How to Ski 100 Days this Winter (and Work Full-time)

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Morning light and cold smoke.

Elaine and I have spent a lot of time in the past seven years since our wedding day sliding around snow on skis. It’s our passion, and has led us to mountains and northern locales around the world. We’ve had the fortune to ski chest deep powder in British Columbia,  beautiful mountains that drop to the ocean in northern Norway and endless plateaus of white in that same country that resemble Greenland or Antarctica. Skiing has brought us much good.

Yet those trips are a major outlier to what actually happens on a daily basis. They are the exclamation point on seasons where honestly a lot of the skiing is mundane and sometimes downright terrible. Take a couple days ago, for example. A ridiculously warm November melted out the one slope decent for some tentative turns. We ended up walking down the hill, skins on skis, picking our way through rocks and tundra and dreaming of a better winter to come.

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It’s ain’t always pretty out there. On that note, a good pair of rock skis is a solid investment for aspiring 100-day-a-year skiers. 

A point of pride among skiers is the magical 100 day a year mark. In the Vermont mountain town where I grew up, under the shadow of Mad River Glen, it was a badge of honor with the generation of ski bums I admired and looked up to. The John Egan’s and Jeremy Nobis’ didn’t miss days because they didn’t feel like skiing. The credo was, get out there as often as you can, don trash bags when it’s raining, don’t be afraid of black ice and -30° F temps, and ski every damned day.

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Dawn patrol solo mission. Keep your footprint tight so the next person can enjoy it too.

Since being married in 2010, Elaine and I have never skied less that 125 days in a winter, and one year, the magical winter of 2010-11, we almost hit 200 days. Elaine and I also work full time, 40 hours a week, and right now, when our value in the ski industry is high, quite a bit more.

Of course, the easiest way to ski 100 days a year is to work at the resort. But that’s not an option for everybody. Don’t worry…there are other ways. This article is written for skiers who do not live in those lucky areas where there is night skiing available. Of course, night skiing with tracks and runs lit till 9 or 10 pm makes it much easier to rack up the days.

Skiing 100 days a year and working 40 hours a week requires dedication that borders on obsession. But if it’s something you want, and you live within a reasonable drive of accessible snow, it’s possible. Here are ten tips to ski 100 days a year:

  1. The early bird catches the snow – This isn’t really about getting first tracks, although that can be an added benefit. Simply put, if skiing 100 days a year is something you want, early rising is imperative. After a long hard day of work, it might not happen. The couch can be too appealing. Get your kit – your clothes, pack, skis, boots, essentially all your gear – organized the night before. That way when the alarm goes off at 4:30 am, all you have to do is stagger out of bed, get dressed and go. Early nights to bed and dark and cold mornings will be your reality for the next five months. Embrace it.

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    Early mornings can hurt. The rewards are plentiful.

  2. Backcountry is your friend – Unless you work as a night chef, waitress or late night E.R. surgeon (or work at the ski resort), it’s near impossible to work 40 hours a week and ski 100 days a year just relying on lift-accessed skiing. Invest in a backcountry set-up. A robust BC kit can work fine at the resort. But you need to be able to access snow on those Monday thru Friday mornings too. To ski 100 days a winter and work full-time, you need to earn your turns and ski outside the 9 am to 4 pm window. Your lungs and legs will thank you.

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    Pre-dawn backcountry laps are rarely confused with morning trips to Starbucks.

  3. Find a go-to route – Skiing 100 days requires consistency and repetition. It’s kind of like going to the gym (wait, it’s WAY better than going to the gym) in that a regular place to go and a routine is needed. I find 1,000 vertical feet is a magical number. I still get a good ski in but can usually make it happen in an hour or less. Us working stiffs don’t have all day. Pick a few spots and get efficient at them.

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    The local haunt. Pick a few this winter and learn them well.

  4. Lighten up – Lighter gear is faster. It’s not necessary to go full randonee racer, but I promise a good AT boot, a light pair of skis and a tech-style binding will be way faster than a heavy alpine boot with an Aprés ski mode and a big bulky frame binding. Speed is your friend. The less time you spend going up, the more realistic it is to get sleep and still get in a good ski before work.

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    Lightweight backcountry skis, tech style bindings and good snow tires make morning sessions more efficient.

  5. Go nordic skiing – Elaine and I embrace all types of skiing minus the 225 meter ski jump at Vikersund. We alpine, tele, backcountry, nordic tour and nordic track ski. When the backcountry gets crappy as it sometimes does here in the Front Range, nordic centers provide an outlet. Consistent grooming ensures good skiing during long dry spells. Also, there is no better way to build fitness quickly than nordic track skiing. The skin track will feel flat after a 6:30 am anaerobic threshold workout at 9,500 feet above sea level on nordic skis. Careful though, you might end up falling in love with the sport and make it your go-to.

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    Get your nordic on. Because really now, who doesn’t want abs like those?

  6. Embrace resort skinning – Resort skinning lacks the aplomb of the backcountry, but for many folks this is a necessity to daily skiing. Many resorts allow skinning before and after work. Gear choice is simple, you don’t need a partner and you can just pop on the headphones and jam out if you feel the need to escape. Summiting the top of Arapahoe Basin as the sun is setting at 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide listening to whatever music makes you feel good is one of the finest skiing experiences around in my book.

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    Sunset laps at A-Basin are a great way to end the work day.

  7. Give yourself a test – Self-motivation is awesome but sometimes we need a little extra push to get out the door. This is where a big race, goal or ski trip later in the season can provide powerful impetus to go ski. Every year we’ve signed up for something, or planned a much bigger trip that requires fitness and comfort in the backcountry. Go register for that Elk Mountain Grand Traverse or something similar. It will lead to a great winter because it will get you skiing regularly.

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    Our first ever BC race together was the Power of Four in Aspen. It was a test alright! We ended up spending the night in the guest bedroom of a Hedge Fund guy’s mansion because he was worried we’d crash our car driving home after a 15 hour ski race.

  8. Give yourself regular skiing rewards – Beyond an end of the year goal, dot your ski season with fun trips. Maybe this is the year to take that long backcountry skiing weekend to Teton Pass? Nelson, British Columbia is an easy, inexpensive trip and the skiing is out of this world. Or book a Colorado hut trip, ski powder all day and get tipsy with friends at 12,000 feet in the evening – easy to do at that elevation after exercising in the fresh mountain air all day. Plan some awesome (not expensive) trips to snazz up the season and keep it fun.

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    It’s hard to ski Rogers Pass, BC and not have a smile that gigantic afterwards.

  9. Go deep into the season – Resort-only skiers have a set season: Thanksgiving to mid-April, give or take a few weeks. That’s ridiculous, because some of the absolute best skiing is in May and June. If the goal is 100 days a year, it becomes much more achievable if you extend the season to 6-7 months instead of 4-5. Embrace the concept of the endless winter.

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    Short sleeves, corn snow and steep line. Three big reasons why the season should never end in April.

  10. Don’t be afraid to take a day off – Skiing 100 days a year and working full-time requires discipline and consistency, but it’s not a prison sentence. If you are exhausted, sick or just burnt out, take a day or two off. I find that usually cures whatever is causing the hang up, and after a few days off I’m psyched to get back out there. By averaging five days a week on snow, 100 days a year will happen. That leaves two days a week to sleep in, grab a greasy spoon breakfast and just chill.

Once you commit to skiing 100 days this winter, start strong. Bank days early in the year. Make it a habit. After 30-40 days, it will feel automatic and you’ll begin to question why anybody wouldn’t want to ski as much as possible. There is a satisfaction to heading into work well exercised, awoken by the cold, soul filled by a gorgeous sunrise and smiling huge because that’s what snow – whatever condition it might be in – does to human beings.

Have a great winter and think snow.

If you like this article and want more content like it, we ask for your vote!: So Elaine (featured in all these photos) has signed up for Fjallraven Polar Expedition, a dogsled trip with Fjallraven in northern Sweden this winter. She’s quite well qualified I think but it’s a social media, popularity contest based entirely on votes, and despite what our boss Larry says, we’re little pions in the social media world. So, if you are so inclined, cast your vote her way! We promise, there will be an amazing story on here when it’s all said and done. D&E

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Sub-zero sunrise skin rip.

Continental Divide Trail Gear List

by Elaine Vardamis

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The right gear makes map reading in mosquito-infested lands more enjoyable!

When preparing for such a long trip, a lot of thought goes into what you are willing to carry on your back. Gear choices are going to be a little different for everybody. That being said, here is the gear that, after much deliberating, I decided to go with.

A lot of our decisions that we made for this trip were strongly influenced by past trips. Two major ones, our most recent ones, had involved hiking through cold, almost hyperthermic conditions for most of the time, while also in pouring rain. We were also coming off a ski trip to Norway in which we encountered conditions with strong winds and -30 degree Celsius tempertures. So, our packs ended up being a bit heavier than they should have been. We most definitely could (and should) have done an overhaul of this list, taking into consideration the facts of where we were, and what time of year.

Items with an * next to them went through reiterations while we were out on the trail!

The Big Things:

  • Backpack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (lined with trash compactor bag*1)
  • *Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering UltraLite 5’6” (also has a trash bag to line the stuff sack – don’t want it wet!!)
  • Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XLite short

*1 The fabric is said to be waterproof, but after having significant leaking during a heavy downpour a few years ago, I always line my backpack.

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Full on sun protection

The Things on the Body:

  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • *Shoes: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
  • Insoles: Custom from Bob Egeland with Boulder Orthotics
  • Gaiters: Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • *Skort:  Lululemon Final Lap Skirt
  • Sports Bra: Ibex Balance Bralette
  • *Shirt: Arcteryx Fernie LS Shirt
  • *Sunglasses: Julbo Megeve
  • *Sunhat: Arcteryx
  • Sungloves: OR Chroma
  • *Trekking Poles: BD Distance Carbon
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While dealing with infections in both heels, I hiked in Chacos for a while.

The Other Clothing Things:

  • Warm Hat: Swix
  • Socks: Darn Tough Ultra Light No Show Tab
  • Underwear: Icebreaker Siren
  • Sleep Socks: Zpacks PossumDown
  • Compression Socks: 2XU
  • Long John Top: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Long John Bottom: Icebreaker Oasis 200
  • Warm Layer: Ibex Hooded Indie
  • Tights: Fjallraven Abisko Trekking Tights
  • Down Jacket: Western Mountaineering Flash
  • Rain Pants: Arcteryx Beta SL
  • Rain Jacket: Patagonia M10
  • *Mitts: Zpacks Rain Mitt & Zpacks Fleece Mitt
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When you have to wear all your layers!

The Things of a Personal Nature:

  • Food Consumption: Snowpeak Spork
  • Cup: GSI plastic cup
  • Feminine Products: Diva Cup
  • Hairties 
  • Toothbrush: Oral B Travel
  • Lip Balm: Ski Naked
  • *Water Bottles: 1 Poweraid bottle and 1 Smartwater bottle (can buy new ones when they become gunky!) and 2 Platypus soft bottles (1 liter)
  • Journal: Write in the Rain, Write in the Rain pen
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Hiking with umbrella from the Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wy. Hey, when it’s the only way you get shade!

The Things with the Batteries or in Need Of and of Course, Accessorizing! : 

  • Headlamp: Petzl Zipka
  • Watch: Suunto Ambit 3
  • Phone: iPhone SE w/Lifeproof case
  • Battery: Goal Zero Flip 20
  • Earbuds: Apple
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Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest and the Tenkara USA Rhodo – at home in the Wind River Range in Wyoming

The Things that We Shared (Because Sharing is Caring):

  • *Shelter: Hilleberg Anjan 2
  • Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket
  • Cookware: Snowpeak 9000
  • Coozy: Handmade
  • Lighter: Bic
  • Stuff Sacks: Assorted sizes from Sea to Summit
  • Water Treatment: Aquamira Drops and Tablets
  • 1st Aid/ Repair Kit: second skin, neosporin, band aids, liquid bandage, Advil, Tylenol, Advil PM, Benadryl, Peptobismol, needle, athletic tape, safety pins, Leatherman Squirt ps4, tweezers, nail clippers, arnica, Therm-A-Rest repair kit, Trail Toes, sunscreen, Dr. Braunners, Tenacious Tape
  • Extra Batteries: AAA x6
  • Sharpie
  • *Camera: Sony a6000
  • Camera Battery
  • Communication Devise: Garmin Explorer
  • Cords: Watch charger, phone charger
  • Maps: Ley Maps
  • Toothpaste: Lush Toothy Tabs
  • Floss
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • *Solar Charger: Suntactics
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She’s a real nowhere (wo)man, living in her nowhere land

 

The Things That Were Changed:

  • Sleeping Bag: Through New Mexico to our home in Colorado, we carried the Western Mountaineering Ultralite, where we switched to the Western Mountaineering Summerlite. We then carried the Summerlite through Montana until Augusta, MT, where we picked up the Ultralites again (it was snowing!)
  • Shoes: When I was buying my shoes (we bought all of our shoes before hand), La Sportiva did not have enough of my size shoe. So I decided to use the Altra Lone Peak 3 to start off with. That shoe did not work for me, but I know it works for a lot of hikers out there!
  • Skort: I used the Icebreak Comet through to our home, but was having terrible durability problems with it. It is not sewn along the sides (I can’t tell if they were glued or welded seams) and was constantly falling apart. At home, I picked up a Lululemon Final Lap Skirt. That thing was amazing!
  • Shirt: I wore the long sleeved shirt through Grants, New Mexico, but ended up switching out to an Icebreaker Cool-lite shirt. I had never hiked in a long sleeved shirt before, and it was worth a try. I did not like it, I definitely prefer to hike in a T shit.
  • Sunglasses: I wore the Julbo Megeve sunglasses from the start until Chama, New Mexico. There, because I knew I would be on a lot of snow, all day long (and I know my poor eyes are very sensitive), I switched to the Julbo Tensing sunglasses. They have a very dark lens that was very protective.
  • Sunhat: I wore a large, full brimmed sunhat from our start at the border of Mexico through the Great Divide basin. It was great for sun protection, but annoying, and I switched to a normal ballcap.
  • Trekking Poles: Dan and I skied the San Juans, and I used a pair of the Black Diamond Traverse poles while skiing. Extremely strong and also adjustable, they fit my needs better than the lightweight, fixed length pole I used on the rest of the trip.
  • Mitts: I hated the Zpacks mitts, both the rain mitts and the fleece mitts. In Grants, New Mexico, I switched both. I used the Hestra XC fleece mitt and the Outdoor Research Shuksan Rain Mitt for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, they were overkill for most of the rest of the trip, but this system was much more functional when I actually needed warm hands.
  • Water Bottles: When we started in New Mexico, we were carrying seven liters of water. (Also, I think too much, but there it is.) So I was carrying the Smartwater and the Poweraid bottles, one 2 liter Platypus bottle, and three 1 liter Platypus bottles.
  • Shelter: We started with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear DuoMid. We switched to the Hilleberg in Grants, New Mexico after sleeping on mud (and this was the mud of nightmares) during a snowstorm between Pie Town and Grants. Once again, in retrospect, I might have stuck with the Mid, as it is significantly lighter, but the Hilleberg did provide great protection, good warmth, and a mosquito free area!
  • Camera: We started with the Canon PowerShot G9X, which is a great little camera. We did switch to the Sony a6000. This was definitely a bigger camera, but we felt like the quality of picture produced was a great trade off for the weight.
  • Solar Charger: We started carrying the solar charger, but after it broke, we did not replace it. As on our previous, month long trips, we have never gone into town, the solar charger was valuable. But on this trip, we were in town often enough that the solar charger was unneeded.
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The standard procedure in every town: dump out the pack, reorganize, repack!

A note on socks: I started with too many socks, and somehow acquired even more as the hike went on. I love to wear compression socks at night, as I feel it helps me with feet swelling. But when I had massive infections in my heels in New Mexico, I stopped wearing them. I did, however, continue carrying them the whole way, which I was annoyed at myself for until Dan got tendinitis in Montana, and he had some relief from the pain when wearing them. 

The Things that Were Special:

For the San Juans, Dan and I decided to ski, so our snow gear list looked a bit different from others

  • Skis & Bindings: Ski Trab World Cup & La Sportiva RT bindings
  • Boots: Scarpa Alien
  • Skins: Pomoca Race Pro Climbing Skins
  • Ski Crampons: Dynafit
  • Traction: Kahtoola MICROspikes
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Because: skiing! I developed a whole new appreciation for this ski set up in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado

We will definitely do a write up on how the skiing portion went, that will also touch on gear. However, that will be a whole other blog post!

The Things for the Bugs:

  • Bug Repellant: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellant
  • Headnet: Sea to Summit
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Head nets are sanity saviors!

The Randoms: 

  • Sandals: Chacos 
  • Umbrella: Picked up from Dollar Tree in Rollins, Wyoming
  • Fly Rod: Tenkara USA Rhodo
  • Kid’s skis: Lucky Bums*I used Chacos for a significant portion of the time while I was letting the infections in my heel heal. The umbrella was a $1 addition to our packs through the Great Divide basin. It was my first experience with hiking with an umbrella for shade, and if we do something in desert style environment again, I will definitely consider it more strongly! We took the fly rod through the Wind River Range in Wyoming and into Montana. As far as the Lucky Bums skis went, Dan and I had had a strong streak of skiing every month going before we started the hike. We wanted to keep that streak alive and well, even during a five month thru hike. By skiing the San Juans, and then shipping these little skis to ourselves along the way, we succeeded, and finished our hike with 84 months straight of skiing at least once a month!
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The Lucky Bums skis after their debut skiing Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range, Wyoming

 

Gear Review: Hilleberg Anjan 2 Tent

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San Juan Mountains, Colorado

In the long distance thru-hiking world, taking a tent over a tarp is sometimes considered a luxury. But the Continental Divide Trail is a different beast from the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. It’s the highest elevation continuous trail in the United States and has more weather extremes, from harsh desert sand in New Mexico and the Great Divide Basin to weeks of sleeping above 12,000 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. North bounders will almost certainly encounter crisp fall weather and snow in northern Montana. The insects in the Wind Rivers can be maddening. All these factors start to move the tent from a luxury item to something bordering on necessity.

Elaine and I initially started the trip with a pyramid style tarp. It worked quite well and was light. But the reality of a five month trip versus a week or even month long trip is that your shelter truly becomes your home. We craved more, something with a floor for muddy conditions, and a cozy feel of a home where we could really rest at night. It needed to be durable for the five month trip and a master of different terrain, including above-timberline alpine conditions. And of course, as is always the mantra in thru-hiking world, it needed to be light.

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Near Mount Taylor, New Mexico

Hilleberg is not a popular brand among thru-hikers. Indeed the most popular models on the trail come from the brands Z-Packs and Big Agnes, well established in the thru hiking cult of gear. Some of this is weight based, but some comes from lineage. Hilleberg is a Swedish brand, well known in the polar exploration and mountaineering circles but much less so in thru-hiking world. Hillebergs are also known for being a bit more expensive than competitors – the Anjan 2 retails for $650.

Of course weight is also a factor. The Anjan 2, with stakes and poles, weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces. It’s not the lightest tent on the trail, but between the two of us it was absolutely fine, basically 1.5 pounds each. When balancing lightweight with strength however, we were very pleased with the Anjan. There was never a time where we thought “Oh wow, this tent is too heavy and is really bogging us down.” That simply was not a factor. A solo traveller might consider the Hilleberg Enan which weighs right around two pounds.

We spent approximately 120 nights in the Anjan 2, putting it through the paces in wind, snow, rain, sun and everything in between. While not a free-standing tent, we found this was not an issue. It’s very easy to set-up. Basically, slide the two color coded poles through their respective sleeves, stake out one end, “snap” the tent to make it taught and stake out the other end. There are four guyline in addition to the end stakes, which we used every night in case of bad wind.

Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

Speaking of wind – this is where the Anjan and Hillebergs in general shine. The were many nights on the divide where the wind was between 20-50 mph but the Anjan almost seemed oblivious to it. It’s ideal to face the front or back into the wind, but even if this is not possible the guy lines make it so the tent can handle a cross breeze with aplomb. Tunnel style tents like the Hilleberg do well in the wind. There was one night in particular just south of Rogers Pass in Montana. A cold front was moving thru and we had to camp in the open because all the trees were dead from beetle kill. The wind was howling. While it wasn’t the most restful night, the tent held strong and fast.

Rain was pretty much a non-issue with the Anjan. We stayed dry and we had no problems with splash-back under the tarp. The bathtub floor is strong and waterproof. We did not use a ground cloth, in large part because with Hillebergs you don’t really need one. We did encounter a fair bit of snow, especially later in the trip in northern Montana. It was the heavy, wet variety. This is the one area where tunnel tents, especially those made of the lighter fabric, struggle a little bit. Snow sags the fabric between the two poles, although we had much better luck handling this when we made sure the guylines were absolutely taught. It’s worth noting that the Anjan is billed as a three-season tent. Eight inches of heavy, wet snow is not what the tent is designed for, but it held up despite a bit of sagging.

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San Pedro Parks Wilderness, New Mexico

Therein lies much of the beauty of the Anjan. It allows the backpacker to head out in weather that would prevent movement with some not-as-strong shelters. That’s a main reason to adventure – to get out in all conditions and see what nature is like at her most temperamental. Good gear with proper knowledge about how to use it allows one to enjoy the full gauntlet of conditions. For us, that was worth a weight sacrifice of a few ounces.

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San Juan Mountains, Colorado

The inside of the Anjan is very comfortable and roomy. There was plenty of area for my wife and I with gear, including about 10 inches of space on each side to store random items. There is also a nice pocket on each side to stash your headlamp and phone at night. There is a clothes hanging cord off the roof, perfect for getting wet socks out of the way. Finally there was more than ample space to put our wet shoes at the bottom of the tent, a necessity to keep them from freezing solid overnight.

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Idaho/Montana border country

The vestibule is absolutely huge. We cooked in it 80 percent of the nights on the trail, exceptions being very nice weather and in grizzly bear country. Generally one of us would cook and the other would hang out at the bottom of the tent writing, sending satellite messages to family and friends and relaxing. The tent tapers significantly at the bottom, but it was still plenty roomy enough for relaxing with two people.

We traded out the under-gunned stock pegs for mini-Groundhogs from MSR. Lightweight is important, but breaking stakes on the trail is no fun and causes unnecessary stress. I would recommend this upgrade for any backpacker, regardless of tent choice.

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Lake of the Woods, Wyoming

One area that takes a little figuring out with the Anjan and the interconnected fly and tent body is what to do if the tent gets wet. If the tarp is soaked from rain, dew or condensation, it’s a little frustrating to stuff the whole thing together, soaking the entire tent. We ended up paying a lot of attention to the weather and getting very proficient at separating the inner and outer tent. If a warm, dry day was forecast, we’d put the tent away wet and then dry it out during lunch. If cold and wet weather was predicted we would take apart the inner and outer tent, keeping the relatively dry body separate from the soaked fly. Using these two techniques, we never really slept in truly soaking wet tent.

That said, the Hilleberg set-up method, which is so useful and quick in heinous conditions, does require a little more thinking when dealing with multiple days of rain in a row. Of course, we’re thru-hikers, up and hiking well before things can dry. For traditional backpacking, where breakfast is cooked and the sun is allowed to warm and dry things before setting out, this would not be an issue at all.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Being a bit of a warmer tent, the Anjan does suffer from some condensation. However, it’s not worse than any other shelter. When we camped with other hikers, we noticed that we got condensation when they got condensation and visa-versa. Condensation is a product of many things – campsite location, localized weather conditions and temperature difference between the inside of the tent and the outdoors. The Hilleberg breathes fine, has a large mesh door, a mesh window, and plenty of flow space beneath the tarp walls.

After three months of desert and mountain camping, we did have some problems with the front zipper. However, clamping them down with a small pliers on our multi-tool and squeezing them together about a millimeter fixed the issue in seconds. At the very end of the trip we got a tear in the fly on a seam near the front zipper. I’m not sure how it happened, but I suspect it was a result of overtightening the guy lines on the snowy night in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. True to Hillebergs though, the tear did not increase. When we got home we called Hilleberg and they gave us simple instructions for sending it in for repair.

Red Desert, Wyoming

That’s one of the best things about Hilleberg. They are a family operated company who are passionate about one thing: tents. Petra Hilleberg, who runs Hilleberg North America, is the daughter of founder Bo Hilleberg. She is a fantastic outdoors woman and has a real knowledge of the perfect shelter for everything from a hike along the CDT to a ski across Greenland. They also have an in-house warranty and repair department, following the mantra of re-use and fix.

Bottom line: Hillebergs cost a bit more money, but when looking for a bombproof two-person tent for three season backpacking in the high and low country, it would be hard to do better than the Hilleberg Anjan 2.

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Near Stony Pass, Colorado

October Skiing on a Dying Glacier

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Golden turns on the ice age. Andrews Glacier, RMNP

Since returning from the trail I’ve felt an increased desire to learn about mountain ecology. More specifically, I’m fascinated by that dying thing known as the mountain glacier. In Glacier National Park where we finished our hike, the forecast is that they will all be gone by 2030, melted away as part of human-caused global warming. Before departing, we took a walk up to the famous Grinnell Glacier, and while I have no personal previous experience to compare it to, the reaction from Elaine and her parents left it painfully evident that it has shrunk a lot since they first saw it 15 years ago.

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Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana – September 29, 2017. Below are images of Grinnell Glacier over the past 80 years. Note how the upper and lower glaciers connected and the lake was entirely a glacier in 1938. 

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Upon leaving the park, I picked up a copy of Christopher White’s book “The Melting World,” and spent the next 30 hours in the back seat absorbing myself in the dire news. It’s a somber read, but it does make me want to something. I’m not a scientist of glaciologist, but I can explore places and share them with others on an emotional level, leaving the data and figuring to those much more advanced in such things.

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16,000 years ago the Indian Peaks and Rocky Mountain National Park looked like this. Mastodons and Woolly Mammoths roamed the land.

My wife and I are fortunate to live in the only part of Colorado where there actually are glaciers. The largest, Arapaho Glacier, is about four miles as the crow flies from our back door. This is not a glacier you can legally tread on, as it is part of the closed-to-the-public City of Boulder Watershed. Fortunately there are other nearby glaciers, the closest being Isabelle Glacier under the shadow of Apache Peak.

In Rocky Mountain Park, just north of us, there are even more of these mountain glaciers. Tyndall, Sprague, Rowe and Taylor Glaciers are a few of the more famous ones. But for Elaine and I, Andrews Glacier, just east of the Continental Divide, is our glacier of habit and annual visit. We’ve been coming here for years in late fall, seeking the glacier for ski turns. Our monthly ski streak relies on these glaciers. Like an old friend, we visit Andrews each autumn to catch up, have fun and assess where we are in our respective worlds, human and glacier.

It’s not so much about the actual skiing. In this 13-mile roundtrip hike, there are maybe 500 yards of actual turns. Year round skiing is more about the experience, less about the turns, especially in the latter months August, September and early October. Andrews has everything a year-round skier could want: predictable snow coverage, an easy entrance, a lack of crevasses, a beautiful hike in and out and a nice mellow grade for a couple rusty skiers who spent the whole summer walking.

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Andrews Glacier and Tarn, Rocky Mountain National Park

Since returning from the CDT, one thing we’ve struggled with most is simply not being outdoors 24 hours a day. walking in the sun, sleeping on the ground, and all the goodness that provides. We were excited to get into the mountains for an entire day of adventuring.

We entered the park with our freshly bought annual pass, enjoying the morning light as it turned the meadows of Moraine Park a golden hue. The elk are converging in this place now, sheltered from the mountain winds and exposure. As is often the case in the Colorado Front Range, it’s been a windy autumn, so we had to pack accordingly:

  1. Wool Base Layer – 200 weight – non-itchy Merino from Ibex
  2. Fleece mid-layer from Melanzana. We would normally make this a wool layer, but since it was going to be cold and windy, breathability was less of an issue.
  3. Poly/Nylon backcountry skiing/hiking pant from Dynafit.
  4. Cecile shell from Bergans.
  5. Swix Romsdal Puffy Jacket. The Puffy is gold, a sacred layer if you will. Treat it with respect, use it wisely
  6. Light, nordic style gloves and heavier mittens for the cold. My big mitts are bright orange, perfect for landing planes if need be.
  7. Ski cap…Swix or some esoteric Norwegian nordic team brand preferable.
  8. Julbo sunglasses, because snow blindness is no fun.
  9. Bread – A nice French Loaf goes well with most things.
  10. Salami – Boars head and something with a lot of seasoning. Dry salami is essential.
  11. Cheese – A Gruyere is the mountain adventure cheese of choice!
  12. Chocolate – We’re a bit broke after the trail, so Snickers and Hersheys it is!
  13. Water, replenished with fresh glacier water, gathered as close to the source to avoid contamination.
  14. Hot Solbaer Norwegian Black Current Drink in a Thermos.
  15. Skis. Lightweight ski mountaineering Ski Trabs. No skins needed for this trip.
  16. Poles.
  17. Boots – Lightweight Dynafit TLT’s
  18. Pack – Hyperlite Ice Pack modified to carry skis.
  19. Headlamp.
  20. Delorme InReach – Just in case.
  21. Sony A6000 Camera.
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A nice morning with hardly any other humans. Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Shoes were a dilemma for me. On our last night in Glacier National Park before driving home, I was cooking pasta for the group, and accidentally poured scalding boiling water all over my big toe in the pitch darkness. It instantly swelled up and blistered, and soon after popped and turned raw. For a few nights I couldn’t really sleep with anything less than four Advil in my system. It’s been a painful mishap, but since the trail was over and this is supposed to be a relatively easy month, it came at the best time possible.

One accommodation I’ve had to make to the injury is cutting open the toe of my left shoe to avoid aggravating it. Since the shoes I was wearing already had 750 miles on them and were well worn, it was a small sacrifice to make. But having an open toe was going to be less than ideal climbing onto the snowy, windswept Continental Divide. I packed a plastic bag, to be put on between the sock and shoe to keep snow and moisture out when we got above timberline. It’s a trick we picked up on the trail.

On this day, we wanted to do a loop and get on the divide. The Continental Divide, our home this year, has been calling to us. We decided to loop around Bear Lake and begin the long steady climb up to Flattop Mountain. Flattop is a nice smooth, fast trail that climbs about 2,500 feet in three miles. Usually it’s overrun with folks, but on this very blustery day in mid-October, we hardly encountered a soul.

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Elaine makes her way up firm snow on the Flattop Mountain Trail. The constant wind packs it down to a near solid texture.

The trail up Flattop winds gradually through the forest, switchbacking through lodgepole pines. While the wind howled overhead, the trees dampened the blast, making a peaceful sighing noise as we climbed. Alert squirrels, busy shoring up their winter food stock, scolded us, as has been the case for the last five months. An agitated squirrel is a peaceful, calming sound for us now.

As the altitude rose, the trees shrank. At 11,000 feet the forest gave way to gnarled branches and webs of krummholz, those hardy “trees” that spend much of the year getting blasted by the wind and cold. Above this, it’s all ground vegetation, rock, ice and tundra – trees simply can’t live here.

These above-timberline areas are shrinking worldwide, thanks to a warming planet. The forest is encroaching. Slowly but steadily, we are losing alpine tundra. Eventually forest will crowd out alpine meadows, but that won’t simply result in a few less wildflowers. Sheep, goats, deer and elk depend on that tundra for summer feeding. As the forest grows to cover everything, there will be less genetic biodiversity, and with that some species will not survive.

It doesn’t stop there. Flowers that now only live on the top of peaks will run out of space. The small mountain pika, whose “eeekkk” cry defines the Rocky Mountain timberline, rely on those plants to live. Pika are literally being driven up and off the mountain. There was talk of putting them on the Endangered Species List, but the Bush administration exempted greenhouse gasses from control under the Endangered Species Act. That’s not a happenstance event – climate sensitive species are regularly turned down for protection.*

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Back on the divide! Otis Peak in the foreground, Longs Peak in the background.

These things get lost in the politicized world of economic growth versus environmentalism, but they are of real consequence. It goes beyond pika and plants. In nature everything effects everything else. Scarce food means some animals die. Another animal, another ecosystem that relies on that source also dies. How far does it go? Right to humans ourselves?

It’s important to ramble in the mountains, but also to look and observe, to take off the headphones and heart rate monitor and see what is actually going on. To go regularly, to feel and see the change, to report back and raise a ruckus. So…we go to timberline to ski, but also to observe and learn.

As we climbed above timberline the wind grew brisk. Dirt gave way to snow drifts, hard and slick from the constant pounding of the wind. This concrete snow is our first layer, or base, and will be here until June. It was time to put the plastic bag inside my open shoe and layer up. Up we went until soon we were on top of Flattop Mountain, a wide open, appropriately named “peak” on the top of the Continental Divide. Even better, we were back on the Continental Divide Trail.

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Stoked to be back on the Continental Divide Trail. Tyndall Glacier and Hallett Peak in the background.

Spirits went from good to ecstatic. I realized it’s been some time since I have seen my wife smile that big. We were finally home again, the place we’ve lived for the past half-year. The wind blew strong and we walked south on the CDT. You don’t get anything material for hiking the CDT, but you do get the feeling that you got the Continental Divide melded into your soul, like you know it and somehow possess it. That means much more than a medal or certificate.

The mountains surprise sometimes. As we headed south, the wind died down, defying logic for the place we were. It was good to be on the tundra again, maneuvering over talus and testing the firmness of snow drifts for sure footing. One thing I have noticed after hiking 3,000 miles – there is no tentativeness in step or hesitation on uneven terrain. There is a comfort and balance walking that has been honed during the past months.

Hallett and Otis Peak loomed on our left. This is the very heart of glaciers in Colorado. Steep and dramatic Tyndall Glacier came first. We peered over its edge into another realm, icy and ancient. Onward south, and a warning sign said “Chaos Glacier is steep and can have large crevasses. Use Extreme Caution. Not Advised.” And then, up a talus field, along the ridgeline and we had reached the snowy banks of our destination, Andrews Glacier.

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Looking off the divide onto Andrews Glacier.

The glacier itself is wedged into a notch between two mountains on the eastern side of the divide. At this latitude, barely above the 40° parallel, wind is the driving force behind these glaciers. Snow on the upper reaches of the western side of the divide gets scoured and blows just over the edge to the eastern side. That’s why in this area at least, the eastern side of the mountains is usually more dramatic and glacier carved than the western side. Because of that wind, snow depths accumulate dramatically more in some places. I’ve seen this in effect – two inches of snow can pile into a foot where the wind deposits it just right.

Andrews offers nice easy access to a moderate route for early season turns. I’ve skied it for about ten years now – it’s something of an annual ritual – and it’s a very enjoyable, relatively safe excursion. Access this year was easy, as early season snow covered the usually steep edges of the glacier. It was simply a matter of popping ski boots on the tundra and gliding right onto the glacier.

It’s possible to tell the health of a glacier based on the snow line. Underneath the new season’s snowfall is something called a “dry glacier.” Dry glaciers are essentially very compressed snow and ice. They have a different look – they are much more grey and often have sediment in them. Dry glaciers can actually be quite safe to travel on with the right equipment because you can see what is going on – crevasses are fully exposed so one one won’t accidentally walk in.

“Wet glaciers” have snow covering the ice. This snow has not yet fully consolidated into ice form. On big glaciers with crevasses one has to exercise extreme caution because crevasses are hidden by the fresh snow. Sometimes those bridges are enough to hold a climber, and sometimes they are not. Back in 2008 on a NOLS mountaineering course in the Waddington Range in British Columbia we got a foot of snow one night in August. The next day was torturous travel, the person on the front of the rope essentially stepping into a crevasse every twenty steps or so, as the entire area was hidden under the new snow. The folks back on the rope holding the lead definitely had to be attentive on that day.

Glaciers accumulate snow for most of the year, but that window is getting smaller as the planet warms up. September storms are moving to October and June melt is being pushed to May. That leaves less time for the glacier to accumulate and more time for it to melt. Glaciologists usually take samples of glaciers at the end of the season, usually in early September, to see what the overall yearly effect is. A general rule of thumb is if the glacier is more than 50% “wet” at the end of the season, it’s growing and doing well. If it is more than 50% “dry,” the glacier is shrinking. Comparing the images below, it’s easy to see the difference. *

AndrewsCompare

Like almost all mountain glaciers, Andrews Glacier has shrunk significantly from 1913 to 2009. Dry glacier is the browning colored ice. Wet glacier is white.

This year we arrived after peak melt off. Early season snows and wind has dropped a few new inches on the glacier surface, leaving it a glorious white color, and allowing us to temporarily forget that this glacier is dying. Crevasses are not really an issue on Andrews Glacier. It doesn’t have enough mass and is not moving enough to create massive fissures, and will be retired from glacier status once it stops moving altogether.  That’s the difference between a snowfield and a glacier. Glaciers move, carve the earth and deposit sediment from the upper accumulation zone to the lower reaches of the ice. Snowfields, while providing valuable habitat and moisture. essentially just sit there. Their days of carving the landscape are done until the next ice age.

We were happy to see the new snow. Skiing on dry glaciers is not particularly fun. The surface is rough, often full of massive sun-cups. On this day, however, the new snow had compacted to create a firm surface, perfect for making some almost resort-like turns. As we sat on top of the glacier transitioning from trail running shoes to ski boots, enjoying a snack, a raven flew past, rising and falling in the currents before darting across a mountain face, in search of prey or maybe just for the sheer joy of it.

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Elaine feeling small as she makes the first turns of the season on Andrews Glacier.

The skiing itself was actually quite good, great even for mid-October. We picked the line with the smoothest snow and enjoyed setting our edges to make some turns. We are both very rusty, as we have not made a legitimate ski turn in three months. While we did send kid’s skis to ourselves in Wyoming and Montana to keep our seven year streak of skiing at least one day every month alive, it wasn’t really making turns. It was more shuffling and surviving. By the time we reached the lower flanks of Andrews, balance and agility came back and we were actually skiing half-way decently.

Poleplant

turnem

Conditions were firm and fast – kind of like most days at the resort. Finding my balance and rhythm on Andrews Glacier.

The run steepens a bit on the bottom and the snow had accumulated nicely on the north side of the glacier. We enjoyed some softer turns right down to the small lake at the bottom, already frozen over by the autumn cold. The world is warming, but this place is still one of the harshest climates around – that’s why there is a glacier here in the first place.

Glaciers tend to melt from the bottom up, and this is where I have personally noticed the most difference in Andrews Glacier. When I first started skiing it back in 2008, the glacier extended right into the lake. Now, ten years later, it’s backed off 50 to 60 feet from the lake’s edge, revealing instead talus and rock. That’s just the vertical downsizing. It’s also shrinking on the sides, as well as in total depth and mass. Andrews Glacier is dying. We were fortunate though on this day. The new snow had covered much of the talus so we were able to ski right to lake’s edge before transitioning back to running shoes.

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Elaine enjoys buttery turns on the lower flanks of Andrews Glacier.

Something we miss most about the trail is how the massive mountains and big sky country makes you feel small and inconsequential. Humans are no match to time transcending things like glaciers, ice ages, erosion and volcanic uplift. And then there are the threats – rock fall, cliff edges, icy lakes, lightning, river crossings and avalanches. There are many things that could kill us in a heartbeat. Living with that, seeing how nature works (not always kind) makes you realize that while humans may think ourselves incredibly brilliant and important, we’re very, very small and fragile.

And yet, for Elaine and I, that isn’t something we fear. In an odd sense, we enjoy it, because it makes us realize that all this stuff we worry about, the minutia of every day life, in the end means almost nothing. You learn to relax, to worry less, to just shut off the mind and be. And in that mountain cirque, surrounded by glaciers and massive cliff walls and higher mountains, we set down our packs, ate lunch, and just enjoyed being. Enjoyed being quiet, listening to the wind, the clatter of the pika, the small creek meandering down the meadow.

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A very nice day up on Andrew’s Glacier and the Continental Divide. This was our 85th straight month skiing together.

We’re an odd species. So fragile yet dangerous at the same time. We can change the local forest or stream, but beyond that we can impact the climate of the entire planet. It seems like an odd choice for nature to have made. Why would something be allowed to survive that is so destructive to the natural balance? And as a species, why would we insist on destroying our natural home? That makes no sense, and that feels to me like a suicidal path to take.

I know this. I like glaciers. I like big snows and bitter cold. I want them around for my lifetime and for generations to come. To give all that up without a big fight would be a mistake.

eQavCKE* The Melting World, A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers. Christopher White.