Born in a country where backpacking is almost unknown, Thomas Meissner didn’t strap on a genuine sleeping-bag-and-supply pack until he was in his 30s—but for the past 22 years, he has not only trotted the trails and set up camp in the wild—he has also lead groups of hikers and backpackers into his favorite haunts, and has recruited and trained countless others.
This is why none of his hiking protegés and companions were surprised when, in May, Thomas received the chapter’s Michener Outings Leadership Award for 2016.
Currently chair of the chapter’s backpacking section, Thomas was born and reared in Nürnberg, Germany. Most of Europe’s greener places are fairly close to civilization, and Thomas, like other Europeans who love the outdoors, did a lot of day hiking—throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. He also did a lot of class and lab work, earning his M.S. in physics from the University of Bonn and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Ruhr University (Bochum).
In 1992, he left behind family, friends, and home country, to work on a postdoc at the University of Washington, in Seattle. He did two more postdocs, at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia; and Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While in Washington state, he tried backpacking for the first time.
Thomas moved to the Bay Area in 1998, to work at Remote Sensing Systems, in Santa Rosa, where he works—in layman’s terms—“as a scientist measuring weather and climate data on the earth from satellite observations.” He sought out a guided backpacking trip and became acquainted with the Sierra Club and seasoned backpack leader Lloyd Sawchuk.
Lloyd, who won the Michener award in 2009, says, “Thomas was eager and determined” and wanted to know, in detail, “the history of the backpack section, the goals of the organization, and how leaders are trained.” To demonstrate his motivation and qualifications to become a trip leader himself, Thomas joined Lloyd on a private snow camping trip near Iron Mountain in the Sierra. Lloyd was impressed: “The weekend was very cold, windy, wet, and miserable—sleet, rain, fog, and inescapable discomfort. Thomas proved to be knowledgeable, focused, and eager to begin formal training as an assistant leader.” Thomas assisted Lloyd on a number of weekend backpack trips and snowshoe outings, and soon graduated to leading hikes and backpack treks himself, and to training other leaders.
In 2001, eager to introduce the uninitiated to the wonders of the wild, he began organizing an annual course for beginning backpackers. This spring, the 16th such course introduced beginners to backpacking equipment and how to use it, basic navigation skills, wilderness safety, water treatment, wilderness ethics, and low-impact camping. Roger Williams, chair of the chapter’s finance committee, calculates that at about 50 new backpackers per year, Thomas has helped make many hundreds of individuals more competent in the wilderness.
Short trips, long trips, California backpacking trips, European inn-to-inn trips—Thomas has led outings from Stinson Beach to the German Alps. He has led over 150 backpack trips into California’s High Sierra and coastal mountains. He has shared his knowledge and love of Bavaria—this year, from Rothenburg to the Danube; two years ago, along the Bavarian Forest Crest.
Leading trips is obviously a labor of love for Thomas, who enjoys planning his trips as well as amplifying the wilderness experience for others. He likes the connection on his treks—people connecting with one another and with nature. One has to be flexible, he says. About 12 years ago, on a backpacking trip in the Northern Sierra, the hard rain turned into snow, and the trip had to be terminated early. Sometimes creeks are too high to cross, and he has to alter the original route. Someone might get sick or injured—and have to be taken to a hospital by a horse or a helicopter. Thomas handles the responsibility calmly.
Teri Shore, who has co-led many trips with Thomas, says, “he is one of the few people whom I trust completely in the back country. He knows the mountains and can read the landscape and the weather as well as maps. I have never known Thomas to get lost or off trail.”
Though quiet and kind, Thomas is an exceptionally organized, no-nonsense leader, one for whom, says JP Torres, database coordinator for the backpacking section, “promptness is a virtue.” JP adds, “Anyone who has been on a trip with Thomas and heard his decisive ‘Five minutes!’ near the end of a snack break knows that if you aren’t paying attention, you will fall behind once everyone else has gotten up and started following Thomas down the trail.” JP has adopted Thomas’s “Five minutes!” call when he leads trips—much to the delight of participants who recognize Thomas’s voice in the exclamation. Thomas has also been known to pound on his metal cooking pot to make sure backpackers get up in time for an early start. “After a few friendly complaints,” Teri Shore says, “he gave up that type of wake-up call!”
Kath Giel has accompanied Thomas, often as his assistant leader, on many of his adventures. This spring, she assisted Thomas with “Hiking the Alps of Bavaria and Tyrol.” Tramping with him in the homeland he knows so well, she says, is a pleasurable and memorable experience. On all his trips, Kath says, “Thomas carries a large pack that contains all sorts of essentials. Did your hiking pole break? He has a knife with a tool. Did you lose something in the leaves? He has a headlamp. Did your batteries die? He has a spare. Do you wonder where you are? He has a map and GPS.”
Although most of Thomas’s backpacking trips take place in non-winter weather, he leads annual backcountry snowshoe trips to the Sierra Club’s Bradley hut, perched on the Sierra crest east of Lake Tahoe. He apparently is oblivious to the raucous snoring in the communal sleeping room.
Pressed to rank the best backpacking sites, Thomas offers Sequoia National Park as one of his favorite places. He has trekked all over the United States, in New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, Patagonia, and Canada. In 2012, he made it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. He revisits his native land once or twice a year.
The famous American trails? Thomas has hiked the John Muir trail straight through and has done large sections of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, usually with other, lucky companions. He is willing to “share the journey,” says Kath Giel.
What new place would he like to explore? The Peruvian Andes—and it’s on his calendar for 2017!
– By Karen Rosenbaum