Wednesday, September 17, 2008

CT: Analyzing What Went Wrong

Thru-hiking a long trail such as the Colorado Trail is a different ball game from most of the outdoor pursuits I have experience with. And while I now consider myself knowledgeable and experienced at this, thru-hiking also proved one of the few pursuits that I wasn't successful with. Close friends and family have tried to convince me otherwise, but the stark undeniable fact remains: I did not thru-hike the Colorado Trail and was not successful at attaining that objective.

My Parents and friends have also tried to convince me of the fact that an ankle injury was beyond my control, and that nothing I could have done differently would have changed that fact. Perhaps they are right. The condition of Paul's knees were out of his control and I don't begrudge him that, so why should I consider this to be a personal failure on my part? On my last day before I left, David and I were engaged in many conversations about this, and he told me himself. "Tyler, you're harder on yourself than anyone I know." Perhaps this is another part of myself that I need to work on, but that will be the topic of another post.

I seriously hoped to succeed at this, and I still hope to return and thru-hike the whole Colorado Trail completely. So as I wait for my ankle to mend, I've been pondering and considering the successes and mistakes I made in this endeavor. I'll also be analyzing which of these factors contributed to my inability to complete the trail.

So in many ways, the following is simply a way for me to analyze what to do differently next time, and the things I have to accept as beyond my control.

SUCCESSES: I agree with David that I may be harder and more demanding on myself than I should be, so I'm going to start out with some things I thought I did well.

1. LOGISTICS: One thing I did do right, I believe, was in planning and logistics for the three of us. I did my homework, developed a resupply schedule, purchased meals that were MORE THAN ADEQUATE, and managed to get everything ready on time. I located places ready and willing to keep our supplies that would be more convenient than post offices, and generally predicted what to expect along the trail pretty well.

2. DETERMINATION: I wanted it badly enough and wasn't willing to give it up until it became absolutely essential for my health and well being. I never dropped out because I was sick of the rain (even when it was tempting to do so) nor did I ever call it quits for some other reason. I'm going to try to convince myself this speaks something about my character and will.

3. STOVE: The alcohol stove, I think, proved to be the best option for a trip of this sort. Alcohol was easy to locate when we needed it, and while we paid a bit of a weight penalty for our more extended excursions, I think it was generally a good, lightweight option. I think I'll stick with this for the next attempt.

4. CERTAIN FOOD CHOICES: Some food choices proved to work pretty well: Foods that were quick, nutritious, lightweight and provided good energy and/or protein worked well. These foods include: oatmeal breakfasts, grape nuts breakfasts (when not in overabundance), certain trail mixes, Nature Valley Granola Bars, couscous, backpacker's pantry meals, and Mountain House meals.
LITTLE MISTAKES: Some MINOR things I would do differently, but didn't necessarily affect the outcome.

1. FOOD OVERABUNDANCE: I purchased too much food. I had expected to be consuming many more calories than we actually did, and so consequently, we packed almost twice as much food as was necessary. While this proved a big mistake on the first section, by the time we reached our first and second resupplies, we knew what we could leave out. Simply an error of judgement, but not one that really hurt us in the long term (except the pocketbook). We often got our resupply boxes and sent 1/3 to 1/2 of the food right back home because we knew we wouldn't eat it all. To our credit though, we NEVER went hungry, so it was probably prudent that we erred on the side of caution as hunger could definitely have jeopardized the trip.

2. FOOD CHOICES: Certain foods were never consumed at all. This was PARTLY due to a misunderstanding of the nature of thru-hiking, bad calls on my part, and partly the result of untested gear. We brought along a lot of instant Jello pudding. Good for your weekend backpacking trips, when you spend more time sitting around the campfire eating, but not good on thru-hiking trips, when you're spending more time hiking and sleeping. It just didn't find a good place in our menu.

Pancakes turned out to be the same way. Fine for long weekends in the woods when you get a late start one day for a day hike, but not so great for thru-hiking, when you need to wake up super early every day and get some miles in before rain or other events might put you behind schedule. Simple foods that were quick and easy to prepare or required no preparation turned out to be the best options. Gear also proved a factor in this. Pancakes and eggs simply don't cook well on my new lightweight titanium cookware, which is essential for a trip of this nature (more on that later).

Other foods simply weren't being consumed, but this goes back to number 1. We'd often have leftover granola bars we didn't eat either because they didn't taste as good, or some other reason. Numerous foods weren't getting eaten throughout the trip and we'd typically arrive in towns ready for our next resupply and still be carrying a surplus of food.
Foods to leave out or cut down on next time include: Jello deserts, pancakes, freeze dried eggs, fish fry, fruits (for multiple reasons), certain bars, certain trail mixes, fruit roll ups (just corn syrup really), olive oil, hot chocolate, hot cider.


1. WEIGHT. PERIOD: The fact was, we were just too heavy. This slowed our progress, especially in the beginning and was probably a contributing factor to my ankle problem. Despite lightening our loads quite a bit prior to the trip (new gear, etc.) we just weren't the fanatics about grams and ounces that we should have been. We took a filter when we could have taken tablets. We took a GPS, etc.

While I'm not qualified to quantify the effect of weight on my ankle, I generally believe, and think that I could make a convincing argument that more weight= more stress on joints. Fair or not, I conclude that every choice I made with regard to heavier gear ultimately contributed to my negative outcome.

Seriously, though, I don't need a study to prove this assertion, just look at the pictures above! Which hikers are going to have more stress on their joints? Us or Steve? Who's going to have more fun? Us or Steve? Look at the pictures again and realize that Steve not only isn't sharing gear with friends, but he's also going 12 more days without supplies. Our gang's only prepared for 6 days. I'm now a believer that ultralight is the ONLY way to go.

2. FOOD WEIGHT: The biggest reason we were too heavy (see #1 above) was due to the weight of our food. I GROSSLY UNDERESTIMATED the importance of the weight of the foods I was carrying. I recall my dad watching as I bought 100 dollar titanium cookware and an aluminum stove and said, "you're stressing about the little stuff instead of worrying about the big stuff! And with respect to our food, he was right! During our second day, we met Steve, who carried enough supplies and gear for 12-14 days and weighed half as much as any of us. He said food weight to energy ratio of 130 calories per ounce. This proved to be a lot more restrictive than I originally thought. Even our Clif bars don't meet this requirement!

With the exception of our dinners, most of our foods proved to be in the 80-100 calories per ounce. During the trail, we consumed around 3500 calories per day. So for Steve, this comes out to 27 ounces per day, or 1.68 lbs. For us, at a value of say, 80 calories per ounce, 3500 calories weighs 43.75 ounces, or 2.73 lbs. That means that Dave, Paul, and myself were carrying a little over 1 pound of food per day. For the first 6 days, this means we're carrying 6 pounds in food that Steve doesn't have to carry. So for every stride, (6 extra pounds per stride) I end up putting 6 pounds more on my ankle. This could easily accumulate into thousands of more pounds on my joints than on Steve's after only 1 mile. Considering the trial is 480 miles, this could easily contribute to my ankle problems. Steve's ankles don't need to worry about this, so he's more likely to finish without injury.

3. GEAR CHOICES: Numerous choices of gear proved to be inadequate in that they were far too heavy. My pack weighed in at 3 1/2 pounds. Had I followed the principles above on FOOD WEIGHT, I could have carried an "ultralight backpack" that weighed in at roughly 1.5 pounds. 2 pounds less by choice of pack alone, and it would have decreased more had I followed the mistake above. I had examined and even tried on a couple packs like this, but elected not to buy them because I COULDN'T FIT ALL MY FOOD in them!

And while my choice of tent worked well for three people, the concept and thought processes that went into the purchase proved faulty for a thru-hiking setting. To reduce weight I should have gone with a combination shelter/raingear/rainfly product such as Six Moon Design's Gatewood Cape. I'm already carrying raingear and a rainfly. Why should I go to the trouble of carrying extra fabric (and weight) for a shelter? Why indeed. There are several products on the market similar to this one, and we should have elected to go with these instead. Might have shaved a few more valuable ounces and given us a little more volume (to cut down further on the size and weight of our backpacks).

Going ultralight has to be a completely holistic choice. If you bring pancakes and eggs, you have to bring a spatula, etc. Bring hot chocolate and you have to bring a cup. One too many extra things and you have to buy a bigger, heavier pack (which you fill with more stuff).

4. NOT ADDRESSING MY ANKLE PROBLEM SOON ENOUGH: I really should have changed things up sooner after I found my ankle problem wasn't going away. Perhaps then, I might not be analyzing what went wrong on my trip. When Paul started having knee problems, he quickly began wrapping them and got a knee brace as soon as possible. Ultimately he faced the same outcome I did, but at least Paul can live with the knowledge he did everything he could to remedy the situation. Would things have gone differently if I'd done the same? Things certainly couldn't have gone much worse had I began wrapping my ankle the moment it gave me problems, instead of 80 miles later when it was already too late. I should have gotten an ankle brace in Buena Vista when I had the chance. Ankle injuries beyond my control or not, taking preventative action early was the correct choice, and I didn't make that choice. So I list this as a contributing factor in the outcome.

5. POOR FOOTWEAR CHOICE: My boots proved to be a poor choice of footwear. My Vasque Switchbacks felt comfortable, which was good, but for an all leather boot they certainly didn't provide the ankle support I evidently needed. This was partly due to an inadequate understanding on my part about what I needed, which may or may not have been preventable. The front wore out a lot faster than I expected as well, and as the miles accumulated, I liked them less and less. My dad expressed later that he didn't think they were great boots. If I'd invested in something with better ankle support, would my weak ankles have held out longer? Possibly. So this goes in with contributing factors.

6. LACK OF DETERMINATION: While this appears completely contrary to the text above, I realize now I could have waited a week in Poncha Springs, and tried to finish the trail after my ankle was feeling somewhat better. While it would have been ideal, it was not necessary for me to finish with Dave. Ultimately, I gave up in Poncha Springs, instead of trying something different. Thinking back, I should have stayed in Poncha Springs or camped out at Marshall Pass alone while my ankle healed instead of retreating all the way back to Denver.

This is a tough call for a number of reasons and I hesitate to write it down. I'd be pushed to a later point in the season. I would have risked further permanent injury as staying in Poncha Springs would force me to be more active than staying in Denver. Still, I made the choice to quit the trail at Marshall Pass, and sane or not, logic dictates that this must be counted as a contributing factor (although one with many caveats). I guess Dave was right when he said I was hard on myself.

MODIFICATIONS: So, I hereby resolve to make the following changes/adjustments when I attempt to thru-hike the Colorado Trail again (and THERE WILL BE a second attempt).

1. ANKLE TREATMENT/TRAINING: I'm going to get my ankle looked at soon to check for stress fractures/other problems. I need a professional opinion and advice before proceeding.

2. TRAINING: After getting that advice, I'd like to begin some sort of program to treat and/or train my weak ankles either under professional guidance or self developed. This could include weight training for the ankles and surrounding muscles, prescribed physical therapy, or another training regimen deemed likely to contribute to a positive thru-hiking outcome.

3. TRAINING: I'm also going to make sure I'm in generally better physical condition when I attempt to hike it again. More long hikes and walking leading up to the hike.

3. ULTRALIGHT: Strictest adherence to the philosophies and doctrines of the most insanely fanatical ultralight purists. Ultralight pack; foods with 130 calories an ounce or better; no extraneous luxuries such as camera, headlamp, cups, etc.; 25 degree ultralight down bag; tablets instead of filters; Gatewood Cape Shelter or similar product, I'm going to seriously shoot for an under 8 lb. base weight (weight without food)

4. GAME PLAN TINKERING: I'm going to seriously consider a more frequent resupply schedule (to cut down further on weight) that adds Buffalo Creek, Copper Mountain, and Twin Lakes in addition to the 7 points I already have. I'm not sure yet how practical this would be and this will require some homework and study, but I'd be willing to make a couple extra trips into towns if I thought it might help matters.

5. GO NORTHBOUND: In case I can't thru-hike the trail on my second attempt, starting in Durango the second time around would ensure that I get to see the parts of the CT I missed the first time around. If anything, my experience on the trail disproves the axiom that if you put your mind to anything you can achieve it. I cannot guarantee success in Round 2 by having a better plan and making wiser choices. And as little as I want to face it right now, the fact may be that my body is simply not physically capable of completing this task. Going Northbound the second time will let me see the beautiful areas I miss, and help hedge against another negative outcome.

6. TOP NOTCH FOOTWEAR: My Dad told me about a guy in Estes Park who makes custom mountaineering boots. While expensive, such an option might give me the edge I need for a successful outcome. Regardless, the best high quality footwear available should be a top priority for any second attempt, complete with any prescribed orthotics, insoles, or other accessories. Cost and money will no longer be a consideration when it comes to footwear on my next attempt. My weak ankle will obviously tolerate nothing less.

7. HEALTHIER FOOD CHOICES: You are what you eat. I think if I generally stick to the 130 calories per ounce rule it should help matters. That means either making dehydrated meals myself, or buying freeze dried meals from Backpackers Pantry and Mountain House. Those meals generally meet the 130 Rule. Oatmeal is also generally lightweight and high in calories (although I have no ratio figures) I've also given serious thought to either doing without a stove, or refraining from cooking breakfast meals. If I did without a stove, I could likely also do away with carrying not only the stove, but fuel and possibly cookware also. I think a happy medium would be refraining from cooking breakfast though, cutting down on fuel, and saving time in the morning, which is much more critical than at night.

I may add to this as time goes on, and will probably be revisiting this list prior to my second attempt to thru-hike the Colorado Trail.

CT: Hanging With Dave in Silverton

CT Hiking Photos From Andy's Fragments

The Colorado Trail Story

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