Best Laid Plans... (Part 1)

Last year, after more than a decade off from backpacking I decided it was time. Last year I set the goal of finishing a hike I had started twice before and had to cancel due to no fault of my own. The part that makes this challenging is that in previous attempts, I was in my mid 20's. For this attempt, I would be in my mid 50's with a few more knee and foot surgeries and about 20 pounds heavier than previous attempts. The trip I was going on was the famous Four Pass Loop trail around the Maroon Bells, just outside of Aspen.

Despite my age and various ailments, my confidence was very high that the hike would be a piece of cake! Fueled by the goal of completing this hike I lost around 25 pounds over the 6 months leading up to the hike. Sadly, I need to lose around another 20 to get back to an optimal weight. Still, my logic was that if I lost 25 pounds and I can keep my pack weight under 25 pounds then it will be just like I was just walking the trail without a pack on 6 months earlier!

While I stopped backpacking due to job requirements, and an amazing wife who isn't a fan of the idea of sleeping outside, I never stopped hiking. In fact, my wife loves hiking and we average around 20 miles of hiking a week even when not in training mode. To prepare for the trip, we had been doing our usual, 3-mile hike almost every day but occasionally mixing in a few 10-mile hikes as well. My plan was to do the hike in 4 days and 3 nights. It was about a 28-mile hike so that means I only had to do 7 miles a day! Piece of cake, right?

With my weight loss, even a 10-mile hike with a 30-pound backpack felt trivial. Despite living in what is frequently called "the hill country" there are very few trails with real elevation changes on them to do some real training. My neighborhood has what we think of as a BIG hill in it but in reality, it is only around 130' elevation difference from the bottom of the hill to the top. So big by Texas standards but trivial by real hike standards.

We also have a hike here in Austin that had decent elevation gain, the Riverplace Trail. This is a 5.5 mile out and back hike with a whopping 823' of elevation change. My goal hike had around 8000' elevation change BUT that was over 4 days.  I hiked this several times with a 30-pound pack and my only real suffering related to doing the 5.5-mile hike was the Texas heat.

Also, as part of getting ready, I decided to drop some money on a few pieces of lighter gear. First up, a new sleeping bag! I'm a big guy at 6'3" and 220 so new camping gear is always a challenge. Probably pushed by the desire to keep weight to a minimum, all gear seems to be built for people 6' or under. My old bag was a cheap sporting goods store Slumberjack 30 degree mummy bag. Weight, about 4 pounds AND I knew from prior experience that there is no way it was warm at 3o degrees. I was expecting temperatures around 40 degrees on the trip so I started looking for something for tall people in the 2-3 pound range. As luck would have it, REI was having a garage sale and there was a long Exped 25/40 bag in the returns section for $75! Weight, 2 pounds 3 ounces, good down to 25, and bonus, it wasn't a mummy bag which I really wanted as I change positions a lot during the night. Bam, $75 to drop 2 pounds of pack weight and got a warmer bag to boot!

Next up, the tent! I had a couple of tents. One was a lightweight 2 1/2 pound tent that was practically a bivvy. While it was not a bad tent, I hated how claustrophobic it was. Also, on one of my last trips, I had foolishly left an empty power bar wrapper in the tent and a small rodent tore a hole in the tent to get to it. My other tent was an REI 2 man from around 20 years ago. It had enough room if I laid at an angle but weighed about 4 1/2 pounds. After researching tents a bit, I decided to go for Six Moons 2 person tent. Weight was around 3 pounds and it had plenty of room even for tall people! It is a hiking pole tent which I was fine with as I had fallen in love with using hiking poles. Another 1 1/2 pounds down for not a ton of money. The tent does need a footprint though which brought things up another half pound.

Next up, backpack! I had a fairly light backpack from 20 plus years prior but it was super uncomfortable. Weight was around 3 pounds, it had limited storage, and was effectively frameless. It had a frame but it was super flexible and didn't offer any real support. After doing a bit of research, I went and tried the REI Flash 55 and it was love at first sight! After stripping it down to just the basics, the large-sized pack weighed in at around 2 pounds 3 ounces, had tons of pockets, was super comfy, and even water resistant! $199 but 10% back from REI and you know REI will stand behind its products!

Next up, sleeping pad! My old sleeping pad was a super old Therm-a-rest self-inflating pad. It was not horrible but nowhere near thick enough for a large side sleeper like myself. As a bonus, it also weighed around 3 pounds! After investigating options, it seemed that there were basically two categories of pads. First, you had the good ones that were what I considered super expensive for a pad at $120-250 but offered lightweight, comfort, and even insulation. The second category was a sea of knockoffs and clones that were all in the $30-60 range but had mostly good reviews. I ended up going with the most popular clone option, a $30 Sleepingo pad. Not perfect but pretty decent for a side sleeper and only 1 pound! Bammo, another 2 pounds off my pack!

I already had a fairly lightweight stove (3 ounces), a 1.2-liter titanium pot (7 ounces), and I bought a 2.6-ounce collapsible cup, a fresh 7-ounce container of gas,  a long handle spoon, and declared that my cook set was ready for action! I threw in a small fireplace lighter and a container of weatherproof matches and called it done!

In the old days, we used pills for water purifying, and apparently this is not what the cool kids do these days. After some more research, it seems the majority of people are in one of two camps. Either they use a Sawyer Squeeze or a Katadyn Befree. Fate made this choice for me as there was a Katadyn Befree in the returns pile. It was unused and the return reason was "Too complicated". I'm not sure how this person thought that it was too complicated but whatever, their loss is my gain. Water filter acquired and for under $20! Weight, under 3 ounces with its collapsible bottle! I had read a few people who had sprung leaks in their bottles so I bought a backup bottle that was compatible and holds 2 liters and weight another 3 ounces.

For clothing, I took 3 pairs of cheap wool socks off Amazon, the budget puffy jacket from REI, a pair of "adventure pants" from REI with legs that could zip off and convert to shorts,  long sleeve Columbia fishing shirt, sun hat, polar fleece tube for my head, 2 pairs of underwear, and a short sleeve sleep shirt.  For shoes, I wore my trusty Oboz heavy-duty and waterproof hiking boots and took my new pair of Altra Lone Peak 4.5s as water shoes, camp shoes, and backup shoes.

For food, I bagged up 4 days' worth of food, about 4000 calories a day. I'm a big guy and that is about what I expected to burn if not more. Four Mountain House meal bags, one Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy, two meals of oatmeal with brown sugar and hemp hearts, twelve power bars, eight three-ounce bags of trail mix, and a few other snacks. In all, about six to seven pounds of food that I threw in my official kevlar "bear bag", which was required for the hike.

Due to various injuries, work situations, and the pandemic, none of my usual hiking buddies were able to join me so I was doing this trip alone. Since I own my own business *cough*go play Shroud of the Avatar *cough* and have to always be in touch with the team and because my wife was worried, I dropped a few hundred dollars on a Garmin Inreach satellite communicator. This lets people back home track your location in real-time and it also lets you send text messages even when off the wireless phone grid.

I know it sounds crazy, but I don't mind driving long distances. I've got a fairly new Prius that gets 50 mpg and is super easy to drive long distances. The drive from Austin Texas to Aspen Colorado is around 1100 miles. No problem, get up at 2 AM and drive it in one day and get to a campsite near Aspen at 9000' elevation before dark! Spend two nights there to acclimate and then BAM, hiking time!

I sure felt ready. Weight loss, check. Training, check. Gear weight reduction, check. Food, check.  Did a test camp in my backyard to verify everything was groovy and ready to go! Also planned to do another test camp at elevation for two nights before heading out on the hike to sanity check temperatures and clothing. Test camp in conditions similar to the trail, mostly check. Nothing could possibly go wrong! Insert narrator's voice here saying "Oh, but things did go wrong... terribly wrong."