ADVENTURE 004: BACKPACKING THE GRAND CANYON'S NORTH RIM

A couple weeks ago, we had the opportunity to spend a week exploring the Grand Canyon. Originally, we sought out a permit along the main rim to rim trail, leaving from the South Kaibab Trailhead and traveling due north along Bright Angel Canyon. This is the most popular way to experience the Grand Canyon in a backcountry setting. It's the way all of the ultra-runners do it, and it obviously attracts countless tourists.

Needless to say we failed to obtain this permit, as this was our first time working through the Grand Canyon's Backcountry Office, and there's a bit of learning curve. BTW, hit us up if you're looking for guidance on obtaining permits and we can help you avoid some (but not all) of the faxing and headaches. 

So, we called an audible and decided on something a little more remote, namely, the Deer Creek, Thunder River Loop, and we couldn't have been more impressed. Thanks for the reccomendation, Jim! As the photos below will show this was much more remote and minimally trafficked, while also serving as a more technically challenging hike. 

We'll forgo walking you through the trip leg by leg as there's plenty of good blog posts out there (see: Backpacker Magazine's writeup and the REI Co-Op blog post). As a quick summary, this loop will take you past steep slot canyons, epic water falls, clear blue swimming holes, beach campsites, and of course, no shortage of unbelievable canyon views. 

Now for the photos...

Car camping before the hike in. You can drive right up to the edge, no permit required.

Car camping before the hike in. You can drive right up to the edge, no permit required.

Beginning our hike down into the Canyon, which unfolds much more gradually here, without losing any of its dramatic effect.

Beginning our hike down into the Canyon, which unfolds much more gradually here, without losing any of its dramatic effect.

The edge of the Esplanade and our first glimpse of the Colorado River off in the distance.

The edge of the Esplanade and our first glimpse of the Colorado River off in the distance.

Emerging on to the Colorado River at the end of our second day of hiking. Rafters congregate below. Make friends and they may offer you a cold beer. 

Emerging on to the Colorado River at the end of our second day of hiking. Rafters congregate below. Make friends and they may offer you a cold beer. 

A well deserved swim at Deer Creek Falls.

A well deserved swim at Deer Creek Falls.

Our 90 LEFT hats kept us looking somewhat fresh despite not showering for 5 days. Its one of the things they excel at.

Our 90 LEFT hats kept us looking somewhat fresh despite not showering for 5 days. Its one of the things they excel at.

Enjoying a brief bit of sunshine before the rains as we hike from Deer Creek to Lower Tapeats, situated at the Granite Narrows, the narrowest part of the entire Grand Canyon.

Enjoying a brief bit of sunshine before the rains as we hike from Deer Creek to Lower Tapeats, situated at the Granite Narrows, the narrowest part of the entire Grand Canyon.

View from our campsite at Lower Tapeats. The following day we would opt to hike from the canyon floor, up 5,000+ feet to the upper rim, a long but rewarding hike. Cold beers and sopressa being the motivation.

View from our campsite at Lower Tapeats. The following day we would opt to hike from the canyon floor, up 5,000+ feet to the upper rim, a long but rewarding hike. Cold beers and sopressa being the motivation.

ADVENTURE 003: WINTER IN THE WRANGELLS

This spring has thrown us a curveball and instead of skiing deep in the Chugach day after day, we have been forced to find new adventures until the conditions improve.  Trying to find a route to the Bagley Icefield had been on the mind for a few years, and we wanted to give it a shot. 

 

Castle Peak and the edge of Blackburn catching the last of the evening light.

Castle Peak and the edge of Blackburn catching the last of the evening light.

The gang throwing rocks off the trestle bridge on the McCarthy Road

The gang throwing rocks off the trestle bridge on the McCarthy Road

Getting to McCarthy in the winter is an adventure in and of itself, with 60 miles of roughly maintained, unpaved road.  We rode in old trucks pulling trailers with sleds, which made the numerous ice sheets of overflow even more exciting.

We got all sorts of information from the McCarthy locals, who were amazingly welcoming and supportive of our crazy ideas. The first day was a test run and gas drop.  We cruised out on our intended route until our gas gauges read half tank, dropped gas, and rode back to our cabin in McCarthy.  We needed more gas, and luckily we found some in McCarthy since the closest gas station was 90 miles away.  

Cruising back to McCarthy from our gas drop.

Cruising back to McCarthy from our gas drop.

That night we packed up all our camping gear and more gas.  We were planning on staying in a backcountry cabin for the next few nights, but we were a little nervous about the temperatures hovering around -5.  Would we find the cabin? What kind of shape would it be in? Could we get any firewood into the alpine where the hut was located?  If not, it was going to be a chilly few nights.

Packing up outside of the McCarthy B&B next to the owner John's experimental plane. 

Packing up outside of the McCarthy B&B next to the owner John's experimental plane. 

Lesley using her over packed sled as a lounge chair.

Lesley using her over packed sled as a lounge chair.

After 50 miles and almost a full day of exciting backcountry riding, the hut was in sight, and we didn't have to bivy.  Spirits were high, and tree line was only 5 miles down valley from the hut, so firewood was the priority before it got dark.   

Cutting up the trees we drug behind our sleds.

Cutting up the trees we drug behind our sleds.

The hut was incredible, full of tons of antiques from gold mining in the early 1900's.  It didn't take us long to settle in, starting a fire and setting up old cots for everyone. 

The next day was supposed to be a long day of riding, putting us on glaciers and if everything went our way, the Bagley Icefied.  After hours and many attempts of trying to push through the last crux, we called it.  The route was too bushy, and too steep.  We settled on spending the afternoon in the sunshine on a high ridge talking about the plan for next time.

The crew basking in the sun and taking in the endless view.

The crew basking in the sun and taking in the endless view.

Everyone in our group is drawn to the power of the unknown and that's exactly what the Wrangells provided.    I could not have asked for a better group of people to share this experience.  Oh, and the barrel stove might have been my favorite part of this expedition, with the wind chill values around -35 I am not sure I would have reflected so positively on the trip without it.  

The end goal was ambitious, and the fact that we did not reach it did not matter.  The trip was full of good characters, amazing adventure and it left us with something to look forward to.  We will try again.  We will get there, maybe next week, next month, or not until next year.  

Our final night, cold and clear,  in the Wrangells.

Our final night, cold and clear,  in the Wrangells.

THE GODFATHERS OF THE HAT GAME

Interior shot of the Bollman Hat Co. taken by hypebeast.com

In starting a business we can't help but study those that have come before us. Whether hat companies or businesses in unrelated industries there's so much to learn from the success of others. This type of investigation creates a lot of excitement (perhaps even delusions) about what's possible. But, one story stands out to us as being particularly interesting and worth sharing. And, that's a recent one about the Bollman Hat Company.

Founded in 1868 (Andrew Johnson was President), Bollman is the oldest hat maker in America, based not too far from a place where one of us grew up in Amish Country Pennsylvania. Bollman hats have been worn by everyone from Run DMC and Eminem to Michael Jordan and Pete Townshed. Simply stated, they are the godfathers of the hat game, which makes them worth a closer look.  

Of particular interest in this story is the fact that Bollman has long held the rights to manufacturing Kangol hats, the ones you’ve seen Samuel L. Jackson and countless other superstars wearing for years. Since the 1930s, the hats were produced in England, but like most things, production had to be moved to China to remain competitive.

At some point in the early 2000s, the Chinese factory that made these hats shut down and the extremely expensive, custom machines integral to the production of Kangol hats were set to be sold. The folks at Bollman saw an opportunity...

The almost 150 year old company launched a Kickstarter campaign (supported by Samuel L. Jackson himself) to raise a small portion of the funds necessary to buy the machinery, ship it to the U.S. and begin making Kangol hats in the United States at a new factory in Adamstown, Pennsylvania.

The campaign was a success drawing support from fans of everything from Kangol itself to those with a belief in the merits of U.S. manufacturing. But, it didn’t end there. The campaign drew interest from numerous businesses and organizations that wanted to help.

For example, the nearby Dogfish Head Brewing company struck a deal with Bollman to secure the naming rights of this new factory space. The collaboration also involved the creation of a Dogfish Head Kangol hat and a Kangol-inspired English-style IPA, known as “Sir Hops-a-Lot.”

Bollman Hat Co. CEO Don Rongione posing with the newly acquired sewing machines. Photo by Richard Hertzler, Bollman staff photographer.

There's a lot of things that we looked upon with deep admiration when we first heard this story, not the least of which is a 150 year old company using Kickstarter to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. (slow clap).

But, at the heart of all of it is this: the courage to do things differently and the willingness to assume the risks that come with being unconventional.

We started making hats, first and foremost, because we absolutely love them. If you don’t believe us, check out one of our co-founder, Louise’s, house in Alaska. Seriously, you should go see her. She’s an incredible host. Most people hang art on the walls. Louise hangs hats. And, if you ever see her staring longingly in your direction, it’s not your charming good looks. It’s probably because you’re rocking a pretty sweet hat. And, good for you. She’s got excellent taste.

But, the more we thought about it, the more we realized hats could be so much more. At their core, hats are a super visible means of communicating the things in life that matter to us. For some, that’s a sports team or a brand of some kind. But, for Hanna, Louise and myself, that’s the mountains and everything they represent.

Our hats allow those who share our passion for the outdoors to take it with them wherever they go. A little reminder for the wearer and anyone they encounter, of what’s waiting beyond life’s many distractions.

More personally, this endeavor will push us to explore our own connection to nature and our indescribable drive to venture further and higher. It is this drive that is the basis for this company (to put it generously).

All of this may seem a bit lofty for a group of dreamers that print mountains on hats and you're not wrong. But, why not aim high? Ridiculously high. Not in our perceived success, but in our own understanding and appreciation of the things we hold dear.

It'll be a century or more before we can compare ourselves to a courageous company like Bollman, but we can promise to emulate them; to take risks in our designs, production and all of the fun ways we choose to bring them to you, our adventure-seeking, hat-loving, blog-perusing, fans.

Now, get out there and #FindYourMountain

ADVENTURE 002: EARLY SEASON SKIING GIRDWOOD, ALASKA

Alaska is famous for its amazing spring skiing with tons of snow and huge lines.  But the early season skiing here is quite unique.  Not many people get to experience genuine winter skiing in Alaska.  The beginning of October starts off with over 11 hours between sunrise and sunset dramatically decreasing in December to 5 1/2 hours.  The short days and low sun angle can complicate ski days. 

Many slopes have partial sun on them for just a small window of the day, and most aspects stay in the shade all day.  The area is also prone to severe storms.  It is not uncommon for storms to last weeks, making skiing quite difficult if not impossible.  The past few years, seemingly endless storms have brought insane amounts of rain to the area, sometimes reaching the mountain peaks.  Though the winter conditions can be harsh, when everything lines up, the early season skiing can be the best there is.

Sam getting ready for a ridge walk yesterday at Turnagain Pass.  From the tall peak, it is a 3000’ run to the valley floor (sorry I cut the top off, cell phone and cold hands).  Notice the spine just short of the summit with 2 tracks.

Sam getting ready for a ridge walk yesterday at Turnagain Pass.  From the tall peak, it is a 3000’ run to the valley floor (sorry I cut the top off, cell phone and cold hands).  Notice the spine just short of the summit with 2 tracks.

 If you want it, you can be skiing on glaciers as soon as the first snow falls.  Girdwood is located at sea level, but is surrounded by mountains that jet straight up from the ocean thousands of feet.  This year, we started skiing in late September.  For this early glacier skiing you have to be committed to the long approach.  Backpacks are full of skis, ski boots, lunch and layers making them the heaviest daypacks a person could put together.  After hours of hiking, you finally reach the snow line.  Hiking boots are off and skis and skins are on.  The first few turns of the season feel so good. 

Once there was enough snow this year, we headed to Turnagain Pass so we could ditch the hiking boots and ski from top to bottom.  The pass is at 935’ which is helpful when the snow line isn’t coming all the way down to the ocean.  So far we have had cold temperatures and light dry snow, which has been a nice change from the last couple of winters. 

The conditions have been great for skiing, but have complicated our snowpack as far as avalanche danger goes. Because of the current snowpack, we have been on our toes, exploring new, lower angle zones, and pulling off lines when the conditions weren't right.  It’s a hard thing to do when the snow is so good, and everyone is chomping to ski steeper and bigger lines, but being cautious has been the theme of the month.  So we have just been enjoying being with friends, walking around in the mountains. 

Taking a good look at a run we were hoping ski, but ultimately decided not to.

Taking a good look at a run we were hoping ski, but ultimately decided not to.

Finding some good turns in new zones.

Finding some good turns in new zones.

Early season skiing up here also has the impermeable Alders which grow at lower elevations making approaches and returns quite interesting at times.  For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of hiking through Alders, they are considered a tree, but grow in thick bands and are more like huge bushes.  They are the nemesis of all Alaskan adventurers.  Most people call the activity “Alder bashing”, but I feel like “Alder wrestling” feels a bit more appropriate in my experience.

The other day Sam and I decided to ski out the valley from our run instead of skinning back up and skiing out the skin track.  We ended up doing quite a bit of bushwhacking that evening, and even resorted to taking our skis off and throwing them through Alder fields while post holing and trying to fight through.  Sam says a little Alder bashing is good for me, it builds character and will help me to appreciate all the days that we’re not bushwhacking.  I don’t have a good picture of any legit Alder bashing because taking a picture is not the first thing on my mind usually.  But here are a few photos to give you an idea of what the Alder fields look like.

Also, in the lower elevations, approaches can quickly be complicated by open creek crossings.  Nothing more exciting than trying to cross a skinny, ice covered log bridge in ski boots.  It can be an easy way to end the day early.  Luckily, I’ve stayed out of the water so far this year.

In Alaska, flat light is something we struggle with all season.  A lot of our skiing is done above tree line, which provides very little depth perception when it is cloudy.  On foggy or stormy days, tree skiing is ideal, but we have very little good tree skiing in the area, especially in the early season.  If you’re lucky, like me, you have a ski partner willing to drop in first on flat light days.  A track down the run provides some reference and contrast and makes it much easier for the next skier.

Waiting at the top  of a run for a "window."

Waiting at the top  of a run for a "window."

Skinning in flat light.

Skinning in flat light.

It’s hard to explain the light this time of year to anyone who has never experienced it.  The days are short and the angle of the sun is low, making for dramatic lighting all day, and seemingly endless sunrises and sunsets.  It’s quite a magical time of year to be up in the mountains.   

Mid day sunshine.

Mid day sunshine.

Catching the last of the alpenglow before skiing down to the car.

Catching the last of the alpenglow before skiing down to the car.

The days are still getting shorter, but the season is on the brink of transitioning from early season to full on winter skiing.  The Alders are all starting to lay down, and the mountains are filling in more and more every day.  Can’t wait for what December has in store for us up here.  Early season can have its difficulties with big storms, short days and almost always skiing above treeline, but when it’s good, it’s unbeatable.

ADVENTURE 001: WESTCLIFFE, CO

The nondescript Smokey Jack Observatory on the outskirts of Westcliffe, CO

When it came time to take some pictures of our first run of hats this fall, the decision of where to go was an easy one: Westcliffe, Colorado. A hidden gem of a mountain and ranching town nestled on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Take the time to look beneath the hood, and you'll realize that unlike many rural towns in Colorado, Westcliffe's best days are ahead of it. While it's always been a key launch point for hiking many of the 14ers that tower above its historic buildings, there's more than meets the eye, at least during daylight hours.

Which brings us back to how we first learned about the town. Earlier this summer during the Perseid Meteor Shower, Westcliffe made some national headlines when a New York Times writer visited and wrote about the town's little known membership as one of the few Dark Sky Communities in the world.

What kind of cult is that you ask? It's not. The International Dark Sky Association is an organization whose goal is preserving a little talked about resource: the visibility of our night sky. The organization works with towns and communities to help guide them on ways to reduce light pollution.

Towns that really commit to the cause by replacing city lights with dimmer, downward facing lights while also investing in astronomical education offerings for its inhabitants can earn an official Night Sky Community Certification from the organization. Westcliffe is one of nine designated cities in the world and the highest in elevation, making it a killer place to view stars, and that's exactly what we did during our visit.

In 2015, Westcliffe built the Smokey Jack Observatory, a nondescript looking shack that actually holds a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with computer guided pointing and tracking. That's a super nice telescope. Good enough to see Saturn's rings and the Andromeda galaxy 2.5 million light years away.

What's even more fantastic is that you can email them, and they'll show up pretty much whenever you want and take you on a complimentary, two-hour tour of the sky, while you and your friends ooh and ahh. Pretty amazing offering for a small mountain town.

So, we capped off our weekend of wandering around Westcliffe and it's neighboring trails with some star gazing, and while we put the cameras away to simply enjoy the moment, we took some photos just before dusk to give you a glimpse into the surrounding area.

So, next time you're blasting through Westcliffe, likely to bag your next 14er, consider an extra night in town to take in some stars. You won't regret it.