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Duane L. Coker

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It was sometime during my college days, when money was tight, but the call of adventure was ringing loudly, that I first saw a fishing show about peacock bass fishing on the Amazon.

I had probably just finished watching another awesome episode of the Walker Cay Chronicles (if you never absorbed an episode of Flip Pallot’s near-spiritual fishing-adventure series, it still holds up and is available to watch for free at https://www.hellsbayboatworks.com/videos/walkers-cay-chronicles/).

As I watched, I was mesmerized with the thought of traveling into the deepest parts of the Amazon Basin in pursuit of a fish that looks to have been water colored by Matisse!  Seriously? Cool.

I don’t have a lot of bucket list trips, but this has been one I’ve held onto for a long time.

Outfitter and booking the trip

Early in 2019, three friends and I decided to do something about it and booked a trip with Ron Speed Jr. Adventures (https://www.ronspeedadventures.com), RSA, a fishing-centric outfitter based near Dallas, Texas.  I’d heard about Ron Speed’s Peacock Bass trip listening to Texas Radio Hall of Famer, Norm Hitzges, on The Ticket Sports Radio station (https://www.theticket.com).

Like me, Norm likes to travel and raved about the fishing, and, more importantly, the adventure of living on a houseboat on the Amazon while stalking the peacock bass.

One or two “let’s do this” email later and the team was assembled.  After a very informal booking process (a couple email and a credit card number), we began the nearly year-long wait for the south-of-the-equator journey and our date with the most colorful bass in the world.

Getting There

Heading to Brazil nowadays is fairly easy.  Bill Mullins, our contact with RSA, gathered some information, let their folks in Brazil know we were coming, and that was about it.  Visas are no longer required for US Citizens and the flight from Dallas, through Miami, to Manaus, Brazil was a day-long process that got us there about 1 a.m.

Yes, 1 a.m.

One of the few (maybe the only) downers about going to or from Brazil is that the flights arrive and depart from the jump off city, Manaus, in the middle of the night.  However, RSA has it figured out and their (very chipper) local host picked us up at the airport and drove us straight to the hotel, where we were able to get a decent night’s sleep before gathering the next morning for leg 2 of the journey.

On our trip, we stayed at a modern hotel right on the banks of the Rio Negro, the tea stained “tributary” of the Amazon that we’d be fishing for the upcoming week.  “Tributary” is a relative term as, even at its narrowest point in Manaus, the river was nearly 2 miles wide!

The Ponte Do Rio Negro, an amazing cable-stayed bridge spanned the river within view of the hotel and a mile-long sandy beach made for a perfect pre-breakfast leg stretch on our first morning in Brazil.

The Ponte do Rio Negro, at one of the narrowest points on this vast Amazonian tributary.

One advantage of fishing the Rio Negro branch of the Amazon is that, due to flow rate, large amounts of leaves and decaying plant products, and lots of other scientific-sounding causes, the river is stained the color of strong Earl Grey Tea.  It’s clear, like tea, but stained.  This decaying vegetation results in an unusually high acidity and, consequently, a very low ability for mosquitos to reproduce.  During a week of serious Amazonian heat and humidity, I didn’t see one mosquito!

Speaking of mosquitos and other nasties, we did elect to take the recommended malaria medication – Malarone – on the trip and, those of us not previously vaccinated for Yellow Fever, got shots before the trip.  Both malaria and Yellow Fever are common in the Amazon.  However, because of the remoteness of the area we fished, and the lack of mosquitos, many locals said malaria medication wasn’t necessary.  We figured better safe than sorry, especially after we learned that Malarone is processed by the kidneys, and not the liver, so shouldn’t impact our ability to consume large quantities of Brazilian beer while fishing.

Having arrived in Brazil, via American Airlines, early, early Saturday morning, after some sleep, a walk along the beach, and breakfast, we hopped in a van for the short 10-minute drive back to the airport.

Our ride from Manuas to Barcelos . . . big guys, little plane, but the beer was cold!

Upon arrival, we were whisked through the charter flight section of the airport -picture 4 guys in fishing gear, walking through the metal detectors drinking Itaipava Beers (in metal cans) – onto our prop plane for the 300-mile flight from Manaus to Barcelos, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere that is a major departure point for river cruises and houseboat-based fishing trips.

Fishing and Otter Life

We landed in Barcelos, after a relatively smooth flight and some amazing scenery along the way, to be greeted by Franz Schuler, our host for the week, and several guys from our riverboat home for the week, the Otter.

The crew boat pulling our fishing boats as we make an evening run toward our next honey hole.

RSA touts the Otter as a modern day Amazon fishing marvel and, based on my experience during the week, they’re not overselling it.  Supposedly the incredibly shallow draft of the boat allows it to go places where a lot of other boats can’t go.  Further, RSA, puts all the extra fuel, crew, guides and supplies on a smaller, but really pretty, houseboat so that the Otter is even lighter.  It’s a really great setup.  Even with several crew and 9 guests, the boat never seemed crowded and the large, 2-bed guestrooms were really comfortable.

It only took a few minutes to load our stuff at the airport, drive to the river, transfer to the aluminum bass boats we’d be fishing in all week, and arrive at the Otter.  After everyone, and everything, was accounted for, the engines kicked in, the anchor was weighed and we were heading up river.  We sailed all afternoon and night and started our first day of fishing the next morning miles up river from Barcelos.

The Otter, anchored at Barcelos, and our bass-boat chauffeur’s on the way to pick us up.

Fishing days followed the same schedule all week:

5:30 a.m. – Wake up tap on the cabin door

6:00 a.m. – Breakfast

7:00 a.m. – Hop on the fishing boats (2 clients and a guide) for the morning session

12 p.m. – Meet the Otter for a hot lunch and, maybe, a nap or a couple of post-lunch beers on the top deck

2 p.m. – Back in the boat for the afternoon fishing session

6 p.m. – Meet the Otter again (the Otter would often move either up or down river while we were fishing)

7 p.m. – Dinner

First morning loading the boats. Just a little excited!

Our trip was in late January, during a time the Rio Negro is flooded and the fish are hanging out back in the flooded rainforest.  In fact, my GPS track all week said we were fishing on dry land!  To get the fish out of the trees, we used large, heavy lures, hurled them right up next to the trees (and sometimes in and over them, to the guide’s patient, but obvious, disappointment), and retrieved them with a short, hard chopping motion.

A tiny fraction of the lure selection on The Otter.

The “chop chop” caused noise and splashing, which did bring the fish out to see what’s up.  It also caused blisters and interfered with beer drinking.  Seriously, it was hard work and, not being a regular and/or fanatical fisherman, I was pretty worn out with it after 2 or 3 days.

The good news was that the scenery was epic, the weather was perfect, and the beer was cold.  There was no shame in taking a break and I also experimented with a lot of other types of fishing, including throwing smaller, non-topwater lures that were retrieved with a less physical, steady reeling motion.  I actually caught more, albeit smaller, fish on these alternative lures, but, it became quickly became clear that the guides knew what they were doing and “chop chop” was definitely the way to catch the big ones.

And, catch big ones we did!  In 6 days of fishing, the 9 of us caught 359 Peacock Bass, with 59 of them weighing more than 10 pounds and 8 more than 20.  One of my buddies, Brad Dean, caught the biggest fish of the week, which weighed in at 25 and a half pounds!  It was a monster and not far off the river record, which is about 27 pounds.

My first peacock bass. A dream 30+ years in the making!
A monster caught on Day 2 by my buddy, Dave Bouschor.
A warm up peacock on Day 1 caught by Robert Neal.

And, I’d be in all kinds of trouble if I didn’t post a picture of Brad’s near-record fish.

Holy Mackerel, I mean, Peacock!!! Almost a new Rio Negro record at 25 1/2 pounds! Way to go Brad!

Apparently, because the water can rise and drop more than 30 feet between wet and dry seasons, the fishing can vary quite a bit.  Looking at past totals, though, it always looks to be good.  Most weeks even more Peacocks are caught than on our trip, but, often, they vary in size.  More, smaller fish one week and fewer, larger the next.  We were really, really happy with the size and quantity and it was obvious the guides, and the crew, all knew what they needed to do, and where they needed to be, to catch fish.  It was an overall awesome experience!!!

Being on a houseboat in the Amazon is not all about catching peacock bass.  The scenery and scale is truly epic.  One day, I thought we crossed the river in the bass boat, after running wide open for about 20 minutes, and I assumed we were fishing a long tributary system on the other bank.  We fished for 6 hours, often running wide open at around 30 miles per hour, and snaking our way through ever smaller tributaries, filled with caiman, some over 10 feet long, and river dolphins of similar and larger size.  After we returned to the Otter at lunch, I pulled out my GPS and found that we never even made it to the other side of the river.  The “far bank” that I thought we crossed to was just a gigantic island!  I’d have lost a big bet if someone had asked me to describe where we fished that day, but, until you’ve seen it, you just can’t believe how big it is.

While the fishing guides are really great, and they will definitely put you on the fish, they speak very, very little English.  They can tell you, or show you, all you need to know to catch huge Peacocks, but that’s about it.  Unless you speak Portuguese, I recommend traveling in pairs so you’re sure to have a fishing partner each day.  If you don’t, it’s likely RSA will pair you up with someone, but, if not, you may end up spending the day enjoying the sounds of shrieking Macaw parrots and the splash of river dolphins.  It truly is a little disappointing that the guides don’t speak a little more English, though, as I would have loved to hear more about where they’re from, what they’ve seen and done while traveling up and down the Amazon, and I’m sure they have a lot of great stories about past clients and their fishing prowess or, more likely, lack thereof.

Gearing Up

RSA supplies good quality, appropriate for the species, rods and lures.  There’s really no need to take your own.  You do need the following:

Reel

I took a Lews TeamLews Pro-Ti Reel.

Pricey, but, hey, it was a bucket list trip and I thought the purple reel might inspire me to fish!  Seriously, though, the main thing is that you need a really good reel with at least a 7.5:1 ratioThis cannot be overstated.  Get a 7.5:1, or faster, retrieve ratio!  You are throwing giant lures as far as you can throw them.  I routinely threw ALL THE LINE off my reel, down to where it was knotted onto the spool. What comes next?  Reeling all that line back in . . . over and over . . . for 11-12 hours each day.

Second, take a spare reel.  Mainly, we thought, in case yours breaks.  More importantly, however, your guide will rig you up with two different types of lures and, often, when your buddy throws the big topwater and misses, the guide will quickly hand you your smaller spinner bait and you’ll catch your buddy’s missed fish.  What could be sweeter???

Insulated Water Bottle

I travel with a Larq Water bottle (https://www.livelarq.com/shop).  It’s double wall insulated, which is very nice when it’s hot out.  You can fill it with ice in the morning and keep adding water all day.  It also is self cleaning and self purifying.  I didn’t worry too much about the water supplied by the Otter crew, but I just have gotten in the habit of traveling with it in case I need to fill it at a water fountain, or somewhere less reliable.

I also carried a 20 oz Hydro Flask to take coffee on the boat in the morning and to keep beer cold in the afternoon.

Communications

While part of getting away to the Amazon is to get away, I did take my Garmin In Reach Explorer along, which enabled me to send text messages to the States using the built in Iridium Satellite capability.  It was handy and it also allowed me to geek out a bit and track our progress up and down the river.

Clothing

Let’s face it, you’re in the freaking Amazon!  It’s hot and humid and sunny.  While you’re south of the equator, we were often less than 1 degree south and the sun was straight overhead much of the day.  Hot.  I took a number of options, but the following is what I ended up wearing every day:

Huk Fishing Shirts (with and without hoods) – Super light, good sun protection, awesome!

Huk Fishing Shorts – also super light, dry almost instantly.

Huk Fishing Gloves – in my opinion, a MUST.  Unless you fish a lot, and have the associated calusses built up, you will get blisters.  Possibly even without gloves, but these provide just a bit of protection and full sun protection, which is important when you are holding your hands out in the sun for 60 hours in a week!

Convertible pants – I took a light pair of convertible pants, but only wore them a couple times when I got a bit much sun the day before.  I found them hotter and more constrictive than the Huk shorts above, but, still, good to have and to travel in.

Hat – A good, airy hat for sun protection/glare reduction is a must.  Several guys wore gaiters, but I found them hot and preferred to use a hat and a hooded shirt.

Other

Waterproof Boat Speaker – the sounds of the rainforest are fine for sleeping, but, let’s face it, after hours of fishing and beer drinking, a little music goes a long way.  I’ve carried this JBL Charge 4 on several continents, and it’s landed in the water more than once, but it floats, is waterproof and sounds awesome.

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Shoes – I started off the day with sandals or boat shoes, but went barefoot most of the time.  The boats have the green, artificial turf-type carpet, and it’s fine for most of the day.  I did find it got hot enough during the middle of the day that I put the sandals back on, but, for the most part, it was a shoes-free zone.

Rain gear – We debated whether we should have even brought it.  It rained several times, but, frankly, it was too hot to wear even super light jackets and the rain actually felt good.  As soon as the sun came back out, we were dry within minutes (or as dry as you get in a humid rain forest), so I’d probably leave it at home.

Final thoughts

Don’t take a ton of stuff.  The Otter crew will wash your clothes for you ever night and they’re ready by lunch the next day.  I’d bring the following gear: Hat, Buffs (2) or Hooded Shirts (2-3), Shorts (2 for fishing and 1 for dinner), underwear (2-3).  Fishing gloves (2 pair).  Basically, you wear one outfit fishing, take it off and leave it outside your door, wear the 2nd outfit the next day, first is cleaned and left in your room by lunch to wear the 3rd day and so on.  With 3 pairs of tops and bottoms, I’d actually sometimes change at lunch, wear my 2nd pair out in the afternoon, and then change for dinner, wear those same clothes the next morning, and then start over again with the clean clothes being in your room when you get back for lunch.

As light as the Huk clothes are, you really can get away with shoving the above items in a large backpack and not even taking a suitcase.

The Otter crew is amazing. The food was great and housekeeping was 5-star hotel quality! The crew really made us feel welcome and genuinely seemed sad to see us go.

In all ways, Ron Speed Jr. Adventures, and especially Franz and the Otter crew, are on top of everything.

The entire team really takes care of you in an environment where, unless you’re MacGyver or Bear Grylls, you probably need to be taken care of!  They’re really awesome and we had a great trip primarily because of them.

 

The trip is great if you are seriously into fishing and traveling the world for exotic species.  Trust me, you will feel like you got your money’s worth, and then some.

However, it’s also really great if you’re a casual fisherman and are interested in catching some really beautiful, hard fighting fish in an out-of-this world setting.

Finally, if you’re even more casual in your attitude toward fishing, or you want to take a non-fishing spouse or friend along, Franz, and the RSA Team will happily plan other adventures for you.

I know folks who have gone on this trip and taken photographs all week, gone ashore looking for jaguars, and just enjoyed being on the Otter, floating along through the Amazon Basin and thinking how lucky they are to be there!

Bottom line?  I can’t recommend this trip enough.

If you have questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you.  Please respond in the comments below!

This past year, three buddies and I decided to try our hand (or feet, I guess) at backcountry skiing and splitboarding.  As I’ve made Gunnison, Colorado my second home since 2018, it made sense to do this with a local outfitter.  I’d heard that Irwin Guides, in Crested Butte, were some of the best.

For me, the “Irwin” name calls out the wonderful beers made next door to the Guide Service’s office in Crested Butte, Colorado.  Irwin Brewing Company , has been “turning snowmelt into beer”, including my favorite, the Teocalli – Mexican Lager, or “Mexi Lager” as it’s known throughout the Gunnison Valley, since 2017.  I figured the kind of attention to detail I’ve tasted in their beers couldn’t be a bad thing for a company running backcountry ski trips in avalanche country!

We booked our Februrary 2020 trip in early fall 2019 and scheduled a “hut-based” trip, one in which we’d spend a couple nights in a backcountry hut in the seasonal town of Gothic, the site of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.  

The “hut,” which turned out to be a brand new, very modern 4-room lodge with heated floors, indoor plumbing (including hot showers), a full kitchen and Wi-Fi, sat right in the middle of thousands of feet of vertical backcountry bliss, standing ready to challenge our newly acquired “uphill” skiing/skinning skills and to provide, in reward, turn after turn of untracked powder.

None of the four members of our team had ever backcountry skied, or, in my case, splitboarded, before.  Two of us bought our own gear – me, as the only splitboarder and my buddy, Rob, who is an expert skier.  The other two, Mike and Ted, rented gear from the Alpineer in Crested Butte, which offered a good selection of skis, boots, and backcountry safety gear. 

Rob and I had the opportunity to try our new gear out by taking advantage of the Uphill Skier Route at Crested Butte Mountain Resort on a few occasions and the other two members of our team, Mike and Ted, came in a day early to get their gear and to also do one run up the mountain before heading into the wilderness.  

Gearing up for “practice day” skinning uphill at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

“Uphill Skiing” or “Alpine Touring” skiing has grown more and more popular in recent years with many ski resorts offering uphill routes and allowing skiers to ski uphill at the resorts, often before or after the lifts close.  Be sure to check your local ski area rules, but skinning uphill and skiing down allows you to get in a great workout, avoid lift lines, and wave happily at your less-evolved brethren yelling down “you’re going the wrong way” from the chair lift.

On the day our adventure began, we met our guide, Will Nunez, at the trailhead. Will, like the whole Irwin Guides team, was really great at communicating via text and email prior to the trip, answering our multitude first-timer questions with practiced patience.  

After meeting, discussing the trip, doing a quick equipment check, including checking out our avalanche beacons, we loaded up our packs and started the 2-hour trip along the snow packed road to the town of Gothic.  The skin in to Gothic is mostly flat or slightly downhill, so we all, somewhat inexpertly, got our skins on our boards and started the not-to-tough trip back to the hut.  Two hours later, we glided our way into Gothic, dropped our gear, and then headed out for a few afternoon turns on Day 1.

Crystal Hut in Gothic was our home away from home for the weekend. Beds, hot water, and Wi-Fi gave “roughing” it a whole new meaning.

For those of you considering trying backcountry skiing or splitboarding, it’s somewhat similar to Nordic skiing.  You take your otherwise ready-to-work-with-gravity skis (or your splitboard in ski mode), apply “skins” to the bottom, which are ski-shaped lengths of material with glue one side, that holds the skin tight to the ski, and velvet-like “fur” on the other that will slide when pushed forward against the snow, but will hold tight when backward pressure is applied.  In this manner, you can push back with one ski on flat ground, while gliding forward on the other, making for a fairly efficient way to move across packed or even very loose, deep snow.  When heading uphill, you’re able to slide one ski forward while the other ski grips the snow or ice and prevents you (in most cases) from sliding backward.  Be sure to avoid lifting the skis off the ground, sliding them back and forward instead as, lifting a heavy ski and binding hundreds (thousands?) of times during the day will quickly exhaust oxygen-starved muscles.

When heading into the hut, we all had fairly heavy packs filled with sleeping bags, pillows, multiple layers of clothes, our toothbrushes and other sundries, and lunches/snacks for the next couple days.  While not super heavy, skinning in with the packs in place definitely added a different element and, if you’re planning a trip, you should load a pack up and practice Nordic skiing or skinning with a pack on.  

Will, our guide, pulled a sled full of delicious food, including enough steak to feed a small country’s biathlon team, and we were able to drop everything at the hut, significantly lightening our packs, for the afternoon out on the snow. 

It is necessary to carry a pack at all times when backcountry skiing, so you should also practice with a moderately heavy pack when downhill skiing or snowboarding.  While out for the day, you’ll need a couple extra layers, two pairs of extra gloves, water and snacks, in addition to the mandatory avalanche gear – a shovel, probe and beacon.  

Leaving the hut for our first try at “earning turns.”

On the afternoon of Day 1, we headed up the valley about 30 minutes and then skinned up a 45 minute climb to the top of what would have typically been a blue, or blue-black, run inbounds.  While there were a few (obviously unmarked) obstacles, the snow was soft and it was easy to control speed.  For most of us, who rarely get decent powder, or soft conditions of any type, inbounds at a resort, getting use to the different style was challenging.  Challenging, but really FUN!  We had a blast, made a couple of runs (up and down, you definitely earn your turns) and then headed back to the hut for some pasta and an early night.

Our team heading up for our first turns on the afternoon of Day 1.  We took about 45 minutes to skin up to just below the small cliff to the right of the dark trees in the center and made several runs down.  Earning turns is just part of being in the backcountry.  The views are out of this world!

On Day 2, Will decided we needed to see what the backcountry was all about and he took us on a 4+ hour climb up Avery’s Peak to ski/board down a gigantic chute he called Avery’s Swath.  

The way up was tough.  Really tough.  The slope was steep, with countless, slippery switchbacks, the lack of oxygen played havoc with our moderate fitness, and learning how to keep the one ski from sliding backward, while trying to make a 180-degree turn was an artform totally foreign to all of us.  The steepness of the slope was unlike anything we’d done inbounds, so it really was completely different than anything we’d done before.

“Steep” doesn’t really do it justice and this was on the way up!

We admitted, only later of course, that, well before we reached the top, every one of us had doubts whether we’d make it.  However, because we were ascending through trees and terrain that we also all doubted we could ski down (and we are all accomplished skiiers/boarders, who routinely ski double black terrain) we really didn’t have much choice but to keep going.  

And, of course we were all so happy that we did.  

At the top awaited one of the most beautiful lunch locations ever and the skiing on the way down was spectacular.  

Lunch with a view!!! Looking out at Gothic Mountain in the center (our hut was way down at the base of Gothic Mountain) and Snodgrass Mountain to the left.  Crested Butte Ski Resort drapes the side of Mount Crested Butte, the lone, pointy mountain on the left.

Even though conditions that day were such that the snow was a bit crunchy, having an entire mountain to ourselves, and riding the adrenaline rush of the effort to get to the top, as well as the steep, challenging terrain to get back to the bottom, was something that none of us are likely to soon forget.

Back at the hut that night, we enjoyed steak dinners (and a couple bottles of wine I snuck unto Will’s sled the day before) and talked non-stop about how we never thought we’d get to the top and about how getting down was so much fun.

On our final day, after 5 inches of snow fell during the night, we had a quick breakfast, loaded non-essential stuff onto the now, almost-empty sled, skinned partway out, and then left the sled at the bottom of Snodgrass Mountain.  Snodgrass was about a third of the way out and the perfect place to enjoy the fresh powder.  We ended up making 4 laps up and down yet another pristine, super fun, powder-covered mountainside.  

What a blast!  

After the runs, and after belly laughing at some incredible wipeouts caused by our lack of powder prowess, we skinned back out to the trailhead already planning our next backcountry adventures.  All four of us had already decided to take some beginner avalanche safety courses and we all agreed that this had just been the first of many backcountry trips.

THE TRIP

I highly recommend Irwin Guides for any backcountry trips in and around the Crested Butte area.  They know the area and are super willing to share their knowledge even before you book a trip.  I worked with Madison, at the Irwin Guides Office, setting up the trip. She was awesome – always patient with our newbie questions and she made booking our trip really easy.  

We did the 3-day Backcountry Hut Trip, which is listed as the “Maroon Hut” on their website, but we actually stayed in the brand new “Crystal Hut,” which I highly recommend for many reasons, not the least of which is the indoor modern toilet (as opposed to an outdoor park service-type outhouse at Maroon).  

The trip, for 4 people, was $2865, and it included the hut, the guide (who was excellent!), and breakfasts and dinners.  We brought our own lunches/snacks. You can rent avalanche gear, if you don’t have it, from Irwin or from the Alpineer (https://alpineer.com). 

THE STUFF

In getting ready for the trip, I did a lot of research, and tried out a number of splitboard setups, as well as backcountry ski backpacks, gloves, and other items that can make the difference between a good (or not so good) trip and a really great trip into the backcountry.  

The following are the items I ended up with along with a few comments about each one.

Splitboard:

Burton Family Tree Flight Attendant X Splitboard (This year’s model is ON SALE NOW!!!)

I ended up purchasing a Burton Family Tree Flight Attendant X Splitboard.  I’ve always been partial to Burton and Arbor Boards, and I was able to pick up a new, 2018-2019 model for $1049, which was about $450 less than a new model.  The board rides remarkably like a standard, camber based twin board, though it is directional and has some rocker near the nose.  It’s very responsive, more so than the traditional, all-mountain Burton board I ride inbounds, and still floats really well in powder.  I could easily use this board both inbounds and in the backcountry.

Bindings:

Burton Hitchhiker (ALSO ON SALE NOW!)

I went with the Burton Hitchhiker bindings.  Being new to the sport, I decided to keep it in house with the matchy-matchy board/bindings setup.  However, Burton basically uses Spark R&D’s Tesla T1 system and labels it as its own. 

The only gripe I have about the binding, which otherwise performed flawlessly, is the hi-back adjuster.  Instead of going with the flip up/flip down style binding that Spark uses on its Surge Pro (like the ones my wife uses), Burton used a more traditional adjuster.  When my wife wants to switch from skinning mode to downhill, she just leans the hi-back forward and flips the adjuster down.  When you want to change it on the Hitchhiker binding, you have to lift up the locking lever and slide the unit down, just like on a traditional snowboard binding.  However, the issue here is that you’re adjusting this every time you transition from skinning, to boarding, and back.  These get really iced up and packed with snow, and, frankly, it’s just a pain in the butt to switch them.  That said, the binding itself is light, strong, and worked flawlessly, other than the nuisance of the adjuster.  Not a big enough pain to switch to a different binding, and, frankly, I’d buy them again if I found them on sale, but something Burton should consider changing.

Boots:

Burton Tourist X (Burton Tourist Model ON SALE NOW)

I purchased these when I first started splitboarding.  They’re awesome.  In fact, I think I like them better than my regular Burton boots even for inbounds stuff.  THAT SAID, if you are being money conscious, and you already have boots you like, I’d try them splitboarding for a day or two before buying splitboard specific boots.  I’m not sure you really need anything “designed” for splitboarding unless your regular boots are really, really stiff.  I tried the Tourist and the Tourist X models.  I got my Tourist X boots on sale, but I’d probably go with whichever ones were less expensive.

Skins:

Burton Family Tree x G3 High Traction Skins (ON SALE NOW)

These are perfect!  Enough Said.

Wine and Whiskey Transport – GSI Outdoors Highland Fifth Flask (buy a half dozen of these because they are awesome!!!)

Backcountry Backpack

This was a tougher decision as each of the 4 packs I demoed were great. I tried:

Black Diamond Cirque 35L

Jones Minimalist 35L

Orthodox Haute Route 40

I tried out all of these backpacks hiking, but not while splitboarding.  

All of them had features I liked, but, upon doing a trial run packing the backpack with the following items, I decided I really needed a minimum 40 liters of storage:

  • Lightweight Big Agnes Pluton UL 40 degree bag (currently 30% Off at Backcountry.com) – AMAZING lightweight down bag for inside the hut or Spring/Summer/Fall mild-weather trips; packs down smaller than a 1 liter water bottle and is on sale right now through Backcountry.com!!!)
  • Mammut Merin IN Hooded Down Jacket (40% Off at Backcountry.com!)  Also LOVE this jacket to put on over or under your shell and also on Sale right now.  Tough, light and super warm.
  • Feathered Friends Down Booties – These are great to wear around the hut and even for quick trips out on the snow.  They are really cool because they have an inner down bootie that you can wear in your sleeping bag if your feet are cold.  The outer layer provides a little more durability and has a tougher sole with a foam insert for walking around.
  • Lunch and snacks
  • Two water bottles – one Nalgene and one insulated to carry hot tea, coffee, or water.
  • Pieps Pro BT Avalanche Set – I bought this set after trying several models in stores around the Gunnison/Crested Butte area.  Frankly, I got it because it was on sale and, also frankly, most of the “Pro” level sets are very similar.  The beacons all use three antennas and work the same.  “Pro” models have a little more range and some, including this one, have longer than average battery life.  Otherwise, the probe and shovel, so long as they’re not super heavy, are almost the same in all brands.  I’d be sure to check weight, though, and don’t carry any more than you have to carry AND I’d get a shovel that has a “hoe” function, which will make more sense once you’ve had basic avalanche training.
  • Homemade first aid and backcountry repair kits

Ultimately, I ended up going with the Ortovox Haute Route 40, which had 40 liters of storage and held everything listed above (just barely).  Of course, once items were dropped at the hut, the bag had more than enough room. 

Unfortunately, Ortovox has discontinued the bag.  The Ortovox Haute Route 38 is almost the same, but the pack is designed for slightly smaller frames.  I’m 6’1” and 185 pounds and it fits me, but just barely.  

All three of my buddies on the trip used an Osprey Kamber 42 pack, which I also liked a lot and, with the top pack, actually held considerably more than the Ortovox I had.  I probably would have gone with the Kamber had I tested it before the trip.

And, finally, Gloves:  I used old gloves I had on hand.  The key is to take THREE PAIR:  

  1. A heavy, Gore-Tex pair like you’d use inbounds at a resort for going downhill.  I have long used, and really love, the Outdoor Research Alti Glove. These worked great for keeping my hands warm on the downhill runs. They shell is super thin, so, in a pinch, you can pull out the liner and use the shell to work on your skis or board, or even to wear while skinning in.
  2. A good, waterproof lighter pair like you’d use Nordic skiing, or doing any heat-generating activity in the snow (waterproof is important as you’ll inevitably use them during transition, when everything is covered with snow, and they’ll soak through instantly if they’re not waterproof or heavily water resistant).
  3. A warm backup pair that you could use skinning or downhilling in case either or both of your other two get wet. 

I know three pair seems like overkill, but, until you’ve done this, it’s hard to understand the temperature differences between the uphill and downhill activities. Just imagine jogging uphill the next time you finish a downhill ski run. Imagine how sweaty and wet your gloves would get.  Then imagine wearing them all day in sub-freezing conditions.  And, thrown taking your skis or snowboard apart in waist deep powder at the top and bottom of the hill.  Take three pairs.  You’ll thank me for it later!

I’d love to hear about your backcountry experiences, or answer questions, in the comments section below!!!

A few weeks ago, Louellen woke me up in the wee hours of the morn to tell me that she’d somehow managed to get a lottery spot for the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon and that we had only a few minutes to decide if we were going to go or not. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and checked my inbox to see if I, too, had won a lottery spot. I had not.

Getting a lottery spot is pretty special (about a 30% chance), so we knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I decided to join Louellen in her quest to Escape from Alcatraz and joined TeamFox to help end Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurological disorder.

But of course, there’s more to getting there than signing up for the race and fundraising. Both Louellen and I will be training for what is one of the craziest races out there over the next few months. Here’s my first training update for my Escape from Alcatraz for Parkinson’s Research Backers.

Lou and I were camping at Isle du Bois State Park to do the the 15K portion of Endurance Buzz Adventure’s Isle du Bois Trail run. After waking up at 6:00 am to pouring rain that sounded like a battalion of Santa’s Elves banging toy hammers along the top of the Airstream, we decided to wimp out and sleep in.

Skipping 11 miles of running in 44 degree driving rain along rocky, muddy trails sounded like a good idea at the time. However, a few hours later, I started to feel like I’d wimped out.

I'm going in!
I’m going in!

So, to make up for it AND officially start the cold weather swim portion of my EFA training, I decided to go for a swim. The water temp in Lake Ray Roberts wasn’t San Franciso Bay cold, but my Garmin read it at 60 degrees. All I know is that it was C-O-L-D!!

My neoprene hood and booties checked out fine. Just need some gloves and I think I’ve got this. I’m going to try to keep swimming in local lakes until water temps fall below expected San Franciso Bay temps.

I’ll keep updates going on this website as well as on my fundraising page for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Thanks for all your support!

The sun peaked in our window and through the tiny mesh holes of my mosquito net at precisely 6 a.m.  That was my signal to stop tossing and turning and to finally lay eyes on Tanzania in daylight.

I memorized a few quick Swahili greetings and hit the road.  Less than 100 yards – guess that’s “meters” here – up the hill from the hotel, the trees parted and the mountain, famous snows and all, stood before me.

While standing there, albeit a bit week-kneed, contemplating its vastness, and marveling at how love for a beautiful woman can convince you to do almost anything, a young Chagga man walking down the street stopped, pointed to the glaciers on Kili’s top, and, with a huge grin, said, in perfect English, “It’s very fresh!”