Confessions of a (Prior) Sponsored Hiker

There was a time when I sought out discounts from cottage manufacturers and outright sponsorships. I had some experience in the outdoors so why not capitalize on this? I essentially thought it was cool to get gear at a discount or outright free. Perhaps I felt validated in some way that a gear manufacturer would offer me items for use. But at what cost? I had no obligation to provide positive reviews in any way, but let's be real. If I am getting free gear then there is an inherent pressure to provide positive feedback; otherwise, the free gear pipeline would probably get cut off. What company would continually sponsor a representative if that representative pointed out flaws in this same gear? Reality check: if one is getting free gear, a review of that gear is inherently biased, despite the good intentions of the user.

A recent brouhaha on a certain forum concerning a review of a certain item highlighted this conundrum. The reviewer in question had no problem advertising their affiliations with companies, to the extent that their forum avatar was a conglomeration of company logos listed as sponsors. 10 years ago I thought this was cool, but now I'm looking at this from a different angle. I no longer want, nor would accept, sponsorship from any outdoor gear manufacturer (besides, why would anyone seek to sponsor an aged average dude who hikes a little?). I carefully research gear that might fit my needs, then purchase an item based on this research, then use it. If it lives up to my expectations, falls short, or exceeds them, then I may choose to write about it so that another person doing internet research can gather more information before they decide on a purchase. In my research I am seeking user experience, not "unboxing videos",  from people who paid for this item with their hard earned cash and have actually used the item for a period of time, enough to validate their opinions. Even then, people have a propensity to justify their purchase. Who wants to admit that they spent $X on something that failed real world use? Human nature pressures a reviewer to justify their purchase. It takes a well adjusted, down to earth individual to admit that they spent money on something that failed them.

There is an exception: people who do extraordinary things, who are at the top of their class, who through their very actions stand out in a crowd. These people may accept sponsorships from companies because it allows them to continue pushing boundaries and generally standing out in their fields of endeavors. They draw attention because of their actions, and for this companies will sponsor them because just wearing their clothing or using their gear will benefit the company from the exposure.  Generally speaking, this outstanding athlete will not usually write a review of this gear; it's enough that they are using it. I would consider this a mutually beneficial arrangement: the athlete can continue their endeavors with less worry of expenditure, and the company gets exposure from the public endeavors of the athlete.

The "Pack Pose"....back to camera, cool overlook or background

The "Pack Pose"....back to camera, cool overlook or background

Maybe not so in the less lofty blogging world. I recently visited a website of a representative of a certain company and checked their gear reviews, many of which were of their sponsor(s). The photos incorporated in these reviews were transparent: Here I am at this cool overlook, take a picture of me so this pack will be prominent in the photo, preferably with my back turned to the camera as I contemplate the wonder before me. And again. And again. Plus this blogger did not make the association with the sponsor evident in each post, unless the reader clicked for expanded information. The FCC has laid out guidelines that are available to anyone searching online, but here is one example:

A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. Because his review is disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge.

So, if a blogger is given an item free or charge, or even discounted, the blogger is required by the FCC to make this relationship known in each instance, clearly and conspicuously. Therein lies the aforementioned brouhaha about a gear review....this relationship was not made evident in the review, despite the company being listed as one of their sponsors in a side bar. Perhaps the blogger paid full price? Perhaps a discount? How can the reader know, if the blogger does not offer up the information?

When I received free or discounted gear from a company, I felt an inherent pressure to somehow showcase this gear.  Luckily for me, in retrospect I can say that I didn't skew my review(s) toward the positive. The gear worked, and worked well. In fact, to this day I still use some of this gear that is towards 10 years old. In one post I actually said "I don't use gear that sucks", after my disclaimer of course. But I have to say, the relief of just buying gear at market prices, or at advertised discounts available to everyone, is palpable. I no longer think about pix or video when I'm on a hike, bike or ski, that might showcase the free gear I got. Now, if I like it I write about it, but only because I want to help on line researchers in their purchasing decision making. And I really like to promote US based manufacturers of quality outdoor gear. I'll spend more to buy Beyond Clothing, because it's stitched in the US and it's damn good gear. I'm a fan of Zimmerbuilt, ZPacks, Enlightened Equipment and Borah Gear. Mountain Laurel Designs has an excellent reputation. There's some great stuff out there and people should know about it that take the time to research. If I post about gear now, I have no sponsorship bias. I gladly pay full price (or advertised discounts) for quality gear, especially if it's made in the US. And if it works for my usage, then I'll write about it with the intent of helping people in their gear decisions. When I research, I consider if the reviewer is sponsored by a company and decide for myself if the review is biased because of this association. And when I come across the "Pack Pose" I can't help but chuckle.

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!