my super cool coat rack

We’re living up the lazy days of summer right now in Mammoth Lakes. Temperatures hit 80 during mid day: a regular Mammoth heat wave. But #WinterIsComing so it’s time to button up all the outdoor and winter-esque projects. Even taking a whizz outside becomes a challenge, what with the gloves and snow pants. Imagine trying to do some finish carpentry.

A big thing I wanted to do was put in a new coat rack. Something stout, woodsy, and with tons of hooks. Something I would see every time I walked in or out of my house, and something I would use multiple times a day. Something like this:

finishedcoatrack
My finished product.

To start with, we had a piece of crap that came with the house. It had four pegs (one that broke), a mirror, and a sort-of shelf. It was also small. A family of four could make it work, but when friends came over it was a zoo.

oldcoatrack
The old coat rack. Hat and shades to show scale.

I started my project nearly a year ago over at Drake Wood Milling. In the “forest products” area of Mammoth’s industrial area, I left a couple of unanswered voicemails and eventually just hung around like a poltergeist in the typical uncomfortable and socially awkward setting that is industrial work areas.

Any sailors know what it’s like to walk around in a boat yard. Sure, it might be your boat on the straps and your money paying the invoice but basically you’re a nuisance and everyone wants you to leave.

Once I met Bob Drake though he couldn’t have been any more helpful or fair. We picked out a slab of wood with “living edges” and chopped it to size.

drakewoodproducts
Bob Drake doing his thing on my future coat rack.

The slab I got was roughly 70″ long and 30″ wide, although the width fluctuates due to the natural variability of the trunk. I wanted the bark edges because they look dope as hell but had to figure out a way to treat them.

I opted for Ace’s spray-on clear polyurethane to hit the bark on the sides and Minwax’s Polycrylic for the exposed wood. It doesn’t really have to deal with UV, but it does have to deal with abrasion. I wanted something physically durable, shows the natural wood, that can be easily touched up, cleaned with water, and if I re-apply in the house won’t gas off xylene.

templatewall
My template (and drill) on the wall.

The damn thing weighed over 100 pounds and could easily have another 50 with stuff hanging off so it needed to be ridiculously secure. I took a cardboard box, split it down the middle, and used it for my template. Pilot holes went into the studs which were the conventional 16″ spacing.

templatewood
Moving a piece of cardboard around is much easier than moving a 100lb slab of wood.

The real pro-tip I’d have for anyone doing this is to consider the fasteners. I opted for bolt-head 3/8″ lag screws with 1″ OD washers, counter-sunk using a 1″ spade paddle bit. Reverse the paddle bit for the first centimeter or so to keep chunking to a minimum, then advance slowly with minimal pressure, doing maybe a single revolution in forward then back to reverse.

But start those holes with a small (~1/4″) bit (the same one you used on the studs). The spade bits need that small hole to act as a pilot. Until the countersunk 1″ holes are in, the pilot holes exit the back of the wood, and the small pilot holes are in the studs, don’t reach for your big bit that will actually accommodate the real screws.

bighonkingscrews
1″ OD washers not pictured. These bad boys aren’t going anywhere, and while pulling it off to repaint the wall won’t be fun it’s certainly designed to do so. 3/8″ x 5″ 

Once on the wall, I had massive 1″ holes staring at me where the bolts and washers were exposed. I grabbed the fasteners and finish products from the local Ace, but the Do-It-Center had the 1″ plugs that I was lucky enough to be able to pound in. A few coats of finish on them, start them in the holes, a piece of sacrificial wood over them flat, and then pound. To remove and re-access the fasteners rock a < 1″ spade bit after you put a small pilot hole, then break them apart.

holesinwoodnotplugged
On the bottom left there, sort of in the middle of the shot you can see one of the eight 1″ holes countersunk in.

For hooks and exposed hardware I wanted to stick with the rustic thing and fell in love with bent railroad ties. They’re recycled from old railroad lines and hand-bent by small craftsmen. We eventually settled on some local-ish hand forged iron deer figures for our shades and keys.

hooksoptionsrailroadties
It’s amazing how much work can go into making something look like no work was put into it at all.

Our shoe organizers are mounted underneath the coat rack (not pictured), so my next project might be to mount some small fans in the top which will circulate air up to the coats and hats hanging around. Something dripping with caked snow still belongs over by the heater but some air circulation blowing on the coat rack should help things considerably. The same low noise muffin fan I used for my boot-glove-stuff dryer will probably get enlisted.

So hopefully that gives you some ideas if you’re looking to build a coat rack of your own, especially if a massive assortment of winter gear is par for the course.

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summer vs winter

Summer finally got started a couple of weeks ago in early August. The insane 16/17 snowpack left much of the High Sierras covered in snow all the way through July and the melting snow created happy breeding grounds for mosquitoes. When not sliding on hardpack snow you were getting eaten alive by bugs: party time.

But no matter: I could still go for a run, ride my bike, climb a rock, and drive off road. These things and many like them are laughable pursuits mid-winter. There’s a lot to be said for just hopping in your car and driving away, without thinking about warming it up, scraping ice, timing the snow plows, and digging. The digging never stops.

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Super cool part of living in Mammoth: “going out for a walk” looks like this.

But just like that, the thermostat space heater in my office clicked on the other morning. Instead of having our bedroom window wide open at nights it’s been slowly closing more and more until last night when (with three blankets) I woke up cold and shut it completely. Pellet prices go up in a month. There’s less than 90 days until Mammoth opens for skiing/boarding. In short: #WinterIsComing.

And winter is a pain in the ass, don’t get me wrong. Everything is harder. Your hands are in gloves nearly all the time so doing any kind of detailed work outside (automotive, construction, etc) is brought to a halt. Travel schedules get blown out, and portions of your home (like a deck or yard) become effectively off limits.

But with that comes simplicity as well. Armed with a season pass, a board, and some insulated clothes I can spend copious amounts of free time shredding. With my new splitboard this year and snowmobiles (cool kids call them sleds) for sar I need to qualify on, there is a lot to do. The days are shorter and the activity options reduced so “lazy summer days” are a thing of the past. It’s time to hustle either to stay alive (pellets, shoveling, driving and not dying) or time to hustle to enjoy life.

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Winter. One night did this.

When you walk out and see your truck sitting there looking like the above, and you have a list of a few things that need to get done that day, things get very straight forward.

I had a friend who told me that people who live in far northern (and far southern) climates tend to be harder working and more industrious than our more equatorial and horse-latitude dwelling brethren. The idea being that in areas with harsher seasons you have to figure out your winter plans and equip yourself during the summer or you simply won’t live to see spring. Conversely in a more mild climate you can get still go out mid winter and find some food, plus you won’t freeze to death.

Obviously modern society has negated this a bit and not a lot of folks are dropping dead in our mountain town of malnourishment. The Donner Party excluded, the rest of us can find something to eat at Vons.

I’ve been reluctant to write about the 16/17 winter because of how powerful it was and like a victim of abuse every cloud still makes me jumpy imagining three feet of snow is about to drop. Not knowing what’s in store for next winter is part of the fun: will it be another snowpocalypse, fueled by some new twist of climate change? Or will we get barely any snow and my cool snowgear will just collect dust as I lament the snow-less terrain.

Stay tuned.

i don’t like heights, just to be honest with you

There’s an inherent problem with fear-of-heights (acrophobia) and mountain rescue. Like a lifeguard who’s afraid of water, there exists a constant and underlying carrier signal that ranges from slight anxiety to full fledged terror. Interestingly enough I’ve met a lot of climbers who only got into vertical pursuits because they were afraid of heights.

Exposure therapy can be done in a clinical setting under the guidance of a skilled practitioner or you can just DIY the goddamn thing. Like home surgery it may not work out well all the time but you can’t knock the sense of accomplishment when you pull it off successfully. Chalk it up to the many cases of things that work out well for you but that you may not advise others to do themselves.

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A view from my harness as I dangle on the edge of a cliff.

So when I got tapped in rescue training the other day for “edge”, I had the dueling voices in my head:

  • Voice A, my helpful voice, the angel on my shoulder: “This is great, you’re around expert climbers and riggers, you know all your system components yourself, and you’re going to get exposure and show yourself that you know how to do it.”
  • Voice B, my other-than-helpful-voice, the coward on my shoulder: “HOLY SHIT NO YOU’RE GOING TO DIE WTF ARE YOU THINKING!?!?!?!?!”

I nodded at my instructor, “Got it, edge.” For those not in the know, “edge” basically means you hang out near, on, and sort-of-but-not-really-over the cliff edge. Rarely are “edges” a clear delineating 90 degrees, hence the vagueness. People up higher who aren’t in the “hot” or “death” zone as it’s affectionately called can be unroped, but “edge” needs to be properly able to move around, securely, while ensuring a nice, happy, and safe environment in the aforementioned “death” or “hot” zone. Terms clearly used to remind you that a single careless act will, not could, result in your untimely expiration.

These days, I’ve found it best to not think about the scary stuff. The old expression of “don’t look down” is well intentioned but unrealistic. Better for me is “look at the task at hand and things you need to pay attention to.” That gives me a focal point and objectives so I keep my mind occupied in a constructive capacity.

Like telling someone to think of anything other than an elephant, instantly they think of an elephant. I’ve needed to scrape the whole concept of “down” out of my mind and fill it with anchors, edge protection, patient comfort and safety, and kilonewtons. Randomly tapping on my carabiner gates to ensure that yes, just like thirty seconds ago, they’re still locked.

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Yeah, I really didn’t like doing this either. Solo skydiving is no longer an activity I voluntarily participate in.

I’m still a scaredy cat around heights and have very little desire to intentionally place myself in harm’s way. Gravity never sleeps and the minute you screw up Newtonian physics is there to turn you into a mushy pile of goo at the bottom of whatever you’re on top of. Ladders, roofs, mountains, ski lifts: we should all do these wide eyed, knowing that better people have died doing the same.

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Shoveling the roof, thirty feet in the air, on top of snow and ice. Mid winter, 2016/2017.

But I’ve tried to replace that fear with more helpful things. The other day I tied some bowlines in an old 8mm rope and had some fun. Secure one end to a big rock and the other to my truck’s 8,000lb winch, I had a go at it. Then I did the same with a dynamic load by having it tied off to my truck’s rear bumper as I drove away. Faster and faster until eventually it broke. It might sound dumb, but now I know my properly-tied-tail-inside-double-bowline on 8mm from GM climbing will hold me. There’s more parts to the system to verify (anchors, harness, etc), but piece by piece we can build confidence.

In rescue world, we have dedicated safety officers who are inspecting all the equipment that you can’t see yourself, monitoring for loosening, chafe, and the such. Once you get to know the system, you can start drilling into the component parts a bit more. Coupling all that knowledge with the mental discipline to never even think of the “down” word, one can at least occupy their mind with other things. Things that are productive, helpful, and genuinely reduce the risk of you turning into a human pancake hundreds of feet below.

And then when on flat and wonderful ground again you can shake your head at all these stupid vertical objects on our world and go sit on the couch, where god intended us to be all along.

 

time is the enemy: ischemia and infarction

In many wilderness medicine curriculums a core area of focus is distal CSM. Distal being “away” (in this context from the heart) and CSM being circulation, sensation, and movement. Blood and nerves tend to be wires hanging out in the same conduit throughout your body, collectively known as neurovascular bundles. Slice one and the results are clear: blood pours out and everything south of the severed nerves now has no feeling and muscles don’t work. Pretty terrible. Definitely something to avoid.

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The yellow and red stuff makes it so you get blood, can move muscles, and feel things. You generally don’t want to have that get trashed.

In wilderness medicine you additionally have to deal with those neurovascular bundles getting pinched or squeezed. Even something as common as a dislocation, definitely something with lots of trauma (like a fall) that jammed a bone into some weird position, can now be putting sufficient force on blood and nerves that it went from a nuisance problem potentially life threatening.

In search and rescue, time is always against you. Consider a typical situation:

  1. Someone slips on a rock when backpacking and plants their next foot into a hole, bending their ankle in a way that baby jesus never intended it to move. It’s now 0800 just after breakfast.
  2. The patient tries to move around a bit and see how bad it is. Yep, it hurts like hell. They confer with their friends and decide there’s no way they can walk out. They need help. It’s now 0815.
  3. The friends get to a mountaintop where they can get a cell signal out and call 911, explaining the situation. It’s now 1130.
  4. Search and rescue gets mobilized and a helicopter is put on alert status. 1140.
  5. SAR is staging at the trailhead a few miles from the patient, packing the right gear. The helicopter has been re-assigned to a case of massive head trauma. No chopper today. 1200.

I’ll stop there as even before the first boot step moves in the patient’s direction four hours has already elapsed. You can chop that time down by having a $250 satellite communicator (and $15/month service plan), but it’s still going to take a while for folks to get to that patient and really this article is written towards the folks providing that medical care.

DelormeInReach
My preferred satellite communication device these days. GPS, bad-but-useable text messaging, tracking with a map folks at home can see, an SOS feature, and a good amount of battery life.

My training has taught me that infarction (tissue death) happens within about two hours. It’s not the same for all tissues, but for the arms/legs/hands/feet I go with 120 minutes. Pinch that blood supply off for that length of time and the tissue distal from it is deader than Firefly.

Fortunately ischemia (restriction of blood flow) is typically not an all-or-nothing thing. A bone jammed up against a tube of moving blood might block it a little, a bit, a bunch, or entirely. Think of having a plastic bag over your head versus one with a small hole in it. With the sealed plastic bag, you’re pretty dead pretty fast. With the small hole in, you can eek out a few more moments of life. The more restriction, the bigger the problem. So maybe you’ve got more than two hours since the ischemia might not be so complete. That’s hardly wonderful news since rescue response times can be all over the map with “a few hours” being optimal if the patient’s position is known, authorities were alerted immediately, and the terrain is not too difficult. If a patient’s location is unknown, response times to the tune of days is not uncommon.

And then you have transport time, which of course is wildly dependent upon terrain, the patient’s injuries, available air assets, and the size and ability of the ground crew.

Time is the enemy in other ways as well. Hypothermia in some climates, hyperthermia in others. Increasing intracranial pressure, HAPE, HACE, and a host of other problems get worse the longer they are left untreated. And generally by the nature of the operation you can assume they already have gone untreated for a prolonged period of time. With some exceptions, a properly trained wilderness medical provider can slow or even reverse many of these life threatening conditions.

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There’s nothing easy about transport.

By constantly remembering the impact of time on our patients, both before we got there and after they are in our care, we can do several things:

  • Shorten the list of serious problems that higher levels of medical care need to focus on. Instead of clinical moderate hypothermia, a patient now might simply want a second blanket on arrival to the hospital due to your interventions.
  • Save a limb. The next time you hug a loved one or stand on two feet, imagine not being able to do that quite so easily. By ensuring proper perfusion our patients can fully live out their lives.
  • Provide more insight to higher levels of care. If our attempts at providing perfusion are inadequate (perhaps through manual alignment in accordance with your training and agency protocols), it’s a clear signal that other issues such as acute compartment syndrome might be at play.
  • Slice and dice between the the original chief complaint (an unstable and painful ankle) and new issues such as dehydration and heat illness from laying in an unshaded spot because of the ankle.

One way that time can be somewhat of your accomplice if not outright friendly:  keep track of things you may want to do during transport and execute them when appropriate. If a belay needs to be rigged, take some vitals. If the litter team is scouting a route, toss in some more heat packs.

And although an entirely separate conversation, haste can also be your enemy. Rigging a belay takes time, but is obviously better for the patient than chucking him or her down a cliff. We want to move fast, but only as fast as safety and the patient’s interests will allow.

Going back to the example of the injured ankle, if the ground team gets there at nightfall and a storm sets in, if perfusion isn’t an issue and there’s no immediate need of extraction would be it safer to set up camp for the night, wait out the weather, and then proceed with daylight and dry footing 12 hours later when potentially more rescuers are available as well? That’s a very big question and can’t be answered in a hypothetical: much more information is needed that only a real scenario would be able to address. I only bring it up to to balance against rapid transport as a rule, rather than a probable option.

My writing is commentary on my training and personal experience. I try as often as I can to discuss patient care with medical teams I interact with in order to learn where I can improve and provide better outcomes. Please don’t substitute my writing for comprehensive and recognized medical training.

 

 

hartley springs campground

With five sar missions in the last week, I left town (and cell service) for the weekend. Destination: Hartley Springs Campground. Located about 20 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes the decided (as best I’ve been able to tell) lack of a “spring” is the reason I wanted to go there. The intense 16/17 winter has left snow everywhere, even in July. Much of it will stick around until next summer. With that snow is melt, and with that melt is water. Combine warm summer air and you get mosquitoes: lots and lots of mosquitoes.

I can handle mosquitoes but purposefully putting myself into the midsts of clouds of them is insane. Yes, I know about permethrin and DEET. I use a tent. I have coils. But “managing” mosquitoes for a weekend is tolerable but best avoided altogether.

hartleysprings
Our little slice of paradise, at Hartley Springs Campground.

Not only is there no natural water in Hartley Springs Campground, but there’s also no plumbed water: you need to bring all your own. There’s also no trash cans, no bear boxes, and no real anything. Some porta-potties, picnic tables, and a fire ring is about as fancy as it gets. The upshot is that it’s free to stay there and maybe 10 minutes from June Lake (20 from Mammoth Lakes) if you forget anything or just want to buzz into town for a bit.

It was also packed: we got the last spot when we showed up on a Friday around 4pm. It’s a haven for dirt bikers and 4x4s as well, so expect lots of poorly muffled exhausts blaring around you. Not in a horribly obnoxious way, but definitely in a you’ll-know-you’re-around-dirt-bikes sort of way.

rigging
In my sar pack I need to carry webbing, carabiners, and 50 of 8mm. Apparently that and a milk crate allowed me to set up swings and with my winch a zip line.

Verizon has a bit of coverage there, but no dice for AT&T. We had come through here a couple of months ago and there were little snow patches around so I safely bet that by now it should be bone dry and indeed not a single mosquito was found.

So especially in the non zany busy season if you’re looking for a free campground and can handle your own water and trash, give Hartley Springs a once-over. There’s a bit of dirt roading to do on the way in, perhaps a passenger car might have a tough go of it, but any AWD should be fine. I think I saw a couple 2wd passenger cars; I’d certainly give it a shot. If you do go up in a 2wd perhaps stick to a busier time period so that if you get stuck there’s a high likelihood that someone can help you out.

WFR vs WEMT (Wilderness First Responder vs Wilderness EMT) for search and rescue

As I study my WEMT material, I’m pondering the differences between the two courses thus far. Currently a WFR, I’m headed up to Alaska in the fall for a multi-week WEMT course. Sleeping in a bunkhouse with my other classmates, on a somewhat remote Alaskan island (population 741), I’ll have 8am-8pm class 6 days a week, in addition to the months of material I’ve had to go over in advance (doing it now) and the WFR I needed just to register.

 

I started writing a whole primer on the various levels of wilderness medicine but I deleted it all as the topic is huge. Instead, I’ll try something new and focus on the title: WFR vs WEMT, specifically for search and rescue folks.

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WFR is the books on the right. WEMT is the books on the left *and* the books on the right.

WildernessFirstResponder

Coming in with roughly ~100 hours of training is the Wilderness First Responder, or WFR, pronounced “woof-er”. This swiss army knife of wilderness medical response is the expected level of quality sar team members and outdoor guides need.

  • Laser beam focused on the task and environment. You’ll learn nothing about ambulance gear because hey: there’s no ambulances in the wilderness.
  • While still a multi-week time commitment it’s possible for most normal people to figure out a way to pay for it and take the time off.
  • Available in a lot of parts of the world.
  • Fairly uncomplicated focus on critical system stability. Identify and treat the things that are field manageable, identify and prioritize transport for the things that need higher levels of care.
  • By being able to dismiss the urban setting and ambulance (or better) equipment, things get simple pretty fast.
  • You are not operating under an agency’s medical direction so your protocols (reducing dislocations, clearing spines, administering epinephrine, stopping CPR, and declaring dead people dead) is actually much more than an EMT would be able to do provided you’re in a wilderness context (typically defined as two or more hours from definitive care).

wemtpatch

Coming in with roughly ~200 hours of training (tack on another 100 for the WFR you generally need to take the course) is the funky WEMT or EMT+W. It’s basically an EMT+B with special focus given to non-ambulance gear and prolonged care and life support in an austere environment.

  • You can have way more patient exposure if you want it. As an EMT-B you can be treated like shit and underpaid riding around in ambulances with horrible working hours. But hey, it’s work and more importantly it’s experience.
  • On a SAR team you’ll probably be the, or at least one of, the primary medical providers as WEMT is a rare designator that few people trot around with. Again, experience.
  • You can expand your reach by riding ambulances, joining (typically smaller) fire agencies, and even working in hospitals or at a local physician’s office.
  • With all that experience, you can move towards being a paramedic (EMT-P) if that suits you and you have the time/money.
  • You’ll understand more of what’s going on with your patients at a physiological level and have a broader understanding of chronic and acute disease.

The real benefits for WEMT comes down to experience and advancement. Working as an EMT-B sucks for most people. You’ll make roughly $12/hour, which is what I currently pay my babysitter and she sits around watching Netflix not dealing with death around the clock. Even paramedics make roughly $17/hour, and that’s after spending $10,000 – $20,000 to go to paramedic school and after having worked as an EMT making peanuts long enough to get the experience to even apply to paramedic school.

All that being said, your ability to gain experience and advancement as a WFR is basically zero, strictly from a medical perspective. You’ll be limited to the patient contact you have in SAR which can be pretty thin. Also, you’re hogging it and not letting others on your team drink from the firehose that is the primary medical provider role.

It was explained to me when I got my USCG Captain’s License: this means you can do the job, you don’t get good at it until you’ve done it a lot. When you first get your driver’s license you’re a terrible driver. It’s the years of driving experience on top of the license that make you decent. The same goes with all skills including medicine.

Captains with a license but not a lot of time running commercial ships are referred to as “paper captains” on the waterfront: it’s not a term of endearment. Whether it’s driving a car, flying a kite, or diagnosing hypovolemia you are better at it the more you do it.

wemt
Typical SAR work. You’re a long way from an ambulance.

Search and rescue is basically an all volunteer system, as it always has been. Going back to 1000AD, search and rescue is a side gig. And in a big way, that’s what makes it so great. Everyone is taking time away from their families, taking time off work, and prioritizing helping others. I heard a joke the other day that to get into sar you need to take the psychological test, and fail it. Getting a chance to work with these outstanding people is a privilege. And of course it is a privilege and not a right to treat a patient when they are in one of the scariest moments of their life.

Everyone in sar needs to make the decisions for themselves as to how far “good enough” is. Perhaps because I’m a bad climber, middle of the road tracker, and crummy mountaineer I think my medical skills are where I can do the most good. It’s not lost on me that my own daughter’s life was saved by a sar team’s medical chops.

If you’re a WFR and keep your skills sharp, I’ll work with you anytime. I’ve seen firsthand a WFR keep someone alive for hours in a jacked up situation before evacuation could occur. If you’re a WFR and want to get more time with patients and perhaps go onto other aspects of medicine short of nursing or doctoring, consider the WEMT route.

 

the evolution of my sar packing

Mono Search and Rescue got called a few days in the early afternoon and we finished up around 0500 the next day: roughly 14 hours of humping and pumping through ice and snow, waiting around, treating patients, and rigging rescue lines/anchors/stuff. After some sleep I checked the back of my truck:

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Rat’s nest of line, wet gloves, dirty socks, dirty gaiters, consumed medical gear.

SAR packing seems to be based around three key concepts: mandatory, optional, and spare capacity.

Mandatory Gear

Bivy sack, head lamp, dry socks, and things of that nature: stuff that you’re going to carry no matter what. Most of those items are specified by my team but I toss a couple of my own in there too. I’m sort of a dork so I wear my helmet to almost anything except blazing sun mid-day and my own medical go-bag.

All of this stuff is in my pack, ready to go.

Optional Gear

Next to my pack is a milk crate full of optional items. My tent (as opposed to my tiny bivy), my backpacking cooking gear, crampons, snow shovel, helicopter goggles, etc.

The reality is that I can’t bring everything you’d ever want so on a operation-by-operation basis an educated guess is made. Headed to the desert? Extra water. Headed up a snowy mountain? Snow anchors.

Spare Capacity

Another reason you can’t load up on everything you want from your own gear is that team gear has to be lugged out as well. The litter, oxygen tanks, vacuum splints, long ropes, and all nature of climbing and medical equipment beyond your personal gear needs to head out as well.

And remember that you need to balance all of that with the fact that the more you’re lugging the slower you go and the less nimble you are. With more gear you get to your patient(s) slower and your agility at transporting them out is reduced.

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Cleaned up, ready to go. Mandatory in the bag, optional and clothes in the crate. Down bag de-compressed and puffy.

I’m still relatively new in my SAR career so I imagine I’ll be learning and refining as I go. And then there’s winter, which in a place like Mammoth really goes haywire. My own personal gear is much bigger, overnight gear is bigger, and between skis/boots/crampons/splitboard/snowshoes it’s tricky as hell to walk around.

camping along the mojave road

Another entry in my #MojaveRoad series because I’m too lazy to write it all down at once (original article here).

One thing I really dug about this trip was how free form the whole thing was. It reminded me a lot of sailing in the sense that with all that self sufficiency comes freedom. We planned on two nights near the Colorado River to meet up and start but after that it was an open road: think Thelma & Louise minus the ending.

Big Bend of the Colorado

Since I was coming from Mammoth and my buddy from San Diego, we met up near the starting point of the Mojave Road at the Big Bend of the Colorado, a Nevada state park with camping situated on the Colorado River.

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We got to hang out in the river for a bit before mid day when we all got heat sickness.

It’s not a terrible campground, but it’s definitely a utility locale. It was expensive, bland, and you could hear engine brakes from the nearby highway. Oddly far from most businesses it was still unfortunately suburban at the same time. The bathrooms were clean and it’s super close to the start of the Mojave Road so there’s that.

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My friend and I trying not to die from the heat and doing some route planning at Big Bend of the Colorado, Nevada State Park.

Mid Hills Campground

Our handy dandy (and extremely over detailed) Mojave Road guide mentioned numerous camping sites but they all had one thing in common: no camping signs.

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This sign or several like it can be found at every location mentioned by the guide as “a good place to camp.”

We actually found a really cool place on our own but there was a huge pile of dead squirrels on it. Who brought the carnage? Beats me. I was fine with staying there and just parking a truck on top of the gore: out of sight, out of mind. My friend’s wife was a voice of reason however and we moved on. And lucky we did, because we found our way to Mid Hills Campground. With potable water, firepits, a picnic table, and a 5,000 foot elevation to keep things cool it was a great idea for the $12 nightly fee.

Mid Hills is also roughly smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Road and easily accessible in one night from the Colorado River in a day provided you aren’t stopping to smell every non existent flower.

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Dinner at Mid Hills campground, somewhere in the desert at 5,000 feet: note the juniper trees in the background.
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My buddy and his son, Mid Hills Campground. It really was a welcome break from the lowland desert valley.

From Mid Hills, we shot back onto the Mojave Road and quickly realized that we were probably okay on gasoline. It should be noted that probably being okay whilst in the middle of bum-fuck-egypt means you’re not really okay.

So we made a pit stop in Baker, California. I hope I do not offend any of Baker’s 745 residents by saying that there wasn’t much going on. And although it took us out of the wilderness a bit, there are practical matters to attend to (like ice and fuel), and additionally if the original Mojave Road pioneers had a Taco Bell up in Baker you can bet your ass they would have hit it up.

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Baker has ice, fuel, a Taco Bell, motel, two auto shops, and other travel stuff.

Fast forward maybe 100 miles from Baker, back on the Mojave Road: a couple of river crossings, a dry lake bed you can do donuts in, and the rock travel monument thing. We made it! We’re done, at least to where most people stop as the road technically continues on for another 11 miles.

Afton Canyon Campground, California

For most people Afton Canyon represents the end (or the beginning, if headed west-to-east) of the line, and as such the Afton Canyon Campground is a perfect spot to hang your filthy sun hat. Tables with awnings, potable water, and non-horrible toilets make this place functionally cool but the nearly constant rumble of freight trains and amazing scenery make it more than that.

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Afton Canyon Campground is a bit like being on Mars in the best way possible. The constant freight trains, the desolation, and the scenery makes the place pretty amazing.

The problem of course is that it’s eight million degrees there so unless you enjoy dying slowly of hyperthermia I think you’ll make your time here brief. Perhaps in the winter it’s a very different story: I checked the forecast for tomorrow (June 27) and it’s 109f.

As a final note, remember that the desert is weird. The alpine forests tend to have a mountaineer-ish vibe, and beaches have a chilled out vibe. Deserts just have a weird vibe. I’ve lived on the Sea of Cortez (including the summer), Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California: I’m familiar with deserts. There’s a certain kind of person who arrives at these hells-on-earth and sees them as a paradise. I can appreciate the desert for what it is but that’s a far cry from wanting to exist there long term.

Keep your wits about you. Someone killed all those squirrels and left their piled up corpses in the middle of an otherwise nice camping area. Could it have happened up here in Mammoth or down in San Diego? Maybe, but it didn’t. It happened on the Mojave Road and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

maps for the mammoth / june / eastern sierra (mono/inyo/yosemite)

I looked at my rather beefy selection of local maps and thought it might help some others figure out what they could use. For reference, here’s a link to the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center.

For anyone looking to explore the area a bit via their computer, check out CalTopo if you haven’t before. CalTopo also gives you some awesome route planning options and you can print out your maps from home (for free).

Have fun and be safe!