Monthly Archives: October 2011

Therm-A-Rest ProLite Plus Stuff Sack Review

Brand: Therm-A-Rest

Model: ProLite Plus Stuff Sack

Specs: (Size: Large)

Color: Pomegranite

Weight: 23g (9oz)

Width: 16cm (6.25 in)

Height: 34cm (13.5 In)

Material: sil-nylon


My experience:

I purchased the ProLite Plus stuff sack to store my Therm-A-Rest ProLite Plus in while on the trail. I purchased the large size to store my large sized Prolite Plus in (it should fit right?). Well, with a lot of effort it does, usually, but I can’t get the stuff sack to close all the way around my rolled Prolite plus unless I do it in a very specific, time consuming way. This is not acceptable on the trail as my mornings do not consist of leisure time for rolling and rerolling the sleeping pad just so it will fit (still at great effort). After practicing for extensive periods of time, I still cannot pack my Therm-A-Rest all that well. I searched for ‘the trick’ that I must have been missing – researching online only showed others having similar frustrations with this product. Nobody seems to have figured out the secret with packing into this stuff sack (if there even is one).

I tried using this stuff sack on a trip this summer and it threw me way behind in my morning routine. I was a paid leader on the trip and quickly found myself falling behind in my morning routine because I spent so much time trying to get this blasted thing around my ProLite Plus. I ended up scrapping the ProLite Plus stuff sack and packing my Therm-A-Rest in a larger stuff sack I had brought with me for clothing. The clothes that couldn’t be absorbed into other stuff sacks then had to be left to freely float in my bag. Not cool. I would recommend buying at least one size larger than your Therm-A-Rest should need (A.K.A. buy a large size stuff sack for a regular Term-A-Rest). This should solve the problem.

What I liked

  • Very light
  • Packs up very small when not in use
  • Hand slot on bottom for pulling out Therm-A-Rest from within
  • Water-resistant with a flap that goes inside the top to help seal it
  • Good size for a pillow at night if stuffed with clothes (I like this comment!)

What I didn’t like

  • The fit is way too tight – almost making the stuff sack unusable

Bottom Line

I would not recommend purchasing this product unless you purchase a larger size than your Therm-A-Rest should require. It is an impossible fit unless rolled just right and even then it takes time and effort to make it fit.

P.S. if anyone does buy this a size larger than rated please comment on how it fits, I would really like to know.

Leave a comment

Posted by on 29 October 2011 in Gear Reviews


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Backpacking the Grand Canyon [Interim 2011 Part III]

Grand Canyon backpacking days 4-5

22 January 2011

The group gathered back at camp following our solo experiences. In turn we each discussed our highlights and shared things that stuck out in our minds from the experience. We ate crackers, cheese, and summer sausage for lunch before once again hitting the trail.

Each day of this trip through the Grand Canyon brought us down trails that were unique from any of previous trails, and this day was no exception. The trail led us past large sandstone walls and areas where the path completely vanished and cairns were all that lead the way. One portion of the trail, which I thoroughly enjoyed, also had an element of danger that required more teamwork to safely negotiate. The trail was leading us up a dry riverbed that apparently received lots of water when there was rain. This path was uphill and rather strenuous, but to top it off were thirty-foot waterfalls that had dried. There was no ways around these large ledges because of the corridor’s steep wall and we couldn’t simply climb them because with our heavy packs it would be illogical to attempts such a feat (especially due to the injury risk associated with back-country free climbing). This posed quite a conundrum, but everyone contributed their ideas of what the best route near the edges of the corridor would be. Those who needed, passed their packs up to others who had already made it to the top, and we continued to navigate our way to the top of each of these puzzles in a similar fashion.

Eventually we made it to the top of the riverbed and were once again walking on the vast flat-land that is so visible from the top of the canyon. As we walked, we tried to take in as much or the amazing surroundings as possible. This would be our last afternoon in the canyon and we all had fallen in love with it.

We took a rest stop at a scenic overlook. some ate snacks while others took pictures of the canyon. Our solo experiences had rejuvenated everyone, so we all had energy. This made our rest stops more lively and enjoyable. People laughed a little more than before and everyone enjoyed each other’s company. The group had grown close to one another and conversation flowed easily.

Our final campsite was a lot further off the path than we expected. This wasn’t a problem, but we had to back-hike a little ways to meet up with the trail out of the canyon – this meant every step we took after that point meant another step we would have to undo in the morning.

In camp the group relaxed and made a splendid dinner. We ate pasta with a soy and peanut butter based sauce. This was the best meal I ate all week, but its chunky, runny, brown-colored spread was enough to make me nearly pass on giving it a try. Even though it was the best meal I ate, it was also the most disgusting looking meal I had seen yet.

Following dinner, everyone laid out their sleeping mats and bags as the group had opted to sleep outside together the final night. Sleeping outside is an amazing bonding experience, and also allowed us leave the tents all packed up, which was especially nice since we decided to wake up at 3:00 AM and hit the trail by 3:30 AM to hike in the dark.

Before going to bed, several members of the group, not including myself, decided to try “pudding slammers” which they had heard about from our AMGA instructor two weeks prior. A pudding slammer is a packet of pudding mix poured into a half-liter of warm water then chugged before it congeals. The purpose is to overload the body with calories so one will sleep warmer.

Shortly after downing the pudding slammers, the guys noted feeling like their stomachs had bricks in them. Needless to say they were not going to be hungry soon. We were later informed that the pudding slammers worked so well that several of the guys couldn’t stand to be in their sleeping bags that night (they slept on top of their bags in the cold January air). It was decided that these pudding slammers worked very well but should only be used should the temperature be below a bag’s temperature rating.

23 January 2011

3:00 AM comes rather early when you stayed up late talking with friends the night before and trying pudding slammers. Disregarding our fatigue, we rose from our sleeping bags to make a quick breakfast of granola and powdered milk. We were on the trail very shortly afterwards.

The canyon around us and the sky above were pitch black. We used headlamps to follow the path, which vanished often enough in the daytime making it even more difficult to follow in the dark due to its vanishing nature. We navigated the path well, with only one momentary mistake in direction. The next six hours consisted of hiking switchbacks to reach the top of the canyon. Since the granola for the group had been far over-rationed, my 60 packets of oatmeal for the group breakfasts were not even touched. So unfortunately, I hiked those 60 packets of oatmeal through the entire Grand Canyon and back out.

As we gained elevation, so did the sun. The far rim soon became visible through the depths of the night. Slowly but surely the canyon lit up until finally our headlamps were removed and we experienced some relief from the cold night air.

As the hike continued, one group member was having difficulty with carrying her pack up so many switchbacks. At our next break, each of us opened our packs and added items from her backpack to our own to help make her hike more manageable. It is teamwork like this that allowed our group to depend on one another to the depth we did. It allowed us to open up and know that we could trust one another. Each member was there for the others and no one was selfish enough to put himself or herself ahead of the rest. Although this does not characterize everyone at the college, Calvin College is the only place I have found so many people who share this selfless mentality.

With about an hour left on the trail, my body crashed. I hadn’t eaten much for breakfast and I simply ran out of energy. I felt hollow; I didn’t know how to fix it without majorly inconveniencing the group. Two members offered me Clif Bars®; I devoured them. Within minutes, I had an energy boost strong enough to make it out of the canyon and last three more hours in the car before getting lunch. When we finally stopped for lunch, I ate six pieces of pizza and an entire order of breadsticks. Oh, how good front-country food tasted!

Before we knew it, the Grand Canyon was something of our pasts and we were getting ready to head home. We stayed the night in a hotel, met up with the other half of our Calvin group, and prepared to fly home in the morning. When we finally got back to Grand Rapids, we were all so excited to see our families and tell them about our amazing experiences from the past three weeks, and even more, I could not wait to be home and get a kiss from my faithful, loving dog.


Posted by on 27 October 2011 in Backpacking


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20 Hours Alone in the Grand Canyon [Interim part III] Grand Canyon Backpacking

21 January 2011

Night 3 (Interim Night 19)

A solo experience in the back-country is one that many outdoor organizations plan for their students. It is a time where students can reflect on life, test their ability to become one with nature, and have an extended time of silence – something far too rare in our society. A solo experience is powerful. Most who go out and experience this time alone in nature wish they had more opportunities for such an experience.

My solo trip began by choosing the plot of land I would stay on. It is good to limit the area one will be on during a solo for two reasons. First, leaders can keep track of their students (this is extremely important in the back country), and second it would be easy to explore alone all day and never get tired of it. Even though exploring the back country would be amazing, it would also deter the person from concentrating on introspection and sitting quietly to observe nature – the exact purpose a solo experience is intended for. My plot was an outcropping of a cliff, varying from ten to twenty feet wide. It was slightly above the treetops and hung over the Colorado River. 150 yards down river was a class III or IV rapid that created a beautiful ambiance to drown out any noises made by other students.

My plot was in an area where large boulders had fallen, and it seemed that at any moment more were prepared to. I hoped none would fall while I inhabited that area. I quietly prayed for safety throughout the night. I laid my sleeping pad in a groove cut into the rock about four feet from the cliff edge. This, I figured, would be enough to hold me in for the night. I then placed my pack next to me, on the cliff-edge side, as a second bit of protection.

I began to attune myself to my surrounds. I tried to experience things through all my senses and truly pay attention to what was going on. I noticed the dirt smelled different from the dirt back home. I reached down and touched the granite below my feet; in so places it was so smooth, yet at other areas it was course. I looked at the canyon as a whole and at very small parts such as a single cactus needle. It was amazing how intricate the world around me was and how easily I had blown by so much detail in the days previous.

Soon I began to reflect on the trip and all of the humorous things that had happened. We had one member of our trip who was plagued with unfortunate events but was always in high spirits and could take a couple jokes. He was so much fun to be around. I reflected on some of the humorous events that had already occurred (Including him walking into multiple cacti, being the only one to soak a shoe, and having a pipe that simply wouldn’t light). I wondered what would be next.

I was told that peeing off cliffs was one of the leading causes for men dying in the back-country. Nature called and naturally, I had to investigate what was so exciting about this peeing off cliffs thing. I quickly concluded that it was totally worth the risk.

That black spec on the edge of the point by the rapids in my 6'3" classmate, The canyon is HUGE!

Night began to approach, so I ate my dinner of peanut butter and honey tortilla sandwiches – one of my favorite meals on the trail. I crawled into my zero degree sleeping bag, and hoped to stay warm for the night. The view from where my head rested on the pillow was astounding. It was the best view I had ever had from a pillow, and I had it all to myself. I did not want to close my eyes! Far out on the right, large white water rapids were echoing through the canyon. A peninsula extended out from the short on the left to meet the rapids. Stars were uncountable, extending across the night sky like a delicately stitched blanket. Cliffs soared upwards all around me; the moon rested in the trough between two of these peeks. In the far distance, like a staircase leading up to the moon, each successive tier of the canyon was visible. It was perfect.

Morning came and as the sun began to rise, great shapes began to distinguish themselves. The author of the great rumble, the rapids, once again came into view and so did some of my fellow classmates. I noticed everyone facing one of the plots, starring, and laughing. When my eyes found the plot’s inhabitant, I found out what was so funny. The student who was having no luck with cacti had rolled onto one in the night and was now attempting to pluck hundreds of needles from his bum. I couldn’t wait to get back to camp and hear the story first-hand.

This is the view down river from the rapids; this is what I was looking at from my pillow during the night

With a couple hours left in my solo time I was overcome with my “Lord of the Flies” instincts and began to play like a child. First I decided that I wanted to view up river, a feat only possible by traversing the entire point on which my plot stood. There was water below me, so I knew I wouldn’t get hurt, but a fall would mean hiking in soaking wet boots for the last two days of the trip – Gore-Tex holds water in just as well and it keeps water out. I began to traverse the point. I had made it quite a distance around the point and could almost see up river when, much to my surprise, the handhold that was bearing most of my weight tore out. I had two fingers on my other hand in a little finger-hole and that was all that saved me from the cold January water.

One narrow escape was enough for me and I abandoned my dream of seeing up river. I traversed back to my plot and scrambled back up to my shelf on the cliff. I began to play with rocks on my plot as I did when I was a child. I enjoyed the freedom to regress for a time to my childhood instincts without being judged by others. Too quickly the solo time was over. I packed up my things and headed back to camp to discuss experiences and hear first-hand what happened with the cactus during the night.

This solo experience gave me the rare opportunity everyone needs to sit and think about life. This time allowed me to relax and figure out all the things I had previously been too busy to contemplate back home. The solo experience was good for my mind as I had time to address any and all of my concerns; it was good for my soul because it gave me time to pray and meditate; it was good for my body, because I had hiked many miles on very uneven terrain and this was a chance for my body to rest. Through this experience I has able to become more connected with nature and watch a day pass me by rather than being too busy, like normal, to notice the sun and moon move around me.


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Backpacking the Grand Canyon days 2 and 3

Backpacking the Grand Canyon days 2 and 3





Day 2 (20 January 2011, Interim day 18)

            The day was filled with ups and downs, literally. One moment the path would lead us up a set of switchbacks, and the next moment it would take us down another even longer set of switchbacks. Slowly we descended further and further into the depths of the canyon.

I was sore from the previous day’s hike. The hike had been down hill all day and we were back at it once again. My pack was significantly heavier this second day because the campsite we would stay at next had undrinkable water- we were told there was radiation in the water. Consequently, we had to fill water drums with enough water for the group for the afternoon hike, dinner meal, and the entire next day until we would be able to find another water source. I was one of the lucky souls who got to carry the extra weight which made my pack about 65lbs. Several other group members had packs around this weight as well, some even a little heavier.

During our seven-mile hike, we came across three stags (eight or more points each), two doe, and a fawn. They were beautiful and so graceful in their movements. After taking some time to watch these animals in their natural habitat, the group pushed forward.

Due to campsite regulations stating that groups could not be larger than six at either of our campsites, our big group of twelve had to split into two smaller groups of six for the night. We split up rather arbitrarily. I was in the group that would hike a shorter distance this day and make up for it with an 11-mile hike the next day.

Upon reaching our camp, we cooked dinner and took pictures around the campsite. One of our favorite pictures was taken from the box (primitive back-country toilet where a box is placed over a hole or collection tank) showing off the view. It was by far the best view any one of us had ever had from a toilet.

Our small group got into a deep discussion while we cooked dinner, bonding and getting to know one another in a way we had not done so before. With fewer voices contributing to the conversation, it was easier to focus on each member of the group and truly get to see who they are.

Once dinner was over, everyone went to bed. No fires were allowed in the canyon, it turned dark early, and we would be getting up very early the next morning as well. The girls went to their tent and we went to ours. My watch read 7:00PM.

Day 3 (21 January 2011, Interim day 19)

            We were five-miles behind the other group and were hoping to meet them just after their breakfast. For this reason, and because we had gone to bed so early the night before, we woke up at 4:00AM to eat breakfast and begin our hike.

A tendon had been flipping back-and-forth in my right knee since the beginning of the trip. It was causing me a lot of pain while hiking, and despite my efforts to hide it, I was starting to limp. A fellow member of my group, John, noticed me trying to hide the pain. He proceeded to take some weight out of my pack and put it in his. This helped immensely and I was very grateful.

Once our hike was underway, my knee started to bother me less. With slightly less weight in my pack, my knee only acted up after breaks and while hiking downhill. This was much more manageable than having every step be as painful as they had begun to be.

Just as the sun was beginning to warm the canyon, we stumbled upon four large stags. They were far more cautious than the ones we had seen the previous day, so they fled quickly. I was in awe at how well the deer could climb steep rocks and how careless they seemed while doing so. They were beautiful.

Quickly we came to one of the numerous long and narrow ridges in the canyon. Repeatedly we would walk about a mile to get to the other side of a gap no more than 100-feet wide. I found it curious how much I had previously taken bridges for granted.

After some time, but not as long as we had expected, we met up with the other group. They were not expecting us so early but were happy to see us. Together we walked several more ridges before stumbling upon an oasis. I quickly forgot my fatigued muscles as I surveyed our new landscape. In a matter of moments, we had gone from hiking in a dry, desert-like terrain to pushing lush foliage out of our faces and even seeing trees for the first time since we began our descent into the canyon two days prior.

Our map did not accurately show where the trail was supposed to lead us and the trail had disappeared altogether. Often there were cairns (small stacks of rocks) to mark paths that foot-traffic alone could not sufficiently mark but there were none in sight.

Scouts climbed to overlooks but found no signs on a trail. We decided to follow a small creek bed down to the Colorado River because the map showed the creek leading directly to our campsite. The weather was nice, so the risk of a flash flood was very minimal, an in the unexpected circumstance that one did occur, the group had the necessary teamwork required to get ourselves in a safe position.

            The river bed was amazing. Tier after tier, the rock walls extended straight up towards the sky. There were pools that required some ninja-like traversing moves (with feet on one wall and hands on the other) in order to cross the water without soaking our boots. The route proved treacherous at times, but the group worked together passing girls packs over difficult sections and giving a hand to any who wanted one while navigating risky parts of the creek bed. The group safely navigated the rocks. However, there were still a few mishaps. During one such traverse, the map fell into a pool, but luckily it was laminated! We also had one group member slip and put a boot underwater. This was not a huge problem, however, because we only had another couple of miles to go before we would reach our next campsite where they could be removed to dry.

The creek bed morphed into pebbles and flattened out. The water current continued to weaken until it simply disappeared. “How strange?” I thought as we continued to hike down the now dry creek bed.

I took many pictures of the rock. It had smooth, colorful features as well as jagged, grey-toned features to contrast. I was fascinated.

Our geologist pointed out the stacks of rocks along the creek bed and continued to explain how flash-flooding would have moved the rocks based on their size to their current locations. As this was being explained, we also saw a cairn – a very welcome site. We had indeed been on a path that others used as well to reach the campsite. These cairns are set up by other hikers to guide one another from place to place. Often they will be blown over in high winds or toppled from rushing water. For this reason many cairns are made at different heights. Our group added a few cairns along the way in places that did not have many.

In time water once again began to seep up through the ground as the creek came above ground once again. The babbling noise it made was welcomed by all, and the calming sound was soon replaced by the even more welcomed sound of white-water. We were getting close to the Colorado river and therefore we were also getting close to our campsite. The new noise hastened the groups pace as all were eager to reach the river and unload our packs.

When we reached the camp we were greeted by a group of white-water-rafters who were on a month-long trip down the Colorado River. They were very friendly and even took our trash from us – a very nice thing to do for people in the backcountry where “you pack out what you pack in.”

The group made a late lunch and prepared for our 18-hour solo time. During this time each member of the group would separate and spend the following hours in solitude. This solo time is a common practice in outdoor education. It teaches people to slow down, lends time for meditation and introspection, and allows people to really take in the environment they are in. This time would begin after our lunch and we would re-gather the following day for lunch once again. This would prove to be one another one of the highlights of my life so far.

To read more check back in for my next post!

Also see:

[interim part 1 – Joshua Tree Rock Climbing]

[Interim part 2 – Wilderness First Response Training]

[Interim part 3a – Grand Canyon Backpacking day 1]


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Backpacking the Grand Canyon (day 1)

Backpacking the Grand Canyon (day 1)

19 January 2011




Day 1 (Interim day 17)

After getting up at 6:00 am, cleaning rooms, and loading the van, we were fed our last meal in the front country, savory bacon with scrambled eggs. With much excitement, our group piled into the van and departed Flagstaff, AZ, headed to the Grand Canyon (or as Native Americans called it, “Mountain Lying Down”).

My first view of the Canyon was magnificent. Since it was January, the outer rim was covered with snow and ice, but from where we stood we could see the warm base of the canyon below. All were stunned by the magnitude of the canyon, but none could fully appreciate its enormity until that night, after trekking 7.5 mile to the base of the canyon 4,000 feet down. From the top, the canyon seems gigantic, but what many don’t realize is that the “cracks” that seem so small from the top actually extend down the canyon twice as deep as can be seen from the top. This is where we spent much of the following week, winding through this lowest level where the life-giving water flows.

One miss-step could land you down sever rows of switchbacks. Good thing it wasn't too icy

Our hike began on the South Kaibab trail, which has more switchbacks than I would want to count. My knees, both of which I had broken a couple years prior, screamed at me for putting them through the descent but I remained quiet, complaining does nobody any good and I wanted to see what my body was still capable of.

We often paused during our descent for brief lessons from the geology major on our trip. He would get so excited over the smallest differences in rock grains and shapes and would pour out his knowledge to the group. Many of us would stop and listen as we were very intrigued (and it was just fun to see someone get so excited over things the rest of us would breeze past without paying much, if any, attention too). This turned our to be a highlight for many of us on the trip, turning into a week-long history lesson of how the different layers of the canyon formed over time and how it will continue to change in the future. Walking through the canyon while learning about it in such detail was amazing; textbooks could never compete with this academic experience.

The trail led us further and further into the depths of the canyon. It seemed as if it would never end, until finally we caught a glimpse of the mighty Colorado River. It was still an hours’ hike away, but it put a little extra pep into our steps. When we finally reached the Colorado our feet were hot (the temperature at the bottom of the canyon was around 70° even though the top rim had snow), but the trail took us to a foot bridge rather than the river bank. No rest yet.

The bridge’s construction materials (which included eight 2” diameter steel cables that span the rivers breadth) could not be transported by mules and consequently had to be carried down by men. I could not imagine re-doing that hike carrying giant steel cables – my backpack with a week’s food plus water and clothes was more than enough for me.

Enjoying the view about 500 feet down into the canyon during our first short break

Finally we reached our campsite. There was a permanent overhang-shelter and the weather was nice so we did not set up our tents. Following dinner, we, the men, broke out pipes and enjoyed a relaxing smoke after the days effort.

This event was one of my favorite memories of my life thus far. There was a quiet ambiance from a stream trickling in the background. I took slow, careful draws on my pipe – enjoying the full flavor of my ‘crops circle’ blend of tobacco. All were quiet, simply absorbing the night. Then, suddenly, a bright bauble began to appear in the sky. It grew and grew in size until finally a full moon had risen from the darkness over the wall of the Grand Canyon. We all witnessed one of the free shows God brings about on a nightly basis, but rarely does anyone give it mind and even more rarely do people have such wonderful seats for the show! The full moon brought with it a second daylight so powerful our still bodies cast shadows on the canyon floor.

In this new light I went for a walk and came across a group of deer who were very friendly. I stood, surrounded by the deer, and took pictures of them. They didn’t appreciate my flash, however, and soon walked away. I went back to camp and prepared my sleeping mat and bag. The whole group slept on the dirt with the stars as our ceiling. I was too excited to sleep and instead watched the moon cross the entire night-sky and set over the far rim. Never before had I stayed up to watch such a majestic happening. Quietly I contemplated what living in such an advanced society was making me miss.

The moon set over the far rim of the canyon and I fell asleep for a couple hours before the early morning wake-up call. What an amazing first day in the Grand Canyon! I could not have asked for a better start to our adventure in the canyon.

Full moon on the rise


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How to save a life – Wilderness First Response Training

How to save a life – Wilderness First Response Training

(9-19 January 2011)

Day 0 (Interim day 6)

My 2011 Calvin College interim team ended up leaving our Single Pitch rock-climbing instructor training in Joshua Tree, California a little later than expected. At 1:00 in the morning we finally arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona. We were all exhausted from waking up at 6:00 the previous morning in order to accomplish our final day of instruction before leaving for Arizona. Yet, regardless of our fatigue and the fact that we had to get up to start our next day in six and a half hours, none could pass up the long awaited opportunity to take a shower. At this point, nobody has showered in over a week because the desert we camped in did not have running water.

The shower in the hostel where we stayed was quite something. The tiles were stained, and there were spiders and other insects to keep us company while we washed up. Nobody thought twice about the grimy shower, it was the first shower in a week and that was all that mattered. My watch read 2:30 AM by the time we were all in bed. That meant only four hours until we would be woken up for breakfast – at least I was not assigned to be a cook that morning.

Day 1 (Interim day 7)

After a very long day and a very short night, we woke up early for our initial Wilderness First Response class. Class took us from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day, with some additional evening sessions, since we were squeezing a standard 3-credit college course into a nine day period. It’s no wonder one of our instructors, Pete, had eight cups of coffee during class every day.

Once the first class was over, a majority of us went to the local climbing gym where our AMGA instructor from the Joshua Tree portion of our trip was employed. The gym was ridiculously large and had a wonderful variety of climbs and boulder routes.

I helped cook dinner when we returned from the climbing gym. We made a lot of spaghetti. Both groups from my college were together for this class and that made about 25 hungry mouths to feed. Everyone ate together in the recreation room of the hostel, and had a blast playing pool, lounging on the couches and listening to an old-style music player similar to a jukebox – my favorite item in the room. In the evenings though, most of the group would study together in this room and practice scenarios in between their turns to play on the pool table. Occasionally other tenants at the hostel would come in and play with us as well. We did our best to be a very inviting group, conscious of other tenants in the hostel, and respectful about cleaning up after ourselves.

Day 3 (Interim day 9)

This is where the Wilderness First Response (WFR) training went from fun to outstandingly enjoyable. By this point in the course we had learned enough of the basics that it was time to go out and practice. The large group was split into sub-groups, half became patients while the other half did assessments.

The WFR instructors had Hollywood quality fake blood, bruise make-up, burned skin, and splintered bones. As patients it was our job to act well enough to deserve this quality of equipment – so that’s just what we did. Every actor was slightly different from the others, making every situation unique, and all were in competition to see who could be the most obnoxious but still believable patient.

Several of us, during the asthma attack scenario hyperventilated well enough that we came very near blacking out. The story that took the cake was from a group two years prior where a student wet his own pants as part of the scenario. None of us would attempt to top (or even match) that, but we still did a very good job and had fun screaming, moaning, and insulting the people helping us whenever they made a mistake. Each got their turn in various positions and it soon became apparent that “what goes around comes around” as people who were tough patients would get tough patients in return. This only made the experience more enjoyable.

The temperature during the morning practice sessions often hovered between zero and ten degrees Fahrenheit, which is very cold as a patient. In the cold morning sessions, if the rescuers had not brought an insulated pad or if they needed to check feet or under layers of clothing, their patient would became cold very quickly. This was not a fun aspect of the training, but if was very beneficial. We were often reminded that WFR’s trained in the winter have a distinct advantage because we know and have practiced how to deal with cold weather conditions.

Day 4 (Interim day 10)

This day focused on splints for injured patients. We learned a variety of splinting techniques and the best ways to improvise them, since we would rarely pack splints into the back country. We built some very interesting splints, my favorite of which was held together by a cord tied in a carpet-stitch pattern, wrapping around the whole splint from knee to ankle (In the picture shown).

Another cool splint we learned to make was the ‘traction splint,’ which is used if someone breaks his or her femur. Now while this may be a remarkable split, it is one you never want to have to make. We were told that breaking a femur is like snapping a 2X4 board along its 4-inch width. In the unlikely event that this happens (which it occasionally does), a splint must be built that will sling the ankle and pull the lower leg until the two ends of the femur separate. Next, the splint must be tied off in this position so the broken ends of the femur can’t slide back together and potentially pinch or sever the femoral artery (a very life-threatening situation). Sound fun yet? Well, the next part ought to make it even better. After this whole contraption is built, the patient must be evacuated to a hospital before the splint can be removed, and in some situations this could take several days.

Day 5 (Interim day 11) “Where’s my helivac?”

A plane crashed in the field behind our building. We, the WFR’s in-training were the only ones around to respond. This was the two-hour scenario on the fifth day of class. We quickly organized into six teams of three to four people, each with the fourth member of our team preparing to form an additional group under my supervision should it become necessary. In addition to these teams, we also had two site supervisors who organized teams and processed requests, along with a gear distributor who would bring backboards, litters, and other necessary equipment to the highest priority teams as needed.

The first patient I began working on had a double-femur fracture and a severed femoral artery that was squirting blood with each beat of his heart (explain to me how was he not already dead?). The med-kit we were given did not have trauma sheers so I quickly jury-rigged my knife to take their place (this later earned quite a few MacGyver comments) and cut open the pant legs to reveal the injuries. I rolled a ball of athletic tape over the tip of the blade and taped off all but two inches. This made it safe to use near the patient without accidentally causing more injuries.

While the rest of the team stabilized the patient, I ran to get a backboard. On my way I noticed the scene commander’s assistant tending to a seventh patient who had quietly wandered into the scene. I turned around and let my former team know I wouldn’t be back as I now needed to assemble my own team for this extra patient.

The seventh patient was holding his amputated right hand in his left hand (he was actually holding a second left hand from a dummy because that is all the instructors had to work with, but we rolled with it). Nick, the scene commander’s assistant stabilized the spine of this seventh patient while I put a tourniquet on the right hand. I delegated the task of monitoring vitals to another member of my team, while I proceeded to clean and bag the amputated limb.

The field where we practiced the plane crash scenario

Our patient was going into shock and was complaining of feeling very cold. We put a call in to the commander for a sleeping bag. He responded quickly by indicating that response team 5 was not using theirs and we could go fetch it from them. Off I ran.

Upon my return, the patient was carefully put into the sleeping bag and we were able to calm him down a little. With the combination of the patient being too distracted to do a Focused Spine Assessment and his form of injury, we decided to keep his head immobilized in case there was a spinal injury.

We radioed the S.O.A.P. (Subjective, Objective Assessment, Plan) notes to the commander and requested a backboard and helivac. While we waited for the helivac, other calls came in that were higher priority. The helivac was directed to another group without us being informed of our priority bump. This was stressful to say the least. We radioed in numerous times requesting to know the ETA of our helicopter or at least our number on the priority list so we could tend to the patient accordingly but there was no response.

After about twenty minutes the patient stabilized and the snow kept the amputated hand cool. The scenario ended before our helicopter ever arrived but I believe we did a very good job in the treatment of our patients’, considering we were only half way through the course. This was the conclusion of class for the day and we had to wait until the next morning to conduct a debriefing session.

Days 6-8 (Interim day 12-14)

The debrief went well. We discussed what could have gone better and what we did well (like having an extra team ready to form). The two biggest hurdles we had were not having enough equipment (backboards, litters, helicopters) and not having good enough communication. Both of these are real-world problems that can make a mission successful or a complete failure. Professionals have to practice often in order to keep their communication skills honed, and they must be able to accept that their patients’ injuries may not be as severe as another’s, trusting that the Incident Commander will make the best call for everyone.

As the class drew to an end, I spent extra time and energy studying and practicing scenarios to make sure I would pass the course. The exam was 100 multiple-choice questions and a hands-on scenario during which we would be closely scrutinized. The written section covered all of the protocols, possible injuries, and intuition based on signs and symptoms being displayed in various scenarios. This was material that had been taught for 80 hours + study time in the past eight days and filled a large book about a quarter-inch thick with information (Quite a lot to memorize in just over a week!). The hands-on portion of the exam was going to be a surprise because it tested us on our ability to follow our order of operations and think on our feet. This was the sort of thing we would have to do in the real world, so we had better be able to get it exactly right now. With the pressure of the upcoming test looming, others in the group studied in the evening as well. This made for an environment that was very conducive to studying.

Night 8

            The last opportunity we had to practice was our night scenario the evening before the exam. We split into groups in the dark woods and were told which direction to head to find our patients. The snow was knee deep and very hard to walk through, we used the light of the mood and our headlamps to find our way. Just before we made it into the patch of woods where we were supposed to find our patient we heard a snap and a scream as one of our group members fell to the ground wincing in pain. We rushed over (confident in our ability to act) and began to take care of her.

When she ignored our questions of whether this was real or not, we determined the scary situation we found ourselves in was actually the scenario and the snap had been a stick she stepped on. Upon exposing the wound, we saw that the tibia had splintered and was protruding through the front of her shin. We cleaned the area and dressed it before building a splint to immobilize the leg. A proper splint should immobilize the joints immediately above and below an injury, so our splint went from the thigh to the foot of our friends right leg.

Since it was already late and we were lost (as the scenario stated), we decided to build camp for the night. Having to tent, sleeping bags, or any other overnight items and not wanting to move our injured friend, I began to build a shelter around the group. I built a snow fort in the shape of a pentagon from the five trees surrounding us. I used sticks to begin a roof then packed snow over them. The fort made the area much warmer as it cut the wind and helped hold in some heat.

After about thirty minutes, a group member went off to use the bathroom. He did not return and did not respond to our calls. We found him unconscious at the foot of a tree. He may have struck his head so we did not want to move him unless we had to (in case of spinal injury). We attempted to illicit a response but he was not even responsive to pain (a fun test to do when you know the person is only faking unconscious). We put warm clothes over our friend and packed him in with snow to insulate.

The count was two injured, three healthy. One member of my group monitored the unconscious body while the other stayed in the fort with our first injured friend. I continued to work on the fort to improve its warmth and keep my body warm (I had lent out nearly all of my layers).

We continued to monitor our friends and prepared ourselves for spending the night. After another hour or two we saw lights moving towards us and were informed the scenario was over. Miraculously our unconscious friend woke up. He had done a great job staying in character as a patient. We had rubbed sugar packets in his mouth (In case he was unconscious from a diabetic coma), bruised his trapezius muscle in trying to get him to respond to pain (we knew he wasn’t actually unconscious and we wanted him to break), and he had dealt with being cold because we simply were not given sufficient materials to keep him warm. Had this been a real life scenario, we would have made fire, and even laid next to him to keep him warm – this was not a life or deal scenario so there was no way we were going to lay with him to keep him warm.

Day 9-10 (Interim days 15-16)

           I successfully passed my Wilderness First Response exam with high scores, along with all of the other students in the course. We celebrated and thanked our instructors, Pete and Ari, before going back to the hostel. Pizza was our dinner and boy did it taste good! I had not eaten pizza in two weeks (probably the longest I have ever gone without it). I washed my clothes and spent some time alone time while others went out rock climbing.

The next day would consist of some R&R, saying goodbye to the half of our group that would now be going to Joshua Tree for their AMGA training, wandering through downtown Flagstaff, and eating at a restaurant as a group before preparing for the Grand Canyon, the last stage of this interim trip. With the other patrol gone, the hostel was quiet. I mopped the floor as a thank you to the hostel owners for letting our whole group use their facilities (and somewhat overwhelm the common space) for the week, and other members did similar jobs as thank-you’s. We packed our clothes and got ready to leave in the morning for the Grand Canyon.

See Related:

[Interim 2011 Part I] Joshua Tree

coming soon:

Interim 2011 Part III] Grand Canyon Backpacking


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Rock climbing in Dr. Seuss country

[Interim 2011 Part I] Rock Climbing Instructor Training

Joshua Tree, CA (3-9 January 2011)

Joshua Trees look like Truffula Trees from Dr Seuss

Day 1 “are we there yet?”

Following a direct flight from Grand Rapids, MI to Phoenix, AZ, all members of the Calvin College Outdoor Educator Interim group said goodbyes to one another as they split up and piled into two white vans. Half had the Grand Canyon as their destination while the other half, including myself, were heading to Joshua Tree California for Single Pitch Rock Climbing Instructor training through the AMGA.

My van was full to say the least. In it were 12 people, 90 meals, and 12 internal frame backpacks with clothing for a month, sleeping bags, tents, toiletries, and anything else that would be used over the course of the interim. We were packed in tight but all were in good spirits having left the gray, sunless Michigan winter behind and had been welcomed by the warm Arizona sunshine. We laughed and played games such a hot seat as we got to know one another.

Arriving in Joshua Tree, we were greeted with a crippling cold we had so happily thought had been left in Michigan. Quickly bags were shuffled through for jackets, gloves, hats and balaclavas. It was dark and cold, but everyone worked as a team to set up tents and prepare the campsite by the light of our headlamps. To my surprise, we cut through the darkness to find an excellent plot for our six-person tent. Once the tent was guyed-out and packs secured inside, I threw on an extra pair of socks and pants and headed out for the evening meeting where we discussed the happenings of the day.

Day 2 “this is a ‘don’t tell Rooks’ moment” (inside joke)

Morning came too soon as I had been awake for most watches of the night. Six big guys in a six-person tent make for warm but very uncomfortable sleeping conditions. I was flanked by the second largest guy in our group and a student who must have dreamt he was one of those Rock’em Sock’em Robots as he repeatedly punched me throughout the night. It didn’t help that we were packed in so tight every couple hours we would hear, “ok guys, roll onto your left sides now.”

After hearing the “wake up” call from the day’s cooks, I sat up and prepared to exit the tent. My heart sank as I felt an icy chill creep into my warm sleeping bag and noticed that my breath was visible even inside the tent. Upon exiting the tent, I discovered a fresh white covering of frost over the earth. I wish I could say I was as excited as our geology student was as he examined the crystal structures in the frost and taught the group about the formations, but I just couldn’t find excitement from the cold. I was probably still in shock that my Mountain Hardwear Sub-Zero Parka hadn’t come in time and I was forced to use a 20-year-old snowmobiling jacket that severely lacked insulation. I was cold to say the least.

The two instructors who camped next to us for the duration of the class introduced themselves to us after breakfast and we headed out to climb for the day. When we reached the site where we would be climbing for the day, our instructors lead the group in yoga to get our muscles moving a little bit before our lesson. A series of short scrambles and traverses lead us to the top of a crag. Here we discussed safety and watched a demonstration of how to properly place cams, tri-cams, and nuts to build anchors. Following that demonstration we were also shown how to build a “magic-x” to automatically equalize the load on various anchors, as well as how to tie master points with an intended loading direction on the rope.

The day was cold and we climbed on a wall in the shadows. Between climbs, we would throw on our puffy coats and hiking boots to warm back up. Often we even needed to “take” half way up the wall and warm our hands that had become increasingly clumsy from the cold. The day was a success.

The group tore down equipment, coiled ropes, and headed back to camp. Warm pasta with a soy/peanut butter sauce made for a delicious meal. We had an evening meeting in the dark and discussed the highs and lows of the day for each member of the group and also discussed the plan for the next day.

Following the meeting, a group of us went out and explored one of the nearby boulder piles. “Boulder piles” does not adequately describe the magnitude of what we explored. They were a class 4 scramble (a fall would result in serious injury) and we explored by the light of our headlamps. Everyone was so excited about the amazing scenery that the group was transformed into Tom Sawyer wanna-be’s. Under the supervision of our more experienced group members, we negotiated our way to the lowest peak – leaving room for further exploration throughout the week. While on the peak of the boulder pile, the group laid down to look at the stars. I passed my astronomy laser pointer to my climbing partner who knew constellations and he taught the group about the various constellations above.

Upon returning to the campsite, I quickly retired to my tent for bed. I had not felt my toes since I left the tent that morning and I soon found my sleeping bag was the only place I was not uncomfortably cold.

Day 3 “all plants here try to hurt and/or maim” – Chris Tatum (AMGA Instructor)

Early in the morning, a group left the tent to watch the sunrise. I caught a little peaceful sleep thanks to the now roomy tent. It was wonderful. Soon enough I got up as it was my turn to cook breakfast. I prepared quinoa with cinnamon, raisins, almond slices, and chopped peppers. It tasted great and was very filling.

Following breakfast was the morning quiet time. Many broke out Bibles, often reading Psalms, others sat in quiet admiration of our surroundings. It was wonderful to be perched on a rock feeling the sun chase away the cold while it filled the world with its warmth.

Having noted to one of the older members in my group that my feet were always cold, I was introduced to a trick for keeping my feet warmer. “Tie your boots looser” is all that was said. The trade off from having my boots very secure to becoming slightly sloppy was well worth the increase in warmth. This would not work while scrambling, but around camp it was great.

A warm afternoon gave everyone extra energy as we went through our lesson. The day’s lesson taught us how to read rock structures to make sure that our trad-gear would be placed correctly. By the end of the afternoon, we were building 3-point anchors and testing them with our body weight. No gear tore out and our instructors were very positive. They would often show us a slight adjustment that would make our anchors move from the “safe” category to “bomber” as I soon learned was a common word in the community.

After dinner was exploration time yet again. We explored caves/cracks running through the giant boulder piles. This night’s exploration took us from the base of a rock pile to its center. Looking to continue, we spiraled through the pile and eventually scaled a fifteen-foot tall chimney to exit through the top of the pile. I was excited and wanted to keep going, but the next day was going to be very full so we went to bed on time.

Day 4 “this nut is supposed to make me feel safe if I fall?”

The morning came and my climbing partner and I organized our trad-gear before again practicing placing protection in the rocks. We placed cams, nuts, hexes, and tri-cams. The 7” tri-cam was my favorite to place because it was such a ridiculous piece of equipment and by placing it, we no longer needed to lug it around. From these pieces of protection, we built anchors using the techniques we had practiced the day earlier. We built out anchors about 30 feet off the ground. Then it came time to put our weight on the system and pray it would hold. With a body tense from nerves, I trusted my good health to a system built by a friend and myself. It worked! What a relief.

Following a break for lunch, the group piled in the van and headed to a nearby crag to build anchors on a real cliff. On the way, all nervousness that may have existed was lost as the group rocked out to “Pappa Americano” and bounced the van to its beat.

Upon leaving the vans a more serious tone once again came over the group as we were preparing to build anchors that our lives would truly depend on. We scrambled up the back of the rock face, built our anchor systems, transferred onto the main rope and belayed ourselves down the 100ft cliff – it was quite a rush to lean over a 100-foot cliff on our own anchors. It is a very odd feeling to transfer ones own weight from the safety of the rock to a position that would be unrecoverable should the protection not hold. Everyone did this successfully though and had a great time with the rush it brought.

At the end of the day, we tore down anchors as we watched the sunset from the top of the crag. The knot from my anchor wedged itself in a crack, so I had to lower myself back over the edge of the cliff on a tether to free the knot. I didn’t enjoy it very much because the tether was a smaller diameter rope that the gri-gri was rated for, but I had a couple good backup knots on the tether and was told it would be fine. Tentatively I lowered myself and freed the knot in the other rope. The gri-gri held just fine. By the time we were finished it was getting quite dark.

Following the evening meeting, the group prepared for our biggest night scramble yet. Working together as a team, we navigated our way to the highest nearby peak only using the moon and our headlamps for light. The peak was just large enough for everyone to sit at the very top, with one edge dropping off of about 75 feet, while the other side had a shelf located 15 feet down, followed by a drop off to the desert floor 200+ feet below. Although it was dark, we could see for miles by the light of the moon, we sat and talked about numerous things, including how we were going to get back down, and we admired our beautiful surroundings. Sitting on this peak was one of the highlights of the interim trip for me.

After some time the group was ready to navigate back to camp. Knowing there were some very risky spots, we helped one another and reached camp safely. After spending some time with one another in camp, all members of the group retired to their tents for the night.

Day 5 “No! I’m not coming down!” -Jon

Rescue scenarios were the topic of the first lesson this day. We had a lot of fun as we learned to take-over-belay and raise ourselves up to climbers on the other end of their rope. The group became very animated as they acted as scared or injured climbers, while the others practiced these techniques. Jon, one of the more experienced members, even went so far as to build a second anchor to tie into so he could not be pulled off the wall. This made everyone laugh as his partner had to tear down the anchor before he could get Jon (playing the part of a scared, hysterical climber) back to the ground. In addition to learning techniques to rescue from below, we also learned to top-rope-belay so we could learn to rescue from above the next day.

By this time in the trip, I noticed myself becoming very comfortable with stepping over the edge of the cliffs. It no longer put my stomach in knots; furthermore, it also no longer gave me as much of an adrenaline rush – but it was still an amazing feeling.

One aspect that really made the trip was how exceptional the group dynamic was. Everyone had been doing their camp-jobs and going out of their way to help others finish their tasks. We all respected each other, and when anyone spoke, they were able to finish their thought without being interrupted. The group shared laughs often but could be serious when the situation deemed it necessary.

In the evening, the group went to bed early. We were going to be waking up early for our last half day of instruction, before driving to Flagstaff, Arizona for our Wilderness First Response Training. It was distressing to be leaving so soon after arriving in Joshua Tree, but we were all looking forward to showers and flushing toilets again – the desert does not have much water.

Day 6 “goodbye Joshua Tree”

The final morning of this section of our Interim class began early. We ate a quick breakfast and went into our lesson. The day’s lesson included a vector pull (gives a climber assistance from a top-belay) and a 3-to-1 haul that is used to pull a climber up a wall if they cannot climb it on their own.

After the instruction and some free time for climbing, each pair of students, who had been partners all week, met with the two instructors to discuss personal strengths and weaknesses. My partner and I had gotten along very well and gained a lot of trust in one another throughout the week. Our camaraderie had made learning the many knots and systems a lot of fun. Meeting with our instructors was a very enjoyable experience as well. Our instructors had taught us well and where very encouraging while guiding us through what we needed to practice most.

The group said goodbye to the instructors and climbed into the van. Our bodies were tired and slightly chewed-up from a week of climbing on rough granite, but it was completely worth every blister and sore. Before this trip, I was unsure if I would ever be very much involved in rock climbing, but through this trip, I fell in love with the sport because it is such a unique way to engage with the outdoors, and many different people can all challenge themselves together by picking routes tailored to their abilities. There is nothing quite like being multiple stories off the ground while a couple bottle-cap sized rocks as the only things holding your entire body to the wall.

For the rest of the interim, see:

[Part II] Wilderness First Response Training – Flagstaff, AZ

Coming soon:

[Part III] Grand Canyon Backpacking – Grand Canyon, AZ

Joshua Tree, CA

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