rainier National Park is certainly my stomping ground, and has been for over 30 years, but I never tire of its environs, whether on trail, off trail, or on road. As I get older I also like to incorporate more biking in my training; the hills give me long duration aerobic workouts without the pounding of running or trail trotting, my quads stay in shape, and my reward after all that pseudo suffering is the romp back downhill. I'm looking forward to when the paving project is done for the Longmire to Paradise section when I might have a hankering to bring my road bike and go, let's say, slightly faster.

This short video are some of the highlights from biking the roads in the park: Longmire to Paradise (or sometimes the entrance to Paradise), the West Side Road (closed, except the first 3 miles, to non park vehicles), Highway 410 from Cayuse Pass to the gate at Crystal Mountain turnoff (last year I was able to bike this section all the way to the White River entrance when it was closed for the season, as there was no snow on the road in February), and finally the Ipsut Creek trail, which was a vehicle road but closed due to recurring wash outs and is now open to hiking and biking only. This year I will video Highway 123 and the Stevens Canyon road to complete the series. Vive le bike Rainier!

Lightning

Severe weather can create incredible vistas. Watching the light show from a very tight and massive thunderstorm is almost mesmerizing, especially when the cloud to cloud flashes are almost continuous. Digging into the Willis Wall video archives, the Willis Wall Trio is now resurrected operating out of new digs and provides the background music for nature's light show. WARNING: this slightly warped composition may cause distress to some listeners.


Borah Gear Reviews

I usually wait a minimum time for gear reviews where I’ve had a chance to put equipment through a large sampling of conditions, but in this case I wanted to talk about Borah Gear as there are few reviews out there when one does searches for specific pieces. This company deserves a little more attention because of its excellent customer service, very reasonable prices, ability to do custom work, and quality of products. Here’s a rundown on items I have purchased over the past two years.

Snowyside eVent Bivy

Borah Gear Snowyside custom bivy on Mt. Adams

Borah Gear Snowyside custom bivy on Mt. Adams

I can’t help myself, I’m still a bivy user and fan under certain circumstances. This year I ordered a modified Snowyside eVent, corresponding with owner John about reducing the length from 96” to 90” and constructing it with 1.45 Cuben on the bottom. At 90” this bivy is roomy enough for me to put my pack(s) inside, use a full length 2.5 inch pad and any of my quilts or bags. My target use was for a throw down shelter (with the 1.45 cuben modification allowing for no ground sheet) for all conditions, including ski mountaineering. I was not able to use this piece of gear in the snow, as I had to postpone plans to ski Mt. Rainier’s Emmons Glacier due to low snow year and lack of back country ski opportunities in general. Witness the fact that I hiked the better part of the Wonderland in 2015 on JUNE 9/10 with August like conditions. I did, however, get to use the bivy on a few trips where it proved very effective. My daughter and I hiked Mt. St. Helens’ Loowit Trail in May, spending one night under open skies and cool temperatures on the Plains of Abraham. The eVent fabric held up very well in challenging condensation conditions, where the fabric was essentially dry on the interior but frosty and wet on the exterior. Compare this to my daughter, who was using a ZPacks Splash bivy (old design with no head and foot panels and a cumbersome netting arrangement). Her’s was quite wet, basically soaked from condensation. This one night was enough to prove the efficacy of eVent. I also used the bivy on the Timberline Trail, on the Mt. Adams Round the Mountain, and on Mt. Rainier above 6,000’ with open skies, waking to frost on the exterior but once again dry inside.

Snowyside custom bivy on the Plains of Abraham

Snowyside custom bivy on the Plains of Abraham

I ordered the Snowyside with the longer zipper going down the side. The velcro arrangement for the netting could be considered a PITA, but it is simple enough and once in place protects from bugs and critters. In general I find this to be a minor con point. Also, in my view there’s no other manufacturer that offers this kind of quality construction and materials at such a good price point. OF NOTE: my bivy is the earlier iteration, not the one currently advertised that looks to incorporate improvements. I don’t own a scale but according to John the weight of this particular item is about a pound; also I can tell you that it doesn’t pack up to “the size of a softball” per the newer description. I usually rolled it up and used one of the side pockets on my small Zimmerbuilt pack for carrying, freeing up valuable space inside the main body of the pack. In sum, I consider this bivy bomber: it stays in my ski pack as emergency shelter and will be what I use this coming season for any higher altitude trips, especially on snow.

Cuben Bivy

side porch bivy site for Borah Gear cuben bivy

side porch bivy site for Borah Gear cuben bivy

For fast packing trips where I am camping lower, where I want minimal weight, and where I am looking for minimal size, I picked up the Borah Gear Cuben Bivy. It’s packed size is tiny. It’s light (4.5 oz.). It offers just the right amount of protection to a sleep system. I’ll qualify that I’ve only used this bivy on two nights, when I fast packed Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland Trail (93 miles) in 3 days. I obviously wasn’t spending any time “camping”….I moved for 15 to 17 hours per day and then flopped. Despite a favorable weather forecast, I packed a ZPacks Pocket Tarp just in case (it stayed in my pack). My first night was spent sleeping under the stars, and the second I crashed on a cabin side porch, which afforded me a wood elevated floor and a roof over head. In these conditions this bivy was perfect, adding just a touch of warmth to my sleep system but with a netted head area so my breath escaped outside, but kept the roving rodents out of my warm enclosure. This piece of kit is still roomy enough for a full 2.5 inch pad, and I coupled that with an Enlightened Equipment Enigma 50 degree quilt. I always pack with entire systems in mind for anticipated conditions (plus reserve safety and weather protection), and in this case I also carried a Borah Gear.....

Down Jacket

Borah Gear down jacket, worn during lunch break in sub freezing temps

Borah Gear down jacket, worn during lunch break in sub freezing temps

If I didn’t use the jacket to supplement my sleep system, I used it to stuff my pillow. It’s extremely light (5.4 ozs), stuffs incredibly small, and is well constructed. It’s a minimalist piece, with a pullover design, short zipper and not too long with no pockets. Unlike the photo on John’s site, mine came with the zipper extending all the way up the collar. I found the sleeves nice and long, providing ample coverage over my hands. All this for $180, quite the deal. Perhaps the jury is still out on the long term fundamentals of water resistant down, but this jacket is filled with 2.3 ozs of 850. I was able to fit my entire sleep system into a smallish stuff sack: quilt, down jacket, booties, and EE Hoodlum.

Down Vest

Even more minimalist, I pack the down vest when the trip warrants. 3.7 ozs for size L, again with no pockets and the vest has no collar. The minuscule pack size and weight make it a no brainer to bring along on summer trips where I am not packing the down jacket. Not bad for $100.

I am always happy to write reviews for a company that manufactures quality, specialized gear here in the US along with offering excellent customer service. Borah Gear also offers some of the best bargains out there. There won’t be a trip in my immediate future that won’t see one or more of these items in my bag. And yes, I gladly paid full price for everything.

stuff sack containing EE 50 degree Enigma quilt, Borah Gear down jacket, EE booties and Hoodlum

stuff sack containing EE 50 degree Enigma quilt, Borah Gear down jacket, EE booties and Hoodlum


frost covered Borah Gear Snowyside eVent bivy

frost covered Borah Gear Snowyside eVent bivy

Willis Wall Year in Review 2015

Just a bit early this year but a Happy Holidays goes out to everyone! I had a good year hiking (and biking) solo and with my daughter, and got out with my buddy Craig a few times. Places included: Mt. Rainier National Park, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Alpine Lakes, Enchantments, and Olympic National Park. Please enjoy this video compilation from the past 10 months.

Zimmerbuilt Custom Packs Review

Zimmerbuilt packs on the Timberline Trail

Zimmerbuilt packs on the Timberline Trail

This review is gonna be short and sweet. Chris Zimmer makes excellent packs, customized to your exact specifications. The workmanship is nothing short of outstanding. The response to emails was excellent, with questions being answered promptly and appropriate questions from Chris himself to nail down my needs. His prices are very reasonable. Once the specifications were finalized and the invoice paid, I had the packs in hand within a matter of days, not weeks. Here's the chronology of my experience:

• I asked for slight modifications to his standard Hybrid Daypack. Done. Paid. Delivered.

• I inquired about a custom front pack to match the Daypack. Perfect. I've been using it all season. The components are robust, meaning the strapping is wide and the buckles are solid, the attachment system is good for any pack I own, the zipper is rugged and the materials are tough (hybrid cuben).•

Pleased with this front pack, I ordered a completely custom backpack with these specifications:

Zimmerbuilt custom 1700 c.i. pack

Zimmerbuilt custom 1700 c.i. pack

- Hybrid Day Pack Body Style but larger volume

- Pack Volume - 1700ci

- Pack Material - Hybrid Cuben Fiber - Olive/Black

 - 3D mesh padded back panel

- Foam Padded Shoulder Straps

- 3D mesh padded hip belt - minimal size

- Side Pockets - Dyneema X - Slanted top - Pleated

- 2 Side Compression Straps per side

- 2 Front vertical daisy chains

- Front Pocket - Mesh

- Ice Axe Loop - Left

- Zipper Pulls - 2

- Sternum Strap

- Haul Loop

Once finalized, I had this pack in less than a week.

• Noticing some wear on my clothing from front pack bottom attachment straps over the past few years,

I asked about slide on "mitigating rub pads". Done, delivered, tested and worked perfectly.

• Impressed enough with my pack experience,

I asked about a custom pack for my daughter:

- 2200ci ZB2 Style Pack

Zimmerbuilt custom ZB2 pack for my daughter

Zimmerbuilt custom ZB2 pack for my daughter

- Pack Dimensions - 11" wide by 7" deep by 22" tall plus the roll top

- Pack Material - Dyneema X

- Aluminum Stay

- Load Lifters

- Haul Loop

- Sternum Strap

- Foam Padded Hip Belt

- Foam Padded Shoulder straps with daisy chain

- Front Mesh pocket

- Front bungee cord compression

- 1 Axe loop - Left

- 2 Side compression straps per side

- Side Pockets (dyneema, pleated)

- Dry Bag Style Roll Top

- 2 Top straps for securing bear can if needed.

This was to be a "do all" pack, able to haul heavier loads if need be but not so huge as to preclude using it as a day pack. This was to replace a GG Mariposa, which proved uncomfortable at best with heavier loads. Used all season with excellent results. Sturdy. Perfect fit. Comfortable. Rides well when scrambling. Accommodating for large or small loads. Stylish. Great value. 'Nuff said.

I've used the smaller 1700 c.i. pack on most of my trips this season, including Mt. Adams Timberline Trail (2 days, 40 miles), the West 57 miles of the Wonderland Trail (2 days), a complete Wonderland Trail Fastpack (3 days, 93 miles) and a circuit of Mt. Adams along with numerous day trips of varying lengths. Scrambling. Running. 'Schwacking. Biking. Bashing. Snot bombs. Sharp talus. Scree. And I wasn't gentle. Of all the equipment I have purchased over the years, these packs rank among the best purchases I have made, including best bang for the buck. The most outstanding customer service. Best selection of materials for a combination of ruggedness and light weight. If you are experienced enough to know exactly what you want in a pack, buy a Zimmerbuilt.

Zimmerbuilt Custom Packs in use......

creek crossing on the Timberline Trail

creek crossing on the Timberline Trail

crossing the raging Eliot Creek, Timberline Trail

crossing the raging Eliot Creek, Timberline Trail

Cassie cresting Crescent Gap

Cassie cresting Crescent Gap

Zimmerbuilt pack in Joshua Tree National Park

Zimmerbuilt pack in Joshua Tree National Park