Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Whistler Backpacker - Part 1

I have hiked trails. I have run trails. I have camped in tents. But I have never gone on a multi-day adventure hiking trails with a 20-30 pound pack on me.

This was the single most thing I dreaded in signing up for my first backpacking trip. My experience in ultra running, and experience hiking and running trails gave me the confidence in conquering trails with several thousand feet of climbing in a day. Adding 20-30 pounds on me though gives a different challenge to the whole aspect of hiking. I might have the legs of an ultra runner, but I felt like I have the upper body of a couch potato and professional beer drinker. 

Nevertheless, in my quest to check off backpacking as a bucket list item in life, I signed up to do a 3 day backpacking adventure with REI in Whistler. Whistler is in British Columbia, Canada, just 1-2 hours north of Vancouver. Summer was already winding down, so unfortunately the choices of places to go to for backpacking were getting slim to none. Still, I thought Whistler was a great choice, given I haven't been to Canada for a long time (I went once, but on a very short day trip from Seattle, Washington). 

Having never backpacked though, I had to purchase quite a few items from REI (kiddingly referred to as Really Expensive Items, I think). REI was my first choice, partly due to the Reese Witherspoon movie called "Wild" (book by Cheryl Strayed). I liked the fact that their return policy is very generous, but I had no plans to take advantage of it and return muddied hiking boots or used sleeping bags. I just wanted the expertise in choosing sturdy hiking boots (for ankle support, since I'll be using poles and carrying a pack, versus trail running shoes which might not be as sturdy for ankle support), and also choosing the right backpack (it turns out your body frame, height and even weight, matters in choosing the right backpack so you carry it with your hips rather than your shoulders). 

For the trip, I had to purchase the following:
* Hiking boots
* Compressible sleeping bag (15 degree rated)
* Sleeping pad (bought the non-inflatable one, but it's bulky in hindsight, and I should have bought the compressed one)
* Backpack (with rain cover and day pack, which I didn't know was in there, but really came in handy during the trip)
* Steel cup, bowl and mug (I could have both a compressible one, but I wanted a sturdy one that was also easy to wash)
* Hiking poles (turns out REI had some to lend during the trip, but I wasn't sure and figured I'll use it in future hikes)
* Tissue paper (for obvious reasons, I thought we needed a shovel for off trail duties, but thankfully none of us needed to do this)
* Toiletries (toothbrush, floss, toothpaste)
* Garbage bag
* Base layer (top and bottom, was listed as recommended, but I glad I bought for the cold weather)
* Rain jacket and pants 
* Down jacket (compressible)

REI Adventures provided the food for the whole trip. They gave us a bunch of bars to choose from since some in our group had peanut allergies (usually they buy a bunch of trail mix and have us scoop and put it in ziplock bags). They also had real food for our breakfast, lunch and dinner which was a welcome surprise because I was expecting the type of food that is just heated up that tasted like those microwave meals you see in grocery stores.

Day 0: Dinner at Pizzeria Antico

Our group met for the very first time at a nice pizza place in Whistler Village. We met our two guides, Hal and Christine, for the first time. Our group of adventures included Bob and Sean (father and son), Tanner and Peter (husband and wife), Ed, Cathy, Carmel, Guen and me (solo adventurers). We got to know each other over a hearty meal of pizzas, pastas, and appetizers. We also got to know what's ahead of us and collected group gear to add to our backpacks (I got the pots/pans and tissue paper, score!). We had a good mix of those who have done backpacking before (Bob, Sean, Peter, Cathy and Carmel) and those who have not done it at all (Ed, Guen, Tanner and me). 

Guen felt intimidated by the experience of the group. I reassured her after dinner that she was going to be fine and we're all new backpackers regardless of our experience hiking in the trails.

Day 1: Hike to Russett Lake

We met around 8:30 AM in the morning at Gone Village Eatery. I already had eaten a hot breakfast sandwich and drank my daily dose of coffee in the morning prior to "take care of business". REI took care of our breakfast that morning and also asked us to take a sandwich with us for lunch (also part of the trip cost). I took both my breakfast and lunch sandwich to go.

The start of the hike was actually preceded with the "Peak 2 Peak" Gondola ride, which took us to the top of Whistler Peak. It felt like cheating to take a gondola ride to the top of a mountain to me, but realizing there's no other trail to get to the top, according to our guides, I was more than content to take in the views with Peter, Tanner and Sean who were with me on that gondola (picture of me and Tanner below).

Once we got to the top, we got a chance to hit the last "real" restrooms before we took a ski lift to another peak before we started our hike in earnest. Our group took advantage of the restroom breaks to use them as well as to take the necessary individual and group photos (our first of many group photos below).

We started the hike after we got to the top of the ski lift (technically after another porta potty, which was the last porta potty between using the trails and getting to the "outhouse" at Russett Lake, which is at the end of our first day hike). When we started hiking, we started taking in all the views immediately. As I was when I was driving to Whistler, my mind just kept getting blown away with the breathtaking views!

Hiking with a heavy backpack on us didn't seem to be that heavy at all, given how we were all taken by our surroundings. Our guides were good to enforce a guideline where I noticed they had us stopping every 2 miles or so, with our pace being a leisurely 30 minutes per mile (not bad considering the starting altitude of 6000+ feet, and several hundred feet of climbing ahead of us). Below is a picture of us taking those said breaks and Christine helping some trail runners coming down from a hill we were going to climb up to. She gave them some advice for some scenic routes. It was nice to see some fellow trail runners in Whistler!

We were lucky so far in our first day of hiking. No rain forecasted for that day had hit yet. We reached Oboe Summit and took our lunch break while having good conversation and jaw dropping views.

After a nice lunch break, we went on our merry way down and then back up, before we hit our "basecamp" for our adventure, which was at Russett Lake. We reached it in time though, as the rain began to pour at that time. We still had to assemble our tents though and provide the group gear we carried to our guides.

I had a massive brain freeze at that point. I kept on playing around with the poles that my tent came with (REI provided our tents and I got an individual tent to set up). It didn't help that the wind kept on howling and trying to blow all my tent gear all over the place. Thankfully Christine helped me to assemble my tent! Otherwise, I would probably just be sleeping outside with my sleeping bag, or at the "Hut" accompanied by field mice (which happened at Day 2!).

The "Hut" is a welcome installation at camp. Otherwise, we would all be individually (or in twos, for the couple and father/son) in our tents, and have nowhere to socialize, huddle and chow down our nicely cooked meals from our REI guides. Some of us also thought about sleeping in the "Hut" because it seemed warmer, but our guides warned us about mice most probably crawling up our faces while we slept if we did choose to sleep in the "Hut". The possibility of the crawling critters discouraged anyone from sleeping in the "Hut" for our first night (the second night was a totally different question, based on the weather).

The "outhouse" pictured above was a welcome presence also in camp. Otherwise, we would all be doing our business all over the trails, which doesn't seem to friendly considering the "leave no trace" rules in Whistler. Our guide suggested that some could leave the door open due to the potential smell, but also due to the great views you could have while being in the loo! (see below).

After dinner, we all still stayed in the hut to have some more conversation and stories. We ended up awake until about 9 PM or so, which was a good time to hit our "bed" before we had our next full day of hiking ahead of us.

That concludes Day 1 of 3 for the backpacking report. More stories to come for Day 2 and Day 3 later on! 

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