Backpacking the Kaiser Loop trail, postmortem
My girlfriend and I backpacked almost the entire Kaiser Loop trail over three days, June 15-17 (we took the shortcut through Mary’s Meadow, shaves 2.1 mi. off the entire loop). We traveled the loop clockwise, which allowed us to split the elevation gain (nearly 3000 ft.) over two days. We camped at Nellie lake the first night (8900 ft) and at Line Creek lake (9800 ft) the second, climbing to the summit of Kaiser Peak on our third day before heading down the mountain. Since I’ve already covered a bunch of backpacking stuff in other posts, I’ll just briefly describe some things that I learned.
Map and Route
Hiking with a partner
Hiking with a partner is a fantastic way to stave off insanity, provided, of course, that they are willing and generally enthusiastic about it. I mentioned how, when I backpacked alone, my mind went to some strange places. This time I had no “mental moments”; the closest was a few dreams about losing the trail (see below for the impetus for this).
I switched up a number of my gear choices this year, hoping to save weight.
I used a Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack instead of my Deuter. The Mariposa has a smaller internal storage, which is only top-loading (no sleeping bag section with its own bottom zipper) which does require some discipline in packing. From bottom to top, I generally packed cookset, sleeping pad, sleeping bag (just stuffed into the pack), bear canister. The beauty of the Mariposa is the almost 20L of external storage it offers: I was able to pack my tent, water, water filtration, toilet kit, day clothes, and other items all into the external pockets for easy access and unpacking.
I switched my camera from an Olympus E420 to a Panasonic DMC-TS6R. This is an “outdoor” camera: waterproof, shockproof, with GPS, altimeter, and compass so that your photos are (sometimes) geotagged with their location. It always weighs 8 oz to the Olympus’s 20 oz.
I switched my shoes from New Balance Minimus Zero, to the Montrail Massochist III. I actually tried three different pairs of shoes before the trip: the La Sportiva Ultra Raptors were unwearably painful. Even going up a size (as is recommended) they were so tight as to make my feet numb after less than an hour of normal walking, and they had weird plastic protrusions on the inside that dug into my skin. The other shoes I tried were Skarpa Spark trail runners; they were fine, just not as comfortable as the Montrails.
The Montrail Masochist was great! It has a mesh upper so it (and my socks inside) dried quickly after getting wet. The tread is good and grippy, and performed well on wet rocks and snow. They do weigh more than the New Balances, but no where near as much as a full boot; the weight is about the same as the dress shoes I wear to work, so I didn’t really notice them. They did feel a bit tight around the heel/Achiles tendon (as people in Amazon reviews have complained about) but this was temporary; an hour of walking broke them in and flexed up that part of the shoe so that I had no discomfort at all. (I ended the trip with zero blisters or hot spots on my feet.)
I was forced to switch my water filtration from the Sawyer Squeeze to Aqua Mira, after my Squeeze decided to not work at all the first time I tried to use it (note to self: always test water filter before leaving!). Aqua Mira takes longer than the Squeeze (5 mins for the chemicals to “activate” and then 30 mins for it to purify) and thus requires some scheduling and coordination. Generally I had two water bottles: one was in the process of being purified, while the other was drinkable. When necessary, I’d fill my girlfriend’s water bottle/pouch from my drinkable bottle. Whenever we hit a stream, we’d redistribute drinkable water and then refill any empty bottles with water to be purified as we walked. This worked well, and I’m glad I had the Aqua Mira as a backup.
Note that although the instructions don’t say so, you can in fact use 7-8 drops of “A” and “B” for each liter to filter more than 1 liter at a time. They also don’t mention that you should try to keep the time the mixture spends activating as close to 5 mins as possible; less or more means that the active ingredient will not be as concentrated and as a result, purification may take longer/not be as effective.
The middle of June is still “early” in the summer hiking season, at least for the higher elevations. Above 9000 ft we had some areas with substantial snow to deal with. Most of our problems came when the trail was covered for more than a few yards; there were several places where we had no idea where the trail was going and had to just forge ahead, hoping to find it once we got past the snow.
The most difficult section was just before and after the unnamed lake that lies at the foot of the switchbacks leading up to the ridge. Below the lake, the trail follows the northern slopes (something that was not shown on my map) which was more snow-covered, shaded, and steeper, than the crest. At one point the trail was covered by a patch of snow that would have been dangerous to cross; a slip would have sent us sliding down the side of the mountain. We went off-trail and tracked around it until we picked up the trail the rest of the way to the lake.
Beyond the lake, the trail switchbacks up to the ridge; about halfway up the trail was entirely covered in snow. We essentially just headed straight up, climbing over rocks when possible but often crossing the snow, until we reached the top and picked up the trail again.
There were a few patches of snow on the way down, but these were smaller and well-traveled, so that there was no doubt as to where the trail went.
We did great for food! Our dinners were supplied by Packit Gourmet (gumbo and chili). Their meals ostensibly “serve one” but are big enough that a single meal can be extended to serve two without much trouble. E.g., to pad out the gumbo we just added half a cup of instant rice and some summer sausage. I carried a BearVault 500, but during the day my girlfriend kept a separate “snack bag” in the top of her backpack for easy access. (At night we’d pack the whole snack bag into the bear canister, obviously.) Each morning we’d put whatever we intended to have for lunch into the snack bag before loading up.
Our breakfast consisted of precooked bacon (reheated), coffee, and oatmeal with freeze-dried fruit. (Note that freeze-dried strawberries rehydrate much faster than either blueberries or raspberries.)
Lunch was sandwhiches from Subway (day 1), dehydrated pasta salad with salmon (day 2), and cheese and crackers with summer sausage (day 3). Note that many people will advise you to wrap your cheese in wax paper so it can “breathe”, suggesting that it will develop a dry skin. They’re right, but why not let it develop that skin before you leave? Wrap it in wax paper and put it in the fridge a couple days before you leave.
Dinner was gumbo with extra rice and sausage (day 1) and chili with cracker bread and bacon (day 2). Speaking of which, Armenian cracker bread is a fun alternative to tortillas. Despite the name, it’s not crispy but is actually quite flexible. You can use it as a kind of edible towel to clean out your pot after a meal.