Category Archives: Logistics

Doing the Alps the Dr. Dirtbag way

Just a homeless guy with an axe…

By the numbers, my two months in Europe and seven weeks in the Alps were more successful than I expected: 52 summits, 43 of those in the Alps, including 26 of the 49 4000-meter peaks. This was in no small part thanks to the abnormally hot and dry weather which, while terrible for the glaciers, allowed me to only fight the weather or take a forced break on a few days. But I can also credit some of the choices I made in my approach.

The most important choice by far was to rent a car. As good as public transit may be, it would be next to impossible to do back-to-back peaks from different trailheads while riding trains and buses between them. This was painfully expensive — a bit over $1300 for the rental, plus gas that ranged from 1.20€/l in Spain to 1.60€/l in France. These two things together probably cost more than the whole rest of the trip, including food, airfare, tolls, and Zermatt-area parking. However, this big chunk of cash did a lot of things. First, while public transit may be great in Europe, it is not cheap: a Eurail pass alone would have cost me around $800, and then there are buses. Second, the car was a free place to store gear I was not using, such as town clothes, laundry, and heavy/light mountain gear. Most importantly, the car was also my lodging: it turns out that a Citroën C3 is almost one Dirtbag long diagonally if you slide the driver’s seat forward, and with a fat air mattress, was both comfortable and discreet. Staying in huts or hostels would have cost at least as much as the rental, and camping seems frowned upon, though often tolerated.

Second, I did all but two outings (the Grandes Jorasses and Tasch-Dom traverse) with my Alpine fast-and-light setup: trail runners, wool socks, hiking pants, t-shirt, hoodie, shell, poncho, ice axe, and running-shoe crampons. Wearing trail runners made it possible to do summits requiring 2000 to 3000+ meters of gain in a day without destroying my knees and feet in boots. I jogged some descents, but mostly just walked quickly, since I was not trying to set any speed records. Expecting the Alps to be cold, I brought most of my winter gear, including mountain boots, softshell pants, down parka, goggles, and long underwear. I brought the parka for the Tasch-Dom, where I expected bad weather, but did not end up needing it. The only reason I used mountain boots on two occasions was for short sections of steep glacier travel for which I needed to front-point. In the future, I may be able to upgrade my fast-and-light setup to cover this sort of terrain.

Third, I did absolutely no roped glacier travel, which requires gear and partners, and dooms most Alpine climbers to heavy packs and a plodding pace. I did this with a mixture of conservative route choice and a small amount of calculated risk. Many of the large stretches of glacier travel, particularly in the late summer in the Bernese Alps, are mostly dry. A dry glacier is just about the opposite of threatening, since you can see all the holes. A mostly-dry glacier is similar, since you can just stick to the bare parts. Slightly riskier are snow-covered glaciers on popular routes. Starting from the trailhead, I was always behind the hordes starting from the hut, who put in a clear boot-pack while carrying more gear. An established boot-pack is not as safe as bare ice, but still quite low-risk if you are paying attention. Finally, on Mont Blanc, somewhat on the Finsteraarhorn, and weirdly on Monte Cevedale, I cautiously made my own way. I generally tried to do the route-finding early in the day, before snow bridges deteriorated too much, and took a cautious line at the expense of some wandering. Other than putting a leg into a small crack on a side-trip to see the artillery near Monte Cevedale, I had no glacial mishaps.

As expected, this trip was expensive, though nowhere near the insane costs of the seemingly-common guided ascents. A two-day guided climb of the Matterhorn alone costs at least 1200€; add in transportation, lodging, and a couple of restaurant meals, and such a climb could end up costing half the price of my whole trip. Food-wise, my usual trail staple of PB&H sandwiches does not work in Europe, where large jars of peanut butter are impossible to find. The best substitute I found was store-brand Nutella on wheat sandwich bread, all of which is available for around 1000 cal/$ everywhere. I supplemented this with baguette and cheese sandwiches, which are also fairly cheap, and better than anything you can buy in most of the United States. I almost entirely avoided eating in restaurants, since while groceries cost around American prices (less in Spain and Italy), restaurants are generally more, especially in Switzerland.

Regan Peak

Regan and Sawtooth Lake

Regan Peak is what you see on the other side of Sawtooth Lake, at the northern end of the Sawtooth wilderness. Since it was advertised as a 4th class scramble with a trail approach, I figured I could make it to the top and not get lost.

While getting ready at the trailhead, I saw a man walk by with a dog and a gun. Not a hunting dog and a rifle, but a pet dog and a medium-sized pistol. That’s legal, of course — even in national parks these days — but it hardly put me in a good mood towards my fellow man. I assume he was himself against his fellow hikers, since I doubt it would do much to a bear or an enraged elk, and he probably couldn’t brain a grouse with it for dinner.

Moving on, the trail was snow-free until just below Sawtooth Lake, where I was accosted by someone’s “friendly” dog. The snow was hard-packed in the morning, so I traveled quickly around the lake, and on to the second small lake beyond, where I believed the climbing started. It looked like I could crampon up a snowfield, then scramble along a minor ridge to the skyline.

Alas, beyond the snowfield I ended up on trouser-filling terrain consisting of loose rock, steep dirt, and small patches of snow. With much nervous sweating and swearing, I reached the skyline and found walk-up terrain on the other side. Figures.

There was a bit of a fun block-maze to the summit itself, but nothing too difficult. The register canister, a thin-sided aluminum thing, contained only a note from a previous climber that the original register had been stolen, so I signed the note, then looked for a different way down.

I made for the large snowfield that slanted directly back to Sawtooth Lake and, after a bit more loose rock and some treacherously steep and soft snow, had a nice plunge-step and glissade descent to the lake.

The Sawtooths

There’s a lot to be said for the Sawtooths: They have fairly good trail access, and since they are a desert range, there is little undergrowth to get in the way of bushwhacking. Not many visitors seem to venture beyond the trails, and many of the peaks have no easy route, providing awesome solitude.

On the other hand, they are not far above treeline, so much of the approach can be in the forest. Also, they have a nasty mosquito season, which seems to occur exactly when I timed my visit.

The Sawtooth Wilderness

The Sawtooth Wilderness get a few things very right. For example, the trailheads allowing dogs also have a supply of leashes (cords with a loop at one end). Most people break the rules because they are lazy, not malicious: they left their leashes in the car or at home. Pieces of cord cost almost nothing, and make it easy for everyone to choose to do the right thing.

However, it’s among the most annoying National Forest Wildernesses I have visited. The popular campgrounds, and even some picnic areas, have been franchised out, so you now pay up to $16 for a campsite (picnic table, fire ring, shared outhouse), or $5 for a few picnic tables together. Things are better outside the Redfish Lake area, but still not great.

The developed trails are built for pack animals, with absurd near-horizontal switchbacks that eat up miles to gain relatively little elevation. I prefer not to cut switchbacks, but it was impossible to resist in many places.

Finally, note that while it no longer requires fording the creek, the upper Hell-roaring Creek trailhead is thoroughly hosed. A survey turned up that the parking area was about 200 yards into the designated wilderness area. The easy solution would have been to redraw the line. What actually happened was: they closed off the road a whole mile before the wilderness boundary, and have temporarily provided parking for perhaps 4-5 vehicles. Parking won’t be an issue — I found a slot in the woods — but the extra road-hike is a pain.

Stanley logistics

Stanley’s not bad for a town of 100 people. The library has free, donation-supported wireless and a small selection of current magazines. The Chamber of Commerce has a sparkling public bathroom, friendly staff, and some genuinely useful information.

Tips on two towns

One would think that Leadville and Buena Vista would be more or less the same. They both used to depend on mining: Leadville was created for miners; Buena Vista was a railroad town serving mines. Both have plenty of outdoor activities nearby, including numerous 14ers. Neither has any apparent local industry other than outdoor tourism. Strangely, at least to my superficial eye, they have developed very different vibes.

Buena Vista has a mixture of Good Healthy Family types playing with their kids in the park, and dirtbags bouldering and working as guides, mostly on the river. It has preserved its downtown, and taken a lot of state lottery money to build trails, kayaking stuff, and a small bouldering area.

Coming to Leadville, I was surprised by the redneck vibe. Even the coffee place has a bar and plays bluegrass. Coming into town, you pass a sprawling trailer park and a barn-like liquor/bait/wood emporium. Stray from the highway in town, and you will see plenty of run-down houses with jacked-up trucks (actually useful here, though). Leaving town, you pass the new growth: a large supermarket and gas station. There seem to be athletes who live here to train, but not as many migrant outdoor types (e.g. I haven’t seen many bike racks).

Anyways, here are some places I have found helpful on my way through:

  • Family Dollar (both)
    This seems to be a Colorado-specific store. It’s kind of like a mini-Walmart, with clothes and such on one side and groceries on the other. While it has no produce and limited baked goods, it has an awesome, and awesomely cheap, selection of non-perishables. Of personal interest, it has the best selection of canned fish I have seen anywhere, better even than Trader Joe’s, most for $1 or less. 4-packs of saltines are also $1, and canned vegetables are mostly in the $0.60-$0.80 range. Shop and thrive.

  • Leadville Hostel (Leadville)
    5 blocks east of the highway and one block north of the stoplight, the Leadville Hostel has a homey atmosphere and a friendly proprietress. Bunks are the usual $20/night. More importantly, you can take a clean shower for $3, and do your laundry for only $2.50 (quite a bit less than the laundromat). They also have wireless for $1.

  • Proven Grounds (Leadville)
    Just south of the stoplight, Proven Grounds carries a variety of coffees and teas, and bakes their own breads and pastries. It’s all a bit overpriced, but the breads and teas are good (not so much the soup and coffee, and they charge for refills). They also have free wireless.

  • Fish Hatchery (Leadville)
    Potable water spigots seem to be less common here than in California, where they are found at most developed trailheads. The hatchery, just south of town, has a spigot outside that is free to use.

  • Community Center (Buena Vista)
    Head through downtown on Main Street and, where it turns to dirt, you will find the newly-built community center. It has acceptable showers ($1 for 3 min.) and a small bouldering area to play around. The problems seemed hard, but I suck at climbing now.

  • Buena Vista Roastery (Buena Vista)
    Buena Vista Roastery on Main Street seems to be a sometimes gathering place for outdoorsy types. They know their coffee, and sell it both by the cup and by the pound. They also have free wireless.

Rest in peace

Americans tend to accept both empty parked cars and occupied moving cars nearly everywhere, but disapprove of occupied parked cars, especially when the occupants are asleep. Therefore if you plan to sleep in your car, and do not need the facilities provided by a campground, you need to think about where to sleep without being ticketed or harassed.

The best place to sleep is obviously one where no one will come by and see you. For example, many of Colorado’s dirt roads are rarely patrolled or even used, especially during the week, so you can simply pull off the road and nod off. If such a place is not available, the next-best bet is to sleep where no one will notice you. If yours is just one among many cars, you avoid window condensation, and you don’t stay in the same place too long, no one will notice your transgression. The overnight shuttle parking lot in Aspen is one such place. Finally, you can choose a place where no one cares if you are sleeping in your car. Most Eastern Sierra trailheads qualify, even the crowded Whitney Portal.

By far the easiest place to rest in peace is National Forest land. Thanks to shrinking budgets and massive scale, there are few rangers patrolling them for miscreants. Also, the “multiple abuse” land management policy means cars are allowed to drive and park in more (and more out-of-the-way) places.

National parks present more of a challenge. They are better-funded and smaller, and cars are restricted to small, well-developed areas, so it’s hard to find a place to park out of sight. As always, arriving late and starting early helps. Parking in the long-term backpacker lot is best, but you can often poach a campsite if you get an early start. A late (after 9PM or so) arrival also avoids park entry fees, even at major parks like the Grand Canyon.

When sleeping on the highway, it’s best to do what long-haul truckers do: they sleep on the road more than you do, so they know what they’re doing. On rural interstates, you can just pull off at a local road exit and park on the side of the road. Many rest stops are also good places to sleep — look for rows of parked trucks at night. On smaller highways, pulling well off the highway on a dirt Forest Service road usually works. Finally, you can always simply park on the side of the highway. While your rest may be disturbed, no policeman will ticket you if you say you were worried about falling asleep at the wheel.

It is best not to sleep in town, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. If you are forced to do this, a motel parking lot is often a safe place to spend a single night. Just don’t park in front of someone’s room or near the front desk. Sleeping in a residential area is usually a bad idea, but if you must, choose a safe area where street parking is normal and few people are out late at night. Wealthy or upper-middle-class suburbs usually qualify, since everyone will be inside watching TV or sleeping, and the houses are far enough apart that an unfamiliar car will probably go unnoticed for a single night. Finally, remember that you are not breaking any laws by parking on a public street. The worst the police can do is ask you to move on.

Leave no trace!

Remember to follow the same practices and courtesies you would in the backcountry. Park a discrete distance from other people, pack out your trash, and don’t leave any human waste (or, if you are far from civilization, dig a cathole like you would in the wilderness). If you leave no trace, most people won’t mind that you stayed the night.

Cold weather notes

Quandary summitDirtbagging in the winter presents a challenge, requiring more discipline and attention to detail than during the summer. Here are a few observations from my trip to Colorado last month.

Wet water

Keeping enough liquid water can be a challenge when the ambient temperature is always below freezing. Solar heating will keep the inside of your car well above freezing during the day, but you will need liquid water in the morning, after a night of outdoor temperatures. Melting ice in the morning will cost a lot of time, since water has a high specific heat, so it is best to keep enough water from freezing overnight.

A full and fully-melted gallon container will be partially liquid after a single night where the temperature stays above zero, but a smaller container, like a mug or your pack’s water bladder, will freeze solid. Try to thaw your larger water bottles as much as possible during the day, e.g. by placing them in the sun covered with a black plastic bag. If you want a smaller container of water, keep it inside your sleeping bag. Note that canned carbonated beverages can explode when they freeze — careful with your energy drinks! Keeping them in a cooler may help, but only if they start out reasonably warm.


Window condensation from your breath, always an issue, becomes a real problem in the winter, when it will form a thick layer of frost. This frost will then melt during the day and drip onto your clothes and upholstery, causing both short-term (frozen clothes) and long-term (mildew) problems. It’s better to crack your windows more and suffer with cold temperatures and breezes than crack them too little and deal with interior frost.

Dry clothes

Drying wet clothes is a constant battle. Since you are wearing more clothes than during the summer, you need more space to spread them out, and since winter clothes are more expensive than t-shirts, you have to wear the few you own more often.

On long days you will have few warm, dry hours in which to dry clothes, so it’s important to make the most of your drying time. Immediately remove wet clothes when you get to the car. Drying your inner layers is most important, so place them in the sun or near a heater vent. Putting on damp or frozen outer layers is unpleasant, but better than sleeping in damp thermals. Take the insoles out of your boots, but don’t put the boots in front of the heater, as doing so may damage the material.

Trail nutrition

Since it’s difficult and time-consuming to eat food that requires bare hands or utensils, or food that can freeze, your trail meals may be limited to nutritionless, monotonous, concentrated energy sources like granola bars, pop-tarts, and trail mix. Focus on eating protein, fatty acids, and vegetables for dinner, likely your only meal with real variety.

Your new home

Choosing a home

Anything works: it all depends on your level of comfort, the amount of gear you need, and what you can afford. For example, my home last summer was the 2-door coupe I already owned. It had enough room for food, clothing, and a small collection of climbing and mountaineering gear. The passenger’s seat was an adequate bed after a long day in the hills, but not quite horizontal.

The Honda Element seems to be popular, but it is recent enough to still be costly on the used-car market, and despite its SUV styling, it is about as capable as my front wheel drive coupe off-road. If you can afford it and won’t spend much time off-road, it’s not a bad choice.

If you need to go off-road, an SUV or Subaru is the way to go. But be careful: most modern SUVs are yuppie-wagons with poor gas mileage and the clearance of minivans. Even the Toyota 4-Runner had its clearance reduced in the 2001 model when SUV rollovers were in the news. Also, if you want to sleep horizontally, check that the back is long enough and the rear seats fold flush with the storage area. Modern mini-SUVs like the RAV-4, and the Subaru Forester, are not long enough to sleep straight in back, and sleeping diagonally hoses your storage space.

If you don’t need to go off-road, some diesel vans can be surprisingly fuel-efficient while providing ample living space.

Some necessities

Once you have chosen a home, you need to furnish it with the necessities. If you have ever camped or car-camped before, most of it is obvious: food and water, sleeping bag, spare clothes, clothes appropriate for the weather, toiletries, headlamp. However, here are a few useful tips:

  • Sleeping bag
    Get a bag rated near the outdoor temperature where you expect to be sleeping. You will need to sleep with the windows cracked to reduce condensation, so the inside of the car will be nearly as cold as the outside.
  • Water
    Two gallons is plenty. Splurge and buy the gallon water jugs with robust screw-tops (not the cheap milk-jug things, which tend to pop open), then refill them from the tap. Top them off whenever an opportunity presents itself.
  • Power inverter
    Car chargers for electronic gadgets (iPod, phone, etc.) are a complete rip-off. An inverter with two three-prong plugs is cheap, and lets you use the chargers that come with the devices. A moderately powerful (700W+) inverter will also let you use a laptop in your car, and you can safely use it for a couple of hours a day without draining your battery. But carry a battery jumper just in case.
  • Battery jumper
    A cheap jumper only costs $50, and can save you a very expensive tow if your battery dies far from town.