Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Definitions: Ice Stars

When you decide to go winter camping there are 12 things you need to keep in mind.

First, it's going to be cold. The other 11 things don't matter. The cold does. Only the cold.

Say you wake up some morning after basically shivering all night, and the only reason you got any sleep at all was because that interminable shivering exhausted you to the point that you finally passed out, and anyway you only slept about six minutes around dawn before you got painfully cold again and started shivering all over. Again.

So say you wake up, and decide to get up and get the hell out of there and go home, but you discover that your butt is frozen to the ground and you can't move. You have two choices. Force it, and leave a lot of your ass still attached to your campsite, or wait for a few hours until the temperature rises enough for your remaining body heat to do some good.

Hey, I know which option I'd choose.

So there you are with your rump on ice, killing time. With nothing else to do you begin to notice things. Small things. Things you ordinarily wouldn't notice at all, but now that you have hours to kill and a frozen keister you do notice them. Pointless things, like snowflakes. Little ice stars.

You have lots of them handy, so you decide to look for two that match. You learn valuable lessons from this. The main lesson is to never ever try winter camping again, but there are other lessons, like (a) what lengths you will go to when you have an infinite amount of time to kill, and (b) that snowflakes are made of ice (you should have known this but somehow it didn't stick) and they melt when you breathe on them.

You also learn (while carefully holding your breath after the first few failed attempts at snowflake matching) that many, many snowflakes are really, really boring. In fact there is a whole infinity of boredom in a snowflake collection because, while each and every one of them does in fact seem to be a little tiny bit different, maybe, from every other one, possibly, they aren't really all that different.

They're snowflakes. Frozen water droplets. And that's about it.

And really-truly, a bunch of them, a whole bunch, are simply flat, almost transparent six-sided crystals with no interesting detail at all, star-shaped or not.

And while some may be feathery and intricate, once you've seen the first dozen or so you can't remember if the first one is actually any different from the one you're looking at now. At all.

And feathery? How important is that anyway? Feathery? What does it even mean, feathery?

The only good news, if there is any, is that these teensy starry icy things form when the air temperature is between 3°F and 10°F (-12°C to -16°C), so you have a rough idea how cold the day is, if. If the flakes are falling at the time, and if you are at the altitude where they are forming. And so on.

But you don't know that now. You are frozen to the ground. You learn these interesting facts later, after you get home, sometime way long after your tushie comes unstuck and you get it the hell out of there, and even when you learn about snowflake temperatures, you realize that it's basically useless information anyway. Useless.

The only practical knowledge you can squeeze out of this situation is what you already know intuitively, just lying there with your hind end in the firm toothy grip of heartless ice, and that knowledge is that if snowflakes happen to be falling, and if you watch closely, and if you don't screw things up by breathing your dying-of-hunger stinky captive-animal breath on the fresh snowflakes, and they are melting anyway, despite your careful technique, well that means it's getting warmer, without your help.

Maybe warmer enough for you to pull your tail out of the ice and drag it to somewhere more comfortable and never try this nonsense again.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Definitions: Hanging Food

(1) Bats.

(2) Fruits.

(3) Nuts.

(4) Spiders.

(5) Preferred method of punishment for those whose food has been very, very naughty, in countries where this practice is still allowed.

(6) A way of keeping food out of the reach of unwanted midnight snackers.

The conventional method of hanging food.

First get a rope. If you didn't bring one, then go home and start over.

Find two trees about 20 feet apart (6.1 m). If there are no trees in this part of the country then you are doing it wrong. Go home, pull out a map, and move to a part of the country that has trees, for crying out loud.

Your rope should be at least 60 feet long (18.3 m). Pick the first tree. Tie a rock or small animal (hamsters do have a use in backpacking!) to one end of the rope and throw it over a sturdy tree limb at least 17 feet or 5.2 m high (no one knows where the number 17 came from, so it must be correct).

Tie one end of your rope to the tree.

Go to the other tree and repeat.

Now take your second rope and tie one end to your bag of food. What? We didn't tell you to bring two ropes? Too bad. Go home and get another one.

Again, tie a weight to the one end of this second rope and sling it over the middle of the line you have strung between the two trees. (At this point in the process, use of your spare hamster is allowed, but is considered bad form — the first one should still be in working order unless you are very, very clumsy.) Hoist the bag of food by pulling on the free end of the rope that you tied to the food bag. Make sure when you are done that the food bag ends up at least 12 feet off the ground (3.7 m).

Now you will find that either the trees are too thin and lean toward each other when you do this, or that the first rope was tied too slackly. The result either way is that everything sags down toward the ground, and your food bag is probably three or four feet off the ground at best. Too bad. Start over, and keep trying until you get it right.

When your food has been hung high enough, tie the free end of the rope holding your food bag to one of the trees.

If you are camping in an area with educated vermin, you will find that they know which rope to chew through, so this method is useless.

Time to go home in disgust.


(Disclaimer: Go ahead and try this if you want, but the truth is that no one has ever successfully hung food this way, though various authors and government agencies keep repeating this bogus crap. Well, keep reading anyway — what else do you have going on?)

The counterbalance method is an alternate technique that needs only one tree, and does not require you to tie a line where sneaky drooling toothy critters can come along and chew through it.

The recommendations from Backpacker Magazine are to "locate a branch that's at least 20 feet up, sticks out at least 10 feet from the trunk, and is about an inch or 2 in diameter (strong enough to hold the food bag but too thin to support a bear)."


Go ahead and try it.

Won't work. Forget about an inch (2.5 cm). Forget about an inch or 2. You need a limb that is significantly thicker than two inches if you actually want your food bag to stay up there in the sky.

Finding a branch meeting all the listed requirements (and thicker too) may take several hours, and you might have to hike well into the next county to locate one, but this is important so don't let that stop you.

First, having found such a branch, take your trusty rope, weight one end with a rock or your hamster. (Let's call him Bob, and it helps if you can convince him to stuff some small stones into his cheek pouches for extra heft while you're at it).

OK, so Bob's on deck. Now what?

So hurl Bob over the tree limb. If you can't make it, don't feel bad. That's quite a long way up. Let's hope that Bob knows how to fall. Well, whatever.

Now, possibly hours later, having successfully hurled Bob over that limb, release Bob and tie his end of the line to your first food bag.

Whoa, didn't we tell you that you have to have two food bags now? Too bad. Go get another one.

Pull that first bag as high up as you can, and while holding it suspended, go get your second bag. Good job. (It's nice that you have those long, long arms, or this wouldn't nearly so easy.) So make a loop in the rope while holding the first bag suspended, and attach the second food bag to it.


At this point we should tell you that both bags need to weigh exactly the same amount, because they have to counterbalance each other. And you need six hands to do this, besides those long wiggly arms of yours.

OK, OK — once you've done all that, and while continuing to hold the first bag suspended, put any extra rope inside the second bag, and push that bag upward. The weight of the first bag will help to pull the rope over the limb until you've got the second bag as high as you can reach, which should be around seven feet, max (2 m and a skootch). Not good enough.

How about you go off and hunt around for a long stick? Does that work for you? How long? Say about six or seven feet (that 2 m and a skootch again). We'll wait here for you. Even if it takes weeks.

So then, you've got your stick now, and you can push the lower bag up higher and higher until both bags are hanging "at least 12 feet off the ground, 10 feet from the trunk and 5 feet below the branch. [3.7, 3, and 1.5 m, respectively] When time to eat, hook one of the loops with a stick and pull the bags down."

Loops? What loops?

Forgot to put nice loops up there somewhere? No problem, just do it all over, on your next trip, because you'll never get those loopless bags down. Ever.

Can't make your stick hook anywhere on either of the bags, even if you did put some loops in the line? So you can get your food down again? Once again, no problem, you're only screwed. Just finish your trip without food. The stress of starvation will provide a nice, rigorous tuneup for your immune system, in case you survive.

No, I've never seen anyone hang food this way either, but the same idiots keep writing it up over and over again.

As always, Effort or Eff it. Your call. No sniveling.

Source: How to talk in the woods.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Definitions: Krummholz

(1) Dorleen Krummholz, the first girl who ever agreed to go on a date with me.

She did this out on the playground on a clear September morning during recess.

This would be around sixth grade, which is a bit early to start dating, or at least it was a bit early in my day, but Dorleen was a big girl, forward for her age, and had me in a headlock at the time.

Her technique was first, the headlock of course, and then telling me what to say, and how to make it sound like a request, and then, to wrap it all up, she showed me this big grin full of teeth and said Yes!, with an undue amount of enthusiasm, I thought at the time.

I remember the teeth because they were in front of me, right in front of me, really close to my nose, which she said she'd bite off if I didn't do what she said, and then she'd pound me too.

Since I still all too clearly remembered the first time she pounded me, there was no need to go through all that again, and anyway, the teeth.

So you learn to do what you have to.

Shortly after that, at the age of 12, I grew a beard, changed my name, and moved to a different continent, but still wake up in a cold sweat about every third night, or whenever I hear barking.

Dorleen used to bark a lot, and it spooks me something fierce, even when it's only my neighbor's dog going off again. His name is Rufus. My neighbor's name is Federico, I think.

Anyway, Rufus has this disturbing resemblance to you-know-who, so it might be time to move again, at least so I can get some sleep.

(2) Foliage that looks like Dorleen Krummholz. Krummholz literally means crooked wood in German, which sounds about right in German, or in any other language really. Tough. Gnarly. Stunted. Bent. Undead.

(3) Krummholz is a high-altitude stunt-forest found right around treeline, where there is too little moisture, too little soil, too much wind and lots of winter.

It's patchy.

Above the treeline wind dominates the low-lying alpine community, or what there is of it. On barren rocky slopes where there is a short growing season but heavy snowfall, trees are flattened into a state of krummholz: scrubby, stunted, struggling at the upper limit of growth, just below the dead zone.

And although those krummholzy things are actually trees, genetically, in practice they are severely dwarfed and misshapen exercises in tortured vegetation due to the climate and the soils they grow in.

Given the barren rocky soils, the short growing season, and the smothering snowfalls, it's no wonder they describe these barely alive ratty collections of woody despair with the word "procumbent".

Procumbent is a delicate way of saying that something lives a prostrate, beaten-down, and thoroughly unhappy life groveling in the dirt just for the chance to remain in place, suffer through another winter, and do it over again year after year forever, or until a long-delayed death happens to come by for a last visit.

Which is how I felt about my time spent in the dark gravity well of the original, one-and-only (I hope) Dorleen.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Definitions: Titanium

We Now Explanium About Titanium.

(1) Titanium is... The Fairy Queen in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream? Nope. That was Titania. Dang.

(2) Titanium is... Proof that you've spent more money on your cook set (or stove, or boot lace tips) than anyone else in your hiking group (extended family, city, state, province, country, continent).

(3) Titanium is... Proof that you're trendy, and possibly an idiot, though still a trendy one. Let's hope you can dress the part.

(4) Titanium is... A metal incorrectly described by absolutely everyone stupid as "amazingly lightweight and strong, and perhaps the way to go if you're obsessive about ounces."

No, it isn't. But what would you expect to read in Backpacker magazine?

Titanium is a metal. And titanium is light, compared to uranium, but not compared to steel.

Stoveless and cook-pot-less and fuel-less is the way to go if you're obsessive about ounces, and can gag down cold suppers night after night.

Aluminum, however, is the way to go if you're obsessive about ounces and grams and price, and if you like to compare the weight of your tools to the weight of their shadows.

Titanium is only 12% lighter than steel, though it has almost all of steel's strength, while aluminum is 54% lighter than steel and still has 75% of steel's strength (Spot the trend here?), which is enough for a cook pot.

Titanium doesn't ding or dent very easily (because it's tough, which is nice), and titanium is highly resistant to corrosion (which means that it stays pretty). Since it is tough, it can be rolled thin. The thinner the material, the less there is of it, and so the less the finished product weighs, even if it's made from heavy materials, which is the real advantage of titanium.

But if you want a cooking pot and you don't care a lot about exactly how pretty it is, but you do care about how heavy it is, then aluminum is the way to go. You sort of care about how tough a pot is and you probably care a whole lot about how much it costs. You may also kind of care how beat up it's going to end up being, eventually, or not. Your call, eh?

Titanium as a material is significantly heavier and vastly more expensive than aluminum, but tougher, and those who own titanium items feel smarter because titanium looks new longer. A lot of people who feel that way don't go backpacking because if they go backpacking they will get their clothes dirty and they will get tired, and what they really above all want is to keep that just-off-the-shelf, crisply-pressed, newly-unwrapped look, while continuing to smell of aftershave. Titanium will help with that.

Titanium is for them. Titanium is for people who don't ever want to sweat or walk uphill or know that bugs might actually be attracted to them.