Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Backpacking Big Bear: PCT Section 8

This is a crusty selfie taken after finishing a hot 17-mile day on Section 8 of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)--yes, that trail that's bursting with popularity thanks to the "Wild Effect." If I look a bit beat up and concerned in this photo it's because I was.

Only 48 hours prior I felt like I was on my death bed after coming down with the stomach flu/food poisoning. However, I didn't want to miss out on the backpacking trip John and I planned because with our schedule these days it's not easy to find a few days where we both can get away. I'll spare most the details of the flu saga, but it was ugly. I am a dramatic sick person--I cry and whine; I "pass out" face down on bathroom floors. I simply hate being sick like that and, even more, I hate throwing up. Poor John, it was his first time ever seeing me in that condition. But thankfully he rallied rather than ran. And thankfully I made a rather fast recovery--the first 24hrs I was helpless victim to the bug, but after that I firmly believe having a positive attitude (and generally being healthy and strong) helped me bounce back even faster. Mind over matter. So, as planned, we hit the trail Sunday morning, expecting not to return for 2.5 days or so.

But actually, recovering from the flu is not the reason I'm concerned in that photo above.

Once I was alive after the flu, the only thing that I felt like eating
was oatmeal and fruit. I had it 2 or 3 times in a row haha.
This was breakfast before Day 1 backpacking; I
added the avocado for good fats and there's also eggs
scrambled in. Sweetened with blueberries.
Backpacking 17 miles on Day 1 wasn't necessarily the plan--it happened more out of necessity. We pushed the distance for one reason: water. And that's what had me concerned.

Water sources were all but impossible to come by where we were on this part of the PCT; it is a drought around here and deep into summer after all. That weekend was high 80s F and full sun. We had done out homework prior, so we weren't totally clueless/naive, and in our research and chats with local experts and rangers we were told a particular camp, Little Bear Springs, should have a creek and non-potable water source. The creek was not promising, but we were pretty sure the non-potable water pipe would be there from what we were told and what we read. Whether it was still working was another story, and a real gamble.

So we knew well the risks we were taking going in--mainly that we might be without a water source--and we devised safe exit plans accordingly. PCT Section 8 is 21.7 miles and up until a point, it is still fairly close to town so we agreed we would bail if it seemed too dire, or simply hike a short distance and set up camp early while water was still in abundance in our packs. With that in mind, we departed with open minds. We did actually pass water jugs left by trail angels within the initial miles, but at that point we were still fairly full and decided to leave those for folks who may actually need it.

Those jugs were the only water we would see for a long time. However, ironically, in the far distance we often had a view of a big ol' body of water, Big Bear Lake.

Big Bear Lake from the PCT.

I was probably still semi weak from the flu, maybe even a bit dehydrated going into Day 1, even if I didn't want to admit it (I can still be that stubborn athlete!), but more so I was enjoying the heck out of the hike so I refused to whine or give into weakness. I actually felt strong even if I wasn't 100 percent. Mind over matter. We kept going, and eventually the trail went from bordering the lake to turning inland, deep in the mountains, meaning farther from access roads and farther from town to the extent that "easily" bailing was no longer an option. We were in. But still no water sources. We had some on our backs and nothing dire. That morning, we set out each carrying a 3-liter camelback and 1 liter bottle. We were drinking well under 500ml an hour of hike time--but the hike was getting long. We thought about our options: setting up camp early with what we had, or go all the way to Little Bear Springs, trusting (hoping) the information we received was accurate and that we'd find water that we could filter. We decided to keep moving to the established camp rather than disperse camp. I told John I was ok and strong enough to do so. Obviously we had to drink more en route, and the camp ended up being 2 miles farther away than we expected based on our calculations and even the maps, making for a 17-mile hike in 6 hours, plus an extra 1:45 of breaks including for lunch so a 7:45 day in the hot, dry alpine forest. The hike was about 3k elevation gain, and about the same in descent. I'm guessing my pack weighed 20-30lbs. Not too bad considering hours prior the best I could manage was a slow crawl on all fours to the bathroom to puke. 

We made it to the camp--which was on a valley floor--around 5pm with less than 1 liter water remaining combined, absolutely no one around and no cell service. Upon arrival, it was easy to see the creek was bone dry; not too shocking. But then we couldn't find the other water source. It was too late and too far to hike back to town--not to mention we were tired from the 17 miles. We had to stay, water or not.

Home sweet home for the night.
Should we have stopped earlier? Should we have bailed? Who knows. At no point did I think this was a life or death situation, nor did John. Neither ha signs of heat illness, nor were we delirious or out of sorts. So, at worst, it would have been uncomfortable for a while having to ration 500ml water than night and the next day as we made our way back.

That said, in the moment, I wasn't that thrilled with the situation. I was resting at our campsite while John was searching for the non-potable water source. While sitting there in the quiet forest watching the sun slowly move toward the horizon, I felt a very real wave of fear and concern come over me. I was honestly a bit scared that we'd be waterless. I knew we wouldn't die. But we very well could suffer. Then it dawned on me that we packed in beer and wine. I got mad thinking that we had also packed booze but not more water?! Stupid! At the same time, I couldn't help but laugh thinking, "thank goodness we at least have booze to drink, even if it is dehydrating." Silver lining right? I don't even drink beer anymore but I was willing to.

Then as luck would have it, John rushed over with great news. Off in the distance--it was a rather large camp site covering a lot of ground--he found the non-potable water pipe. It was near an old horse corral, meant for livestock and horses. And it still worked. We had missed seeing it due to the direction we entered camp. But it didn't matter at that point. We were saved. John busted out the Platypus water filter and the water came flowing. Crisis averted.

And, that was Day 1. Lessons learned.

Having adequate water on the trail and planning smart especially in summer is crucial. You just never know. In fact, just recently there was a tragic story out of New Mexico when a French family got lost on a hike, ran out of water and the parents died of heat-related illnesses; their 9-year-old son survived.


So how was the rest of our trip?

Well given the water situation, we didn't want to take more risks by heading deeper into unfamiliar trail and farther from our starting point--that would be stupid. Our car was parked way back--17 miles!--and originally we had two ideas on getting back: 1) we'd find a truck trail that connected the PCT to the main highway and whenever we were done we'd hike down and hitch hike or cab it back; or 2) just do an out and back.

The reward of hard work is waking up to this. Sunrise solitude.

After a leisurely morning, we opted to backtrack on the PCT until we hit a truck trail to make our exit. We didn't do the full 17 though, I was a bit too wiped for that again and especially because the first 5 miles out of Little Bear Springs were completely uphill out of the valley back to the mountain crest. I wanted to feel good and still enjoy the trip, not continue to beat my body down and feel worse. Before leaving, we made sure to fully load up with fresh filtered water of course.

That glorious water.

As we got closer to town we detoured down the designated truck trail to the highway and hitch hiked to the car. Day 2 still ended up being 9-10 miles total of backpacking--shorter but definitely a good tough hike, and thankfully with more than enough water.

We didn't want it to end there, so revised the plan on the fly. Man, I love this. Having the car, having money and having access to town, we went to the store to grab more water, coconut water (!) and fresh food for bigger dinner than what the contents of our bear canister could offer. Then, we opted for disperse camping, which is totally allowed in Big Bear. Disperse camping is basically setting up camp nearly wherever you want out there and what "roughing it" entails--no bathrooms, no nothing--unlike established campsites that have amenities and you need reservations, blah blah. We still wanted total solitude though. So we took the Outback back up a truck trail several miles, parked, did a short hike in and found a nice little site to camp off the PCT and away from the main road. All to us. This was us lounging that evening on our "chairs" aka sleeping pads.

Day 2 camp. Using sleeping pads as "chairs." Oh, and coffee snobs we are: John grabbed the French Press, grinder and beans from the car so we'd have fresh cold brew in the morning! Ha!
For a second I thought it was "soft" for us to do all this. Were we really deviating from the plan and being "weak" for going to get the car and not stick to true backpacking for 2.5 days? But then I thought about it. And I couldn't be happier about this move. Dude, I had just gotten over an illness that felt like death. Without much recovery, I rallied and was able to backpack about 27 miles in the next 1.5 days through some crazy mountains and conditions. And John was hanging in like a champ too, making sure we were safe--mostly that I was safe. Putting it in those terms: We had already won! So screw it! If we wanted to get the car (and go to the grocery store) to have that extra comfort and peace of mind, so be it. In fact, I think that second night of camping was one of the best nights ever with John--we were off the grid, immersed in nature and feeling pretty darn good. We had a great meal, we had beer and wine (ha!), and we were just able to relax, enjoy each other's company, share stories, listen to the sounds of nature, and not be distracted by the world. We stayed up "late" to watch the stars as we love to do. (For the record, late on the trail is anything past 9 pm lol.)

The next day we hit the road home. It was a short trip, but enough memories to last a lifetime.

I'm curious to hear from other backpackers/hikers/campers on this spin of events we endured. Have you been caught in similar situations? I felt like we did all the research and homework possible before hitting the trail, but you just never know right?! In my other trips this year we've planned routes where water is guaranteed along the trail, in the form of a creek, river or lake. This was the case in Big Sur and the High Sierra Trail for example. I really enjoy knowing water will be there, not only for drinking purposes but simply for having the sounds of a creek nearby or a cool place to relax, soak and wash up after a hard day's work. In contrast, Big Bear and the deserty conditions were much more harsh, but oddly just as satisfying in their own way.

Oh, and one more note. Speaking of hot, deserty, dry, waterless conditions: A fire recently broke out in Big Bear--just one week after we did our PCT adventure. Now, that really got my mind spinning. No water for a night or so is one thing, but what if we had to face a wildfire while out there on the trail? I can't even imagine.... in the meantime, I'm praying that the Summit Fire doesn't do too much damage out there. Last I saw it's 50 percent contained. I hate when these fires destroy such beauty:


Cool terrain out there; it changes a lot even in less than 20 miles.

Happy campers!

Can you spot the trail? #PCT

I love breakfast and studying maps when camping! I make a really hearty paleo cereal for brekkie, and at some point I'll share my backpacking food and meal plan. I have it dialed in for the health-conscious fat-adapted folk. Personally, I do more carbs on the trail, but am still LCHF-ish and still all about clean-eating.

Views like these make it all worthwhile.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Top-10 Reasons I Love Backpacking

If you're reading along, you probably see a trend in how my approach to fitness, outdoor sport and endurance is evolving. I'm branching out, and I've fallen in love with a new kind of endurance adventure: backpacking. I give 100 percent credit to my sister for introducing me to this wonderful activity when she invited me on a trip back in March. It's really been life-changing and such a good complement to competing. Backpacking is not an attempt to replace what racing offers, but rather enhance my life experience with new kinds of adventures that test the mind and body in a different way. I'm sure some of you may be thinking (because I did too), "What could be so great and life-changing about backpacking? Sounds dirty and like a lot of work." Well let me tell you from my POV, it's not just another workout to burn calories, and it's not just about bumming it. It's so much deeper. I've attempted to summarize in this top-10 countdown. If you've backpacked and/or still do, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

Thanks to my sister, Karlee, for bringing backpacking to the forefront. This was our first trip that ended with a plunge in some darn cold water, and, man, was it refreshing in more than one way.

Top-10 Reasons I Love Backpacking

10) A fresh perspective on performance. There's a time and place when I love geeking on data, variables and performance that comes along with training and racing. I'll be the first one to say I value structured workouts, meeting specific goals, and working with others on the same. But then there's a time and place to just throw all that our the door and be free with your fit-ness. With backpacking, that happens. There's no pressure to follow the "rules" of training, no pressure to hold a certain speed, HR or watts. There may be the goal of meeting a certain distance per day, and you may push yourself to execute it to your ability, but it's different. No one cares how fast or slow you are, nor should you. It's more important to soak up the experience rather than rush through it to be "fast." The finish line is simply having camp safely set up before the sun sets, and no one will be there to take your timing chip and post results. Now that said, I do enjoy having my Garmin and GPS to track my miles, data and stats but for totally different reasons and different vibes.

9) It's not comfortable. Backpacking presents new challenges and risks that I'm digging. You do not have the peace of mind that race organizers and volunteers are taking care of you--there's no one to point the way, or shorten the course if the weather's bad. No aid stations with a full buffet. No port-o-potties, no medical tents, no sag wagons to pick you up if you fall. There's no such thing as a DNF. You're diving into the unknown, paving your own path and totally responsible for your survival and well-being. Like triathlon, mistakes happen along the way and you have to manage yourself and the situation. And you have to work for everything little thing or it's not happening. But unlike a race, it doesn't end after you've done your miles for the day--you keep working. Granted, backpacking technology and supplies are pretty advanced, and that makes it nice with some added comforts. But even with all the cool gear you can get at REI, when you're out there you still get a taste of truly roughing it.

Dirty and even some kind of heat rash after a long day.
8) Get gritty and don't give a shit. Days on a trail without a mirror and without a shower? Yes please. Makeup? What's that. There's no worry about getting dirty, brushing my hair, nor how I look. I'll look how I'll look. If you are with me, you'll appreciate me for the company not how "pretty" I look on the trail. That brings a new level of confidence--try it. Once you remove yourself from our modern culture, and even mirrors, you start to realize how strong of an effect these things can have on our brain and how we feel about ourselves. Even if you're a confident person, which I think I am, there's always going to be an ad, billboard, commercial or someone's hot-body selife sending the message on how you can be better, prettier, hotter, leaner, buffer, sexier, faster, smarter. You can't help but start over-analyzing yourself in comparison and dwelling on your "problem" areas. It's really a shame that a lot of us get wrapped up into comparisons to the point of losing confidence. I think I'm pretty capable of ignoring that noise and being true to me, but even I was surprised how social pressures to look and be a certain way can seep into my psyche. And it took stepping away, into nature, to realize it. So why not just turn off the noise and get back to being natural in nature, the ultimate for improving one's self-esteem. In fact, studies show that going into the forest--even a short walk--helps prevent and/or reduce depressed feelings and negative thoughts about one's self.

Great Western Divide.

7) Exploration. As I mature and am more comfortable with my career and life situation, I see myself starting to crave more travel and exploration, and I usually prefer nature over cities, so backpacking is a beautiful fit. It's funny, though, because I didn't have this mindset as much in my 20s--I would often make excuses as to why I couldn't take off on a trip or adventure. I suppose I was too wrapped up in establishing "my foundation" and also being all-in for triathlon. I think it's a bit like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs--you meet the basic needs and goals then move on to the deeper things that create a well-rounded and fulfilled existence. Perhaps I'm moving up my unique pyramid. Or maybe I've just gotten out of my head of being Type A workaholic. Whatever it is, I'll take it because the things I've encountered, seen and experienced so far with backpacking have enriched my soul. It's a beautiful world out there, and I for one don't want to let life pass by and miss out on these opportunities to explore.

6) Spirituality. I'll admit, I'm not religious, but I do consider myself a spiritual person. Don't ask me to define spirituality, that's a tough one and it's so individual. For me, when I think of spirituality I think of being in nature. It's the No. 1 place where I feel most spiritual, and it's been that way ever since I can remember. As a kid, I can recall memories of feeling something special when I would be surfing or mountain biking or hiking, as if I was connected to a force bigger than just me and was touched in a deep way. Into my triathlon days, early-morning solo trail runs would often elicit the same vibes. Now, with backpacking, I get those same strong spiritual vibes when I'm out there, and I just soak it up.

5) Back to the basics. Everything I need is on my back and nothing more. If a questionable item that I'm debating bringing is heavy, bulky and awkward it's not coming--even if it may make life "easier" out there. With that, you're left with simple tools and gear, and needing to use a lot of your own smarts to get things done, as well as patience in the process. For example, on my first trip--a girl's trip fyi--I remember my sister and I spending time, effort and total focus to build a fire the old school way, open a can with an archaic tool and to find and prepare (filter) our water. Now, you experienced backpackers and campers may be used to this, but it was mostly all new to me and really opened my eyes to how much I take for granted in our modern world--and how fast we often move through our days not stopping to appreciate the simple tasks in life. Even using a real, physical map to navigate--and not Google maps nor 10 other phone apps--feels so good. I love taking the time and effort to do simple, basic things from setting up safe shelter to digging your own hole in the woods to... well... you know what I'm getting at (thank goodness I have a decent deep squat lol).

4) An improved relationship with food. This may sound weird, but I enjoy food in a different way when I'm backpacking, and I arguably enjoy it even more for what food entails and how it nourishes the journey. I consider myself pretty smart with food these days, but I've had my eyes opened to mistakes I still sometimes make at home with food. For example, rushing food, eating while distracted, eating more than is needed just because it's around or because it tastes good--but not because you actually need it. But when backpacking I'm fully present with food--whether a snack or meal--and if it's going in my mouth I'm focused on it.
Also, food as fuel takes on another meaning. I better appreciate the nourishing aspect of food, how it tastes, and taking the time to slowly enjoy each bite--you earned it! I'm also more in tune with how it feels to reach satiation. Obviously food supply is limited out there so you only eat what you need to, and you can't really afford to overdo it--as such, you really start to truly feel how much or how little the body needs and portion wisely. I'm trying to apply these principles back at home in regular life, especially trying to eat slower and less distracted.

... and my top 3... drumroll ....

3) Get off the grid*. Ahhh. Let's talk about this. As much as I love being connected with others around the world on a daily basis, and as much as I love coaching and podcasting and yapping, I equally love getting off the grid and quieting down. It's all too easy this day in age to be too plugged in to everything all the time and that creates a mind that's cluttered, lacking focus and often stressed and overwhelmed. Going off the grid and back to simplicity is the perfect cure--and it's cheap too, way cheaper than therapy. Interestingly, shutting myself off the world and having no cell service is not something I would have desired even a few years back, for reasons like FOMO, and to this day FOMO--in a serious sense--is sometimes a real concern, but I certainly have evolved and understand the importance of disconnecting and taking extended breaks. It's no stretch to say that taking these breaks certainly makes me better at what I do for a living. At first I would think the breaks showed weakness and that I wasn't working hard enough, or my clients would think I'm lazy and not paying attention in enough detail. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Going off-the-grid re-energizes me so that I'm more focused, engaged and productive upon return (and happier too vs. being a zombie who's always nailed to the office). There's research to prove I'm not crazy for saying this; less really is more, and it's time we stop trying to work hard 24/7 thinking that's the only way to reach success.

2) Be present. As I begin my journey in studying and practicing more mindfulness and meditation I've really started exploring my ability to be present--and how easily I can fail at being present in everyday life. Like I said above in No. 3, it's all too easy to get incredibly distracted, and even though I know I don't have ADD it sometimes feels like it with how conveniently we're connected to a million things with constant notifications of new emails, texts and tweets or whatever it is. I'm actually working on a separate set of posts on a related topic--getting over my multitasking habits and letting go of busyness as a goal, both of which completely take away from the ability to be present. But I digress (see? lol). Bottom line: Backpacking keeps me in the moment, focused and engaged. It just does.

1) Feel strong, alive and empowered. That's exactly what my mind and body need these days. Backpacking is one way I can carry out the idea of being fit for life as I've talked about, and it's also the easiest way to get back to primal living. It complements the style of fitness and "training" I enjoy these days--functional and badass. There's just something about being free in the wilderness and putting to use raw physical and mental strength and endurance. I've worked hard to build a tough body and mind over the years, and I want to continue doing so. It's funny, and I'll admit, my first couple trips involved a pathetic amount of over-packing and our packs were heeeavy, like 50lbs or maybe more. Carrying those bad boys 20-30+ miles was not easy feat, especially when the terrain would get dicey, but I loved every bit of the challenge and feeling my body perform under a load like that. I think I can certainly revise my packing list because I don't think it's a contest about having the heaviest pack, but the idea of it is empowering. It makes you feel truly alive and strong--super durable, adaptable and utilizing dynamic strength. Oh, and this can't be replicated in the city and modern life--that's not the right setting to get the primal essence.


*I have a question for you. Do you enjoy and embrace being off the grid? I know this concept may not be for everyone, but maybe it's because you haven't given it a chance. What do you think when you imagine multiple days of no people, no traffic, no electronics, no phones, no email, no social media, no "typical" interactions with the modern world? Does that give you the heebie jeebies or does it sound exciting. If it terrifies you, why not try it out? You may be surprised at how refreshing it is. In fact, assuming a lot of you reading are endurance athletes/triathletes, I think you are more likely the type who would embrace being off the grid and alone--considering endurance sport entails a lot of that. In fact, I think I originally fell in love with triathlon for similar reasons as I have backpacking--as much as there's a strong community and plenty of people with whom to interact in sport, triathlon is also about solitude and being alone in your head with the goal of continuing to move forward. Food for thought....

Big Sur, Salmon Creek Trail