Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Seeing the Big Picture | Simplifying Route Navigation with the Garmin InReach Mini

If the YouTube search results are to be believed, David Goggins is a beast. And yet, on one of his recent adventures he made a classic tactical error: he got lost. It took him something like 12 hours and 28 miles to correct his error.

So while nearly all of David Goggins' feats are out of reach, this one I can totally identify with.

Goggins started his challenge with a device that displayed every waypoint he would encounter. He may simply have neglected to check his phone, which would have shown he made an obvious wrong turn. Or perhaps the phone was on the fritz and was giving him bogus GPS readings. Or maybe his phone got damaged, as it did with this luckless fastpacker:

After filming myself saying "I’m about to start my Long Trail FKT attempt. The time is 5:55am, I have until 11:20pm on Thursday 13th to make it to Canada", I put my phone down on the rock so I had a free hand to slap some mosquitoes. Seconds later I watched it slide down the rock and into the mud. My inreach pinged and I left. 100 yards into it, I went to check my phone and the screen was cracked and none responsive. It wasn't even 6am yet and I’d already run in to my first major problem.

Whatever the cause of Goggins' error was, it could almost certainly have been mitigated if he'd used a backup navigation device. In my case, that means loading the waypoints for my trip into both my phone and my Garmin InReach Mini. I primarily carry the InReach for its messaging capabilities, but its ability to direct you to a waypoint means that it can serve double duty. Add to the fact that its can receive in-field weather updates, and it's value as a device goes up even further.

One challenge I have when using my InReach for navigation is that it doesn't provide an overall map view. It will gladly route me to any waypoint it has recorded, including waypoints I may capture on the fly, but its silent as to where I am in terms of the big picture.

I thought about different ways to address this and came up with the following approach. Say I'm planning a West Virginia backpacking trip and I've got a bunch of waypoints:

Point Latitude Longitude
P1 38.713948 -79.633575
P2 38.704731 -79.62324
P3 38.700589 -79.602883
P4 38.697418 -79.582321
P5 38.699603 -79.581602
P6 38.69036 -79.566269
P7 38.705401 -79.55281
P8 38.71179 -79.54994
P9 38.751097 -79.517305
P10 38.732984 -79.600516

If I could plot those points on a simple grid, and printed out this grid, I'd have an overview which may be helpful for navigation purposes. This turned out to be easy to do in Google Sheets. I started off by converting the latitude and longitude values into UTM coordinates. I used the strategy outlined here to do this. Essentially, you grab this JavaScript library and wrap it up in an Sheets AppScript function.

Once I did this, I found my waypoints could be represented as UTM coordinates:

P1 17 618798.5526 4285919.941
P2 17 619712.5004 4284910.563
P3 17 621489.6755 4284477.713
P4 17 623283.2186 4284153.287
P5 17 623341.9928 4284396.73
P6 17 624691.4408 4283391.762
P7 17 625835.6589 4285079.309
P8 17 626073.9983 4285792.264
P9 17 628840.9109 4290199.752
P10 17 621640.5795 4288075.824

While these numbers look crazy, they're actually just meters East and North from an origin point. Using a bit of trivial math, it's possible to normalize these values into kilometers from the most South-East point.

Point East North
P1 0.000 2.528
P2 0.914 1.519
P3 2.691 1.086
P4 4.485 0.762
P5 4.543 1.005
P6 5.893 0.000
P7 7.037 1.688
P8 7.275 2.401
P9 10.042 6.808
P10 2.842 4.684

Using Google Sheets, I can plot these with an X/Y chart:

I could imagine printing out and laminating this chart to create an index-card sized overview of all the waypoints on a route. The plot is setup such that each grid space represents one kilometer, allowing me to easily estimate distances between points.

After going through the effort of creating this plot I realized I could also take the latitude, longitude and point names and import them into a Google 'My Map'. I could then print off a zoomed out view of the map and get something similar to my plot, only with map features visible:

Is the map view more valuable than my waypoint view? If so, then I all my UTM math was for not. Or maybe the two resources are most useful when combined. I could use the map view to help me understand the terrain, and the plot view to understand the distance between points.

Either way, I'm armed with an overview that simplifies navigating with the InReach Mini.

As for what happens if I simply neglect to check my navigational aids; that's a problem for another day. I may never conquer challenges on the scale of a David Goggins, but you best believe I'm going to learn from his missteps.

Here's are examples of the plot view, and map view.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Montreal Day 7 - An Ending and a Beginning

[Composed 8/19/2019]

Today was your typical last-day-of-a-trip. We spent the morning cleaning and packing, had a somewhat hurried lunch of Pizza and then made it to the airport to catch our flight to Boston. The airport experience was especially nice, as we cleared US Customs while still in Montreal. That meant that when we'd land in Boston we could forgo waiting in a massive Customs line there.

The timing of our trip turned out to be quite fortuitous. We landed in Boston and met my Sister and Brother-in-Law there. Only, they didn't swoop in and drive the kids home. Instead, the family was meeting up at Logan Airport to fly down to Florida and begin a new life in Tampa. We'd effectively ended up taking the kids during the last week my Sister and Brother-in-Law lived in Boston, and had spared the kids a week of packing up. C, T, G--you're welcome.

On top of this, my Mother-in-Law was also in town and at the airport. It was surreal catching up in the Jet Blue ticketing area and taking family pics. Our little adventure was coming to a close, but the kids were starting a brand new, much larger one. I was so excited for them.

Looking at my Brother and Sister-in-Law, with their 4 children and 2 cats in tow, I couldn't help but offer to leverage our TSA Precheck status to get the kids through security minus the long wait in line. We did this and as we were walking away my Sister-in-Law asked if we'd take one of the cats through security, too. As it was just carrying an extra duffle bag, we figured, why not.

When we hit the security checkpoint, Shira, who was holding the cat was asked her preference: take out the cat and scan the bag here, or go into a room and let the cat out in a more contained space. Uh, this suddenly became more than either of us had bargained for. She smartly opted to go into a private space. The cat was apparently let out of the carrier, the carrier scanned and the real challenge began: how to get the cat back in the carrier?

Neither Shira nor I are cat people, and I'm allergic to the critters. Fortunately, T quickly stepped up and gingerly coaxed the cat back into the carrier. Crisis averted; well done T!

After getting all souls through security and meeting up with the parents on the other side, it was finally time to say goodbye to the kids. Lots of hugs and selfies were shared. Then we had a quick airport meal with my Mother-in-Law and then it was our turn to get on a flight and head home.

Montreal was truly a fantastic destination. Growing up close to Canada I'd had my share of trips to Niagara Falls and Toronto. But Montreal was like stepping into another country altogether. French isn't just some shiny accessory, like say the monarchy is to the UK; it's their preferred language. I wanted to show the kids a new culture, and Montreal delivered. The fact that it was a stone's throw from Boston was a nice bonus. Especially considering the kids are now down in Florida, where a trip to Montreal is no longer around the corner.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The World Series. Up Close and Personal.

I don't know how our friend Grant did it, but he scored tickets to Game 3 of the World Series and invited us to join him. While I'm not much of a baseball fan, even I was jazzed to be attending this epic event.

We had standing room only tickets, but Shira and Grant had a plan. They knew of the perfect spot along first base where we could see all the action. In fact, this was their spot just last week at an NLCS game. We arrived early and hustled past the hoards of fans to find their perfect spot was occupied by TV cameras. Undeterred, we setup next to the cameras and found we had an amazing view:

Everything, minus the number of runs the Nationals scored, was awesome. The weather, the french fries, the camaraderie, much of the action on the field and of course the exhilarated fans. While there are plenty of interesting stats from the game, the one that stung the most were the 12 runners Left on Base. Every inning it seemed the Nats would get runners into scoring position and then leave them there. By the end of the game, you could just feel the energy lagging in the park. Curse you Nationals for getting our hopes up!

The Baby Shark craze was on full display at the ballpark, with costumes, signs and of course hand signals. Earlier in the day, the National Cathedral released a video of their organists playing the Baby Shark Theme Song; so yeah, our town couldn't be more Baby Shark obsessed.

A perfect metaphor for the night were the LED Wristbands that were found at every seat in the park. When we arrived, I noticed that the seats in front of us had a plastic bag containing a wristband. Because we didn't have seats, we weren't given one but we got there early enough so I could examine the one placed in the seat in front of me. At first I thought it might be a glorified NFC tag, but between examining the bracelet and doing some web searching, I realized it was an LED band.

From what I read on the web, we were in for a treat. The bands would be controlled remotely, and they should allow the packed house to be lit up in clever ways. One glowing wristband isn't much, but 43,000 of them would be awesome. I hoped I'd get to swipe one on the way out of the park so I could take it home and try hacking it.

Before the game started, a guy came around with a bucket full of wristbands and handed them out to us. Score!

This was going to be awesome: not only was I going to see my home team cruise to victory in a World Series game, but I was going to get a front row seat to a massive wearable tech extravaganza.

Alas, neither event happened. The Nationals couldn't continue their winning momentum, and my wristband while occasionally lit up, was a complete disappointment. Mine would come on, but those standing next to me wouldn't. Forget seeing sick LED patterns, the wristbands failed to do anything of real value. Not unlike the Nats offense.

I was probably one of the few people in the park that night thinking: man, whoever promised that these 40,000+ wristbands were going to work is in a heap of trouble. Thank heavens I'm not on that tech team.

The game was held on Shabbat, a night I don't typically drive. The game closed out at around midnight and I cajoled Shira into letting us walk the 5 miles home from the park. To her credit, even after spending 7+ hours standing at the game, she indulged me. We got home around 2:20am, and I have to say, it was a glorious walk. The weather was perfect, and we felt unexpectedly secure wandering DC and Arlington at night.

While not everything went our way that night, it was truly a joy to be there.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Review: Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River

Any good representative of an outdoor adventure sport, if given the opportunity, would sit you down and explain why *their* sport is the most dangerous, extreme and ultimately rewarding. In Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River Peter Heller makes the case that expedition kayaking is the pinnacle of adventure insanity. After hearing his description of the January 2002 attempt to kayak Tibet's Tsangpo river gorge, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Heller gives us a front row seat to the 2002 expedition, and what a nail-biter it is. His description of the river conditions and the razor thin margin of error each of the kayakers has to work with made me appreciate just how massive this challenge was. The slightest miscalculation was almost certainly a death sentence. In some respects, the endeavor is reminiscent of free solo climbing. However, with climbing the mountain is essentially a static variable. Not so with the arch nemesis of Heller's tale, the Tsangpo. Here the river is a fluid beast, not just complex, but constantly changing.

The remote nature of the Tsangpo ratchets up the difficulty level even further. Again, in free solo climbing one trains under safe conditions until every move is mastered. On the river, the kayakers had to read the river in near real time and execute without a safety net.

Along with the challenge of running an unrunnable river, Heller also gives the reader a fascinating insight into the challenges of conducting a large scale expedition into essentially uncharted territory. The task of supporting the kayakers and capturing their story was an exceptionally dangerous and exhausting affair on its own.

A typical adventure I follow often involves an individual or small group tackling relatively well documented terrain. That's not to say that adventures like these aren't packed with challenges to overcome. But Heller's 70+ person expedition, involving Sherpas and porters takes this to a new level. The crew had only one choice: move forward. If an impassible obstacle was encountered, like say a sheer cliff, the group had to work the problem and find a way forward. Heller's writing is so good that I found myself physically tense when he described climbing over one massive mountain pass.

Heller also brings to life the elegance and pitfalls of working with locals. The description of how one of the lead Sherpas effortlessly makes a pack-basket, cooking whisk and even ladder show just skilled and in tune the locals are with their environment. On the flip side, the local politicians and porters caused endless logistical headaches, at times bordering on mutiny.

In many respects, Heller gives us a view into what the classic era of exploration must have been like. When massive caravans trudged into the great unknown and explorers risked it all to fill in blank spaces on maps.

If you want to follow along with an epic undertaking whose outcome depends on the slimmest of margins, then Heller's book is for you.

Here's a number of YouTube videos about the expedition: Hell or Highwater! Kayaking the World's Largest Gorge in Tibet, A First Descent of Tibet's Yarlung TsangPo River "Kebe Jehre Lehre" - (2002), Yigong Tsangpo - First descent.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Montreal Day 6 - A Roller Coaster Day

[Composed 8/18/2019]

The kids were super jazzed about today: we were going to La Ronde, a Six Flags amusement park located in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Between the kids' various thrill-tolerances and sizes, it would take a bit of luck for us to get through the park with a minimum of frustration. Fortunately, Shira managed to thread the needle perfectly. We started with a group ride on the carousel and then made our way to the 'All Ages' area.

This let T face down, and overcome, a whole heap of ride anxiety. It also let G thrive in a section of the park where she could ride everything.

We closed out the For All area by tackling La Marche Du Mille Pattes, a coaster that was suitable for all three kids. T was worried, but Shira held her close and they did it together. At the end of our day, T would tackle this same ride, only this time with a huge smile on her face and arms raised triumphantly. Watching this transformation was a thing of beauty.

From La Marche, Shira and C tackled some adult coasters and I took the other kids on the train ride through the park. For my part, I did ride the Ferris Wheel, which turned out to be far more enjoyable than I expected it to be.

La Ronde was an ideally sized park. It was big enough to have rides for everyone, but not so large that you felt like you couldn't do everything in one day*. We also hit the park on a day when it wasn't crazy busy. We almost never waited in line, which was ideal. The park's policy that you can't bring in outside food seemed a bit heavy handed. It wasn't the end of the world that we had to leave the park to eat lunch, but it did seem unnecessary.

The vast majority of the rides and attractions were what I'd expect in any American amusement park. There was one exception to this: the bumper cars. When I've ridden the bumper cars in US parks, the format has been the same: you drive around in a circle trying to bump those in front of you. With little ability to control your car, it's not unusual to wind up wedged in some corner where you're stuck. La Ronde does it right! Each car has two levers: push both forward and you go forward, pull both back and you go backwards. Move one forward and one back and you turn. From there it's a delightful free for all. This was fun! I rode the bumper cars with T who counted: I bumped her 19 times, she bumped me 22. I was so close to winning!

After an exhausting day at the park we should have gone home. But I wanted to overdo it by trying to go out for dinner. We picked a Kosher Restaurant for dinner, but when we got there we realized that the cramped space and 40 minute wait weren't going to work for us. Across the street was Chops, a steakhouse and Asian-fusion place. The problem: I didn't think our rag tag group would do well at an extravagant, white-table cloth establishment. Still, Shira was insistent that I at least check it out. So I peaked my head in and my fears were confirmed: this would be the perfect place to take Shira on a date, but not the best place for a frazzled family of 5 who was looking for a quick meal. Fortunately, one of the staff members caught my eye and in an instant read the situation. He told me to grab the family and he had the perfect place for us.

He then proceeded to take us to a section of a party room off the main dining room. There was a large family gathering going on in the party room, but it was big enough that we weren't in the way. Shira ordered up a feast and we thoroughly enjoyed the meal and service. T was especially impressed that every time her water glass was empty someone quickly came over and refilled it. I can't recall going to a Kosher restaurant where the service and experience in general was so perfect.

As a last full day in Montreal, I couldn't have asked for anything more. Such a fun day!

You'll notice a few solo portraits of the kids below. I didn't take these. Instead, I handed my DSLR around to the kids while we waited in line and they took turns shooting fashion glamour shots. They did a great job as both photographers and models!

*Whoa: according to Wikipedia, La Ronde is 146 acres, while Dollywood is 150 acres. In my mind, Dollywood was much larger than La Rode, but I suppose that's not true.