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n.halberg Author

winter cooking in the backcountry

You have just finished a seemingly endless day of snowshoeing up to Lake Blanche. You are cold, exhausted, and starving, but it is 5 p.m. already and the sun has just a few rays left peeking over the far side of the valley. What you need is a warm, big bowl of something delicious to spur your camp set-up; but nothing sounds more unappealing than cooking a traditional meal while your hands slowly turn to icicles. Luckily, your friend has come prepared with retort meals to save your stomach (and hands).

Retort is a method of cooking where all food is prepped at home and put in bags to reheat in boiling water. It is by far the easiest and most efficient way of getting a meal out of your backpack and into your mouth. Although fairly simple, here are a few tips to make the process even smoother.

  • The looser the meal, the faster the reheat time. This means soups, chili, sauces, and broths are ideal.
  • Cut up large chunks of food. Big pieces of meat, potatoes, vegetables, etc. take a longer time to reheat. Cutting them down can shave minutes off your cook time.
  • The more surface area the meal has, the faster the cooking time as well. Squishing the food down into a flat pancake will heat more food and will ensure that terrible cold center disaster does not happen.
  • Always double bag foods when transporting. Nothing, and I really mean nothing, is more unpleasant than finding frozen chili strewn throughout your gear six miles into the backcountry.
  • Get a stove that can hold a large pot. Nobody wants to have to cook one meal at a time, and even less people want to be the last person to eat. Also, don’t let the bags touch the sides of the pot. This is sure to melt them.
  • Plan and prep at home. Spending an hour in the warmth of your kitchen cooking and bagging a meal means spending fifteen or twenty minutes in the cold snow before you can eat it.
  • Not every part of your meal has to be reheated. Bring a bag of Fritos, some cheese, lettuce, and sour cream. Add warmed taco meat and you have yourself a nice bag of walking tacos.
  • Use Ziplock or Glad freezer bags. Both these brands don’t use BPA in their products and the freezer bag will hold together better in the boiling water.

From here, the possibilities really are endless. I have seen people reheat whole steaks they grilled at their house, bring all the components of a real ramen out and add the hot broth, even soft boil eggs. Since you are camping in cold temperatures, you need not worry about food spoiling. Bring the milk, meat, and cheese! Be liberated by having a way to cook good food in the beauty of snow-covered mountains. If all else on your trip hits the fan, at least you’ll remember the curry you had sitting next to frozen Lake Blanche.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Photo by Carolyn Webber

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Fat Tires Expand — Mountain Biking Season

Ah, winter. The most wonderful time of the year. Snow on the ground means the skis come out, the lifts start moving, and everyone is happy. Everyone, that is, except mountain bikers. For them, snow on the ground means the end of a season and the beginning of a long wait. Trying to run a trail with even a little of that white stuff on it can be disastrous. Fortunately, there is a solution, and it comes looking like the monster truck of mountain bikes. It is the fat bike.

At first glance these bikes seem pretty standard. Handlebars, check. Seat, check. Frame, check. Tires, woah. This is the central difference between and mountain bike and a fat bike. A typical mountain bike tire is about two to two-and-a-half inches wide. A fat bike tire is usually four or five. Any other major differences on the bike, like a wider frame and specialized braking system, basically just accommodate this extra width.

Clearly a more massive tire and heavier bike means you will not be going as fast as you would on a traditional bike, but that is not the purpose of a fat bike. The key factor provided by larger tires is accessibility, not speed. Wider tires mean more tire contact with the ground and more cushion. This allows the rider to gain better traction and “float” across terrain previously impassable.

Because of this unique ability, fat bikes were quickly nicknamed snow bikes. The big, grippy tires certainly help open up new realms of biking like high alpine riding, but fat bikes don’t have to just sit in your garage all summer.

Any terrain that is either too rough or too slippery for a traditional bike is perfect for a fat bike. Be it rock gardens, flooded trails, hard packed snow, or fresh powder, the fat bike takes it all with ease. Improvements in frame design and material have transitioned the once touring specific beast into something that can now be used as a replacement to your traditional bike in many cases.

The best example of this is the introduction of suspension. Early fat bikes were locked solid, and although beefier tires slightly offset the bumps, it was not nearly enough. Now, however, front or double suspension bikes are available to the masses for a hefty, but not insurmountable, price. If you are willing to invest three to five grand for a new, shiny dual suspension fat bike, you’ll open yourself up to a whole new variety of trails.

The Iditarod Trail Invitational was the original jumping point for fat bikes. Every year, one week before the sled dog Iditarod, skiers, trail runners, and bikers are invited to tackle the 1,000 mile trail. Although it had been done on traditional bikes before, it was not easy. At least half the time the snow made the trail impassable, forcing riders to drag their bikes. The large tires of the fat bike, however, can handle the trail with grace, and is now the standard.

If you’re not quite up for a thousand mile battle across Alaska just yet, there are still ways to get out and enjoy your fat bike. For the more competitive, there is Frosty’s Fat Bike Race Series, a nine to twelve mile snow race that takes place in January on the Wasatch front. The more relaxed adventurer can rent a fat bike from Outdoor Adventures for $30 a day ($60 for a weekend) and hit up either Guardsman Pass or the Bonneville Shoreline trail for some cool winter views.

Although the tires may seem comically large, the fat bike is one of the best ways to get out and explore. Any terrain in its path will likely be conquered. No more will a ride be riddled by annoying stop-and-carry spots and no more will mountain bikers dread the day snow falls for the first time. Thanks to the fat bike, winter really is the most wonderful time of the year again.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Photo by Gessie Eaton

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Hiking the Subway — What You Should Know

We were a motley bunch. Between the five of us we had one broken (and un-casted) wrist, three wetsuit-less fools, and one amateur who had never done so much as a rappel before. I knew the risk was high, and despite my most tremendous efforts, I could not shake the doubt that crept into my dazing mind. A wrong turn, a bad hold, a slipped foot — SCREECH! We stopped. Out the front window I could see the headlights illuminating “Wildcat Canyon Trailhead.” We had arrived; we were at the entrance to the Subway.

Immediately the doubt drained away only to be replenished by a surge of adrenaline and excitement. As we placed our first steps on the trail the freezing morning air bit at our bare legs, but with each step I couldn’t help but think of all the hurried research I had done the night before and the men who has first set foot on this remote route.

Crossing over the slick rock and continuing to descend toward the beginning of the canyon, I did not once think of a lack of wilderness. In fact, had it not been for our guidebook we almost certainly never would have found the canyon at all. Even with the book our directions sounded like something out of “Treasure Island: “continue fifteen feet across the slick rock until you pass over a large, fallen Ponderosa Pine tree.” There was no shortage of “where to now” questions.

Many wrong turns later and we finally were standing at the bottom of the first descent. In front of us was a small trickle of a creek. Little did I know, I would come to fear its icy grasps. Progressing further, we came upon the only possible spot you could really go the wrong way once you enter the canyon. Putting our 90 years of combined knowledge together, we spent a careful fifteen minutes checking directions against compasses and logic. We agreed, the trail had to be left.

An hour later we returned to the junction soaked, freezing, and grumpy. We went the wrong way. If you find yourself at the bottom of the canyon facing your first T-intersection, DO NOT GO left. There is nothing but despair and aggravation hiding around that bend.

On the right track, we began to hit a rhythm. The rappels were handled with ease by all able-bodied participants, and for the hindered, we set up an ATC. The swims, however, were much worse. Without a wetsuit, the water was stingingly cold. Submerging fully meant succumbing to a cold-induced headache comparable only to drinking a liquid nitrogen milkshake.

The day before, picking up our permits at the ranger station, they warned us of this. Our permit was even highlighted and underlined in the section where it details wetsuits as “mandatory but not required.” I thought this confusing, and already surpassing my budget for the trip, opted to not invest the $30 for a rental wetsuit. Standing on the other side of the 15-foot swim, slowly regaining brain function, I very much regretted not spending the $30.

The deeper into the canyon we got, the better I felt. The water had not warmed at all, but the sun was high enough to at least provide the illusion of heat. Incredible features appeared before us.

Photo by Reeves Coursey

Photo by Reeves Coursey

We traversed through slots just narrow enough to brush your shoulders on, rappelled down waterfalls, swam through crystal clear potholes, and even stepped thigh deep into quicksand. It was a true adventure.

As it is, though, all good things come to an end. Taking our classic picture at the actual subway part of the Subway, we said our last goodbyes and started the rather normal, and comparably boring, hike back to the trailhead.

Approaching the car a few hours later I looked around at our group. If we were motley before, we were decrepit now. Full of sand, covered in blisters, soaked to the bone, and smelling absolutely rancid we stood there with the giddiest, most ridiculous smiles on our faces. It took no words to communicate what we all felt. That was gnarly, but we all knew we’d be back to tackle it again as soon as we got the chance.

Follow Our Lead

Trailhead: The trail starts at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead (which appears on Google Maps if typed in) and ends at Left Fork Trailhead (also map-able). If you have two cars it is a good idea to leave one down at Left Fork and shuttle up to Wildcat Canyon. They are on the same road and only about a twenty-minute drive apart.

Trail: The beginning of the trail is very confusing and requires route finding. You can purchase detailed guides in Springdale or Zion itself. It would be impossible to make it into the canyon without one of these. Once in the canyon, there is only one possible place to get lost, otherwise it is a relatively straight shot through. After exiting the canyon, it gets a little more confusing. Follow the river for a good distance until eventually cutting off to the right and scrambling almost straight over the side wall of the canyon.

Permits: Because of its popularity, only a few permits are given out each day for the Subway hike. You can either apply for a regular permit (which must be done three months in advance and costs $5 for the application) or a last minute drawing (which must be applied for a week in advance and is very, very hard to get, also $5). If you’re lucky enough to get a permit, you must go to a ranger station the day before to pick it up and pay the additional fee (anywhere from $15-$25 depending on the size of your group). (https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/subwaypermits.htm)

Additional: If it is not the middle of summer, or if you are prone to getting cold, you need a wetsuit. The hike is far less grueling and more enjoyable with one. Making the naive mistake to tough it out was idiotic and potentially very dangerous. Do not attempt to do this hike later than August without one. In addition, a 60-foot rope is critical. You will not complete the hike without it. If you are nervous about the hand over hand rappelling, then bring a harness and ATC as well. A dry bag to keep a change of clothes in is also advisable.

Photo courtesy of Reeves Coursey

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FallHow toSpringSummerWinter

How to: Plan a trip

The phrase “rollercoaster of emotions” doesn’t take on its full meaning until you arrive at an entirely disappointing location for your much anticipated backcountry trip. The high of bubbly excitement you felt just mere hours ago in the car is replaced by a soddy gray feeling of overwhelming apathy. Sometimes, planning a good outing seems to take more effort than the trip itself, and always looming is the possibility that you picked a cruddy spot. Well, be liberated! These few resources are sure to drastically improve the quality and location of your next adventure.

Google Maps and Google Earth

If properly utilized this tool can be so much more than just your route to the nearest Chipotle. Improved 3-D landscaping and satellite imaging allows you to virtually put yourself in the location before you go. This is a good first filter for potential spots. If the mountain is too steep or river too wide you’ll know right away. Terrain viewing fleshes out the bare bones that most maps provide. Instead of seeing a stack of contour lines squished together you’ll be able to mentally picture the steep slide into the canyon or brutal scramble up to the ridge.

Topozone

The website Topozone specializes in one thing: maps. They pull from the United States Geological Survey to get free topographic maps of the entire country. Just search a location and a slew of maps will pop up for download or print. This gives you a more quantitative look at your selected adventure area as well as a physical copy to take with you.

SummitPost

Once you discover a potential spot, SummitPost will fill in the rest. This site specializes in the logistics of getting you from your couch to tent. They have elevations, distances, suggested routes, hazards, difficulties and every other manner of technical information that may be needed for your trip. Multiple links to different maps are also listed on each location’s page.

Wasatch Mag Online

On our website we have all our stories sorted by season. Whatever the time of year or type of adventure, we likely have a guide to get you started in the right direction. Whether you want to climb the Pfeifferhorn or find the best sledding spots in Salt Lake, we have you covered.

The ideal way to use these resources is from most general to most specific. Check out Wasatch Mag online to find a location that seems appealing, use Google Maps to verify your feelings about it, look at SummitPost to get details about routes and an overview of the difficulty, and then finish by printing maps from Topozone. All that’s left is packing your car, grabbing a friend, and heading for the mountains.

n.halberg@dailyutahchronicle.com

Chronicle Archive Photo

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Save the City’s Namesake

Sacramento, Springfield, Denver, Juneau. Out of the 50 state capitals, Salt Lake City is the only one named after some kind of natural feature. Fittingly so, for perhaps there is no closer reliance between nature and city than the Great Salt Lake and its metropolis. However, decreasing water levels threaten the survival of the lake and place a great strain on the city. Projects like the proposed Bear River Development could exacerbate this strain if not handled responsibly.

Economically, a depleted lake means losing a huge source of revenue. A 2012 report by Bioeconomics found the total economic output of the lake to be around $1.3 billion. That’s enough money to fund nearly all of Utah’s higher education programs for 2012, over 11 percent of the state’s total expenditures, according to a Utah State Legislature fiscal analysis. In addition, more than 7,700 jobs were created around lake-based industries such as aquaculture (raising and harvesting of aquatic plants and animals) and recreation. No matter how impressive the numbers are, they still are just numbers, and, outside of a few overzealous math professors and a handful of calculator-loving economists, they’re about as exciting as the crust of a cherry pie.

To really get into the sweet, syrupy cherries at the center and understand the true significance of the lake, we have to come to a rather stark and sad realization. The Great Salt Lake is the last great wetland ecosystem in the Western United States. Its two main companions, the Colorado River Delta in Colorado and Bay Delta in California, have been depleted to the point of near decimation by droughts and water diversion projects.

What this means is that Salt Lake City’s namesake feature has become a critical ecosystem to not just the thousands of animal and plant species that call it home, but to the biodiversity of the Western U.S. as well. According to Paul Keddy, coauthor of the Wet and Wonderful article in BioScience journal, wetlands provide functions like “carbon storage, flood control, [and] maintenance of biodiversity” that are all critical to the survival of surrounding ecosystems and populations. Keddy also claims that size does matter, citing how “most wetland services increase with area,” meaning that the larger a wetland is, the better it is at its job.

Being the last and largest wetland in this half of the country, the Great Salt Lake’s importance is compounded. Imagine roadtripping from border to border, Canada to Mexico, and only having one place to rest, eat, and get gas. The journey would be enormously difficult, if possible. Now imagine how many people would also be stopping at this oasis and how crowded it would be. This is what the ten million migratory birds that rest here are forced to do year after year.

Throw on top that this lone stop also provides homes, cleans the air, reduces the effects of global warming, refills water supplies, creates industry, and provides ample recreational opportunities and we finally have an analogy comparable to the Great Salt Lake.

If there were such a place this critical to human life, it would doubtlessly be expanded and protected. However, the opposite has happened to our real life refuge. Water diversion projects have drained the lake, lowering its level significantly, and proposed projects, like the Bear River Development, could threaten water levels even more.

Some groups have been resisting the proposed project, such as the Utah Rivers Council. Conservation director Nick Schou asserts that diverting water from the Bear River, the lake’s largest tributary,  will “create a cascade of tragic impacts upon all Utahns and the Great Salt Lake.” He cites the destruction of rare wetland habitat, displacement of millions of migratory birds, worsening air quality as a result of increased sediment exposure, and the effect on lake-reliant industries (like minerals and brine shrimp) as a few examples of these tragic impacts.

Utah State University’s white paper on the impact  of water development projects on the Great Salt Lake found that we have been pulling out water for a while now. They conclude that “consumptive water use has reduced net river inflow to the lake by 39 percent over the past 150 years.”  This is a complicated way of saying that almost since people settled in Utah, we have been lowering the water level through water diversion projects. The same study found that the total water loss adds up to 11 feet. That’s a reduction in volume of 48 percent, most of which is our intentional doing. If not handled more responsibly, there might not be much of a lake left to pull water from.

A looming test of our ability to do this is the aforementioned Bear River Development Project. This project proposes to divert anywhere from 220,000 to 250,000 acre feet of water from the Bear River for residential use along the Wasatch front, where estimates project the population to grow to as much as six million by 2060. A single acre foot is equivalent to roughly 325,000 gallons. If completed, this project could lower the level of the Great Salt Lake anywhere from eight inches to four feet, no small amount for a 1,700 square-mile lake.

Even these relatively small changes could have significant ecological consequences. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Utah Rivers Council, nearly 10 million migratory birds from over 200 species use the lake as a refuge on their cross-continent flights. Decreasing the available habitat will significantly hamper, if not endanger, a large portion of these populations. A smaller, more concentrated lake also means a saltier lake, which can affect the multimillion dollar brine shrimp industry centered there.

The Utah Rivers Council would like to see the Bear River Project axed completely. They say the “devastating environmental impacts” are unjustifiable.

Marisa Egbert, project manager for the Bear River Development Project, says that her division will continue to “track the demands of a growing population and push for water conservation to delay the need for the [Bear River Project].” Nevertheless, Egbert says that completely ruling out the project is something “Utah does not have the luxury of,” referring to the fact that Utah is more or less one big desert.

The city has heard and considered alternative solutions proposed by the Rivers Council, like the utilization of surplus agricultural water and removal of tax subsidies for wasteful water practices. Egbert says that this is a “complex issue” that requires “multifaceted solutions,” however she emphasizes the need for “balanced solutions,” or ones that will try to be fair to all parties.

Any time water is removed from the Great Salt Lake or diverted away from it, environmental harm will follow. What’s critical is minimizing the amount of harm done to our already sick neighbor. If poorly implemented, Schou says the project could be “the nail in the coffin” of the lake. However, if conservative and creative solutions are applied, the impact could be minimal, while the benefits substantial.

With such a unique and important environment’s well-being resting in our hands, no corners should be cut or efforts spared to ensure we maintain its welfare. Failing to do so will result in nothing more than a couple extra miles of salt flat and a city named after the very thing it could not save.

n.halberg@dailyutahchronicle.com

Photo Credit: Chris Hammock

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It’s Getting Hot in Here: Backpacking Stove Review

The slow leak of gas, the click of a lighter, and the steady roar of a hot blue flame. After a long cold day in the backcountry these sounds are as relieving as getting your acceptance letter to Hogwarts on your 11th birthday. These sounds mean food is on the way, the only separation being a few cups of boiling water and a little patience.

Backpacking stoves, although not the sexiest or flashiest piece of gear out there, are the beautiful contraptions that provide us with this oh-so-wonderful comfort. However, not all stoves are created equal. Some boil faster, some boil slower. Some boil lots, some boil little. Some even do more than boil water; they can cook real, non-dehydrated food. These have truly become sophisticated pieces of technology.

This sophistication can only happen with lots of little moving pieces, something that often spells disaster. Sometimes a single broken part can trash the stove for your entire trip, leaving you to consider just how edible a pinecone could be. A good stove is as critical to a successful trip as a backpack or water purifier.

Unfortunately, in the sea of tri-sectional windclips, fuel canister stabilizers, and other terms of jargon, it can be difficult to decipher just what constitutes a ‘good’ stove. Fortunately for you, many nights, hours, and even a set of eyebrows have been sacrificed to find the right stove for your needs.

MSR PocketRocket

Perfect for small cooking, the PocketRocket provides a smart option for your personal kit. At just three ounces (not including gas and cook set), this is by far the smallest and lightest stove of the ones tested. It packs into a convenient plastic case that really could fit in your pocket, so long as you’re not wearing skinny jeans. Utilizing this case when packing the stove is vital since its small stature makes it less durable. Its relatively bare-bones design means a separate cook set is needed, but this too can be relatively small and compact. Balancing a pot of water on the little tongs will make you feel like you should join the circus, however, the $40 price makes it hard to be too picky about these relatively trivial issues. If you’re looking for a lightweight way to boil water without spending tons, this is your stove.

Jetboil Flash

The ideal system for the non-ultra-lightweight backpacker, Jetboil has taken simplicity and ease of use to the max in their personal cook system design. A spark start removes the need for a lighter, and a built-in measuring cup and stabilizer make boiling water easier than using a stove and kettle at home. Furthermore, the entire stove can be quickly disassembled and stored in the attached cookset for very durable and safe transport. As the name suggests, the Jetboil boasts the fastest boil time of any comparably sized stove on the market (just about a minute for a liter of water). It is significantly heavier and larger than the PocketRocket at twelve ounces, but also resolves many of the issues the former had. A nifty heat dispersing coil near the burner spreads the heat across the cup removing hot spots and a stabilizing stand stabilizing stand removes the issues of balance. The Jetboil is assuredly the easiest stove to use on the market and comes with the most helpful features. However, at $80, you’ll pay for it.

MSR WhisperLite

The standard for most group backpacking trips, MSR has succeeded in creating an effective yet tedious cook system. This stove is complex enough to require a certain level of skill to use and, at times, a large degree of problem solving. It is also arguably the most dangerous as it utilizes unguarded white gas in its lighting process. If the intricacies can be worked out, however, this is a reasonable way to cook for a group. A very stable base and large burner allow for multifaceted cooking, not just boiling water. A separate cook set, fuel bottle, and pump to pressurize the bottle are necessary. At 11.5 ounces (without any of the previously mentioned necessities), it isn’t terribly heavy. A single stove could easily cook for three or four people at a time, and once it is started it burns hotter and faster than almost every other stove with the exception of the Jetboil. This is a reasonably reliable stove with a decent price of $90.

n.halberg@dailyutahchronicle.com

Photo courtesy of Brian Anderson

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