1999 Sierra Trip – Discussion of Weight Savings

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Colin and Emma with their killer huge packs on a high alpine route.

The Start Of My Interest In Lightweight Backpacking

Killer heavyweight equipment list. What not to take! A detailed Table of Weight Savings from 1999 and 2001.
Discussion of weight savings between 1999 (heavy) and 2001 (ultralight) trips
Discussion of weight savings of 2007 trip vs. previous trips (1999 & 2001)

Killer Packs

Good planning can make or break a backpacking trip, especially with kids and heavy packs. I found this out the hard way when I took my kids on their first extended trip to the high Sierra. Our experiences sparked my interest in ultralight backpacking, especially since our industry-standard equipment was much too heavy for anyone, but in particular the kids, to carry over long distances. Colin and I started out the trip with 55+ pound packs.

We saw a lot of great scenery and camped in beautiful places, but it’s harder to enjoy the astonishing beauty of the high Sierra when you ache all over. Nonetheless, Colin and Emma and I would do the same trip again—but not with the same ten tons of gear. We didn’t get into camp until just before sunset many days. And each day we spent more than double the hiking time I had anticipated. The additional hours on the trail meant that my whole body, feet included, had to support a 55 pound pack for much too long. Just standing up with that weight was exhausting; but what was hard for me was, at times, misery for my kids. Never again!

The Trip

Our loads were just too heavy. And I, the eternal optimist when it comes to getting my family and friends into the great out-of-doors, overestimated the kids strength to some degree and underestimated how long it would take them to hike the distance I had planned. We were out for eight days without re-supply and covered 45 to 50 miles. Over half of this was challenging cross-country, with only one layover day (not surprisingly, the kids favorite part of the trip). Colin and Emma would have enjoyed the trip a lot more if I had known then what I know now about ultralight gear and if I adjusted our schedule to their real hiking ability rather than my sanguine estimate of what they could do. Obviously, if you halve your pack weight, most everything about backpacking becomes easier. Next time it’s ultralight for us!

But we made it there and back. And the kids didn’t kill me, although they’ve promised to bludgeon me if I plan any more hikes with “4 to 5 mile easy days” of off trail hiking. They are old enough to figure out that “easy” in dad lingo means “you’ll survive.”

Colin and Emma (then sixteen and twelve) were model backpackers, getting up at first light each day to help cook breakfast and then break camp. Every night they helped to unpack and set up again. I didn’t need to ask them to help. Mostly, they figured out what needed to be done and just did it, without bickering or grumbling. Even on long and hard days, they never gave up and complained very little.

Day 7 (see photos) is a good example of a hard day. En route to Crown Lake, we’d already been over one steep pass and a difficult boulder field descent. We were all tired. Unfortunately, our planned campsite was already occupied by a tent city of yahoos, breaking every camping regulation you can think of. A shock from the off trail solitude of previous days. Laundry hung from lines. Tents pitched on the waters edge at every flat site. People everywhere. Short of hoping a posse of pack-ripping, tent-shredding, cooler-chomping black bears would descend upon them, there was nothing we could do. Discouraged, we opted to hike the extra distance to Peeler Lake, even though it was late in the day. The uphill climb to Peeler Lake was much steeper and took much longer than we had anticipated. Emma was worn out and moving slowly, although she still didn’t complain. Colin was nearly as exhausted, but better able to disguise it.

I made it to the lake first, dropped my pack, hiked back to Emma, and offered to carry her pack for the last thirty minutes of hiking to the lake. Nothing doing. She made it clear she intended to carry her own pack all the way to the end. Unfortunately, all the nearby campsites at Peeler Lake were taken and we had to hike another half-mile to the far side before finally dropping our packs. But the kids still didn’t complain.

A brief plunge off a cliff into the deep and very cold waters of the lake washed away the misery of the day. After scrumptious handfuls of dusty gorp—which by now had been compressed into bricklike nuggets—Colin and Emma once again helped set up camp, filter water, and cook dinner. We enjoyed the beauty of Crown Peak reflected in Peeler Lake, and checked out its second outlet (Peeler Lake is one of the few lakes that sends water down both the western and eastern slope of the Sierras). I got in some fishing and we watched the dusky, orangey-pink alpenglow suffuse the landscape. Night had fallen by the time we crawled into the tent for much-needed sleep.

In Conclusion — Ultralight Here We Come

This was a fantastic trip! Fabulous scenery, rugged routes, solitude, remote campsites, and great fishing. Please look at the photos of this trip as they say a lot more than anything I can put in words. But with the heavy packs and long days, I think I lost a little credibility with the kids. Our next trip, with ultralight backpacks and a bit less rigorous hiking schedule, will be a 100% winner and should change this. It’s my hope that Colin and Emma will continue to hike in the mountains for years to come. And hopefully their children will hike in the same mountains as well. I feel fortunate that I’m blessed with such wonderful children.

-Adventure Alan

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