What's That Thing On Your Back?

by Ian Wednesday, May 6th 2015

The first hairpin turn on Catalina Highway as the road begins its long climb up to Mt Lemmon. Marshall Gulch trailhead. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Hueco Tanks State Park outside of El Paso. Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City. These places all have something in common: if you visit them enough as an outdoorsperson, you’re likely to see people walking around with a strange, large, mat-looking thing on their backs.

Your author, wearing a crashpad on his back, ready to go bouldering

 In fact, you’re likely to see me with one of those strange things on my back. And, if you’re like most outdoorspeople, you won’t know what it is. It sort of looks like a backpack, but it's an awfully large and strangely shaped backpack. Again, if you’re like most people, you’ll stop me and ask “Say, what's that thing on your back?!”

 I’ve heard some creative ideas about what might be on my back: 

“Are those sleds you’ve got on your backs?”

“What do you have on your backs there, hang-gliders?” 

“Those look like comfortable camping mats on your backs!” 

“Are those massage tables for wilderness massage?”

None of those ideas is correct, unfortunately. What they are are four foot by five foot slabs of 3-6” foam that fold in half and have backpack straps attached for carrying. What they do is soften the ground for the inevitable falls that happen in the sport of bouldering. They are called “crash pads,” “sketch pads,” or, as they say in the UK, “bouldering mats.” 

For whatever reason, the sport of bouldering is still fairly obscure and so needs some introduction. Simply put, it’s a form of rock climbing. But instead of climbing 50-2,000 foot cliffs with safety lines, boulderers climb 8-20+ foot boulders. A particular face on a boulder can have several different routes (or ways of reaching the top, called “boulder problems”) of varying difficulty; those who found the boulder will have named the problems and assigned them difficulty ratings. 

Me about to begin climbing a problem called Hairpin Roof Right at the base of Mt Lemmon. Note the crashpad strategically placed in the “fall zone” behind me.

The ratings go from V0, all the way up to V15 or V16 (there’s currently some contention among the sport’s elite about how hard the world’s hardest boulder problems are). Just about anyone in good physical conditioning (and proper rock climbing shoes) ought to be able to get up a V0 after a few tries. But by the V2 rating, only very practiced rock climbers who have developed specialized strength and coordination will be able to climb the boulder problem. Most recreational boulderers who have been at it for more than a year or two top out at the V6-8 range, while the number of people in the world capable of climbing V15 or V16 is almost certainly less than 20. 

Me in the middle of climbing Hairpin Roof Right 

Like all climbers, boulderers wear specialized shoes, and we keep our hands well-dusted with gymnastic chalk while we climb to prevent slipping from sweat and finger grease. (Climbers’ pants are constantly covered in a fine coat of white chalk dust.)  

Dusting my hands with chalk before beginning a climb.

We carry toothbrushes around that we use to scrub chalk dust and finger grease off of the hand-holds on the boulder problems we are trying (“Why are you guys cleaning the rocks?” is a question I’ve heard more than a few times!) And we might spend weeks trying to climb a single boulder problem — learning the individual hand and foot movements, and doing them in sequence, is a bit like learning a dance or gymnastic routine. 

Modern bouldering’s heritage begins, in large part, with the exploits of the famed American climber John Gill. In the 1950s and 1960s, rock climbing was a very new sport and still rooted in its mountaineering past: the challenges climbers sought were the biggest, most majestic cliffs, and they sought to ascend them using any means necessary (hammering pitons into the rock and pulling up on them). With his gymnastics background, John Gill sought a different challenge: he wanted to see how difficult unassisted movement up rock could be. He was interested in the kinesiology of climbing movement rather than getting to the top of big cliffs. If pure physical difficulty and kinesthetic beauty are the interest, climbing boulders rather than huge cliffs starts to make sense: they’re typically more accessible and offer a relatively safe arena for pushing one’s physical limits.  

Another shot of me on Hairpin Roof Right. Note the size of the handholds — just the tips of my fingers have purchase on the rock. The size of the handholds (and how far apart they’re spaced) is one of the major factors determining the difficulty of a boulder problem. 

The question of safety brings us back to crash pads. For the first 40 years of bouldering’s history, there was no such thing as a crash pad. When you fell, you landed on the ground. I’m sure there were countless sprained and broken ankles, but nobody was dying. But as popularity and difficulty levels rose, the repeated ground falls necessary to learn a boulder problem got old. Someone had the wise idea of throwing a piece of foam on the ground. Then someone else thought to attach backpack straps to make it easier to carry.

Today, many of the world’s major outdoors brands manufacture crash pads with specialized, dual-density foam, and relatively comfortable shoulder harnesses. There are even a few smaller companies whose entire business is crash pads. Bouldering is now an international sport with competitions, professional athletes, and specialized gear. There are even indoor climbing gyms with simulated boulders and manufactured hand and foot holds. Older boulderers feel that what “counts” is what you accomplish outside on real rock, but many kids who grew up climbing only inside don’t draw that distinction — they just like fun climbing movements, whether it’s on manufactured plastic holds or features of real rocks. 

My freestanding bouldering wall for training at home

So now you know: that thing on my back is a crash pad, and it’s there because I’m going bouldering. To end, here’s a little video of me climbing a classic boulder problem on Mt Lemmon called “Jewel Thief.” It’s a pretty tall problem, and it was first done by Bob Murray in the 80s with no crash pads. Before completing this problem, I fell from the last move at the top probably two dozen times. Each time, I was very glad to have four crash pads underneath me.

Editor's Note: Bouldering and rock climbing are both dangerous sports with the potential for life-threatening injury and even death. The Summit Hut encourages our readers to seek out professional instruction if interested in learning more about them.

West Fork Backpacking

by Ian Thursday, June 12th 2014

I sometimes wander back to the maps area at Summit Hut and stare at all the amazing trails around Tucson that I haven't yet explored. For months, I've had my eye on the West Fork trail between Sabino Canyon and Romero Pass. The trail traverses the massive and remote Sabino Basin, flanked by the Catalina foothills on the south and Mt. Lemmon on the north. This segment of the trail is too far into the backcountry for the kind of shorter day hike I like, so it remained inaccessible to me until I could find time for an overnight backpacking trip.


In early April, my girlfriend Murphy and I had two days off in a row together (an unfortunate rarity this past spring). I had been looking for an excuse to try camping with a tarp and Murphy had just gotten a new sleeping bag, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the West Fork Trail with an overnight backpacking trek. We decided to start in Catalina State Park and hike Romero Canyon up to Romero Pass, where the Romero Canyon Trail intersects the West Fork Trail and drops down into Sabino Basin. I had heard rumors of a beautiful backcountry campsite in the Basin below the pass where the Cathedral Rock trail runs into the West Fork Trail. We'd stay the night there and then hike out to the Sabino Canyon Trailhead. The plan was to leave a car in the Sabino Canyon parking lot and have a friend drop us off at Catalina State Park (short backpacking trips in the Catalinas usually involve car shuttling of some sort). 


After coffee and bagels, our friend Elijah dropped us off at the Romero Canyon trailhead at 8:30am (thanks, Elijah!), and we set off. An unfortunate heat wave had struck: highs were predicted in the mid-90s, and it already felt very warm. The first hour or so to Romero pools was hot and the sun was merciless, but we persevered with the promise of a cold dip in the pools.



There was a bit of a crowd when we got to where the trail intersects the pools, but we hiked down the creek for five minutes and found a deep pool where we could skinny dip in solitude (sorry, no photos, this is a family blog!). In spite of the heat, the water was so cold it took our breath away and we could only stand a five minute soak. Feeling refreshed, we had a snack, refilled our water and continued on our hike.


About water: I don't like a heavy pack, so I try to plan trips with only short distances between water sources. We knew that the first day in Romero Canyon, we'd always be within a mile from water, so we never carried more than a liter each at a time through the canyon. The catch was that when we left the canyon bottom to climb up to Romero pass, the water would stop and we would be unlikely to find more until the next day at Hutch's pool. So before leaving the canyon, we would need to fill up enough water to get us through the end of our hike, dinner, breakfast (and coffee!), and the three mile hike from our camp to Hutch's Pool.


But I'm getting ahead of myself. We continued up the canyon, stopping occasionally to refill water and get our heads wet -- it was murderously hot for a couple of fair-skinned redheads. The heat slowed us down and it took us much longer than expected to finally get out of the low desert and into the shady oak and pine forest that I knew awaited at higher elevations in Romero Canyon. At long last, we reached a large scrub oak grove where a nice campsite was tempting. Another rest, some more head soaking, and some lunch brought us back to life.



Tempting as it was to linger in the shade, we needed to press on because I wanted to reach camp before dark, and we still had to climb to Romero Pass. As we hiked, the creek dried up without our noticing. When we realized that we hadn’t seen water for some time, we faced a difficult decision. We had not reached the planned fill-up point where the trail leaves the canyon and climbs up to the pass. Looking at the topo map, it seemed that the trail had momentarily left the main creek and wandered into a side creek that was dry. It looked as though we'd reconnect with the main creek again before beginning the climb to the pass -- but would we find water there? We could either press on and hope to find water again, or backtrack to the last point where the creek flowed. Continuing on was tempting as it's never fun to backtrack, but we risked a much bigger backtrack if the water didn't reappear. So we backtracked around 20 minutes until we reached water, and I filtered 10 liters of water to get us through the night. Our packs felt much heavier after this!


After the nearly hour-long detour, morale was low. But we psyched ourselves up to keep going with the promise of higher elevations and cooler weather. Another 40 minutes brought us to the point where the steep climb to Romero Pass begins. And lo and behold the creek reappeared, right where it was supposed to -- we could have filled up our water there after all. I think our conservative decision to backtrack and fill up was the right one, but sometimes the right decision is the wrong decision! We got a second wind and cruised up the climb to the pass and were treated to high cool winds and stunning views of Sabino basin. From this point on, we really began to enjoy ourselves.




We were excited to see the views, but we were also excited to see the sign marking the junction with the West Fork trail, which meant we were only 30 minutes from camp.



We descended into Sabino Basin in the shade with Cathedral Rock towering above us to the south. About 45 minutes before dark we reached the bottom of Sabino Basin and ran into the intersection with the Cathedral Rock trail, which climbs steeply out of the canyon to Cathedral Rock. As promised, a wonderful campsite awaited us, with a special treat in the fire pit.





I set to work setting up our tarp. After 20 minutes of fiddling, Murphy ordered me to stop so we could start to get dinner together. The tarp went up reasonably well, but it's a pain to plant stakes in our rocky soil. Still, a little extra work with stakes is well worth carrying a one pound tarp instead of a four pound tent (you can get tarps as light as 6 ounces, but I didn't want to spend serious money until I was sure I liked tarping).




Dinner was simple but extremely delicious: instant mashed potatoes with hot Italian sausage. We cooked the sausage the night before at home and brought the potatoes in quart-sized bags that we rehydrated them in and ate out of: no dishes to wash! We went to sleep early and fell asleep quickly to the sounds of the forest.


Murphy slept so well in her new Backcountry Bed sleeping bag from Sierra Designs that I practically had to drag her out the next morning! 



We ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and set off. The day started with the segment of trail I had been dreaming about: through Sabino Basin between the pass and Hutch’s Pool. It was just as neat as I had imagined and felt very remote and wild. Rather than attempt to describe it, here are some pictures that I hope do it justice.







The water we had collected the previous afternoon lasted us well, but we were excited to reach Hutch's pool and fill the tanks again. By this time, it had begun to get hot again, so we punched it into overdrive and finished the hike to Sabino basin quickly and were back at our car by 1:30pm.


In spite of the heat and water uncertainties of the first day, the trip was amazing. The West Fork Trail was everything I had hoped. I would highly recommend this backpacking trip to anyone  looking for a quick overnight trip into some pretty remote Catalina backcountry -- just do it in cooler weather!


As always, if you need help planning or outfitting your trip, stop by Summit Hut! 

Activities | Hiking Report | Trips

The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!