Companion blog: Adventures In Stoving

Saturday, September 24, 2022

To Change a (PLB) Battery

I want to share my experience of how "stupid easy" (as one friend put it) it is to change a battery on a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).  I'll also share the story of the incident that made me buy a PLB.

Clarification:  This post is not meant to champion PLB's over commercial satellite communication devices (InReach, SPOT, Zoleo, Bivy Stick, etc.).  PLB's and commercial satellite communication devices both have their pros and cons.  Yes, you can compare them, but there are fundamental differences.  If you'd like me to weigh the pros and cons, I'd be happy to, in a separate post.  If that's of interest, then maybe put a comment below to that effect.  I definitely have recommendations for some specific cases (remote areas, tight budget, deep canyons, etc.), but, in the general case, I will take no ultimate position.

My ACR brand ResQLink personal locator beacon (PLB).
The specific model I have is the PLB-375.

But first, some background.  You can skip the next two sections if you already know all this.

What is a PLB?
A PLB is basically a satellite distress beacon.  If one gets into trouble in a remote area where there is no cell service, one can activate a PLB, and a 406 MHz distress signal with GPS coordinates will be sent to a satellite in orbit around the earth.  When the satellite detects the distress signal, the appropriate authorities will be notified.  If you're in the United States, typically the US Air Force Rescue Coordination Center would be notified if you're on land, and the US Coast Guard would be notified if you're at sea.  

The overall program is run by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US.  The program was originally developed for ships at sea, expanded to aviation, and finally expanded to include private individuals such as hikers, backcountry skiers, snow mobile enthusiasts, hunters, etc. I mention NOAA just to emphasize the fact that a PLB is part of a multi-national government backed program.

A PLB is different from a commercial satellite messenger service such as InReach, SPOT, Bivy Stick, Zoleo, etc.  Satellite messenger services work off of satellites of either the Global Star or Iridium commercial satellite networks.  A PLB works off of a constellation of COSPAS/SARSAT satellites put into orbit by the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, and India (that I know of; perhaps there are other nations who have become part of the program).

Why a PLB -- a brush with death.
About eight or so years ago, a friend of mine was doing some solo snow shoeing near San Jacinto Peak (10,834' / 3302m).  She slipped on some ice and whacked her ankle against a tree.  She couldn't get up; she had fractured her ankle.  She was alone,  injured, and darkness was fast approaching.  This friend of mine is made of stern stuff.  She hauled herself uphill in the snow with a broken ankle.  No, this is not your dad going on about "When I was a boy, it was uphill both ways to school in two feet of snow..."  Seriously.  She climbed uphill in the snow on her hands and knees with a broken ankle.  No offense intended to my friend, but I'm glad it was her and not me; I'd be dead.  

Why uphill?  There's a small stone hut built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's near the summit of San Jacinto Peak.  Using her snow shoe as a a shovel, she dug out the snow blocking the front door (told you my friend was tough) and crawled inside.  That night, a storm struck.  Outside, the storm raged.  Inside, my friend shivered miserably in the unheated stone hut, but she was alive.  Had she been outside, she'd have been dead.  

Now, if you know anything about winter survival, shivering is the first stage of hypothermia.  Hypothermia results when your internal body temperature drops below normal, which is about 98.7F / 37C.  Once one's internal body temperature drops below a certain point, one loses control of one's mind and body.  If hypothermia progresses, it can quickly lead to death.  Yes, my friend was alive, but she was in serious trouble.

The next day, she didn't show up for a brunch, and she was reported missing.  Note that she's been injured and stranded on the mountain for nearly 24 hours by this point.  By the way, it's a really a good idea to have a designated person to check in with after a hike.  Your check in person should know to contact Search and Rescue (SAR), if you don't check in by a certain pre-arranged time.

Normally, SAR responds quickly, but on day two of my friend's ordeal, the storm was still hitting the mountain.  It's neither safe nor practical to search for a missing person in a storm.  My friend spent another night in the hut, shivering, again risking hypothermia and death.

Finally, on the third day, the storm abated, and SAR got out on the mountain.  They searched a number of likely locations, including the summit hut, to which a helicopter with rescuers was dispatched.  My friend remarked that hearing that chopper was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.

Now, why do I relate this story here?  Think about it. If she had a PLB, she could have:

  • Immediately notified people she was in trouble (recall that it wasn't until the next day that she was reported missing)
  • Immediately reported her location (recall that GPS coordinates are embedded in the distress signal).
SAR might have been able to go right to her and bail her out the same day she was injured rather than days later. 

I had been thinking about buying a PLB, but I had been on the fence.  I mean the stinkin' things were over $400 at that time!  If she had a PLB, my friend might not have spent two nights in a freezing stone hut, potentially risking death.  I was sold.  In 2013, I bought an ACR ResQlink PLB (model PLB-375) with a stated battery life of six years.

Batteries are expensive -- or are  they?  
I had read that changing the battery on a PLB was expensive, nearly the cost of a new unit.  When my battery expired in 2019, I didn't even consider getting a new battery.  Instead, I bought an InReach.  A commercial InReach is reputed to be less reliable than a government backed PLB, but, on the other hand, an InReach is clearly more versatile than a PLB.  An InReach is two way custom text or email and can be used in less-than-emergency conditions whereas a PLB is one way communication without any message (other than the unit number and the GPS coordination) and is only for emergencies.  I figured the greater versatility of an InReach was worth it -- and that it wasn't worth paying nearly the price of a new unit to replace the battery of my PLB.  But does it really cost nearly the price of a brand new unit to replace the battery?

The real cost of a new battery
Well, I guess things had changed since I bought the unit.  A friend alerted to be to the fact that a replacement battery could be had for just $40 and that replacement was so simple that you could do it yourself!  The original recommendation was that only a trained technician should change a PLB battery.  

Forty bucks!  Well, shoot, that's not bad for a unit worth over $400, a unit already paid for, a unit in near-perfect condition.  I decided to buy and change the battery on my own.  If you scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post, I'll list the website address (URL) of where I got my battery.  I don't want to appear to endorse or be connected to any company, so I won't put the address here.

Changing the battery
The back of the unit is held on by two simple Phillips head screws.
The back of my PLB.  Note the ordinary Phillips head screw at the bottom of the photo.

One simply unscrews the two screws and takes the back off.  Inside was my original battery pack, stamped with the expiration date "01/2019."  

Important:  Note the position of the red and black wires.  They cross the body of the PLB leading away from the plug.  When disassembling your PLB, be sure to take careful note of where these wires are and where they go in relationship to the two little grooves on the main body of the PLB.  The back of the PLB has a protrusion that fits into the two grooves.  The wires go to the right (as oriented in the below photo) of the groves, toward the battery.
My original battery pack inside my PLB

There's a warning on the back of the battery pack that only "OEM" parts (i.e. parts from the original equipment manufacturer) should be used when replacing the battery -- and then only by a trained professional.  But is this really rocket science?
The warning on the back of my original battery pack

Examining the battery pack, I noticed that it was just a series of three ordinary CR123A lithium batteries, wired together, the kind you can buy from ordinary hardware, sporting goods, and other stores.  Now, they are specially wired together, so you can't just go and buy some batteries from the local store, but there's nothing so esoteric here that a specialist would be required to handle it.

Looking at my new battery pack from the side. 
You can see that it is just an ordinary CR123A battery.

I unplugged the old battery pack and plugged in the new battery pack.  The plug was a little smaller, but it wasn't any more complicated than unplugging, say, a blender (or similar) at home.  You can see the little white plug in the photo, above.  After that, I spread some silicon grease on the gasket of my PLB, put the cover back onto the unit, and screwed in the two Phillips head screws.  I ran both the quick internal test as well as a full GPS test.  Both tests were successful.  

In short, it's just this:
  1. Unscrew the and remove the back cover.
  2. Unplug and remove the old battery pack.
  3. Plug in and emplace the new battery pack.
  4. Replace the back cover and fasten the two screws.
That's it.  That's all there is.  It's really not that much more than changing a flashlight battery.  Optionally, you could put some silicone grease on the gasket to ensure a good seal, but that's hardly rocket science.

Battery Life
But one question was still bugging me.  Just how much charge was left in the old batteries?  Was it really necessary to replace the battery after just six years?  Isn't the shelf life of a CR123A battery supposed to be ten years?  I pulled out my trusty Radio Shack battery tester.  I was about to find out!

First, I cut apart the shrink wrap holding together the old batteries.  Then I broke apart the batteries where they had been glued together.  Finally I pulled off the wiring between the batteries.
The batteries with the shrink wrap removed.  Note the wiring.

What did I find?  The old batteries still had a charge in the "good" range.  Note carefully the position of the needle in the photo, below.  It's on the left side of the first "O" in "good."  Be sure to look at the middle scale which is for lithium.
The charge level on one of the old batteries.  Be sure to look at the middle scale, the one for lithium.  The charge level is just to the left of the first "O" in "GOOD."

Then, below, is a photo of the charge level of a new battery I just took out of the packaging.  Look at the middle scale, the one for lithium.  It's ever so slightly higher than the previous reading from the old battery.  Now, in fairness, the battery I pulled from my battery collection is one that I've had for a while.  A fresh one from the store might have a higher charge.  If I get a chance, I'll buy a brand new battery, test it, and update this blog post.

The charge level on a new CR123A battery, freshly opened.  Look at the middle scale.  The charge is  just slightly higher on the new battery, but the difference is almost indiscernible.

Now, I'm not advocating skipping battery replacement.  I'm just noting that you might get more life out of your PLB's batteries than the stated six years.  Maybe.  Of course that would depend on how often you test.  I don't test often.  Basically, I test once at the beginning of each backpacking season, typically around Memorial Day weekend, and that's it.  If you test every week (which seems ridiculous to me) or before every trip, maybe your battery won't last as long.  My main point is:  Don't assume that a PLB past its expiration is useless.  I'd still carry it even if I had not yet had the opportunity to buy a new battery pack.  Chances are it will work past the expiration date.  

Even if a PLB in use were to die before it's stated 24 hour operating lifespan, you'd at least have notified the authorities and given them your position.  Remember that the rescue coordination center is going to try to call the contacts you listed when you registered your PLB.  If your check in person says, "yes, so-and-so is definitely out there," then they're going to dispatch a SAR team.  If the signal stopped after several hours, the SAR team is still going to be sent out if they've confirmed that you're out in the wilderness.  This is a good argument to register your PLB and keep your registration current -- that's the only way they know who they're looking for.  In the case of my friend, as soon as SAR found out that she knew of the summit hut, they immediately sent a helicopter, and she was rescued.

Reduce, reuse, recycle!
Regardless of how long you wait (or don't) to change the batteries, don't throw away the old ones!  They're perfectly good CR123A batteries that can be used for other things like flashlights, headlamps, etc.  I put mine in my headlamp, and it fired right up.

OK, that's it.  That's all there is to changing the battery.  It's really not a big deal, and it should give your PLB another six years of life -- for maybe 10% of the cost of buying a new unit.  If you spread $40 out over the six year life of the battery, the cost is less than $7 per year.  I pay $12 per month for the lowest level of service for my InReach.

Happy hiking,


P.S.  If I have both an InReach and a PLB, do I plan to carry both?  No.  I plan to carry the InReach, and I plan to have my daughter carry the PLB.  If, God forbid, we ever became separated, then she would still have a way to get help.  If we were together and I couldn't get a message out on the InReach, then we'd have the PLB to fall back on.  

There are definitely times where I have not been able to get a message out on my InReach.  Once, when I was doing some backpacking down in the bottom of a fairly deep canyon, I couldn't get a message out until the following day, maybe 18 hours later.  That's atypical, but it does happen.  The majority of InReach messages go out in less than 15 minutes; sometimes they go out almost instantly.

P.P.S.  People have asked, so I'll say it:  I got my battery at  However, let me be clear.  I make no endorsement of, nor am I affiliated with, nor am I compensated by any manufacturer.  My experience with them has been good so far, but I don't have any long term experience with them at this juncture.  Caveat emptor.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Review – The Vecto Water Bladder (Sawyer-Compatible)

"I'm perfectly happy with Sawyer bags" – said no hiker ever.  The Sawyer filter is a great thing.  Sawyer bags?  Not so much.

Don't get me wrong.  I really like the Sawyer system overall.  Gad!  how I used to hate pumping my arm off on the old pump filters, and all those tubes to hook up and such – what a hassle! The Sawyer filter is great. But Sawyer bags?  Not so great.  They burst at the seams all too often.  And, yeah, you can substitute Evernew water bags, but Evernew bags, while better, still burst and are more expensive – if you can find them.  I've never seen Evernew bags in any local shop where I live.

OK, so just bring a SmartWater bottle, right?  Well, actually, that's not a bad solution.  They're cheap enough, readily available, and reasonably light. But they're bulky. And they take up room even when empty.  I strongly prefer bladders, but I don't want buy ones that fail.  What to do?

Enter the Vecto.
The Vecto soft-sided water container from Cnoc Outdoors, 2 L capacity.

The Vecto
The Vecto is a soft-sided 2 L water container from Cnoc Outdoors.

When I first heard about it, frankly, I wasn't all that interested.  I mean, it's not like I don't already have tons of water bladders – from multiple manufacturers.  Then I watched their video.  At 1:17, a guy stands on a full bladder.  It just sits there and takes it.  THAT got my attention.  I wanted one.

So, I've managed to now get my hands on one.  I've had it a couple of months or so, and... it really works great.  I've used it exclusively as my "dirty" water bag for all of my trips this summer (2017) including my August JMT/PCT section hike.

My Current Set Up
Here's my current set up:
My current hydration and water treatment set up:
L to R:  Evernew 1.5 L bladder, 0.6 L SmartWater bottle, standard Sawyer filter, and the Vecto.
I use the 2 L Vecto as my "dirty" (untreated) water bag.  I use a standard Sawyer filter.  For my "clean" (treated) water carriers, I use a 1.5 L Evernew bladder, and a 0.6 L SmartWater bottle.  Why the little SmartWater bottle?  Well, for backflushing, I use the little SmartWater bottle.  It's light; it doesn't take up a lot of room; and if it bursts, who cares?  I'll just get another one.  The combination of the Evernew bladder and the SmartWater bottle is sufficient to hold the output of the Vecto.  In other words, my clean water capacity is equal to my dirty water capacity.  Water in = water out.

Couldn't you just use a 2 L Evernew and skip the SmartWater bottle?  Well, yes, but Evernew bladders will eventually burst under the pressure needed to backflush.  I'd rather keep my nice Evernew bladder pristine and just sacrifice the little SmartWater bottle.  Since the Vecto and the Evernew pack up so small, I figure I'll have room for the little SmartWater bottle, no problem.

Other Options
Note that you've actually got a lot of options out there in terms of bottles that will fit a Sawyer filter.  Pretty much all of the higher end brands of water, which typically have higher quality, stronger plastic, have threads that will fit a Sawyer filter.
Water containers with Sawyer-compatible threads.
The Vecto – It's (Really) Compact
Notice the size of the Essentia bottle in the above photo.  It's pretty big, and it's only 1.5 liter.  In my efforts to minimize pack size, I've generally moved away from hard sided bottles as much as I can.

Size comparison:  The 2 L Vecto (left) vs. a 0.6 L SmartWater bottle.
There's just no beating the compactness of a bladder vs. a hard sided bottle. Take a look at the above photo.  Yeah, that's just a little half liter SmartWater bottle, but the Vecto is smaller still – and the Vecto has roughly four times the capacity.  Can't beat that.

Ease of Use
And  it's danged easy to use.  It's quite literally child's play – well, at least my seven year old can handle it.  You just hook it up, and then roll up the back end like a tube of toothpaste.  I find it way easier to squeeze than a hard sided bottle and far more resilient.
Using the Vecto water bladder with a Sawyer filter.
And, it's so flexible, I can get 100% of the water out if it.
The flexible material of the Vecto makes it easy to squeeze out every last drop.

Design and "Human Factors" (Ergonomics)
There's a lot of smart design and attention to detail that went into the Vecto.   The cap is a different color than the standard Sawyer cap so that you don't confuse the two and cause cross-contamination.  Note:  The cap on the final production version will be orange, which can only help.
Standard Sawyer cap, left.  Vecto cap, right.
(Different) color prevents confusion.
There are opposing tabs on the Vecto so that it's easy to open.  Ever try to get a clear produce bag open at the grocery store?  Sometimes it drives you mad; it's just so hard to pull the two sides apart.  It's no problem with the Vecto.
The tab on the front side of the Vecto is raised at the left but is lower on the right.
The back side of the Vecto is reversed, the right is higher, and the left is lower.
These opposing tabs make the Vecto easy to open.
Ridges on a fold over closure really seal the bag well.  I experienced zero leaking with a full Vecto in my pack.  The slider is a nice bright orange, so it's unlikely that you'll lose it.  Speaking of the slider, the slider has a loop in the center of its upper side so that one can suspend it, as when using as a gravity filter.  The loop is also nice for hanging the bladder while drying it after a trip.  Note that the Vecto bladder has an opening at both ends which allows for excellent air circulation and much faster than normal drying times.
Ridges on the fold over closure seal the bag when the slider is emplaced.
The opening is nice and wide, which makes the Vecto significantly easier to fill than my 1 L and 2 L Platypus bladders or 1.5 L Evernew bladders.
The Vecto has a really wide opening which makes it super easy to fill.
In fact, the opening is so wide, I can get my hand in there to clean it or pull out little bits of leaves, you know, the organic "floaties" that always seem to get sucked inside a bladder.
The opening of the Vecto is wide enough to allow one's hand to get inside.
Note that one with larger hands may not be able to get their entire hand inside.
The Downside
There is a bit of a down side here.  It's not a major downer, but at 76 g/2.7 ounces, the Vecto is a tad on the heavy side for a 2 L bladder.  By contrast, my slightly smaller 1.5 L Evernew bladder weighs 34 g/1.2 oz.  Now, for me, the compactness and the durability make the weight worth it.  I want gear that works, but for the ounce counters and gram weenies out there, the weight may be an issue.

Limits to this review
Well, I've had the bladder for a couple of months now.  I can hardly give it a "long term review" after a couple of months.  The materials are obviously beefy, but could it spring a leak at, say,  the closure?  I can't really say for sure.  It looks pretty darned good, but realistically, I can't predict it's longevity at this point.  I will post periodic updates as time permits and I use the Vecto bladder more.

The version I received is a pre-production version.  It's something like 99% of what the production version will be, but there might be some minor variations or tweaks before it goes "live."  The "Go Live" date occurs in November.  MSRP is $17, but the bladder is currently available for pre-order for $13.

Planned changes to the production version:
  • The cap will be orange just like the slider (definitely a good idea).
  • Volume markings will be added to the bag, presumably in both metric and English measurements, but I haven't confirmed that.
  • The large opening will be a bit less stiff, making it easier to hold open.  Note:  I didn't have any problems keeping the bag open, but then my hands are undoubtedly larger than some.
  • Directions on the bladder as to how to operate the closure properly.  I thought it was fairly intuitive (ridges go on the outside), but it can never hurt.
Summary:  The Vecto Bladder
What's good about it:
  • Doesn't burst.
  • Compact
  • Well designed
  • Easy to use
  • Doesn't leak
  • Can get 100% of the water out
What's not so good about it:
  • It's heavy for a 2 L bladder.
The Vecto 2 L bladder from Cnoc Outdoors:  Highly recommended.

Thanks for joining me,


The Vecto water bladder used for this review was provided to me by Cnoc Outdoors at no cost to me.  It was understood that I wanted to review the bladder (and, to be honest, wanted one for myself) at the time.  I have no financial relationship with Cnoc Outdoors and will receive no remuneration from either this review or any sales of any Vecto bladder.  The fact that I bought five Rolls Royce automobiles immediately following the publication of this review is sheer coincidence. I have had no dealings with Cnoc Outdoors prior to the receipt of the Vecto bladder; indeed, my understanding is that they are a brand new concern.  I therefore can make no comment, either positive or negative, as to their overall business reputation.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Massdrop x Fizan Compact Trekking Poles

Recently, I received a set of Massdrop x Fizan Compact Trekking Poles.  These three section poles are a collaboration between Massdrop and Fizan.
Fizan Compact Trekking Poles.
Note:  These poles are red.  The ones available on Massdrop are blue.
Massdrop is a "group buy" site.  Massdrop approaches a manufacturer and says, in effect, "hey, if we get a bunch of people together, what can you do for us in terms of a price?"  You, the consumer, then have the opportunity to join the "drop" (group buy) and get the special group price that Massdrop has negotiated.  Please see below if you are interested in joining Massdrop.

Fizan is a manufacturer located in Italy.

Speaking of price, Massdrop is offering a set of Fizan Compact trekking poles for $60.  No, that's not each.  That's for a pair.  That's a pretty darned good price compared to what I typically pay for trekking poles although I suppose Walmart may have something cheaper.  The price is especially good when one considers that the set includes:
  • Two poles
  • Two rubber "feet" (rubber tips that slide over the metal tips)
  • Three sets of pole baskets (Winter, Three Season, and Summer type)
  • One small carabiner.  Presumably the carabiner is a "freebie" thrown in as a "nice to have."  I don't believe it has any direct use in conjunction with the poles themselves.
The above are included with a set of Fizan Compact trekking poles.  Left to right:
Rubber "feet," winter baskets, three season baskets, summer baskets.
The "feet" weigh 22 g per pair.  The weight of a pair of each type of basket is listed below:
Basket Type Grams Ounces
Summer 6 0.2
Three Season 12 0.4
Winter 30 1.1
Note:  These are measured weights based on my scale at home.  These are not necessarily the same as the manufacturer's spec weights.

My interest in the Fizan Compact trekking poles was piqued due to their weight.  They weigh about 6 ounces per pole (see below table).  Six ounces is generally below the weight of an average trekking pole which more typically runs something like 7 to 10 ounces.  Now, six ounces is hardly setting a new ultralight weight record, but, for example, my carbon fiber LT4S's cost $206 whereas the Fizan poles cost $60.  That's more than triple the price for a set of LT4S's.  So, the price-to-weight ratio is excellent for the Fizan Compact trekking poles.

In particular, I was interested in a set of lightweight aluminum trekking poles for trips on rougher trails or off trail where I wouldn't want to bring my potentially vulnerable carbon fiber poles.

Brand Model Grams Ounces Price
Komperdell Titanal 238 8.4 $150
Fizan Compact 7001 179 6.3 $60
Gossamer Gear LT4S 139 4.9 $206
Note:  These are measured weights based on my scale at home.  These are not necessarily the same as the manufacturer's spec weights.  The weight of the poles includes the "Three Season" baskets.  Deduct 12 grams/0.4 oz to get the true weight of the poles (167 g/5.9 oz).

Field Testing
I took my set of Fizan Compact trekking poles out this past Saturday and went up and down an old, steep jeep road, a total of 8.5 miles per my GPS.  In particular, I wanted a steep trail to test a) whether or not the twist locks would hold my weight (I weigh 215 lbs/98 kg) and b) whether or not the grips were comfortable with hands atop them on the descent.
Old jeep road heading up out of Trabuco Canyon.  Freaking steep.
My impressions are as follows:
They're pretty solid.  No slipping on the twist locks.  The instructions caution against over-tightening lest the poles suffer deformation.  I snugged by hand without really cranking down on them.  No slipping.  No deformation.

The top of the grip on a Fizan trekking pole.
The top of the grips is a hard plastic. In downhill mode, it was a little uncomfortable when my hands hands were directly atop the grips.  It's not horrible, and you can kind of work with it, but it could be made better by being making the top of the grips a little wider and having some padding.  However, of course, that might add weight and cost.  Now, I'm a fairly big guy (215 lbs/98 kg, 72"/183 cm) .  I may have bigger hands than you do, and odds are I weigh more than you do.  So, factor that in. What feels smallish to me might be fine for you.  Likewise, the pressure on a set of poles from a big, heavy guy like me might feel quite different than for someone who is, say, thin and wiry.  While I haven't tried it, I understand that Gossamer Gear's cork grips can be purchased and installed on the Fizan poles.  Apparently, it's not a hard process.  Perhaps worth noting if you're a heavier person or have big hands.
Detail of grips and straps of a set of Fizan Compact trekking poles.

The straps are strong and show no sign of fraying or wear.  The straps on a lightweight set of poles like this are thinner and do curl/fold over on occasion, so you have to straighten them out periodically.  Such is the "price" (it's not a huge deal) of light weight.  The silky material of the straps slips some, particularly when the straps are not under tension, as when taking the straps on and off of one's wrists.  It was a bit  annoying to have to keep re-tightening them, but I've seen worse (my LT4S's for example), and it's not that big of a deal.  The straps did not appreciably slip when under tension.  The wedge that holds the straps in place might grip better if it were made of a slightly softer, more rubbery material.  Note that I use pole straps as a cross country skier might, i.e. the straps are bearing much of the weight.  I let the straps do the work lest I exhaust my grip strength.

For the price and for what its included (three different baskets and a set of rubber pole tips), they are excellent poles, and I like how the weight is mid-way between my Komperdells and my LT4S's.  The grips however on both my Komperdells and my LT4S's are more comfortable, particularly in downhill mode with hands on top.  The Fizan Compact grips are acceptable, but there's room for improvement. I particularly like the all cork grips on my LT4S's, but I can't imagine that all cork grips could be included at the price these Fizan poles are being offered at.

There's my take on the Fizan Compact trekking pole collaboration between Massdrop and Fizan.  You might also find Philip Werner's take on these worth reading:  Section Hiker:  Fizan Compact Poles.

Thanks for joining me,


How to Join Massdrop
Massdrop, as I mentioned, is sort of a "group buy" site.  They contact companies and basically say "hey, if we could guarantee X number of sales, would you give us a special discount price?"  If a company agrees, Massdrop then posts a "Drop" on their site.  Members of the public can then join the Drop and get the group discount.  Here's a link to join:

Just so you know, if enough people join (and actually buy something), I will receive a "gift box" (contents unknown) from Massdrop as a thank you for the referrals.  If you noticed, I didn't exactly worship the Fizan Compact poles (though I think they're a good deal for what they are for the price), so I don't think I'm unduly influenced by whatever might be in the gift box (which may or may not even be of interest to me).  However, if you did use that link, you could sort of consider it a way of saying "thank you" for my reviews.  If you want.  If you don't want to, no worries, and I still hope you get something out of my reviews.  Take care and hike on!

The trekking poles featured in this blog post were provided at no cost to me by Massdrop.  The poles were provided with the understanding that I would review the poles as I saw fit.  There were no preconditions to my review.  For my review, I receive no compensation other than I typically get to keep the item that I reviewed.  Further, I receive no remuneration of any kind from the sales of these poles with the possible exception that I might receive the aforementioned gift box (see preceding section) if enough people were to join using the above link and then make some form of purchase, those purchases not being limited to trekking poles.  Inasmuch as I don't know what might or might not be in said gift box, I'm not exactly holding my breath, but the gift box should be mentioned as it might be considered a form a compensation.  By the way, any of you reading this are just as eligible to receive such gift boxes if you join Massdrop and subsequently refer friends.  These gift boxes are a standard practice of Massdrop and are not some special compensation for those who write reviews. Lastly, I wish to assure you that any intimation that the gear presented on this page is a secret conspiracy between myself and Massdrop to fill every last blessed nook and cranny of storage in my place of residence is completely false, despite any protestations to the contrary by my lovely spouse.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Road to Hell is Paved with... Weather Balloons?

I just went to Hell and back again.  Well, kind of.  I went to Hell for Sure Canyon in the San Gorgonio Wilderness – which is about as wild and inaccessible of a place as you'll find in Southern California.
Hell For Sure Falls, Hell For Sure Canyon, San Gorgonio Wilderness, Southern California.
But let me back up a bit and explain what I'm doing.  You see, there's this balloon, a weather balloon.  A friend of a friend has a grandson, Adrian, who put together a weather balloon as a school project. The balloon went up and then came down into, you guessed it, some of the harshest and most inaccessible terrain in all of Southern California, the Hell For Sure Canyon area.  The balloon had a transponder.  The transponder sent out GPS coordinates as the balloon descended.  The signal was lost shortly before landing, but interpolating the direction of travel and speed of descent places the balloon's landing point at about 34.07031, -116.71899, i.e. in the drainages just east of Hell For Sure Canyon.  For further information on the balloon and searching, see "Notes for Potential Searchers" in the Appendix, below.

Access to the canyon is blocked near the mouth by a high waterfall, Hell For Sure Falls.  Maybe a technical climber could ascend the falls, but most can't, so a lengthy detour is required to access the drainages behind the falls.
The falls are the end of the line in terms of going up Hell For Canyon.
Photo credit:  Jim D.
Hell For Sure Canyon is part of the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  The San Gorgonio Wilderness was a favorite place of my dad's and my grandfather's before him.  I've been visiting since the 1960's and have spent a fair amount of time over the years there.  I like maps and have put together things like an Interactive Map of the San Gorgonio Wilderness (which was cited by the founder of Caltopo, Matt Jacobs, in his interview with Andrew Skurka as an example of what could be done with Caltopo.  Hey, why, I'm almost famous, lol.).  I'm also an off trail hiker, not intimidated by a lack of established routes.
Yours truly, on a recent trip in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.
Photo credit: Barbie
Anyway, I guess somebody figured I might have some insight, and word of the lost weather balloon made its way to me.  I decided to go and look for the danged thing.  Never strong in the brains department, I'm always up for a long-shot, harsh terrain challenge I suppose.

Now, the first challenge is to get back in there.  The mouth of Hell For Sure Canyon is about 18 miles round trip from the nearest place accessible by a vehicle.  One reaches the mouth of Hell For Sure Canyon by ascending the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River.  The river bed is rough and boulder strewn and can be pretty slow going.
The Middle Fork of the Whitewater River.
The low spot that the river more or less points to is Hell For Sure Canyon.
But I had a plan.  There was an old road from years ago that went into the Middle Fork.  I had traveled this road before and knew that it was more or less passable for a person on foot.  The road bypasses much of the boulder strewn wash.
Walking the old road to the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River
Photo credit:  Jim D.
The old road is waterless and exposed, but with proper planning (i.e. start early and bring lots of water) is very doable and would be a far better way to get up the Whitewater than simply walking the riverbed.

Naturally, I didn't want to do this alone.  But who on earth would be dumb enough, er, such a great friend, that they'd join me on a fool's errand like this?  I mean I knew from the get go that this was going to be a real suffer fest.  I immediately thought of my friend, Jim.  Great name.  How can you go wrong with a guy with such a great name. right?
My buddy Jim who graciously puts up with my off trail antics
So, the two of us set out.

Day One – The Journey In
Now, yes, this was once a road, but now it's hardly a superhighway into the interior.  And even though it cuts off part of the slog up the river bed, it's still a good bit of doing to get to the Hell For Sure drainage.  I figured it would take us the better part of a day to get to the mouth of Hell For Sure Canyon.  I then would have to figure out how to get up around the falls into the drainages behind – and conduct my search.  For this effort, I allocated three days:  One day to hike in, visit the falls (which are a worthy destination in their own right), and set up a base camp; one day to conduct a search; and then one day to hike back out.

Sometimes the desert is thought of as a more or less lifeless place, but it's not that at all.  While I definitely prefer cool pine forests, the desert has a beauty all its own for those willing to see.
Beavertail cactus in bloom
One sees things in the desert that one would otherwise miss, things worthwhile indeed.
Cholla cactus flowers

We arrived at the confluence of the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River and Hell For Sure Creek around 2:00 PM.  We then proceeded up the creek to visit the falls.
Rounding a bend in the canyon, one gets one's first view of Hell For Sure Falls.
Hell For Sure Falls is barely a trickle many times, but this year, we'd had a decent rain year, and the falls were flowing.
Hell For Sure Falls.
We stopped for a late lunch at the base of the falls.  I pulled out my MSR Windburner, which is the latest stove that I'm evaluating on my Adventures In Stoving blog.  Nice stove.  The Windburner is astoundingly windproof, which makes it the perfect stove for the desert.  On any desert trip I've ever been on, it's always been windy.
An MSR Windburner with a 1.8 L pot.
After lunch, we went back to the confluence and set up camp for our first night out.
Bivy camping in the desert.
Day Two – The Search
Now the fun really starts, ha ha.  We had to get in behind the falls – but how?  Our best reckoning, based on the track of the balloon, was that the most probable point of impact was in some drainages east of the main Hell For Sure drainage.  "Map scouting" in the weeks leading up to the trip had lead me to consider some ridges to the SE of the falls as possible bypass routes.  At least on paper, these ridges looked doable – but I knew they'd be tough.  The Whitewater River near the base of these ridges is at an elevation of about 4100' above sea level.  The top of the ridge is at just over 6500'.  That's a gain of some 2400', but, oh, that's not all.  There's no trail, there's a good bit of brush, and one gains 1500' in just a little over a mile in the first portion of the ascent.

Now, maps are a fine thing, but one never knows until one sees things first hand.  After a visual study of the terrain, we picked out a particular ridge, a ridge we dubbed "Stairmaster Ridge."
Two Snake Peak is the peak slightly left of center.
Stairmaster Ridge is just slightly right of center.
The gain is 1500' in just over a mile.
Stairmaster Ridge leads to the top of Peak 6511 which is part of Hell For Sure Ridge, the major ridge east of Hell For Sure Canyon.  In and around Peak 6511, we both just about stepped on rattlesnakes in two separate incidents.  I don't mind snakes when I can see them, but there were plenty of places where I could barely see my feet due to the brush.  Rattlesnakes sounding off unseen just underfoot makes me one nervous hiker!  Based on these incidents, we dubbed Peak 6511, "Two Snake Peak."

As it happens, our map scouting and visual assessment bore out:  The route was doable.  It was steep, it was brushy, but it was doable.  One simply had to bear with the steepness.  There were no sections so steep that the use of hands were required.

From Two Snake Peak, we dropped down to a saddle to the NW and from there descended towards a point I had identified as potentially having a commanding view of our search area.  The weather balloon had been equipped with a bright red and orange parachute.  Our hope was that we might be able to glimpse the brightly colored chute and thereby find the object of our search, the electronic payload that the balloon had originally carried aloft.
The author atop Surveyor's Point with its commanding view of the landscape.
Photo credit:  Jim D.
We made our way down the ridge down to our panoramic viewpoint, but there was a problem.  Even though it was a scant 2.5 miles from the river to our viewpoint, it had taken us until mid-afternoon to get there!  Given the difficulty of the terrain and brush, we knew we had to leave soon or we'd be caught out after dark on Stairmaster Ridge on the return.  A descent in the dark on a brushy, steep ridge would not be a good situation to find oneself in.  So, with what time we had, we split up and did what searching we could.
The ravines were so rugged that we couldn't always see into the bottom of them.
The terrain was so steep and precipitous that we could not see into the bottom of many of the ravines surrounding the point.  Interestingly, we did find one thing, a survey marker from the 1927 survey of the area.
Survey marker from 1927.
This marks the boundary of, among other things, the San Bernardino National Forest and the San Gorgonio Wilderness.
More specifically, this is an "Angle Point" on the section line for Township 1 South, Range 2 East, Section 24, San Bernardino Baseline and Meridian.
Late in the day, we beat a hasty retreat back up the ridges to Two Snake Peak and then down Stairmaster Ridge.  We got to our camp with about 10 minutes of fading twilight to spare.  That, in retrospect, probably wasn't the best decision, to continue to search as long as we did, but we really wanted to find that darned weather balloon.  Alas, it was not to be.

We cooked dinner in the dark and reflected on our day.
Firing up my MSR Windburner for a dinner in the dark.
We overstayed our time on the ridges east of Hell For Sure Canyon.
After Action Review
Despite not finding our objective, I don't consider our "mission" a failure.  Heck, any time spent in the backcountry is time well spent, but we did do several things:
  1. We established a very doable route for any future searchers.  Hopefully others will follow after our initial scouting foray.  However, see "Notes for Potential Searchers," below if you plan to look for the balloon yourself.
  2. We established a sense of the effort necessary.  It took us about 5 hours to go 2.5 miles from the Whitewater River, up over Two Snake Peak, and down into the search zone.
  3. We got to visit and get some good photos of Hell For Sure Falls in a good rain year.
  4. We got some great views of the Middle Fork Jumpoff, Kitching Peak, San Jacinto Peak, etc. and did some highly valuable scouting for future trips into the area.
A spectacular view of San Jacinto Peak and the surrounding territory can be had from Hell For Sure Ridge.
Had I to do it over again, I might have gotten an earlier start on day two, perhaps starting at first light.  For a future trip, I might try to find a camp site above the falls to serve as my base camp so that I might spend more time searching.

This trip, as do many trips, only whetted my appetite for more trips into this area.  The intriguing geological formation known as the Middle Fork Jump Off, essentially a giant cliff-like headwall at the top of the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River, certainly deserves a visit.
Middle Fork Jumpoff lies at the head of the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River.
The snow capped peak to the right of the Jumpoff is San Gorgonio Mountain.
To the right of San Gorgonio Mountain is Ten Thousand Foot Ridge.
The somewhat flat topped peak far to the left of the Jump Off is Snow Peak.
While I did not achieve my primary objective, that of finding the balloon, I did have a great adventure in the wild, trail-less backcountry of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, an area little touched by the hand of man even in this, the Twenty-First Century.  I also gained valuable intel on the region for future trips and plan to visit again soon.

NOTE:  This is hot, exposed country with rugged, brushy terrain.  Examine weather reports and plan carefully before setting out on a trip here.

I thank you for joining me on the Journey,


P.S.  If you're interested in joining the challenge of searching for the lost weather balloon, please see the "Notes for Potential Searchers" in the Appendix, below.
San Jacinto Peak and the desert from near the summit of Two Snake Mountain

Appendix – Notes for Potential Searchers

Up for a challenge?  By all means please join me in helping Adrian out.  Let's get the poor guy his instrumentation package back.  And it's not just that.  This is sort of a challenge.  Can you devise a search strategy and execute it in the rugged backcountry?     Let's see if we can't find that thing – and in the process have an excuse for challenge and adventure, not to mention one heck of a set of bragging rights for the person who finds it.

Here are some thoughts for potential searchers:


  1. Heat stroke.  Heat stroke is a very real possibility.  Pick a cool day.  If the predicted high in Whitewater, CA during your trip is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, think seriously about not going.
  2. Water.  Water is reliably available  – as long as your near the Whitewater River.  Once you're away from the river, water could be pretty scarce.  If you're near Hell For Sure Creek, it will probably have water most years although in some spots it may run underground.  If you're away from the river and the creek, in all likelihood, the only water you'll have is the water you carry. Water was available at the Stone House and Whitewater Preserve as of April 2017.  Note:  The water at the Stone House has high fluoride content and should not be frequently consumed.
  3. Parking.  Parking is available on Wildlands Conservancy land at either the Whitewater Preserve or the Mission Creek Preserve. The closest approach, one that lets you take advantage of the old road into the area, is to park at the Stone House.  The lot at the Stone House is well inside the locked gate of the preserve.  You need to contact the conservancy well ahead of time to get permission to park there.
    If getting permission seems like a drag, you can park outside the gate in the main Mission Creek Parking Lot, but that does add 1.6 miles each way to your trip.
    Parking is also available at the Whitewater Preserve.
  1. You could just follow my route into the search area.  It's a known and proven route.  It's also a real bun kicker, and it requires you to climb to 6500' when the balloon most likely landed around 5500'.  In other words, you're climbing 1000' unnecessarily.  I chose the route because I was being conservative.  The contour lines are never so close together that I was worried about impassible terrain.  An on site visual inspection also did not turn up anything that might have caused a problem.  In addition, I wanted to get to Surveyor's Point from which I hoped I might be able to simply search with binoculars.  No such luck.  The ravines are too deep and twisting to be effectively searched from the point.  While my route was a reasonable first scouting route, it is not optimal.
  2. From my vantage point on Surveyor's Point, I got a good look at the ridge that runs immediately to the west of Hell For Sure Falls.  It looked doable.  Whereas my first scouting route topped out at 6500', the route around the falls to the west tops out at a far more reasonable 5400'.  Now, I said "doable," not "easy".  It looks rough and rocky, and the rock is loose.  I found a canyoneer's trip report that said that a party went up the west ridge successfully, so it can be done.  The report mentioned that one of the party was injured when a rock shifted and cut his leg. so be careful if you use this route.  Despite the danger, I think this is the way to go.  My initial scouting route just takes too long and gains unnecessary elevation.  Please see the topo map, below.


The balloon itself is of a sort of semi-translucent whitish material but would be shredded.  The balloon was designed to burst when it reached a very high altitude, and then a parachute would lower the payload, an instrumentation package, back to earth.
The balloon.  From a video capture
The parachute is made of nylon and is red and orange.  It is approximately six feet (two meters) in diameter.
The parachute.  From a video capture.

The payload is an instrumentation package inside a protective box.  The box is yellow and measures approximately 10” x 14” x 4”.  Gray nylon straps and yellow riser cords attach the box to the parachute.
The instrumentation package of the weather balloon is yellow and measures approximately 10” x 14” x 4”.
For reference, here is a person standing with the instrumentation package in his hands.
A person holding the instrumentation package.  Shown for scale.

The balloon sent out a series of "pings" containing data like elevation above sea level and GPS coordinates.  Based on the data, we can calculate the speed of descent and direction of travel.  Based on the speed of descent and direction of travel, the most probable landing point of the balloon is lat/lon 34.07031, -116.71899.  However, of course, this is only an estimate.  It should be a pretty good estimate, but wind gusts, downdrafts, etc. could have altered the point of landing.  I would assume that the coordinates 34.07031, -116.71899 constitute the center of a search area and the immediate surroundings would be need to be searched extending outward from that center.
The end track of the balloon plotted on Google Earth.
The last ping is shown by the orange and red parachute icon.
The landing point is interpolated based on the spend of descent and direction.
Below is a hand drawn map based on my search of April 26 - 28, 2017.  This is NOT from a GPS unit, but it will definitely give you the sense of things.  My map is more about illustrating how things fit together and what the critical landmarks and junctures are than it is about GPS-like precision.  If you really want to take a close look at the map, it's probably best to open it in a separate window.

The most probable landing point of the balloon is plotted on the map using exact (but interpolated) lat/lon coordinates of 34.07031, -116.71899.

You could just use a GPS unit while you're out there, but if your batteries die or the unit malfunctions, you could be in trouble.   Personally, I'd bring paper maps and a compass to back up a GPS.  Up to you.

Here is a Google Earth screen capture with the last ping from the balloon shown along with my initial scouting route to Surveyors Point, sketched in with a red line.  The approximate location of Surveyors Point is indicated by the black "X".  Personally, I would use the ridge immediately west of Hell For Sure Falls were I to return to the area.  See above topo map for a sketch of this alternate route.
The last GPS position of the balloon is indicated by the red and orange parachute icon.
The landing point of the balloon is estimated based on the speed of descent and direction.
My initial scouting route is sketched in with red line.
Surveyors Point is shown with a black "X".
Good luck and happy searching.  Even if you don't find it, it's a heck of an adventure.