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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Monday, May 19, 2014

Old school, New school....lost and found?

Hess and Deborah from the North.

In the late spring of 1976, I and 3 others did out first Alaska trip.  Not flying into KIA but going farther north into what was then a little visited area.  David Roberts, Don Jensen had come before us as had others we didn't know and hadn't read about.  For us it was a good adventure

Cliff  Hudson and Doug Geeting dropped us off on the Gilliam Glacier and picked us up a week late some 30 days later.   For us it was the "big mountains".

We had a compass or two, topo maps and a radio telephone that worked line of site to Fairbanks.  When we could get line of site to Fairbanks from the surrounding peaks or ridge lines.  A few weeks later and two minor first ascents we had used the radio phone and asked for a pick up.

It was a little weird siting in the middle of a glacier, under a beautiful blue sky, watching the snow melt and crevasses open up, running out of food and wondering when the plane might arrive.
Days later it did.

But not before we thought seriously about walking out to the road.  No small feat.

Fast forward through 7 more trips to the Alaska Range and walking or skiing around the Cascades,  Canadian Rockies and some of the Greater Ranges  for a few decades.

Never took a radio of any kind again.  But topo maps and a compass have been a regular companion.  And on occasion, when I could afford it, a high quality altimeter.

These days a cell phone is common but not very useful generally.  A topo map is still the basis for my travel in an unknown area.  Compass of course and again the altimeter (always handy) if I think it might required.

more here:

Until quite recently I really never gave wilderness navigation much though.  As a kid my father sent me out on horse back to flush game for him.  That might be an hours ride or a full days ride.  I spent hours alone in totally unknown terrain as a grade school kid...scared shitless for the most part, trying to figure out how to get back to our hunting camp.  Thank God for smart horses!

Some where in that trial by fire (or so it seemed) I learned to first, given a choice only travel in good weather.  2nd, know what direction North always was and where the hell you were headed.   And, as last resort,  how to get back home the way you came.  It was much, much later that I decided the most fun trips were traveling from point A to point B through unknown terrain with a BIG target to hit on the other end.  Big, as in say a road or river.   Some sort of natural barrier that is BIG and hard to miss.  Later yet the targets got smaller.

Sailing back from Hawaii on a 52' cutter rigged sail boat tested that theory to  its limits.  Yes the Western Hemisphere is big when you leave Hawaii.  And you aren't likely to miss it sailing East!
That much I had figured out.  The rest not so much.   21 days in and level with Baja instead of Seattle was a bit of a shocker!

So, I need to move on and get to the point.  A couple of winters ago we were out skiing.  I had wanted to do a small, but local circumnavigation.  Half way in we had a discussion on "where to next?"    Should we turn around or continue or do  (to me) the unknown loop option?   I looked at the topo map, compared the 2nd half of the loop to the terrain  we had already covered and figured 4 more hrs.  Plenty of time.  One of my companions spent 30 minutes using a topo map, an altimeter, a pen and paper and some addition and multiplication to come up with 4.5 hrs.  Imagine that?

It actually took 3hr and 45 minutes.  But who is counting right?  Or that an hour either way would matter much one way or another generally.

I thought all that time spent rather odd actually and wondered why it took him a topo map and 30 minutes to figure it out, when were seemed to simply be burning day light.  (My companion was only "allowed" to ski during daylight hours, seriously)

I then sorta casually started keeping track and noticed a whole lot of people I met outdoors were doing similar things.   Lots of fussing about.  Lots of figures and calculations made on maps and paper or a smart phone and/or tablet with real time GPS.   Altimeter watches, GPS, cell phones, Goggle maps, and a host of other chit that eventually told them..with some real effort and time spent mind you, that the trip they were on would be XY ro Z amount of minutes.

I wonder now how you would figure out the walk from Deborah?  Back then we looked at a map..checked our meager food supply and figured 4o r 5 days of suck.  May be less.  Being really hungry the last two.  Nice I didn't have to test that calculation.  But not a big deal if we'd had to either.  Not like we had to be any place special. any time soon.

This Spring I watched an experienced wilderness traveler sit for 2 hours figuring out a long days' ski.  He came up with 10hrs.  In no hurry, most of us did it in under 8hrs which had been the prediction from past performance and the upcoming new terrain.  GPS, map, compass, Goggle maps, computer way points, a travel formula and all that field experience with modern equipment combined still came up short on reality but really long on theory.

These days?

Life is more complicated than it use to be.  My Dad didn't soon forget the cost of me calling collect to say we were OK and coming out in 1976 using that radio phone.

Now my wife gets nervous if I can't check in daily on either a cell phone, Skype or email no matter where I am at in the world.  Fair enough.  Almost no cost to us and easy enough to do.  But things have obviously changed in the last 35+ years.   A map and compass still work pretty well as long as what is between your ears does as well.  That's not going to placate anyone still waiting at home though.

I am still adamant about knowing where North is.   I still want to look at a topo map prior to, if not during any trip.  And I still want a compass to go with the map.  An altimeter combined with map and compass can save a whole lot of faffing about and effort in zero visibility.  But hell, if pushed, I'll still settle for just the damn map.  And even better?  Good weather. 

And that Iridium Sat phone can get you out of most holes you might dig for yourself.  No clue if it will keep the wife happy on a daily basis for you though, sorry.



Unknown said...

Dane said...

If it were only that easy ;-) Pairing a sat device and a smart phone might be less expensive. But I'd like just one simple device.

Lou's review is good. Seems end users are having the same problems.

Peter said...

the bit about aiming for seattle and landing at baja was delicious. i have done stuff like that more than once. the best part about it is the brain squeeze of staring at baja and trying to convince yourself its seattle.(who cut down all the trees?)

really hesitate to wade into the old school/new school discussion. climbing has gone in some really strange directions since i was a young buck. almost don't recognize it. there is surely a cost to all the sensible safety equipt like sat phones etc, and the cost is diminished intensity of experience. same result with bolts. not my place to decide where other people draw that line.

btw I hope the compass you where using to land in baja wasnt the same one you where going to use for the walk out.

thks for the blog Dane i look forward to it all the time

Dane said...

Hey Peter, thanks for reading! Funny on the Baja thing. Thought I knew where I was at. Closer to Baja when I wanted off the boat than Seattle was a rather unpleasant experience.

The whole sextant thing became interesting at that point. And a good reminder if a sextant is on the gear list, I should ALWAYS reconsider going...twice at least. :-). GPS and or a Sat phone make it all easier now. But do find the reality of staying in touch with my family a much more pressing need now that when i was younger and less tethered in so many ways. Not that it is bad. And I like the ability to communicate as required if you are the one responsible in the field. Kinda buck rogers the whole cellphones and sat phones though. Weird really for me (my generation). But also pretty neat that they have actually become reasonably affordable. At some point, for better or worse I'll be writing about Sat phones and the BCA radios simply because I will eventually be using them. But no question it changes the experience and dynamics in my mind while I am out and either/both are in my pack. Still trying to wrap my head around it. But hopefully the big thing is it will lower my stress and allow me to better enjoy the outdoor experience. I think at some point when you actually know from experience just how bad things can go and just how quickly...good communication starts making really good sense.

Unknown said...

Don't think I'm particularly old school but I definitely view the map, compass and altimeter as the preferred items to carry. In fact, I was kind of snobby about taking anything beyond these for a while (till the first time a plane flew away after dropping me on a rather unpopular glacier in the eastern Alaska range). Currently I see the sat gear as a convenient luxury to be taken IN ADDITION to the above if weight and remoteness allow and dictate the luxury. That said, I've used the delorme, spot, iridium, globalstar and carried a plb. Spot is supposedly fine but un-confirmable in the field, delorme is so finicky it'll drive you absolutely nuts, plb's really feel like dead weight if you don't have to use them. A good old sat phone is some great comfort for many and a handheld gps with maps and waypoints can give you quite a bit of additional confidence as long as you can keep it running. I've started taking the regular cell phone on many domestic alpine climbing trips simply because it's so common to get a signal. if you really need a rescue, it's going to make it faster. Since a cell phone is along for the ride anyway, i figured it might as well tell me where I am, better yet, show me...on a map. I've been experimenting with various navigation software and so far I like motionx gps. Simple to use and simple to download maps and $2. Not bad so far. Not perfect.

Jesse Morehouse said...

Great commentary. I think all the dithering with gear is typically a sign of inexperience. You see the same thing with people backpacking who have god awful heavy packs full of the coolest REI trinkets. Gear mitigates the risks posed by lack of experience and no mentoring I think. That is cool in my book. Id rather someone dink around figuring out where they are if they would otherwise get lost and have their significant other call SAR! Experience leads to less reliance on gear. Hopefully with more experience, these folks realize the joys of light fast "good enough" navigation that quick look at the map provides, right?

Im kind of laughing as I write this though because I just went on a little outing and TOTALLY misjudged the distances involved due to shoddy map work. It appears years of reduced activity due to raising kids has taken its toll on my map skills. Head's up you other young parents out there!

BTW, when people have asked me about map and compass skills, Ive found that the Army has all kinds of instructional material posted online for free from field manuals. Its actually pretty good for most basic and intermediate concepts dealing with map and compass navigation (no altimiter stuff and their compasses are different from those we all carry but that is not a huge hurdle.

Jonathan S. Shefftz said...

“Pairing a sat device and a smart phone might be less expensive. But I'd like just one simple device.”
- Neither DeLorme SE nor the new Explorer (same as SE but with the addition of navigational functions) requires any phone pairing. (If anything the phone pairing is kind of pointless – maybe eventually DeLorme will add some functionality in a future firmware & app upgrade, but rather now it doesn’t so much of anything, although it does allow a better GPS app like Gaia to use the InReach GPS fix, thereby saving the smartphone’s battery.)

“delorme is so finicky it'll drive you absolutely nuts”
- The initial release of the SE did have some quirks since the website support really wasn’t ready yet for the hardware. But since the upgrades it’s been fine for me.

Dane said...

Thanks Jonathon. Sorry the last discussion when to shit. Not that I was surprised. I obviously don't understand the DeLorme stuff and need to. Thanks for the correction and heads up. I'll check them out.

Jonathan S. Shefftz said...

DeLorme unfortunately hasn't made it easy to understand as their first "InReach" product (no appendage in the name) had to be paired with a phone for two-way communication, then the "InReach SE" introduced last spring was a standalone device, and ditto for the "InReach Explorer" (i.e., with navigational functions) that just started shipping this spring.
For emergency communication, the SE and Explorer can be considered more reliable than voice communication over a sat phone, as only a quick data burst is necessary in areas with marginal reception. (Same as with text messages versus voice calls on a cell phone.)
However, a long extended back-and-forth exchange on the SE or Explorer could get rather tedious as you sit there hitting the manual refresh icon over and over again to override the automatic refresh interval...

Gregg Cronn said...

Hi Dane,

Great stories as always. Mark Price and I cam across two major icefields on the Bugs to Rogers ski traverse relying on map, altimeter and compass to guide us. We pulled out the GPS to just confirm where we were and then continue traveling in storms with the old school methods. It was just easier and faster. The best part was using the big ridge features off of Mt. Sir Donald to hand rail off.

Jay Kerr said...

Hey Dane, I connected with this post on so many levels. We made our 1st trip into the Ruth in 1978, in and out by air. But the next 6 expeditions we skied in and out via three different routes (Buckskin Glacier, Muldrow/Traleika, and Kanakula). It was map, compass and altimeter all the way. We once skied from Little Switzerland to KIA in a total whiteout, making the turn up to KIA when the alti said it was time. Couldn't see camp until we bumped into the radio op tent.

These days I sail my vintage Tartan 37 up and down the PNW coast, and know exactly where we are at all times thanks to GPS and chart plotter apps on my iPad and laptop, but I still have a full complement of paper charts aboard, and plan every passage on paper before setting out.

My backcountry trips are now limited to summertime backpacking. I do one long 50 - 60 mile trip each year with my daughters, and start studying the maps months in advance. By the time we hit the trail I don't need a GPS... I know the terrain intimately from months of study and have the maps, altimeter and compass in my pack. This summer it's the Evolution Loop with a bunch of off-trail rambling.

Anyway, those early days of exploring the Alaska Range on foot, armed with maps, compass, alti and a bunch of Washburn photos set us up for a lifetime of great backcountry adventuring sans technological gadgets. I'm as much a tech geek as the next guy (I'm an iPhone developer), and wouldn't sail north for Alaska without a good chart plotter, but I'm with you on Old School navigation.


Dane said...

Hey Jay. Good too hear from you. I remember some of your adventures very well.

I broke down and bought a sat phone to keep in touch at home while skiing in Europe. Most of my European friends thought I was nuts. They are seldom out of cell range on their own adventures there. And the cost of course. Chamonix being the prime example of only a cell phone needed. But the Haute Route is lacking that kind of coverage thankfully IMO. Also justified the phone for use on the east side of Rainier for skiing. It has a SPOT function that is handy for keeping the home life happy. And likely really handy if something were to happen and I needed help. But still prefer just a map and compass for travel. Computer/smart phone apps to get me up and down Rainier seem....well...rather silly for multiple of reasons.