The pre-1984 McHale Packs label.
Many people are talking about reestablishing a more challenging 'style' of backpacking following up this past decade's emphasis on Ray Jardine's 'Post Office Packing'. Most currently, I'm ready to call it spreadsheet packing, for those that spend more time going over their gear lists than they do exercising. The traditional challenge of loading up a pack with food and seeing how far you can go with a reasonable weight pack of anywhere from 35 to 50 lbs. is coming back. Many people today have much at stake in making people believe that before say, 1995, people just did not know how to backpack. The truth is, most of todays gurus would have a hard time doing what I did in 1969, even if they had their teeth and toenails removed to save weight. Was I the only one back then that knew how to backpack with a light load? I doubt it. There was simply no special reason to 'market' it because it was already there.
There is a better selection of light gear than ever before ( almost ) so that what is called the 'base load' or weight can be kept at bay to allow more room for food, for either long trips or long stays in the wilderness. There is a colorful, rich past of backpacking filled with people like Eric Ryback and his book chronicling his 1970 PCT trip. The book is proof that loading up a pack and squeezing as many miles out of it as you can is nothing new - like 375 miles! I did not read his book until just a few years ago! Although Colin Fletcher wrote his Thousand Mile Summer about the same time, I enjoyed the youthful innocence of Ryback's book more. I did like the way Fletcher made the desert beckon - the loneliness of his flowered landscapes was great. So far, in reading Ryback's Continental Divide story, he has tempered the distance he goes with each packload of food to 300 mile food drops ( 1972 ). His little brother is along this time so he has to go easy on him! I understand too, that there is controversy surrounding some accuracy's in Ryback's books but think of all the people he inspired!
Today, I believe it is possible to go as far as 800 miles on one load ( I wrote this well before Coup's triple crown and Ryan Jordan's Arctic 1000 trip) (I wrote this Muir Trail Story near the end of the 90s in response to all of the UL websites that started popping up) but whether or not it is worth it would be the question, and of course it would not be for everyone. It would have to be done by somebody that does not think 50 lb packs are a big deal because they would have to start out with 100 or more! It would have to be somebody that is open minded and not shackled by UL dogma. It would probably have to be somebody under 50 years old. 50 is the new 40! The way I see it this would not be with conventional UL type packs but larger and framed light packs capable of starting with 80 to 100 albs and even 120 or more. And it would be 90% food like a booster rocket. That's where my philosophy differs. I think the modern UL Gurus are turning people into wimps trying to define all packing for everyone. It's OK to have different types of backpacking - lighten up!..... Lighten up your head as they said in the 70s! Your body and pack will probably follow..........Have trail - will walk! Work does not have to be uncomfortable but sometimes needs to be recognized as work and hard work is OK - in terms of athletics. Backpacking Athletics does not have to be defined in terms of just miles per day - how about unresupplied miles per week - biweekly - monthly? A pack is not one of the big 3 but is 'the one' essential piece of gear you do not want to play games with. Because of the sheer weights of beginning loads for long trips like this, todays light packing gurus could not participate. Their adventures are self limiting because they advocate the use of packs that are too light and inadequate. To play their game the pack is always so minimized that it functions poorly at all levels of packing. I liken it to the Peter Principle that says people tend to rise in an organization until they reach their level of incompetence. Todays emphasis on the weight of the empty pack is tending to gravitate people to always using a pack that is not quite enough to handle the load they are carrying, instead of a pack that truly makes them feel good all day on the trail. Who cares if it is slightly heavy when the load is gone - the load is gone! When I did my Muir Trail trip the 3 lbs. of my Camp Trails magnesium frame pack did not keep me from doing 20+ to 36 mile days. Even today, truly effective packs for this type of backpacking hover around 3 lbs.+/-
My 1969 Muir Trail hike: Look Ma - no food stops.
Below: Me in the High Sierra in 1969 just before my solo unsupported and unresupplied ( no food pick-ups enroute - called un-resupplied today ) 11 day John Muir Trail trip that I began with a total load weight, including pack weight, of 40 lbs. Maybe because I was not part of any group or club of hikers, but more of an independent climber, I never even thought about a trip where I would cache food. That simply would not have been 'doing the Muir Trail'.
Backpacking has not really changed in over 35 years. You can see from the photo below that nice light down sweaters were available back then also ( Alp Sport ). There was plenty of light gear available 35 years ago for 'no food drop' backpacking. Golite recently the term 'Alpine Style' for this type of backpacking, borrowing the term from mountaineering. I don't think they knew Alpine Style was also my old label, but that does not matter - I don't think people use the term any longer - not even for mountaineering much. We'll have to see what people actually end up calling it. I call it backpacking! One of my 5 oz. stove kits back in the 60's. I did not really use alcohol much. My Primus stove seemed fine.
What I find that many people do these days is carry more little things because accessories are lighter now, but they don't really go lighter than I did back then. I'm amazed at the length of some gear lists. Back then each object was slightly heavier so you carried fewer objects, but you could still carry enough and still be light and comfortable.
The photo below was taken at Wallace Creek Camp during an Onion Valley to Whitney walk just before I did the Muir Trail.
Eric Ryback, below, on the cover of his PCT book. He was 18 years old when he did the first continuous hike of the PCT in 1970, although apparently that is controversial. What's ironic is that what people gave him a hard time for, taking time off etc., people do regularly now and even more than he did, and claim they did it. Not only was he the first, he helped the forest service lay future plans for the PCT. Many sections of the trail did not exist when Eric did it. One of the most interesting facts is that the North Cascades Hwy did not exist then. Just think; no road at Rainy Pass. I'm really glad I picked up this book. I'm not sure which Kelty he has but I had a Kelty BB5 external back then, after retiring my superlight Magnesium Camp Trails External. The Camp Trails pack bag was pretty normal 420 type nylon and the frame was sure light. His pack looks like a BB5 since they had the large rear pocket. Looks like he sewed a pocket to the flap also. I've finished the book and he did hold to his plan of 375 miles per pack load with a few 'enhancements'. At one point in the book he gives a glimpse of his base weight at 30 lbs including pack, 35mm Nikon with 100mm lense and light magnesium monopod. He could have done better even back then, but maybe he did not have the same access to the best gear that I did, hanging out in Los Angeles area gear stores, of which there were many, even back then. That was still early enough in my career though that I could not afford a light down bag even though they were available, so I took a light synthetic blanket instead of my heavy Eddie Bauer Karakoram down bag. I could never have and never did ( ! ) hike in Levis like Ryback did.
He also used a tarp for tenting ( during the CDT trip also ). Although he used Levis he customized at least the first pair so that they laced in the calf area and could also act as gaitors when needed. It's a great story with lots of great pics throughout the entire book. One funny anomaly in the book I have: At the end is a shot or two of Washington State's Mt. Adams and it is credited as being in Southern California! He did not set a time record, but you cannot argue that he did not do it in the best 'STYLE' possible for being the first. They don't make teenagers like they used to, but they are starting to again! A teenager even set out to sail around the world in a 23' Ranger sailboat ( Dove ) and finished several years later. I was still 19 when I succeeded with my first climb of El Capitan in Yosemite in 1972. I started trying when I was 16. Those were the days. I went on to solo it when I was 26 in 1977.
This one is good reading also
Just in case backpackers do not know, Alpine Style is a style of climbing big mountains that is the opposite of 'expedition style' of setting up a chain of stocked support camps reaching nearly clear to the summit. I'm not sure if Reinhold Messner coined the term or who did, but it came about in the 70s. I used it as my label name (top of page) from 1977 until 1983. The term Alpine Style is certainly not new. I used Alpine Style as my label to emphasize that if you do go alpine style then you better have a fail-safe and ultimately reliable pack - this was even more important to a climber in treacherous locations. You would not want to watch the contents of your pack fall thousands of feet or have the haul loop rip from the pack. I have built a reputation building packs that can handle any situation. My personal style these days, and 'has been' for a long time now, is that of doing the obscure and oblique. I go places not on the beaten track - or go in the off season or..... I know that's the only way I'll discover a crashed and undiscovered UFO - or something like that! There are still many a Shangri-La out there. It's just no fun to stand in line with today's crowds.
When I did the Muir Trail 'Alpine Style' in 1969 alone, when I was 17 years old, it was not about how fast you did things but about just doing them. To hike with a certain speed you had to keep the weight down though. Even back then the Muir Trail was one of the classic challenges - I can't remember how I became interested in the trail, but I know I was supposed to time things so I would meet a particular person at Mineral King for a ride home, and when I got there THEY were not there! I had to do an Alpine Style hitchhike home to L.A.!
It was a natural thing to see just how far you could go on a pack full of food - that's backpacking - look at Ryback! I probably would have done more distance packing but I tended to get bored with it since it took away from my keener interest in rock climbing. Nevertheless, it was common practice to cut the tops off plastic baggies and leave the toothbrush at home and put in some mileage. I did what was common except that I may have been younger than most. Starting with a total load of 40 lbs, I was out there for 11days in mid September. The beef jerky I made was so good it never made it to the trailhead! One of my last days on the trail went from sleeping at the Rae Lakes and then going over Glenn Pass and Forester Pass the same day and sleeping again at Wallace Creek. I think that day was 36 miles. In Rybacks PCT book he does that section the same way I believe. Then, I actually went on down the Kern Canyon and finished at Mineral King because I had done a 60 mile trip earlier that summer with some friends that included going over Whitney. I know many other people over the years have done similar things. What I warn against these days is for people not to step into the trap of their pack being the least effective piece of gear they own just to save some final weight in the gear list. The load gets light soon enough to make up for it, but never quickly enough for some of todays caveman packs. Frameless packs are certainly not for un-resupplied thru-hiking.
There certainly was a gear glut in the 80s and 90s that included the invention of the 2 lb Goretex rain parka and etc..... and many newcomers succumbed to this heavy stuff! This is where the heavy gear came from that gave Ray Jardine something to harp about --- while at the same time effective light gear from the past like climbers half-bags disappeared from the shelves! In the past, during the early 70s I owned a North Face down half-bag. Recently I purchased another half bag (Sierra Designs 70s vintage) while on vacation in Bishop (2010) at the new used gear shop there. I picked up a Kelty BB5 too with the original rain cover design. I did not take a rain cover on the Muir Trail. I currently own a vintage REI down half-bag that zips and transforms in down bibs and vice versa. I purchased that at Second Base, the used gear store that predated Second Ascent, and that predated this latest version of the UL revolution. It's all been here before. There simply were not enough climbers back then 'to have much influence' and maybe not enough backpackers TO influence. Climbers like Jardine came way late in the 90s. Since I already knew how to pack light I did not see it as a big problem. I never did understand why he had such heavy packs in his past, since he was a climber also, but maybe he was more of a Yosemite crack climber than and Alpinist. I actually did a climb of Mt Clarence King in the early 70s with the vinyl climbing pack Garden mentions in his book. It was terrible uncomfortable even though I did the 2 day trip without food and without a sleeping bag!
The new generation of backpackers wanted comfort and damn if they weren't going to carry it. For many people it was fun to buy all the new gear of the 80s and 90s, but they soon discovered they could not carry all of it all of the time! They truly were a NEW generation of gear buyers. Now, the whole world could supply itself at the used gear stores!
These NEW people needed coaching and that seems to be what the 90s were about. If you think the new crusaders of the New Muir Trail will be going more comfortably than I was with my magnesium Camp Trails pack .....welcome to the 'NEW WORLD' of backpackers hunched over with their silcoat bags trying to escape the pain of them with every stride. The Camp Trails Mag frame was about the lightest of the time, 3+ lbs.,(I don't know the exact weight of it but it was very adequately light) and if I had a choice today between it and ANY brand of silcoat bag, I would take that frame without hesitation. As it was, my load was mostly food and the total load from midpoint on was pretty light. I recall something like a 15 lb load or less near the end which is not bad for the high Sierra - almost 4 decades before today's obsession with base weights! I know I still had food when I finished although I still lost much body weight.
If the atmosphere had been that of racing, like today, I could easily have left some food behind, gone lighter, and gone farther each day - I was one tough teen-ager. I remember though, even being out there for 11 days, I felt like I went through pretty quickly and had little time to explore - I had to hit that target date. You went as light as you could but there was not as much obsession about the actual weights (but there was some), the numbers and lists, like there is now - you went as light as you could and then thought about other things. There was a Schoolteacher doing the trail and we'd hook up and walk together once in awhile, although for the most part we were separate. I would pass him up in the evenings because he was an early starter - unlike me that got up around 8:30 to 9:00 and walked till I couldn't see any more. Although he was going light too, we never talked about gear - hell, we didn't have any and it was the most basic stuff. Was I going to talk about the aluminum measuring cup ( 2 cup size ) I cooked instant rice in? Most of the load was food and we may have talked about that. I miss those little pemmican bars they used to make - the new ones just aren't the same but the Cliff Bars and such are pretty good. ( Since first writing this around 1999 there are many good bars - even at Costco). We talked about real things, and what was on my mind and his was Vietnam. He was the only person that ever gave me any advice regarding the draft and war. He was the one that really opened my eyes about what was going on and that's what I remember talking about - period. I ended up lucky after that with a good draft number.
If you read my Dan's Letter in another section of the website, I try to make the argument that there are limits to the light thing in regards to packs if you really want to feel your best - there can always be a lighter pack but so what? I could have my brain and spine removed to save some weight too. Yeah, wouldn't it be great for some if I had no will to write this stuff. Things just weren't that different back then if you were smart. I used a very light blanket - no sleeping bag, a poncho - no tent - no other rain gear, and the absolute minimum of clothing ( I carried my climbing knickers and slept in them ), and I had a light down sweater made by Alp Sport that apparently was ahead of it's time. I lost body weight - just like people do these days that put in the miles. I had a light urethane pad that rolled up in it's own light nylon cover. Once the trip was over and I tried to go back to those great home meals I vomited for several days until I got used to the shear volume of food! THAT only happened one more time about 5 years later when a friend and I went in from the west and climbed Clearance King WITHOUT ( just for the heck of it ) food! Now that's Alpine Style. I was such a visionary! Ironically, I used that vinyl farmers climbing pack that Garden mentions in his book, Beyond Backpacking, the pack made by Bill Forest. It was made from a green vinyl material and the shoulder straps were unpadded. They were part of the product line we carried at the store I worked at in San Jose - Mountain Life it was called. It absolutely sucked for hiking and I didn't even have any food or tent or sleeping bag. It was fine on a climb, getting gear from pitch to pitch and that's really what it was designed for - either hauling or wearing. It goes to prove that all pack advice is not the same!
The only thing that would be significantly lighter these days would be the stove. I had a Prams and that was very effective! I never really used that alcohol stove much. The poncho would be sailboat these days instead of 200D Taffeta fabric. Overall the load would not be that much lighter these days. The only thing left is the pack - I know what discomfort is and I know it when I see it in others. Today's light packs have nothing on what I used back then. I think most of the people carrying frameless silcoat bags ( no brand reference here ) these days, loaded with 35 lbs and more, would be more comfortable and better off with the Magnesium framed Camp Trails external I had, and I say that with absolute sincerity. I am not impressed with people today that carry packs lighter than they need to be and should be and then deny the discomfort they are in. It's not funny as much as it is sad - because you know they been duped in most cases and are truly suffering a false economy.
More Muir Trail;
.........When I snorted some sugar I discovered speckled on the rocks at the top of Pinchot Pass - and those occasional M&Ms I would find on the trail...... I was probably officially cheating on the whole new Alpine Style thing - you've got to take advantage sometimes - spilled abandoned food! ( During my climb of Telescope Peak last Fall - 2004 - I found a green M&M in the snow and you know what I did with that! ). I always pick up those things. Recently I found some on the way to Mt. Daniel in the Cascades - I can't pass them up! On the Muir Trail I carried peanut M&Ms but had to ration them, so when one showed up somewhere......!!!!! I know food is no lighter these days. There were freeze dried pork chops even back then. One of my favorites was Rich-Moor Freeze dried Vegetable Beef Stew and still is - and it tastes EXACTLY the same as back then! Sugar, rice, and milk in my light aluminum measuring cup/pot was always my favorite treat. My Mother would bring home, from the hospital were she worked, these packets of high energy powdered food to mix in water. I took them also. I remember being bonked before the climb up to Rae lakes, and after a nap and a drink of that weird vanilla powdered food, I really kicked going up the hill. People made mistakes back then too. I passed people burning the excessive amounts of food they had brought - there was really only one big pile at some Vidette Meadows camp and someone mentioned that the Boyscouts had just cleared out! I may have scored some powdered milk there! Things were nuts (of both kinds) even back then. Some of my best friends were scouts, but mostly before I started climbing. It just SEEMS like along time ago because we hadn't landed on the Moon quite yet - that was later that year though. But thinking about that thought now, in 2011, things really haven't changed, have they?
One of the funniest short stories I have is the time I was going to do the Muir Trail again, maybe a couple years after the trip above, but with canned food only! I actually started the trip, a promotional trip for the new pack company at the time, Wilderness Experience. I never finished, and did not get far because of pack problems. It's still on my list! It would be a bit like Jack Lalanne swimming across San Francisco Bay with his hands and feet shackled while towing a boat full of people - fun all around and great for laughs and still for real. I wonder if I would still need a bear canister?