10 Years of DC UL: Michael

DC UL Backpacking is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2019. As part of the celebration, we’ll be featuring conversations with group members throughout July and August.

Michael (U-Turn) led DC UL as organizer from 2012-2017, and now acts as an assistant organizer. He got his trail name from a series of wrong turns on his way to an outing. He’s organized or attended over 230 trips, so chances are good you’ve met him along the way.

You’ve been an organizer for DC UL — actually, the longest serving organizer. What first attracted you to the group? 

Early on — this would be 2009 — I joined all the DC-area backpacking groups on Meetup.  I’m not even sure that I knew DC UL was an ultralight group or what UL even meant. It’s possible that the group didn’t even have its current name when I joined.  My first outing was Evan’s rather infamous Cold Mountain / Mt. Pleasant Loop just after Snowpocalypse.  Having recently moved from Texas, I was determined to get out in the winter and not be intimidated by the cold.  It was quite the affair. We could have used snowshoes (about the only time in Virginia I think that’s the case).  The conditions on Wiggins Spring Road were so bad that we had a car or two off in the ditch — probably needed a snow mobile to get up that road. But I was instantly hooked. It was an adventure!  And there was a spirit of camaraderie that sold me right away. Also, I picked up somebody’s lightweight pack and I thought, “Ummm … I have to do this.” I’ve never looked back, either regarding the group or going light more generally.

MM Blog Photo 003
Photo credit: Karan G.

During your time as DC UL organizer, what are you most proud of?

Well, when I took over as organizer, DC UL was a very small group.  Just about 180 people on meetup.  After a difficult Columbus Day weekend trip that I led (as an AO) to the Allegheny Front Trail — where a person had a health condition that rendered her virtually unable to hike at all — I concluded that DC UL had to have a screening system.  So, when I took over as organizer, I set about creating the screening system that, basically, is in place now.

That screening system was the foundation for the group’s rapid growth over my tenure, as it did a couple of useful things.  It set expectations for members and it allowed organizers to say, “I’m doing a trip at this level and you have to meet these standards in advance.” This helped turn the group from a group where there’s really just a few people leading to a group where there are many active leaders. I’d say that the screening system turned DC UL into its modern form, as I feel strongly that the strength of the group resides in the number of active leaders.

MM Blog Photo 02
Michael M. and Christy S.

What do you like best about DC UL?

The spirit of adventure. Where’s the fun in a thing that goes exactly as planned? I’m actually happiest when things are slightly awry. It took me awhile to realize that about myself.  What could possibly go wrong, right?

What advice do you have for newcomers to DC UL?

Jump in. Sometimes, I think people look at our website and our trips — which can be intimidating — and they think they have to have their gear exactly right before they can show up.  Au contraire, grab the gear you have and go on whatever LM (low-mileage) trip is available. You’re going to see a lot of gear you’ve never heard of before. You can test things out, maybe borrow a few things after that first trip, and start the process of going light. I believe it took me two whole years to go from being ultra heavy to reaching a 10 lb. base weight.  I would hate to think that I could have missed those trips because of a number on a spreadsheet.

What are your hopes for the future of DC UL?

I hope that DC UL has 10 more years going in the direction it’s going now.  It’s fantastic that it’s an institution that does what it does, year in and year out, as people come and go in the DC area.

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