Tag Archives: SYMG

25 Years in Da’ Biz

by Ian Elman, Founder and President of SYMG

Wow, 25 years of High Sierra trips! Feels like just yesterday it was 1991 with just the three owners living in a rented room at Bass Lake near Yosemite and a small closet full of gear. In those days I really looked forward to every third night, when it was my turn to have the side of our king bed that was closest to the wall. It’s been a wild ride since then; going from a handful of trips into the Ansel Adams Wilderness each season with the 3 of us to big expedition style trips throughout Yosemite and the High Sierra with 20 employees. Thing is, we were never just doing it for temporary work and fun, we were doing it to have lifelong careers. To be eventually named “Best Outfitter on Earth” by National Geographic was one of proudest moments along the way.

Recently I have been walking down memory lane in light of our quarter-century anniversary– rifling through old photos, magazine articles, catalogs and such. In an old brochure (remember those?) from 1997 the intro reads: “Dear Friends… To cherish good times and good friends in the mountains, deserts, and wild places we hold dear”. Thus begins our mission statement, which remains unchanged to this day. Pursuing dreams–it’s what we are about. We’ve been laughing lately with the media popularity of the concept of “digital detox” weekend getaways and “getting unplugged” by getting into the wilderness. That’s a concept we have been living and providing since the old days, and now is finally hotter than ever. Heck, recently I read an article on social media about the popularity of people wearing beards and flannel shirts. “Boys, we are back in style!” was the title of the e-mail I sent my old friends and partners in SYMG with the link. All this to say that our commitment is exactly the same as it was then: Make it easy and possible for people to get out into their wilderness areas and create experiences that soothe the soul and memories that last a lifetime. Now more than ever we all need this.

I was asked recently about what’s it like being in the Outfitter Guide business for 25 years for an article and my first reaction was…It’s hard! But once you knock off the veneer of challenges that every business faces my thoughts turned to the trips themselves. The SYMG experience hasn’t changed tremendously in the last 25 years. For myself, for our guests, and for our guides, SYMG is about the people and experiences we create for them. I’m proud of that. The Outfitter Guide business is still a spectacular place to be.

Tech Tips: Alpine Daypack Essentials

Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada certainly have their share of classic Alpine Mountaineering Peaks. Mt Conness is certainly one of our Yosemite favorites that quickly comes to mind. While the immediate planning requirements surrounding these trips become route choice and technical gear choices, choosing what to bring in your pack is just as important. Following are some considerations for single-day alpine pushes:

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite's Mt Conness

SYMG Guide David Merin on the N Ridge of Yosemite’s Mt Conness

 

  • Pack. 25-40 liters is typical. The larger volumes make sense if you need to pack climbing gear to the route.  I prefer a very streamlined pack with few features. One big compartment, maybe a second zippered lid for small items. Top-loading is the way to go, as zippers will undoubtedly be the part of the pack that fails.  The waistbelt and harness system should be thin and not restrict your movement. Always choose fit over styling when purchasing a pack. Lately I’ve been using the Mountain Hardware Summit Rocket, which fits the above description plus is made from reinforced fabrics for durability and has hauling loops for more difficult climbing sections. It also has a removable framesheet that doubles as a sleeping pad for unexpected bivys. And it only weighs one pound.
  • Raingear. You’re probably not planning on climbing during a storm, but mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable. Storms do kick up and ultralight rainpants and jacket are essential for survival. You can improvise a lot of things in the backcountry, but waterproof isn’t one of them.
  • Extra clothes. Let’s face it: We’ve all been benighted. Perhaps you underestimated the time it takes to complete the route, or maybe there was an accident requiring you to spend the night or hike move slowly in the dark/cold. A wool hat is essential. Most of the guides here also bring a lightweight wool under-layer to throw on. It weight only ounces and adds an exponential amount of warmth during an unforeseen bivy. A synthetic “puffy” jacket, preferably with a hood always makes the trip, regardless of the season. If you’re not already wearing a mid-layer piece (my favorites is the WildThings power-stretch hoody), pack that in your bag too.
  • Headlamp. Get one with varied beams. Save battery life with weaker settings and route-find with the strong beam. Lots of time can be lost searching for descent routes and/or rappel stations with a weak beam. Make sure you have fresh batteries.
  • Food. High calorie snacks with a good mix of quickly digestible sugars and slow-burning fats. Consider some Gatorade to make a weak mix for flavor, enticing you to drink more often and for an electrolyte boost.
  • Small first aid kit. Everyone has his/her own acceptable level of risk. Some folks bring cigarettes and a flask whiskey. For others, gauze, athletic/duct tape, and alcohol swabs fit the bill. The key is to minimize weight and space while bringing along more essential items.
  • Route map/description. Consider covering it with clear packing tape for protection.
  • Compass/whistle. A compass is always a good idea, and you should know how to properly use it (by the way “orienting a map” using a compass does not constitute knowing how to use it). Get a compass with a mirror for signaling in the event of an emergency. Also bring a whistle for the same reason. These two methods are much more effective than trying to yell to rescuers (and your injury might dictate you not being able to yell).
  • Water. Nalgene and stainless steel bottles are fine, but heavy. Try an old Gatorade bottle with a custom (re: dirtbag) duct-tape handle. An extra 2-liter soda bottle can ride in the pack for refills and crushes down to save space as water is used. In springtime or in rainy/wet regions, consider bringing a straw. Keep it in your chest pocket and drink as you go when trickles and pools turn up on the climb. This can save a lot of water weight in your pack, but don’t depend on it entirely. Personally, I’m hard on my stuff and I’ve had so many issues with various bladders that I wrote them off years ago.
  • Knife/multitool. Terribly useful.
  • Sunglasses. Easy to forget during those 3am alpine starts.
  • Sunscreen/chapstick. Depending on the region and weather.
  • Cellphone/camera. Sure, why not. For a few additional ounces an iPhone or equivalent does double duty for documenting and checking in with your support crew.
  • Bivy/Foam Pad. For really big days in less than ideal conditions and/or when there’s a good chance of getting benighted, a lightweight bivy sack and ½ piece of foam pad will keep you warmer and drier than your clothing alone can provide. It just may be the difference between a comfortable night vs emergency situation. For bivy’s forget about comfort features. Get something lightweight and small because chances are you won’t actually use it. I use the MSR E-bivy. For really lightweight packs, the insulite pad also does double-duty as a back pad/structural component and makes for a nice seat in spring snow conditions.

Of course, don’t forget to leave a few celebratory Sierra Nevada Pale Ales in the car for your return!

Tech Tips: Meal Planning

Fresh veggie wraps along the Yosemite Grand Traverse.

Fresh veggie wraps along the Yosemite Grand Traverse.

Just because you’re in the backcountry doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy great food. At SYMG, we pride ourselves on cooking amazing food in amazing places and our “Backcountry Gourmet” cuisine has even been acclaimed in Sunset Magazine. Here are a few tips from seasoned (ha ha) John Muir Trail Guide Alex Steiner on backcountry chef-ing.

Many of our guests are surprised when we serve the first backcountry meal and it isn’t mac-and-cheese or something dehydrated in a pouch. While dehydrated foods can occasionally be lighter (keep in mind that you’ll need to pack out all the trash they create), they definitely don’t make the trip any easier. Having nutritious, fresh food provides better nutritional value and arguably creates an all around more enjoyable experience. If you’ve been eating nothing but dehydrated pasta sauce for 4 days, you won’t have quite as much pep-in-your-step as if you’ve been eating sea bass tacos with fresh guacamole.

I’d like to share some tricks-of-the-trade of a creative backcountry pantry.

  • First and foremost, be accurate in portioning food. There are certain averages that can be worked with for all sorts of food, and obviously, a group of teenage athletes will probably eat more than my grandparents, so there is some room for flex. That being said, when in doubt, hedge on being a little lighter for a comfortable carry while beefing up more nutritious items such as quinioa.
  • Tied to the first point, have calorie-dense snacks or desserts available if people are still hungry after a meal. Things like candied walnuts or cookies go a long way towards filling people up, can be eaten without any preparation, and are great for morale.
  • Have at least one fresh food every day, regardless of trip length. This one tip makes every meal something to look forward to. On day 21 of our 23 day John Muir Trail, my co-leader Wilson and I pulled out some green onions, a package of chevre (goat cheese), and some prosciutto (fancy Italian ham) for pizzas – no one could believe that we still had some good, fresh food left in our packs and it brightens everyone’s mood to still see real food.
  • Having fresh food is not easy and it needs to be packaged properly to last.

    ◦      Know the shelf life of your food – i.e., kale will keep much longer than spinach, so eat the spinach first.

    ◦      Keep things that need to stay cold all together in one stuff sack or bear can. I pack all the cheeses and vegetables in a bear can and put the whole bear can in the refrigerator. Then, when I’m hiking, I put this bear can in the center of my backpack, and always out of the sun. Consider freezing some items as well.

    ◦      Package things like tomatoes and fragile fruit tightly, but not squished, in hard tupperware-like containers. If there is empty space, stuff it with paper towel.

    ◦      Certain types of produce such as leafy greens can turn bad fairly quickly without refrigeration. Besides bringing more stable substitutes, another is to wrap the produce in dry paper towel.

Going into the backcountry is an amazing experience, there’s no reason not to have equally amazing food. I’m looking forward to hiking with you all this coming season. Bon appetite!

Tech Tips: Down vs Synthetic

SYMG Guides Colby and Laura wearing Columbia's Ultrachange synthetic jackets on a damp and snowy day in Yosemite Valley

One questions we get a lot in the SYMG office is regarding down vs synthetic insulation. These are fill choices for all of the sleeping bag and “puffy” jackets. Let’s explore the differences of each and discuss situations where each one excels.

Down fill is very light and compressible. It is typically given a “fill” rating between 500 and 900, indicating the quality of the down. The higher the number the lighter, more compressible and more expensive the piece will be. For any given temperature rating, down is lighter and more compressible than a synthetic fill. It also has a longer lifespan. The major drawback of down is that if it gets wet, it is utterly useless and takes a very long time to dry, even in ideal conditions. A waterproof dry-sack will keep your bag dry even when dunked in a creek, but humidity is more difficult to contend with, and accidents do happen.

Synthetic fills are man-made hollow fibers that trap heat. Their major benefits are that they retain up to 60% of their warmth even when wet and are less expensive than down for any given temperature rating. The downside is that they are heavier and less compressible than down.

So, which to use? I like to think of my gear choices in terms of a system.  In this case, we want our system to be lightweight, take up a minimum volume in our pack, and we need insulative value even in the event that our gear gets wet. Packing a synthetic bag and jacket will certainly keep us warmer if wet, but will be heavier than we’d like. All down runs the risk of having no insulating pieces if it gets wet. So, the combination that works best is perhaps a down sleeping bag and synthetic jacket. Since the bag is heavier and bulkier than the jacket by nature, it’s a good candidate for down. Meanwhile, the synthetic jacket will work if the down bag gets wet.

Especially in the sunny Sierra, this system works great. However, there are times when other systems are preferable. For instance, on kayaking trips or backpacking in rainy, wet forests of Olympic National Park, you may prefer to have all synthetics since there is a good chance of getting your stuff wet. On winter mountaineering trips, all down might be best because there’s little chance of getting them wet (everything is frozen). This minimizes weight and space, making room for all the extra winter gear.

Mountain Ramblings: Journeys

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike… We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”.  -John Steinbeck

Challenging. Exciting. Memorable. Often in the adventure travel industry these marketing buzzwords are haphazardly thrown around. They are polished clean from rolling off the tips of travel agents’ tongues. Of course, interpretation of these buzzwords is quite subjective. For instance, many folks find adventure in a boat cruise headlined by rock legends Journey and Styx. But for many of us, we relish an experience that is more engaging. One where we are active players. One that goes beyond the expectation set by buzzwords and where the stage is set for us to learn something about ourselves. That’s where the true adventure lies: not in the printed itinerary, but in between the words, waiting to be recorded later.  

Palisade Basin copyright Colby J Bokvist

The 2011 mountain season here in the Sierra Nevada was especially remarkable for us at SYMG. The root of our excitement was an unusually deep and long-lasting snowpack that created some unknowns out in the field. Sure, the name “Sierra Nevada” translates to “Snowy Range”, but does that really include the summer months?! Many questions arose and answers were not found in the written itineraries. Will the river crossing be flooded? Will the pass be free of snow? How are the marmots faring in all of this?

Challenging! Exciting! Memorable! The guides and participants forded the rivers, glissaded the snow slopes and sunbathed with the marmots in grassy meadows. Indeed, we guides plunged into the use of the buzzwords like an ice axe into a glacier. And in the end so did the trip participants. After all, what’s so great about mountain trips is that they are inherently unpredictable in nature. And to me that is what sets mountain journeys apart from cruise boat Journeys: true adventure. Don’t Stop Believin’. 

This is the first installment of “Mountain Ramblings” where SYMG guides will share their thoughts on mountain life, guiding and adventure travel. This edition’s Ramble was written by SYMG’s General Manager and Senior Guide, Colby Brokvist. Learn more about Colby and the rest of the guiding staff HERE.