The P-factor

My sister Susan has never slept out under the stars, never gazed upon the full moon from a nook in the forest, never philosophized in a sleeping bag. So I was stoked and surprised when she called to tell me that Steve, her husband, bought her a backpack for Valentine’s Day. More surprising still, she seemed genuinely thrilled about it. Whoddathunk it, my indoorsy sis, swooning over a bit of kit. 

  “That’s so cool. What kind? Are you finally going backpacking with him?” I queried, plying her for details.

 She chuckled. A second later, my phone pinged. It was a photo of the pack, a fucking Chanel calfskin satchel you wear on your back. There was a link directing me to the Chanel app.

 “The only outdoors this pack will see is the parcel of space between the lobby of your Upper Eastside apartment and a taxi cab,” I proclaimed.

 I followed the link to get the specs. The pack’s dimensions translate into a capacity of roughly 10 cubic liters, slightly smaller than my bike hydration pack. 

  “What do you carry in this pack?” I asked.

  “Credit card, keys, overpriced sunglasses, phone.”

  “No emergency kit?”

  “Oh yes! Lip gloss, tampon, Advil.”

 I’ll give my sis points for the tampon. Fluffed up, a tampon makes excellent tinder, and combined with a fire steel, it constitutes a fire system, at the heart of any backcountry survival kit. She loses points for the lip gloss, unless it’s petroleum or paraffin-based, in which case it can be considered fuel. For the record, I do not carry lip gloss, as I do not consider lack of lip sheen an emergency.

 I needed more data to evaluate the utility of the specific vanity product she totes, her EDC (everyday carry) gloss if you will. Buxom is the brand. I swear on my grandmother’s grave (though I never met her). I assume she uses the “Full-On Lip Polish” which creates a gentle plumping effect, according to the web site. Its primary ingredient is hydrogenated polyisobutene, a synthetic oil used as a mineral oil substitute, used for pigment dispersion. The oil’s flash point is 120 degrees C, pretty lame if combustion is the goal. I texted Susan that she should carry Vaseline instead.

 With all that space in Susan’s new pack, it’s shocking there was no tool among the contents. No Leatherman Wave. No Knipex mini pliers? I guess when Susan gets into a bind, one that might require some mechanical aptitude and l’outil juste, she calls help. Me? I am the help.

  “Have you ever used or carried a tool?” I asked.

  “Do tweezers count?” she replied.

 Obviously, Susan is not prepared for a disaster scenario like nuclear holocaust or the zombie apocalypse. Granted, she could probably haul ass, even in heels, and outrun the undead. All that indoor exercise–pedaling to nowhere in a dark room–has made her quite fit, fit enough to carry a proper pack loaded with the proper gear to explore the natural skyscrapers of this world. Whether Susan will ever join Steve on a backpacking trip hinges less on aerobic capacity and more on the P-factor, the princess factor. Can she survive in a world without uber and Netflix and Blue Apron? Can she bear the malaise of wearing the same outfit everyday? Will her feet blister, paradoxically, in sensible shoes? We might all guess a trip without a spa is unlikely to appear on Susan’s bucket list. But I’ve stopped prognosticating since November 8th.


Celebrating Motherfuckerhood


I want my own holiday. Now that Mother’s Day is approaching, I realize those of us without children will never receive flowers or a card, birthdays notwithstanding, unless we take matters into our own hands and declare our own special day, Motherfucker’s Day. In all likelihood, I will never be a mother to anyone, but I will always be a motherfucker to someone.

First things first: a date to celebrate. Let bona fide mothers have the whole month of May. Let dads have June. How about raising a glass to motherfuckerhood in July? Let’s not interfere with Independence Day on the 4th or Bastille Day on the 14th. How about July 28? The weather in the Pacific Northwest is usually so lovely by month’s end.

Now onto the most important part: how to celebrate the cherished motherfuckers in your life. A proper holiday needs a food tradition whether it’s a Christmas Yule Log or a Burns Day sheep stomach pudding washed down with a wee dram. Holiday foods are sometimes symbolic, like the seder plate served during Passover. But tastiness seems more important than symbolic value, particularly given the secular nature of this new holiday. I propose rhubarb pie. 

“Happy Motherfuckers Day, Nance! I baked you a rhubarb pie!” 

“Are you muthahfuckin’ serious?” I reply. “How festive! Let’s go eat pie outside.”

It seems the best way to celebrate any holiday is outside. And if the sun is shining, what motherfucker doesn’t want to bask outside, plying lines: a crack to jam, a trail to shred, a slot to drop. Cast aside work and all trappings of responsibility. Something tells me that shouldn’t be too difficult. Call it motherfucker’s intuition.



Summer’s requiem

I feel the days getting shorter and the sun preparing to take its seasonal furlough as I arrive at the lake. Rising trout break the glass surface. I drop my pack and piece together the sections of my fly rod. The sun is out but it’s too cold to wet wade, so I pull out the chest waders I packed with my lunch and water. My dog observes this ritual prologue to the cast with an interest that belies his familiarity with it.

The four-mile trail to the lake follows a stream banked by devil’s club. Only a few pools in this skinny creek looked deep enough to hide a fish. I picked a few blueberries and salmonberries, most disappointingly bland or tart. Recent rains made the footing slick in spots. Shackleton trotted casually over the skid marks of wobbly hikers, proving four legs are better than two. A hint of purple appeared among the cedar and hemlock, a wildflower I couldn’t positively identify. A caddisfly with an orange creamsicle hue hitched a ride on my arm.

Fish continue to slurp bugs off the surface as I string chartreuse line through the guides. I hold the tippet between thumb and forefinger, then open my fly box and select a Parachute Adams, number 14, the Goldilocks size, not too small, not too big. From the small bottle on my lanyard, I apply the last drop of floatant to the Adams to prolong its buoyancy. I wade gingerly, moving forward with the slow deliberation of a tightrope walker. I’m knee-deep and feel the bracing cold of alpine water through my waterproof gear. When I reach a partially submerged rock, I take a left-lead stance and cast 30 feet toward the lunch counter. The fly lands with adequate finesse so I let it sit on the surface and wait for the take. Often, it comes right away. Not this time. I change positions, looking back to the gladed shore to avoid snagging my backcast, and cast again, and watch again for as long as patience allows.

On the east coast, fall was my favorite time of year bringing cool, sunlit days and color to hardwood forests. In the Northwest, autumn is a middle child struggling to find its own identity unrelated to summer’s end or an overture to winter. The third season is loved by steelheaders and mushroom hunters, but for powderhounds it’s just a whistle-stop to winter: time to sharpen the edges and wax the bases, time to condition the core and legs. Crowds thin on the trails, even before the first dusting of snow below treeline. Summer hikers who sit out the shorter days miss some of the most spectacular Cascades scenery, the turning of larches, idiosyncratic, leaf-shedding conifers whose golden and amber needles stand out against a monotony of evergreen.

I hear my two friends coming up the trail.

“No fish yet?” Dee Dee asks.
“No. I think I’m going to change flies. I’m switching to a soft hackle,” I reply to Dee Dee, who packed a spinning rod.

As I clip the spurned dry fly from my line and pull out the standard second offering, Dee Dee and Sue take off their boots and socks, roll up their trouser cuffs and tiptoe in the shallows to a good sitting rock, broad and flat. Shackleton curls himself into a ball, tail coiled neatly against his hind legs, and closes his eyes.

If I don’t catch a fish, my only disappointment will be not discovering which species of trout inhabits the lake. My first guess is cutthroat, based on catch from other high lakes in the area. There’s only one way to know for sure. I false cast and shoot line, appealing to an angler’s fuzzy logic that distance improves the catching odds. My attention strays for a second and the soft hackle tied with peacock herl and partridge feather draws a strike. The line goes taut. I lift reflexively, but my trout has already shaken the barbless hook, leaving my rod with a sad feeling of weightlessness.

Autumn summons the jet stream back from northerly latitudes and with it the rains, the puddles and the smell of wet dog in the car. Bibliophiles indulge in a cloistered existence of a hot drink and a good read unburdened by guilt that they should be doing otherwise. Poachers flock to the mouth of the Cedar on Lake Washington where sockeye are still silver and feeding. Upriver, spawning males have turned scarlet and green. Dead sockeye float downstream on their sides.

“I hope I get another chance,” I say to Dee Dee and Sue, happily eating their burritos and watching me fish. Hunger starts to beckon but I cast again. A fish takes the fly. Shackleton barks. I lift the rod, strip line and play the trout whose silvery profile flashes just below the surface, a rainbow perhaps. The bout is brief and I pull the fish out, revealing its red spots and white edging of lower fins: an eastern brook. I measure its length with my left hand: the wingspan, thumb to pinky, in a hang ten stretches eight inches and this fish surpasses that by an inch.

“Nine inches, not bad,” I report to Dee Dee who snaps a few photos
I remove the hook from its mouth and bend down to release the brookie.
“You’re not going to keep it?” Dee Dee asks, sounding a little disappointed.
“Nah, I catch and eat sometimes when I backpack.” I submerge my hand and relax my grip.

On the hike down, I find three mushrooms in wet soil as I stop to tie my bootlaces. Golden with trumpeted caps, they smell sweet and earthy. Chanterelles, I think, recalling something about tell-tale false gills, the wrinkly skin folds on the underside of the cap that run continuously to the stalk. I put them in a plastic bag and stash them in my backpack.

The sun slips low onto the horizon. No signs of an evening caddis hatch. I mourn my smaller ration of daylight. I bushwhack through the spiky salad of devil’s club to access a few promising pools. Wary of the thorns, Shackleton hangs back and whimpers, then returns to the trail as I clamber over zero-friction logs to gain the right bank. I nearly punch through a false floor in the understory, into the drink. My dog is much more sensible, I think, as I thread my rod through the brush. I cast the fly into fishy water and prepare for a strike. Nothing. I cover all the water within casting range with similar results. Treading gently over swordfern, I regain the trail and look for Shackleton. I call his name and listen for the metallic jingle of his tags. Typically, when he’s in voice range, he comes. I hear nothing but the sound of the stream, the seductive sound of water. I assume he has pushed on, nose to the ground, sampling the forest floor. Further down the trail, I spot his black coat, stopped at a bridge, and Dee Dee and Sue waiting.

We reach our cars before dark. I listen to Bob Dylan on the drive home while Shackleton sleeps. His hind leg twitches, running to the rhythm of Blowin’ In the Wind, chasing pikas.


Skywalker TR: Squamish, BC

The phone rang on Sunday afternoon. It was Anne Tarver, calling to ask how my week was looking.

“I have to work. Trying to squeeze in a client before this other job starts,” I said.

“Have you seen the forecast? It’s supposed to hit the 70s this week. We could go to Squamish and climb Skywalker,” responded Anne, a self-described leisure consultant, ignoring my talk of work.

She was referring to the 5.8 multi-pitch line, near Shannon Falls, put up by Jeremy Frimer in 2011. We tried to climb Skywalker that year, but news and topos spread quickly on the Internet and several parties beat our lazy asses to the start. Put off by the wait, we aborted. For Anne, a crack connoisseur, visions of climbing Skywalker never ceased.

The invitation was attractive, but I paused. One must have a mind devoid of winter to dwell on up instead of down. The resident devil on my shoulder whispered tantalizing things about granite cracks, sunny belay perches and handsome coastal views. I turned to the angel and the angel said unto me: “Fuck work. Go climb.” Devil on both shoulders, clearly.

We left Wednesday morning sometime before 10am. The little Honda Civic was stuffed. Anne, the maximalist, appeared to be moving to Canada. Just when I thought we had reached capacity, she squeezed Rummikub behind the driver’s seat.

It was 2pm when we pulled into the Shannon Falls parking lot. The plan was to climb Klahanie Crack and perhaps something else before setting up camp at Paradise Valley further north. Skywalker was on Thursday’s agenda. Not surprisingly, there was a party on Klahanie, so Anne suggested we take a peek at Skywalker. We had spied climbers on the scenic traverse before we entered the forest trail. By a stroke of luck, not a single party was waiting. It was close to 3pm. The opportunity took us by surprise and now we had to decide whether warming up on a multi-pitch was a good idea. Both of us were coming off the couch. There was a rap station in case of retreat, Anne noted. I stuffed a headlamp into my Bermudas, clipped a jacket to my harness, slung the El Cap rack over my shoulders and tied in.

I puzzled a bit over how to start. The finger-sized fissure, notoriously rheumy and lachrymose, offered only wet jamming. I took the dry option of face, eventually moving into the crack. The line continued right, a traverse protected by two bolts, to a debris-filled crack leading to the belay. Anne led pitch two, the so-called Flume, a left-facing corner crack. Again, the challenge of getting into the corner without getting wet presented itself. Anne drew on gymnastic opposition to avoid wet rock and moved steadily upward. The lead swung back to me for pitch three over a few stumps to a ramp, then to a crack with a cruxy move before the belay. Embarking on the penultimate pitch, Anne smiled as she romped across the low-angle slab traverse in a very considerate, second-friendly manner, lacing the underling. The finish was short work, easy slab protected by several bolts.

We topped out a little before 7pm, an ascent time of just under four hours, leaving us an ample ration of light for a headlamp-free descent. We took the recommended side trip to Shannon Pools and ogled the raging flows until the spray chilled us to the bone. Later in the season, these pools might make a welcome après-climb swimming hole.

The warm, sunny weather held on Thursday. After an unhurried morning at camp–breakfast and coffee and a one-looney shower–we made our way over to the Chief. We schlepped our heavy climbing packs up to South Peak and and rapped down to Raven’s Castle, perched on the nose of the Chief. The climbing there is more about the setting than the climbing–we witnessed multiple paragliders hurling themselves off the summit towards Howe Sound just as we finished the dogleg line, Talking Crack.

Our last day, Friday, brought rain, but not until we climbed at the car park crags at Smoke Bluffs. The thirty-second approach bore stark contrast to the quad-busting staircase up to South Peak. What’s more, the view of the Smoke Bluffs’ parking lot was a gob-smacker. (Though High Mountain Woody is on my tick list, I figured given the dodgy weather, it was not the day to climb at the more atmospheric Malamute.) Happy to belay, Anne bundled up in layers. I gave her my Nano Puff which she improvised as leggings. Happy to take the sharp end, I led the 5.9 finger crack, Cold Comfort. We rapped down, coiled the rope and felt the first drops of liquid sunshine as the weather window snapped shut.

The spontaneous crack holiday merely reinforced my love of the curtailed work week and weakened my immunity to sun flu. Thanks a lot, Anne.








Evolution of ascent

It starts as a chin wag with a pal. “I’ve never been up” and “me neither” uttered over a beer in a parking lot. Soon after, checking the mountain forecast with irrational frequency. Packing dehydrated spaghetti, oatmeal you can barely stomach but take out of habit and laziness, salted almond chocolate bars, and a bag of Swedish Fish from IKEA. Weighing your food on a digital scale, wondering if your duct-tape repair on the tent pole will hold. Five am alarm, six am rendez-vous, caffeine stop and Tupperware breakfast eaten en route. Three bars on the phone. Final weather check. Driving up dusty switchbacks on a gravel road more rut than road. Licorice fern on green velvet branches of maple. Trailhead chill. Boots laced, packs packed. Dog tracks and human tracks mingle through boggy tread. Musky pong of skunk cabbage. Breaking out of the forest, you look behind and behold a jagged graph of peaks and forget you’re tired. A marmot whistles, periscoping at 2 o’clock in the talus. Nalgene upended. A swig of plain water never tasted better. Altimeter check. Looking forward to making camp and sitting around a blue stove flame. Shoveling down sporkfuls of pasta, waiting for the first star to appear. Slipping into your bag, collapsing in the arms of Morpheus. Freeze-dried flatulence. Waking up to pee and ogling the starry night. Blissfully unaware of the news of the world. Making your way by the diffused beam of a headlamp. Cramponing past cairns. The rattle of biners. The hollow, metallic clang of ax on rock. A goat’s quotation marks in the snow. Snacking at sunrise. Morning sun on cold cheeks. Feeling like Icarus. Scrambling summitward over pesky choss. Standing on an apex, skirted by humbling, gaze-sucking relief. High fives, ritual chocolate, breaking bread, unfolding the accordion map, pointing and calling out familiar names. Onward and downward, losing vert, retracing rock and snow. Breaking camp and downward still. Who lengthened the trail? Swapping boots for sandals, salt-ringed shirt for clean cotton tee. Cracking open a few cold ones on the tailgate and talking of trips to come. No frigate like a wilderness.

Late powder-flu season

Back in January, there was enough vegetation poking through the boot-cuff base at Hayak to dub our morning skin laps Lawn Patrol. The temperature hovered a few degrees above freezing, the worst, as snow devolved into rain and one’s aging Gore-Tex layers, miserably hydrophilic, grew heavy and wet. Cascade concrete with exposed aggregate, the stuff of dreams.

Fast forward to mid-February. Old Man Winter must have performed an act of contrition after scorning Mother Nature. The Pacific Northwest’s driest ski season in recent memory saw an epic storm cycle delivering much wanted (and needed) snow to the Cascades. Finally, winter hung in the boughs of spruce and fir. Winter lay on the roads strewn with broken cable chains. Winter of our discontent, no more.

Skiers and boarders, like Dust Bowl farmers after a rain, felt bright and hopeful. The Tuesday after Presidents’ Day, Barb Buys, Heather Mirczak and I skied sinfully good conditions with scant lift-queue downtime at Stevens Pass. Finally, powder to feed my porky boards. We stayed inbounds, a decision dictated by common snow sense and confirmed by the high avy rating at all elevations. The week before, a father and son triggered an avalanche in the Stevens sidecountry near Big Chief.

(For the full accident report, go to

Last Friday (Feb. 21), HM, her pal and former student Brianna Hartzell and I skied swing shift, starting a little past 1300 hours and clocking out around 2000 hours. It turned out to be a happy, hyper-social shift as we (primarily HM) came across familiar faces: Jenny Rice, Jenny Conrad and her husband Pat, and Carla Schauble. Seventh Heaven had the best snow. But I’ve a sixth sense that skiers, wherever they were in Washington, found seventh heaven.


High tea with Jenny, Brianna and HM.

The princess and the poo

This morning as I was checking NOAA for the mountain forecast, I received a text query from my sister Susan: How does one go to the bathroom while camping?

Susan is an urbane city dweller who has never camped, not even when she was a kid. She’s most comfortable in a little black dress and heels; style never takes a back seat to sensibility. She is the only one I know who shovels snow in Valentino rubber boots with bows. In her world, roughing it means staying somewhere besides The Four Seasons. In other words, she’s not the type to ask such a question out of random curiosity.

On Valentine’s Day, Susan promised her husband Steve she would do a trip with him. She was gathering data. You can imagine her horror as I delivered the sobering news, that she would use a privy, a rustic seat nailed to a wooden box placed over a pit, or dig a cathole and bury her turds. Omg omg omg, she texted laconically. Clearly, it is not the ability to think abstractly, but the ability to flush, which separates woman from beast.

I further explained that if she and Steve entered a sensitive alpine zone, they would have to blue bag it, meaning pack it out. To a woman aghast at the thought of sullying her bottom on a rough-hewn plank, the concept of hauling out poo was a bit much. She was now considering reneging on her promise to Steve, leaving the poor boy up shit creek without a partner.

I suggested Steve take an MP3 recording of a flushing toilet. “The sound could be comforting to Susan. She might forget she’s taking a crap in the woods,” I said to him. It’s a kind of reverse potty training, teaching adults not to use a toilet.

To be fair, some of Susan’s fears are understandable. A well-used backcountry privy is a scary, pungent thing, particularly when the pile is about to break the plane of safety. Strong quads are necessary not only for hiking, but also for suspending oneself above the convexity of the danger zone. I prescribed a mad regimen of squats. There’s little chance my sister will encounter anything in the backcountry as foul as the facilities in the near-country, say, the crapper at Vantage. If she does, it will mark her last movement.

Above sketch by Meg Hudson