LaSportiva TX3 snap judgment

For reasons discussed below, the LaSportiva TX3 has been on my radar since it came out last year. I received a pair for Christmas, and since then have taken them down a handful of technical slot canyons and on some dayhikes. What follows are my first impressions concerning why they promise to be an excellent shoe for canyon backpacking.

Approach shoes have always had a lot going for them, as well as some serious limitations that for backpacking and longer distance hiking were often all but fatal.  The most egregious is the narrow toebox, which prior to the TX series was all but universal to the genre.  Skinny forefeet creating pressure does indeed make climbing shoes edge well and smear precisely, but I’ve often wondering if the chunkier, more hiking oriented approach shoes didn’t have enough weight and midsole structure that narrow toeboxes weren’t wasted effort.  In 2009 and 2010 I spent a lot of time in Montrails Car to Car, a shoe which shared the big rand and runner’s heal of the TX3, but on long days always killed my feet with inadequate forefoot room and harsh midsole.

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The TX3s have a significantly wider forefoot than any approach shoe I can recall.  Coupled with the burly rand and stout midsole, the feel of the shoe is unique, and in technical terrain confidence inspiring.  They’re stiff enough to heel-toe in slots with minimal foot crunch, the rubber is sticky, and the tread just deep enough to grip well in loose dirt (though I would expect it to do poorly in mud.  Based on initial outings, the shoe seems tough enough to have a useful service life.

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It is worth emphasizing that the TX3 is a stiff shoe.  For this reason I think I’ll like it as a backpacking shoe, when I have a heavy or heavyish pack on, and in technical slots where stiffness prevents foot abuse.  They seem less desirable as a dayhiking shoe, for the same reason.  I’m not sure how many Sportiva will sell to climbers, but for canyon hikers I am optimistic that the TX3 is the best thing to come along in quite some time.

Three trends from 2017 Winter OR

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Sasha photobombs Luke’s beer.

When I first attended OR last year I expected to hate it, as consumerism and massive groups of strangers are two thing with which I have little patience.  I didn’t, in fact I enjoyed it, and while the first day of the winter show today was less novel and captivating due to repetition and being a bit smaller, I still had a good time.  Part of this, both times, has been in my work companion Luke, whose knowledge and interest is as comprehensive as my own.  Which is a rare thing, in 4 out of 5 booths today we could have told the reps about their own products.  The other part is that outdoor gear and the outdoor industry is, warts included, something in which I believe quite a lot.

Most of my coverage is on the Seek Outside blog, with a few oddments below.

Trend 0.0: Broism/Lifestyle

OR is above all else about selling stuff to other people within the outdoor industry, which is a big tent.  Yeti continues to show the industry how to market. They had Hopper soft coolers on sale for $150 mid-afternoon on the first day, and had a very long line of takers. We saw them all that afternoon and evening.

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That said, the retailer part of OR will plainly need to change in the next decade or so as internet sales and the extra cost associated with a retail middle person continue to drive more companies to do more and more of their business online.  The general public is not allowed in OR, and some of the big guys keep most of their stuff behind closed doors, up on the second floor (literally), or on the other side of bouncers (literally).  Crowd control is one thing, but fighting against publicity seems in the end to be besides the point.  It’s still a rad experience for the true gear geek, and could easily continue to grow with minor alterations.

Trend 1: Skimo

Skimo and “fitness” skiing remains a big area of growth, with lots of interesting stuff.  I forgot to take photos of the Voile Objective BC, but it feels every bit as light, stiff, and high quality as initial hopes made it out to be.  Top pick for distance-oriented alpine backcountry.

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Dynafit’s best backcountry ski binding now comes in two different release ranges, a good step towards having light, practical bindings with dependable  (for your weight) release.

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Scarpa’s Alien continues to have the free-est walk mode of any boot, including Dynafit and Sportiva, but that comes at the expense of openings in the shell.  The Alien RS solves these issues, and looks good doing it, but seems a bit less flexible.  Still a very solid option.

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A/the big issue with the first generation of LaSportiva skimo boots was a lower buckle that flipped open while booting.  The new buckle looks to fix that nicely, and is user removeable!  Sportiva sells these separately, and I’m sorely tempted to retrofit my old Siderals.

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Dynafit ski wall showing the rocker and sidecut profile which has become common amongst backcountry skis, and the color palate of the hour.

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 Trend 2: Active Insulation

Polartec Alpha (and the like) has been around for a while now.  It’s fashionable and almost everyone is building with it.  Most of those efforts look like one of the two pieces which defined the category, either the Patagonia Nanoair (stretch face, more breathable) or the Rab Strata (tougher, more windproof face).

Rab seems to be leading the way in new directions, using Alpha Direct (no lining at all) in a number of jackets, including a sweater which is just plain Alpha Direct (below).  It looks and feels like an even looser, fluffier version of Polartec Hi Loft fleece, and should I assume perform similarly.  That is to say, warmer and more breathable for the weight than traditional fleece, and less durable.  Lifespan will be an interesting question, especially when frequently worn without a shell.  The new Vapour Rise Guide has zoned Alpha Direct (with the traditional tricot in other areas) under the trademark Pertex Equilibrium shell.

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Overall folks seem to be admitting, though not out loud, that the traditional puffy jackets with very impermeable face fabrics and liners leave quite a bit to be desired.  The lack of breathability makes them much less comfortable in many cases, and often functionally colder due to poor moisture management.  Hence the rise of active insulation and the  return (quietly) of fleece, like the his and hers 200ish (left) and 300ish weight jackets from Brooks Range shown above.  Down still holds all the cards when it comes to pure warm/weight, but skiers, people who get out in cold weather, and especially people who run cold should check out the various permutations of active insulation and improved fleece.

Trend 3: Old stuff is back

Back in the day I used a six liter Dromedary bag for everything.  Partly because I lived in the desert and needed to carry lots of water, and partly because I was paranoid and liked too much water and overly bomber gear.  Around 8 years ago the Dromedary material became a little less burly, and I was sad.  While my two Droms stayed mostly dormant while we lived in Montana, they’re still ready to go now that they’re back in the desert.

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The new Dromedary bags are every bit as heavy and beefy as the OG version.  There are many lighter options, but when I’m a full days hike from the nearest water source, this is what I want to trust.

While the fashion side of the retro impulse has always been present in the outdoor industry, these visuals and an attempt at the substance behind them seems very strong in 2017.  Companies like Topo Designs aren’t just using a throwback aesthetic to sell shit, though they are doing that, they’re trying to recapture a time when going outside didn’t require so much expensive gear, planning, and forethought.  It doesn’t today, and probably wasn’t nearly as simple (or comfy) 40 years ago, but I can’t fault companies like that for trying to move however ungracefully towards emphasizing the experience of doing stuff over the fatness of ones closet.

The correct questions

In the weeks before we were set to leave Montana mid October had settled into a stubborn, even egregious Indian Summer.  The kind with short, sharp, clear, and mild days that are good for doing just about anything, except packing.  The only time outside I got that day was walking from and to the office to get an espresso, and putting Little Bear in the backpack to stroll downtown and meet M after work.  Ben was in the alley, chatting with some guys after a mountain bike ride up by Canada.  He recognized us, as even in Whitefish guys with beers carrying toddlers around in backpacks isn’t that common.  Conditions that morning had been perfect, he said, except that the larches weren’t quite in full bloom.  Your son looks just like you, I said.  I know, he responded, isn’t it unfortunate.  Ben and his wife were the last of the many local couples we knew who had also had a baby in 2015, and there son had been the youngest, most tentative walker amongst the herd of toddlers at a birthday party the weekend before.  Ben had missed the party due to work, as an EMT.

Ben was full of it, as he well knew.  In addition to being an exceptional skier and endurance mountain biker, Ben was not in the least ugly, something enhanced by his optimistic and affable demeanor.  Over six years I ran into Ben plenty, at the ski hill, the ice cream shop, on the side of the trail most of the way up Gunsight Pass, but we only did trips together twice.  Both were skiing, on both occasions I was the weak link by far, and both times Ben displayed great patience with some one who really should not have been there.

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Ben, in green pants and the lead of a world class crew.

Ben died in an avalanche this past week, on Stanton Mountain in Glacier National Park.  His death, and especially the fact that he is survived by his wife and very young son, should make us ask questions, about the incident itself, about Ben’s choices that day, and about choices we’ve made in the past and will make in the future.  But out of respect for the dead and for the living, they should be the correct questions.

Don’t ask questions about whether he died doing what he loved.  It’s important to not live life paralyzed, by fear or doubt, but discussing how risk and reward balance out is an important discussion.  And this particular cliche is usually a proxy for stifling the conversation.

Don’t ask questions about whether he should have been there.  Ex post facto judgement for the purposes of learning is a good use of energy.  Doing it in the name of establishing moral superiority, even tacitly*, is the other side of the “Doing what he loved” coin, that is, a good excuse not think very hard about what happened.

It is appropriate to ask questions about risk assessment and backcountry skiing.  In three days I’ve failed to come up with another sport where the most favored conditions and the most hazardous overlap so thoroughly.  Backcountry skiing is not alone in that the more skilled participants are the most likely to die doing it, and in this respect Ben’s accident was statistically not an aberration.  It is difficult for me to not read the initial report and conclude that short of not going at all, no one could have done better.  Special variability and the quest for powder are, when combined with good skiing skills, a problematic combination.

Having done something in the past is no reason to keep doing it, especially as age slows reflexes, adds responsibilities, and generally makes the ground harder.  Keen observers of this video will have noted the moment (1:23) when I start to slip and only just save myself from a nasty fall by spinning and grabbing the webbing.  Not a ringing endorsement of my very rusty downclimbing skills, and I’m not content to just rest on my sling-snatching skills.  Slow and steady will be the order of the day, at a minimum, and maybe some of the higher consequence canyons will be off the table, for a while at least.

It’s important to not stay home for fear.  Ben would not have been the same person, same husband, or same father without the hazardous things he did.  At the same time it is foolish, and disrespectful, to not allow oneself to be properly sad and remember the dead daily, weekly and monthly.  Making the right choice, in the moment, has everything to do with asking yourself the correct questions.  Why am I here?  What do I want?  Why do I want that?  I often think about Rob, Erin and Casey, and now Ben when I ask myself these things, and I believe my answers are more reliable for doing so.

*Special shout out to Flathead Beacon columnist and hack Dave Skinner for doing this in a stunningly public and tactless fashion in the online comments of the article discussing Ben’s death.  I’ve been vexed by Skinner’s intellectual cheapness since 2010, and this is a nice confirmation that according to most available evidence he’ll rarely let an evenhanded treatment of facts get in the way of easy rhetoric.

2016; 10 photos

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The first thing I can remember about 2016 was not sleeping, at least not for more than 90 minutes at a stretch, in early January during Little Bear’s rather spectacular six month sleep regression, which coincidentally or not happened on a trip to Iowa.  That has been the first story of the year, the extent to which our life is no longer in our hands.  LB is maleable, and generally fairly simple (if not easy) to manage, but some times his development runs counter to what we might like.  And if I’m not sleeping well optional things like playing outside get cut.

The second thing I remember about 2016 was our Alpacka Double Duck, the trips we took in it, and especially our first big backpack/packraft outing with Little Bear in April.  It was the most intimidating trip I’d done in a number of years, and ended up being the most rewarding ever.  After spending the winter largely just trying to get by, those four days were evidence that we could do the things we wanted again, at least most of the time.

The rest of the year was an ongoing struggle between those two things.  Our backpack in August, for instance, which was hard and humbling, but which we managed anyway.  Or packing and then moving down to Colorado, which with a lot of very strategic family assistance we accomplished at the last minute, but with less stress and drama than I had anticipated.  It’s a theme which should continue this year, stronger than ever.  I now have what will probably be the best job I’ll ever have, one which both allows and requires me to spend lots of time away.  We’re in a position where I can easily ask M to be the full time parent, but that comes with the mind-altering nature of spending many hours alone with a toddler.  A very active toddler.  It’s a somewhat damning form of higher enlightenment to get what you want and realize that you’ll only want to partake of it partially.

But still, I can’t wait.

The skinnies

After spending a certain amount of time outside coherent rules emerge.  Erosion shapes the land in a defined manner, and one can generally predict what is going to happen downstream and downhill.

The slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau redefine, or perhaps enrich and ensubtle, the rules of the land and how they work.  Just because a canyon widens, for example, does not mean it will not pinch back down later on, perhaps drastically so.  The Middle Fork of Leprechaun, shown here, is not even a particularly severe example of this.  Drainages in similar rock, but with faster catchments and therefore steeper gradients, can repeatedly flare and contract drastically, creating scary downclimbs many times taller than those shown above right before even tighter tight sections, ones no human can fit through, requiring scary and technical upclimbs.  It’s a phenomenon which has to be seen to be understood, or even believed.

There is rarely any life in these slots, save bird droppings, a few insects, and the occasional dead mammal.  In slots I’ve had to climb past dead raccoons, porcupines, and deer.  In this very canyon, 13 years ago, a friend became the only person I’ve known to be stung by a scorpion, and in a neighboring drainage I had to shoulder shuffle through a 100 yard slant with hundreds of spiders 4 inches from my nose.

Because of this, they are very quiet places, even on a windy and cold day like yesterday.  There are plenty of Youtubes on Middle Lep, but the fast-forwards and music don’t really do the place credit.  It’s not as severe as some, but it is every bit as brutal as a GoPro makes it out to be.  And for that reason, it is an ideal gear, and fitness, testing arena.

A more complete treatise on ‘mid selection

This post from three years ago has proven to be one of my most popular, all time, and due to the volume of correspondence I receive on it and what I’ve learned since it is due for the an update.  What follows is the text of that post, amended and altered as needed.  There are still some gaps in my experience when it comes to this subject, but a number of most significant open questions or guesses I had back then have been answered definitively since.

img_2087Seek Outside BT-2 and Silvertip, pyramid/tipi hybrids which combine the easy pitch and functional footprint of the former with the weatherproofing of the later.  In the last two years these have become my favorite shelter, ever.

A pyramid shelter is the most versatile shelter for outdoor adventure. There are many reasons to not have a quiver of tarps and tents, and the best one is that having one shelter suitable for all conditions allows you to grab and go. A ‘mid fits this role well. Terminology should be here noted: shelter is used instead of tent for reasons beyond the mere lack of a floor. That a tent is fully enclosed inherently brings with it the expectation that you’ll be consistently insulated from the outside world. This expectation is only realistic in mild conditions, and the separation it promotes from the environment at hand defeats the purpose of multi-day backcountry adventure. As will be discussed below, there are select circumstances where some manner of protection from the ground and/or environment is desirable, however those circumstances are quite limited for most users. 90% of user objections to non-fully enclosed shelters are mental problems only, and those folks owe it themselves to get over them.  When additional protection is needed, there is a lot to be said for it being modular, and removable.  Using the same tool for summer bug pressure and late fall condensation issues, for example, doesn’t make much sense from a performance and weight/benefit perspective.

img_2067The Seek Outside Redcliff, a legit 4-6 person mid-pi I can stand up in, whose canopy alone weighs over 3 pounds.  Small kids are an instance when extra space, and the containment of a nest, can be close to necessities.

The first consideration in mid selection is size. Capacity is a good starting point here, but just as important is a pragmatic assessment of space per person desired and the 3D floorplan of the mid in question. The Black Diamond Megalight is a good example. The company claims a width of 86 inches and a height of 57. When pitched to the ground, the actual width is 104 inches and the actual height is 68 inches. Due to the slope of the walls, much of that 104 inches is not useable for human habitation, but it is useable for gear. In practice, there is sleeping room only for four in the Megalight. Three is a sustainable capacity for extended trips in varied weather, while two is very comfortable and allows for plentiful gear organization, cooking, and even a small wood stove. It’s overkill for one, but light enough to constitute reasonable luxury. Mid capacity requires critical thinking, as floor dimensions do not tell the whole story.

Size to occupant ratio is also highly relevant when planning how to manage condensation.  The particulars and myriad, but the short version of this question is that the more people are in a given volume of enclosed air, the more condensation there will be.  Two people in the Silvertip could, for example, have horrendous condensation while right next door two people in the Redcliff would not.

8YFdPio3S323s9tLUcQ3XrWHtNKwcuNniYtjwZJJIBvm5iYfh8cg1PovG3op7pMIboNiL0DCq3m1ztUwJ6ZOEPchGZPd2ljs5t9lINCVBNpbbY365OPp9yrTWdpEzwyH68-qW-Ss0i3jxwTEXx49MzUhOm8kTq1yFeRqAPaM256ophGkSAw6UVwtLe2zK84Pc0QZ8ngtFvm4pYcm-PDP7wfwNIieVw3wZEThe Sierra Designs High Route, a unique take on the two-pole mid, and a design which compromises weather resistance in order to maximize useable space for a given footprint, something which also facilitates good venting.  Andrew Skurka photo.

Mids can be usefully separated into three categories: unipolar rectangular mids (which include square mids), bi-polar rectangular mids, and tipis. Each has virtues and downsides, and these are the second criterion after capacity which should drive mid selection.

Unipolar rectangular mids are the classic version, and remain the most common and popular for good reason. There’s quite a bit of variation in size and height, which not only determines capacity but also performance. For example, imagine the Megalight with a lower center height. Lower angled walls would provide for better wind shedding, but reduce functional space as well as the ability of the mid to shed snow.  The MLD Trailstar is the extreme example of this. A higher peak height would steepen the walls, causing an increase in weight (due to extra fabric, and more relevantly a thicker and stronger center pole) and improved snow shedding.  Tall mids can suffer from poorer performance in bad weather due to extra surface area, though I think this is a minute factor which can be designed around. Smaller mids, the MLD Duomid and Solomids being the most well known example, attempt to win more functional space with minimal material and center height by being very rectangular. This does the job, but at the expense of creating unequal surface area on the sides. All things being equal, such mids do less well in wind when broad side.

IMG_3397The MLD Solomid (non-XL), which is an exceptionally strong shelter in strong wind, due mostly to its very low profile.  The cost for that is limited headroom.

Bipolar mids attempt to take this expansion of functional floor space further by using two poles rather than one. What this achieves, in shelters like the Golite Shangrila 2 above, is a useable mid-height approaching that of a unipolar mid while having a much smaller footprint. The extended, steep ridgeline of such shelters also tends to shed snow well, at the expense of considerably weakened wind resistance when broad side. Most of these mids are not simple rectangles. The Golite Shangrila 2 and Black Diamond Betalight are both hexagons, with the middle being wider than the ends, which provides more interior space and improves the slickness against the wind.  The Sierra Designs High Route has by contrast a rectangular footprint, which improves on useable interior space even further, at the expense of vertical sidewalls, which as this video shows are merely adequate in strong winds.  I’ve largely given up on these designs; when push comes to shove in truly strong winds, they seem to fall flat.  Symmetry is not just an aesthetic consideration.

Wind resistance is achieved by having small facets for wind to grab, and this being the case, the slickest shelter is the one which is most curved (a fact which helps explain the popularity of tunnel tents for arctic and montane expeditions). Tipis are mids which try to take this to an extreme by being conical.  This is an effective solution, but comes with the expense of weight (for a given space) and complexity. A round or oval floor plan is a bit less efficient than a square or rectangular one, but a more serious objection is the less intuitive pitch a round or oval footprint necessitates.  It is illustrative to contrast the Redcliff, above, with a six-person tipi, which provides comparable floor space.  The first time I pitched the Redcliff I had the “help” of Little Bear trying to stomp all over the canopy, and still got it dead on the first go, which took about 2.5 minutes.  The six-person footprint is not so intuitive, and on my first try took me about five times as long. However, there is no arguing with the strength of a round tipi, from all five directions, which helps explain their popularity with base campers, horse packers, fly in hunters, and other for whom setup time is within reason not a concern.  They’re also beautiful structures, which explains why they play so well on instagram.

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The Seek Outside Little Bug Out, 80% mid, 20% tipi, the subtleties of whose design I discussed here.

There is a class of hybrid mid-pis, who use five or six sides to gain increased wind resistance over standard square mids. The chief cost, as with tipis, is in the ease of pitching.  In the case of our (Seek Outside) mids, I’ve come to regard the extra cost of needing six (Silvertip) to eight (Cimarron, Redcliff) stakes as the functional minimum, rather than four, to be a worthy tradeoff for the increased weatherproofing.  While they still possess the inherent limitations of mids, they are otherwise perfect.  A solipsistic statement, perhaps, but I didn’t take the job just because, either.

The limitations of mids mostly have to do with condensation, which in turn mostly has to do with their inherently limited ability to vent well when it is needed most.  Using cordage to elevate the edge of a mid a few inches to a foot above the ground can help quite a bit, but in those occasions when condensation tends to be worst (cool, humid, still, rainy nights) doing this is not always practical.  Mids are a great quiver of one because they’re light, strong, and quick to pitch, but more severe weather (esp wind) is their forte.  Forest dwellers who see humidity and rain often, and exposed wind seldom, are the leading candidates for a shelter other than a mid.  The Tensegrity is a good example, it being the opposite of mid-shaped.  We’ve found it to vent and control condensation well, but no matter how tight the pitch be vulnerable to lots of movement and noise in moderate winds, especially when those winds come from the side.  Thankfully it’s generally easy to look at, for example, the Tensegrity and the Silvertip, and for a given trip pick which one will be best.

So go get yourself a good mid. Go use it. Have fun.

Seek Outside BT2 v. Silvertip

I do not think I could overstate how enjoyable, educational, and flattering the past month at my new job has been.  Enjoyable because the crew at Seek Outside operates with both integrity and joy in equal measure.  Educational because, whatever I may or may not know about using gear outside, there are many things about making and selling it I didn’t know I knew, and getting a new window into your lifelong passion is a rare thing.  And flattering because of the many personal contacts I’ve had.  Congratulatory ones written into orders, in person ones from friends stopping by, and surprise contact with readers over the phone.  In the past I’ve been thanked many times for my writing here, and even recognized in person by strangers (very occasionally), but the volume of the last four weeks is quite another thing.

It highlights the responsibility I now have, to everyone out there, my employers, my colleagues, my family, and myself.  There’s the irony that I’ve found a job at which I would cheerfully work 70 hours a week, just when we have a toddler in the house.  There will be the challenge, in the near future, to maintain the impossible separation between my official duties marketing and my public presence, here and elsewhere as an individual.  And most of all there will be the task of producing products as good as many seem to expect, and that I know we at Seek Outside can.  Just know that there is a long list of projects, and that nothing will go out into the world until it is ready.

img_2087My work day yesterday began in the dark, driving up into the canyons to do a training hike and get photos of how the BT2, which I have promoted aggressively here and elsewhere, and the revision of it which came out this fall, the Silvertip.  The BT2 was symmetrical, elegant, and utterly steady in wind and snow.  The interior was a bit on the short side for folks over 6 foot, especially on thick sleeping pads, so the Silvertip was revised to be longer, wider at the head and foot, and a little shorter (to better use fabric and make it possible to pitch with a single 145cm trekking pole).  The above photo shows the sum of these changes as best as I could capture, but it doesn’t show the substantial increase in interior space, which surprised even me the first time I got inside.  The BT2 has been my favorite shelter over the last two years, and the Silvertip should take over that role quite handily.

The heaviest iteration is shown above; with a stove jack and four extra guyouts added to the front and rear, and weighs a hair under 2 pounds.  The Silvertip comes stock with one on each side, in the center, and while I don’t expect the others to be necessary under almost any circumstances, thus far they’ve proven popular with the paranoid.  It is heavy for a two person shelter, but I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a more weatherproof shelter, of any persuasion, without going exponentially heavier.  The design is remarkably silent in moderate (~30 mph) winds, and with 12 ground level tieouts anchoring is generally not an issue.  It epitomizes the stuff I’m excited to be involved in making; light as thoughtfulness will allow, understated, totally dedicated to function, and promising a very long service life and high value.  Even after I crossed into getting free samples and pro deals on most things 275 bucks is still a lot of money.  In this case, I think most will find it cash well spent.