Mile… Mile & A Half: An Interview With David and Kelly Finlay
The original Colorado home for Osprey is the town of Dolores, Colorado located about 11 miles north of our headquarters in Cortez. It’s a quiet town of about 900 people with what nightlife there is, centered on the local brewpub. As a result, most Dolores residents are connected to the “day” life which primarily involves outdoor activities. I’ve lived here for 13 years and feel blessed that I can mountain bike or ski out my door depending on season, walk my dog next to the river or journey less than an hour for epic and wild desert or mountain adventures. Last summer my neighbors, Dave and Kelly Finlay informed me they were journeying a bit further for their summer adventure—a thru-hike of the Muir Trail. Dave and Kelly are serious backpackers, having hiked the Colorado Trail 4 years prior, so they spent some time with me lining out their Osprey packs to maximize fit and performance for their California adventure.
Upon their return, I enjoyed an incredible slideshow of their journey on the Muir Trail. They also told me that they had hiked most of the trail with a film crew that was making a movie about the trail. As it happened, just about everyone they ended up hiking with was wearing Osprey packs. This certainly got my attention. Here was a film dominated by our product with no intentional product placement and here was a film about an iconic Sierra trail—the mountain range where Ospreys first started hitting the trail in 1974. Now a year later and following countless hours of editing, the film is nearing its completion and in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign. I recently sat down with Dave and Kelly to chat about their thoughts on the adventure and the film.
Gareth: What inspired you guys to hike the Muir Trail?
Kelly: In 2007, we thru-hiked the Colorado Trail and were hooked on the experience of seeing a place from a trail. We hadn’t talked too seriously about when or where our next adventure would take place, but in the summer of 2010, we were visiting several national parks in California and became intrigued about Muir—the man, and his namesake trail in Kings Canyon. Days later in Yosemite National Park I picked up a John Muir Trail guidebook at the store in Tuolomne Meadows. The guidebook became bedtime reading for both of us and a plan to complete the [Muir Trail] during of the summer of 2011 was hatched.
K: I took two packs to the trailhead at Whitney Portal, waiting until the last minute to decide between the heavy-duty Luna 75 or the lightweight Aura 50. The decision was tough, because I was trying to minimize weight as much as possible and actually weighed every item I put into my pack. The Luna weighed considerable more than the Aura, maybe 3-5 pounds more, but I knew it had treated me well in the past. The dilemma was between the lightweight Aura which trades luxury for weight, and the roomy Luna that fit like a glove and had endured the lengthy Colorado Trail but added unwanted weight. In the end I chose the tried and true Luna and I was not disappointed. Despite the extra weight, my pack weighed in at 34 pounds at Muir Trail Ranch with a full resupply and two liters of water.
Dave: I chose a Crescent 110. I like a large pack, even when I’m not carrying a great deal. The Crescent 110 is definitely big enough to handle any through-hiking load. I couldn’t even think of choosing a pack other than an Osprey. Osprey is a local company. I know most of the folks that work at Osprey. I play (ski, bike, hike, etc.) with several of them and know the level of care and thought that goes into the pack design. The good folks at Osprey are out there having real life adventures with the packs they sell.
Gareth: Tell me about how you happened on Ric, Jen and the rest of the film crew?
Dave: Actually, they happened on us the night before we started the [Muir Trail] from Tuolumne Meadows… rolling into camp well after dark. They had experienced a long day through snow and one of their crew had even become lost briefly. The next morning over hot drinks Kelly and I chatted with them briefly about their hike thus far. We didn’t quite understand what they were talking about when they said they were making a movie and wanted to take our picture.
Kelly: I remember standing in the vacant Tuolomne Meadows campground on July 13th (vacant because they couldn’t open it yet due to snow) hearing them talk about their ideas for an end product. They took our picture, and for the next three days we referred to them as “LA”. They earned the title “film crew” on day four… I think. We enjoyed each other’s company so much we didn’t really want to be apart after awhile, then I think they just adopted us.
Dave: I don’t. And to be honest, I guess I’ve never even thought of it in that way. Kelly and I didn’t decide to join the “Film Crew” because of their project, we genuinely liked to be with them. If anything, the filming process was an incredible learning experience for me. I did that hike in a completely different way than if Kelly and I hadn’t met up with our new friends. I started listening more intently because maybe there was something that could be recorded. I stopped and viewed my surroundings with a more artistic eye. I was much less concerned with mileage than the experience, which I’m not so sure is always the case on a through hike.
Kelly: I certainly don’t. Our joint venture with the “film crew” just kind of… happened. We leap-frogged each other for a couple days and had opportunities to chat about our homes, families, and feelings about the quantity of snow over the passes. Every time we ran into each other we traded more stories and laughs. Dave and I were always so happy to encounter Ric, Jen, Durand, and Jason because it meant anything we faced on the trail would be tempered with hilarious conversation and more eyes looking for the right path over a snowfield. At first, I had to detach myself from the uber-detailed spreadsheet I’d produced that listed camps, mileage, and meals. This was a good thing. When we officially decided to join forces at Squaw Lake, I put the spreadsheet away completely and we got to witness the artists in action… video and audio set-up, time-lapse photos, and interviews. Initially I thought we would just stay out of their way or help whenever they asked, but they told us we were next to be interviewed! It was an honor I had no idea how to prepare for, but was a fascinating learning experience for me as well. As the days passed, we rearranged resupply points and meals, skipped a 20-mile round trip hike for another resupply, scrounged leftover food from the barrels at Muir Trail Ranch, and with Jason’s assistance got our last resupply re-routed from the post office in Independence, CA to a pack-mule via a ground transportation service (after a quick shopping trip for fruit and cheese. Thanks George). When the cowboy rode up to us on the [Muir Trail] with his pack mule and answered “yes ma’am” to my question, “do you have a package for Finlay?” I was so thrilled by the unplanned course our journey had taken.
Gareth: How is it that the filmmakers came to choose Osprey packs for carrying their gear?
Dave: Sheer creative brilliance!
Kelly: What he said. And they said the packs fit perfectly and accommodated their gear beautifully.
Dave: Sorry, I just can’t compartmentalize such a tremendous experience like that.
Kelly: That is like asking a parent who their favorite child is!! Since you aren’t asking about children, I will attempt to answer. It really is hard to pick just one because every day was full of one incredible experience after another, but my moment with Kazuyo on top of Mount Whitney stands out. A little history… Dave and I ran into Kazuyo on day 2 at the top of snow-covered Donohue Pass. She was alone, spoke some English and was snacking while looking at her map. I asked her where she was headed, and in somewhat fragmented speech, she said “Mount Whitney”. Initially I wondered if she would make it there with the navigation through snow, turbulent river crossings and resupplies. I remembered seeing her anxiously asking a police officer back in Tuolomne Meadows if they had a phone she could use. At our first resupply point there were rumors that “The Japanese Girl” had lost her way in the snow and lost her credit card. She looked generally haggard when she finally rolled in. We didn’t see Kazuyo for days… weeks after that. I thought about her sometimes and felt she may have quit like many of the others. By a campfire in Vidette Meadow with four days left, I spotted Kazuyo approaching in the rain. We all waved and invited her to join us for the rest of the trip, so happy to see she was still on the trail. Our second to last day on the trail was the Mount Whitney summit. We left camp from Guitar Lake at 4 a.m. in the dark. The weather was great and I felt like a million bucks. At this point there were 12 of us in our group but we all managed to separate on our way up to the summit. I just kept moving… I didn’t want to stop. I reached the summit alone and was taking in the view when I saw Kazuyo approaching. She had an incredible smile on her face and an aura of true happiness which immediately made me misty eyed. When she reached me, I looked her in the eyes and said “Mount Whitney” and we hugged and cried. It was a beautiful moment a long time in the making.
Gareth: I’m impressed with this film because it conveys the spirit of a grand and wild adventure—but one that is accessible to most competent backpackers. You don’t have to be an extreme skier, big wall climber or big wave surfer to do this. Tell me about your anxieties going into the hike and where you felt the greatest sense of accomplishment.
Dave: My greatest anxiety was absolutely the huge snowpack. Sitting at Tuolumne Meadows, we heard story after story of [Pacific Crest Trail] hikers skipping the High Sierras altogether because they couldn’t make their mileage, or enduring sun up to sundown sort of day to make 10 or 12 miles. We also heard a great deal about hikers becoming lost due to the snow. So when the “Film Crew” rolled in that night before our first day, my anxiety was pinning.
Kelly: The river crossings created the most anxiety for me. They were visually intimidating, loud, deep, fast and notorious. Each crossing had something gnarly downstream, so taking a “swim” had to be avoided. People along the trail made sure we knew that less than a month before three people in Yosemite had died because they were swept over a waterfall. After crossing the South Fork of the Kings River there were no more hyped river crossings to fret about. Not surprisingly, I felt the greatest sense of accomplishment on top of Mount Whitney… maybe it had something to do with the two young fit guys I passed on the way up that called me a “bad ass”.
Gareth: You recently attended a screening event in Los Angeles. What’s it like to be in the spotlight? Any big star sightings? Or were they chasing you for autographs?
Kelly: I felt Jen was the “big star” of the screening in LA, her beautiful panoramic photographs were the highlight during happy hour. That was the last I saw of them because there were so many people crammed into that space in A16 I could hardly see the band or the screen. Opus Orange was also in the spotlight playing songs featured in the documentary. I could have listened to them all night. Since they only screened the trailer and a couple “behind the scenes” shorts, most people in the audience weren’t likely to recognize me, maybe Dave. I was just so happy to be there; it was one of those moments in your life where you pause just to take in the joy.
Gareth: Osprey is launching three new men and women’s backpack series for Spring 2013. Do-it-in-a-day adventures have become incredibly popular, but we really want to inspire folks to experience the outdoors overnight. I think this film will easily inspire folks to get outside with a backpack on, even if it is only for one night. What do you see Mile… Mile & A Half achieving?
Dave: I think you’ve nailed it with inspiration. That is certainly a main point of the film. I hope, and truly believe, that Mile… Mile & A Half will indeed inspire others to get out and experience for themselves at least a little bit of what they see in the film. There is power in natural places and experiencing them on their own terms. Even though our experience is captured on film, there was so much more to it. Things like silence, awe, companionship and struggle are all things that you’ll only experience for yourself. I hope someone will see this film and be inspired enough to go seek out those things for themselves.
Kelly: I’ve shown the most recent cut to a couple of my close friends at different times. Both of them, independently, reflected on backpacking trips they had taken periodically during the film depending on which image conjured up a memory. I had to pause the film repeatedly because they just went on and on. The film creates a flood of memories for people and viewers are left inspired. I can’t speak for the masses, but for me, every time I watch it, I’m a little sad at the end because it was such a wonderful experience I want to re-create it, but I can’t. I just have to wait for the next one, and somewhere in the future I’ll find myself right in the middle of it and be genuinely grateful.
Gareth: What will your next big adventure be?
Dave: There’s been talk of the [Continental Divide Trail] or trails in foreign countries, but much like how hiking the [Muir Trail] came together, I just think something will strike us. Anybody wanna go skiing?
Kelly: I think it will unfold like the Colorado Trail and the [Muir Trail] did. I’ve got between now and then to figure out how to avoid blisters the size of Texas on my heels. Thoughts?
Gareth Martins is the Director of Marketing at Osprey Packs.
PHOTOS: Dave and Kelly Finlay