Squirrel Tales and Gear Fails

Day 5, August 21, 2015: Crabtree Meadow to Tyndall Creek

I HATE my backpack!!! HATE IT. HATE IT. HATE IT!!!  If I had a temper, I’d have kicked the damn thing clear across Crabtree Meadows this morning. But I don’t. So I didn’t.

I’m sorry REI, I love you and most of your gear but the Flash 62 is a piece of shit. Ok, I’ll take some responsibility…  I probably shouldn’t have waited until just 4 weeks before my trip to decide I needed a new backpack.  I was trying not to spend a total fortune on new gear. I’d already updated my tent, stove, sleeping bag, cook set, boots, sleeping pad, base layer, socks, and even hiking pants (you can see my full gear list here). Did I really need a new backpack too? I tried to convince myself that it could wait.

REI Flash 62 - A love-hate relationship
REI Flash 62 – A love-hate relationship

But backpacking in Lassen National Park for 6 days during the eighth of my nine JMT training/shake-down hikes, I had to concede: the way my pack squeaked while I hiked and pulled to my right side causing me to constantly fidget and tug at the waist belt and load straps would be super annoying after a couple weeks on the trail. I couldn’t deny it any longer: I needed a new backpack.

I loved my old Flash 62, it served me well for several years, so after doing some window shopping, online comparisons, and trying a couple on inside the store, I decided the new Flash 62 would be a good choice.  Then it went on sale at REI Outlet and I got a member’s only 20% off coupon – I ended up getting it for only $79. How could I refuse a deal like that?

I was so excited the day UPS dropped it off on my doorstep!  But the excitement disappeared when I pulled the flimsy backpack out of the box.  I’m not sure what I expected for a $79, but I didn’t expect “ultra-light” (2 lbs. 14 oz.) to be synonymous with poor quality.  As I scrupulously inspected my new pack I had doubts the tiny compression strap buckles could hold up under the bionic-strength compression demands I put on my packs. And the “ActiveX LT perimeter aluminum frame” seemed way too frail for the rugged wilderness. I was skeptical this pack would be durable enough for 30 days on the trail, but I trust REI so I decided to give it a shot.

crabtree marker sign smaller

I took it out on a trial run for three days in Emigrant Wilderness, loading it with about 30 lbs. of gear and food. I liked how light it felt on my back and how it moved with my body effortlessly.  The fit was ‘ok’, even though the shoulder straps sat a couple inches above my shoulders no matter how tight I pulled the straps.  I’m 5’4” and I bought a medium. Even though every sign pointed to the pack being too big for me I just couldn’t accept that I’d wear a small anything.  (I know, I know completely different than say, a shirt, but tell my old chubby-girl brain that!). Even though the fit was off a little, it felt pretty comfortable, so I didn’t think too much about it.

Then I discovered a bigger problem:  my first morning out, as I slung my new Flash 62 over my shoulder to hit the trail, I noticed the top of the Activflex LT perimeter aluminum frame had popped out. There are little flappy cover things that fit over the frame to hold it in place. When it pops out the pack pulls away and bobs in the breeze.  When I first discovered this on the trail in Emigrant, I took my pack off and tried to pull the flaps back over the frame, but it was impossible. Being full, everything was too taut. I decided to live with it for the day; we were only hiking a few miles anyway.   I hiked all day with the bobbing and swaying, vowing to investigate the flaw and figure out how to fix it later.

Packing up at Crabtree
Packing up at Crabtree

When I got home and read the reviews I didn’t see any complaints about the frame. I thought that was odd because it was a definite pain in the ass.  But I did learn that a “multi-day” pack doesn’t mean a “30 day pack” and the REI Flash 62’s max load capacity is about 35lbs and I’d be cramming about 40 lbs into it. I was just 2 weeks out; scheduling another outing to test a new backpack wasn’t an option so I decided I’d make the most of the one I had. I thought about using my old one, but the squeak and sliding seemed worse than carrying too much weight and remembering to put the frame in place every morning.

This morning I regretted my decision. Apparently, yesterday when I tightened and compressed all the straps to make it into a day pack for the Mt. Whitney climb everything came unhinged. I hadn’t had any problems with it so far on this trip so I forgot to check it before stuffing all my gear inside.

See the animal on the rock? This is the trail to Whitney from Guitar Lake
See the animal on the rock? This is the trail to Whitney from Guitar Lake

As I left camp and hiked toward the trail to Tyndall Creek I felt something jabbing me in the back. I squirmed and felt around with my hands trying to figure out what was poking me. I took a few more steps. More jabbing and poking. I’d squirm and wriggle under the weight of my pack some more.  A few more steps, more prodding.  What the hell? It couldn’t be ignored. The pack had to come off.   Any backpacker knows the last thing you want to do after heaving a 45 pound pack over your shoulder, tightening, buckling, adjusting, bouncing and adjusting some more until it fits just right, is take it off.  But sometimes you have no choice.  I slid my nemesis off my back in frustration and let it hit the ground with a thud. There it was. Not only had I forgotten to pop the top of the frame into place, but a new flaw presented itself: the ends of the frame had come loose and were sticking out from somewhere. That’s what was poking me in the back. 

I was simmering in frustration.  I just wanted to be on the trail! I didn’t want to be dealing with this!  My head resounded with the piece of mind I wanted to give REI:  This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen! Who designed this piece of crap?  Some nerdy engineer who has never been outside before, much less worn a backpack on an actual trail? I imagined a team of backpack-design engineers holed up in a basement lab with no windows, geeking out over the load-to-weight ratios (not sure if that’s even a thing…) and getting orgasmic over saving nano-grams with their fancy Activflex LT perimeter aluminum frame as they drew it out in complex algorithms and formulas on a white board. Finally “testing” it on a virtual backpacking trip on a reality-sized screen while they sipped Mountain Dew from cans and watched. “Yep, looks good to me.” “Yep, me too, let’s sell this thing!”


I found two tiny pockets near the waist belt that house each end of the aluminum frame.  The frame isn’t sewn in (no… 4 cms of thread would have added way too many nano-grams!), it was just supposed to slide right in and magically stay there! No one every bothered to turn the empty pack upside down, apparently!   (Maybe they should have had the Samsonite gorillas test it instead of the engineers). This is the stupidest design I have ever seen. REI your design team should be fired.

I vigorously tried to squeeze the “Activflex LT perimeter aluminum frame” back into place without emptying the pack: no such luck. I had no choice, I had to do what I least wanted to do: unpack. 

Trail scenery day 5
Trail scenery day 5

I can live with a pack that doesn’t fit quite right. I can even live with the discomfort of carrying more weight than it’s meant to (that problem solves itself as my pack gets lighter every day) but having to fight with this damn frame and remembering to squeeze all four points back in place – and make sure they stay there as I fill my pack – every day, stretched the limits of my patience. There’s no excuse for it – it’s just poor design. But I’m 50 miles into the wilderness. There’s not much I can do. Fix the damn frame and move on.

Unpacking my gear, I found a puddle of water in the bottom of the bladder sleeve. Oh great. Is my bladder busted now?  I pulled it out and inspected it, finding 4 little punctures.  I flashed back to when I’d absent-mindedly plopped it down on a rock at camp. Note to self: rocks are hard, bladders are soft. Do not slam soft things onto rough rocky surfaces.  I really need to pay closer attention to everything I do out here!

I was grateful for the brush-on superglue I accidentally bought on one of my last-minute trips to Target.  I couldn’t find the superglue aisle and ended up in the crafts section. Happy to find anything that resembled a tiny tube of superglue I grabbed the first one I saw. To my surprise when I opened it to repair my cracked Nalgene bottle a couple days ago (yeah, I guess I’m kind of hard on my gear – who breaks Nalgene???),  I discovered I’d grabbed brush-on superglue! Pure genius! No mess, no fuss, no fingers permanently stuck to my water bottle!   Within minutes the holes were sealed and the Camelback was good as new. Victory!

Another view of Mt Whitney trail
Another view of Mt Whitney trail

I tried to comfort my annoyed self by searching for a logical reason for all this shit going wrong on my fifth morning on the trail: maybe the trail gods weren’t sadistic meanies out to fuck with my head,  but popped the frame out of place in order to protect me from some bigger catastrophe. I reasoned with my inner tantrum-prone 5 year old:   Ok so maybe the whole frame thing happened so I’d  discover the leak before I  had 2 liters of water all over the inside of my pack.  The truth is my trash compactor bag would have protected my important gear –  but it was worth a shot!

Ok, bladder fixed. Check. Stupid frame in place. Check.  Time to finish packing so I can get on the trail…. SNAP! The flimsy buckle that vertically compresses the main compartment of my backpack busted a tooth as I tightened the strap down.  Great. Just great. I had to laugh.  It was either that or lay on the ground, curl up in a fetal position and cry  – and that’s not how I roll. Instead I laughed like a lunatic… because crazy is  how I roll.

Gear Report Card for the day: Super-Glue, A+. REI Flash 64, D-.

On a brighter note you may have noticed by now that I did NOT get evacuated last night.  When the helicopter landed several hundred yards away as I made dinner and rested in camp, I attempted to jump up and run down to see what was going on.  I say “attempted” because my body quickly reminded me that I had climbed a pretty big mountain: 16 miles and 8000’ in elevation, I wasn’t doing anything quickly.

I crammed all my food back into my bear can and hobbled the three hundred yards to the other end of the meadow with my Soloist pot full of rehydrating chili in hand (it didn’t fit in my bear can and I didn’t want to leave it for the marmots and bears), pleading with some invisible magical force that had power over the mission of the helicopter:  Please don’t be an evacuation. I don’t wanna goWhat if it is an evacuation? What if this is the end of my trip? 

Crabtree Meadow area in the smoke
Crabtree Meadow area in the smoke

When I got there I found a couple guys camped in the trees on the edge of the meadow just feet from where the helicopter landed.  There were people busily working around the chopper; pulling things out, putting things in, and mulling about.  My fellow campers’ backs were to me as they watched the excitement.

“Hello!” I yelled through the heavy chopping sounds of helicopter blades cutting through the smoky air. One of the men, a rugged-looking mountain-man close to my age turned around and said hi back.  His friend was holding a cell phone up, filming the whole event and didn’t acknowledge me.

“Do you know what’s going on?” I asked, “Are we getting evacuated?”

“No, we aren’t getting evacuated. The Ranger said it’s a Medi-vac”

Relief swept over me. Yay! I get to stay!  Then what he said hit me… Oh wow, someone is hurt though… “A medi-vac!?! What happened?”

“They’re medi-vaccing a squirrel.”
Wait… WHAT???

“A squirrel?” I was sure I misheard him.

“Yup, the Ranger found a dead squirrel up on the ridge and because of the plague that closed Curry Village in Yosemite this week, they aren’t taking any chances.  He called in the state and they’re flying it out for testing.” The rugged man my age was clearly as amused by this as I and laughed incredulously as he told me what he knew.

A squirrel. All this fuss over a dead squirrel. I’m who-knows-how-close to a raging wild fire and they flew a helicopter in for a squirrel??? A  DEAD Squirrel… not even an alive squirrel!!!  I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit in my life, but this one  takes the cake..

Guitar Lake views day 4
Guitar Lake views day 4

I chatted with the two men while we watched the official-looking helicopter crew  back and forth from the Ranger’s cabin to the helicopter doing serious official-looking dead squirrel re-con work. Once I saw them ceremoniously carry the tiny shoe-box sized coffin to the helicopter and fly way, I went back to camp.

Just kidding, there wasn’t really a tiny coffin. But for all the fuss, I wouldn’t have been surprised – I mean it did get its own helicopter!

What really happened is I watched until it got boring and then limped back to camp to eat dinner and entertain myself with how I would tell this story to everyone I met on the trail for the next 25 days.  I chuckled to myself:  here I thought a helicopter was flying in to warn us the fire was close. I expected to hear a stern voice over a loud speaker. “The Kings Canyon fire is a mile away.  All backpackers must exit the forest NOW. We can’t take you with us. We need to warn the rest. Just hike east, don’t worry you can outrun it.  Good luck!”

Or I expected to see Military Seal-like teams drop from the sky on rope ladders to search the area for hikers, rounding us up and hoisting us into the chopper to carry us to safety.

But no. Despite the proximity of the fire – which seemed way too close, the official helicopter was there to take away a dead squirrel. Really, you can’t make this shit up!

So I wasn’t evacuated last night and my gear is now all in order. I’m finally ready to get day 5 going and hit the trail toward Tyndall Creek.

Happy Trails!