Twothousandeleven

I finished the first part of the year in review video last night, so it is now time to start thinking about next year (like we haven’t all been assembling race calenders for a month already; I’m waiting on the Classic to set a date).

On Sunday night I slept restlessly, and as the alarm went off at 630, was in the middle of being chased by some very big and very hungry dinosaurs.  Seriously.

I started editing this last month, on the plane flight back from New York, and when the mood struck me finished May, June and July off yesterday.  I like some parts enough that I didn’t want to wait to let them out into the world, and now most of this footage, which has been overworked as of late, can be put to rest.

Any commentary would be welcome.

My current thoughts on shells

Monday, for moment, is gear day. Check the last few mondays for thoughts on base layers and footwear.

This article will be much shorter than either of the previous, because the subject is much simpler. You need shells to keep wind and precipitation out. Wear as little shell as you can get away with given the conditions, and pick one that fits and has useful features. That’s it.

Shells can be separated into windproof and waterproof shells. Both are misnomers, as no windshell is windproof, and no waterproof shell you’d actually want to wear moving through the wilderness is actually waterproof. A good example from either category will block most of the wind, or almost all the water in almost all conditions. I’ll address the former first.


Windshell tops

A good windproof shell jacket is probably the most versitile piece of outdoor clothing you can own.  Shown below (Danni Coffman photo) is me in my 5 year old Patagonia Houdini. 

The Houdini is a great example of what a good windshell can be.  Mine weighs 4 oz, has a hood, a full zip, and an inside pocket that closes with a velcro dot.  Nothing else.  It stuffs down to small apple size, and can thus be brought along on any adventure.  There have been but a handful of bike rides, any bike ride, in the last half decade where this thing hasn’t been on me on in my pack, frame bag, or jersey pocket.  It came to Egypt last winter, has logged many days skiing, etc, etc.  Originally I was concerned about the light fabric, but I’ve only put one hole in it this whole time.  Amazing.  (The original #3 zip did fail, but Patagonia repaired it for free, and at my request put in an all metal #5 instead.  My Houdini is unique, and in my opinion the best in the world.)

The Houdini is floppy, but also big enough to layer over a fat fleece.  A good tradeoff.

A hood is mandatory.  It can add tons of warmth for little weight and fuss.  The newest Houdini has a rear cinch cord on the hood for better fit and visibility.

A windshell like the Houdini is highly breathable.  I can chug uphill sweating like crazy and moisture will not collect and condense under it.  It dries blazingly fast.  For this reason windshells are vital in winter.  Waterproof fabrics are not appropriate in true winter conditions (ie when rain is not possible).  At single digits or below, moisture will condense inside a Gore-tex shell and freeze to the inside.  Worse than useless, they are dangerous.

The shortcoming is that the wind resistance of something like the Houdini can be overpowered by extreme wind and cold.  A Houdini copy, but with a bigger hood and thicker uncoated fabric (3-4 oz a yard or so) would be great for winter, but I don’t know of such a shell that is presently available.  I layer the Houdini with a light soft shell shirt, and throw the belay coat on when its really cold.  This works fine for skiing in the woods, but would come up short in the winter mountains.  I may have revised opinions next spring.

Windshell pants

Windshell pants have been one of my great gear discoveries this year.  Specifically, the Montane Featherlight pants.  The Pertex is a bit heavier than the Houdini fabric, they have ankle zips (easy to get on and off with shoes on), and velcro straps on the lower legs (keeps them out of your chainring, but gets undone in stream crossings).

I don’t find waterproof pants necessary.  The Featherlights keep wind off, dry super fast, and thus keep my legs warm.  For the moment, they’re all the shell pants I want.  Pictured below on the Thorofare traverse in May, which tested shell gear hard.

Waterproof shells

In short, a necessary evil.  While I haven’t tried Event, I’m skeptical that any waterproof fabric will be able to come close to keeping up with the sweat that is part and partial of serious aerobic output.  Goretex is ok, and pit zips sorta work, but if its raining and coldish and you’re trucking uphill, you will get wet.  Pick the lesser of two evils: waterproof shell on or off.  At least on the downhill you can throw the hardshell back on and not get wetter or colder.

I’ve been using an Arc’teryx Alpha SL pullover this year, and other than the fabric issue stated above its quite ideal.  The cut is roomy enough for layers but trim, the fabric is tough without being overbuilt, the hood is a work of art (cinches tight, over a helmet or a bare head or anything in between), and the front ‘roo pocket is perfectly positioned to sit above a hipbelt and provide convenient storage.  I like a waterproof anorak because it’s a bit more weathertight, has no full length zip to make it feel stiff under motion, and if I’m putting on a hardshell I plan to keep it on all the time.

Here in Montana a waterproof top is essential for any multiday trip, even if it never gets used.  I often bring both the Arc’teryx and the Houdini.  Back in Arizona, or somewhere like the Sierras with dry and predicatable weather, you can chance leaving the hardshell behind given a good forecast. 

Shells: try them out, try them on, buy some, love them, never leave home without them.

My thoughts on base layers for active adventure

I hesitated to write the footwear article I published last week, for reasons I’ve written about on several occasions, namely that I don’t want to feed the gear obsession that for many perniciously supplants actual experience.  Yet the response I got to that article, for quarters expected and not, has been positive and profuse.  So I going to do more in that idiom in the future, with an emphasis on broader overviews of important equipment issues that can be both important and complex.  I’ve been studying gear catalogues too closely since I was in third grade, and while the volume and type of my outdoor experience is not exceptional, I hope I can put forth some words in ways that folks will find illuminating.  Ergo this article. 

Base layers are, with the exception of foorwear, the most important piece of gear you’ll use outside.  Unlike footwear, the same base layers can be used year round across disciplines.  It’s a worthwhile endeavor to match your physiology and approach to outdoor adventures with your base layer choice.

Base layers exist to be a buffer between your skin and the environment.  They move sweat away from your skin (wicking) so that it can evaporate, keep the sun brush, and rough rock off you, and provide a modicum of warmth in the dry, the wet, and the states between.  An ineffective garmet will leave you damp and cold, and in the case of underwear or the interface between skin, fabric, and pack straps, allow chaffing to occur.  Good clothing and gear elsewhere can be rendered largely ineffective by a bad baselayer.

The normal debate here begins with material, namely ultrafine merino wool versus the various polyester weaves.  But first, it’s worth mentioning cotton.

Cotton is known as the death cloth in outdoor circles for its ability to retain lots of moisture and dry very slowly.  Under most conditions, this makes it totally inappropiate for any item of gear, save perhaps a bandana.  However, in serious heat, cotton can be put to good use.

And not just in Vegas.  The rather natty shirt pictured above was a Patagonia outlet purchase, and is made of a very tight, fine weave of 65% poly and 35% cotton.  It is a fantastic hot as hell base layer.  It keep the sun off (flip the collar up to protect the back of the neck, and wicks and dries just fast enough to cool without chilling.  I’ve worn it mountain biking and hiking in 90+ heat the last two summers and become a big fan.  Of course, in any conditions other than serious heat and full sun, it would become dead weight in the pack.

Most folks will wear a poly or merino base layer.  At present the stereotypes governing the two fabrics are well established and a matter of empirical and subjective consensus.  I’ll review them briefly.

Merino wool:
-Highly resistant to stink
-Softer
-Comfier/warmer when wet and damp
-Fragile
-Dries slower
-Absorbs slightly more water (the above BPL article puts it at ~20% more)

Polyesters:
-Moderately to horrendously stinky
-Lighter
-Tougher
-Dries faster, absorbs less water

I’ve yet to use or hear of a fabric that seriously breaks with any of the above.  My preferences for the last few years have been to use a wool shirt as a base layer in winter conditions, when I’ll be using a midlayer, and synthetic in three season conditions and for more active pursuits like mountain biking.

There is a bit more to the story here, and that is fabric weight.  I sweat more than most under any active circumstances, years of living in Arizona and Utah, I suppose.  I’m also a pretty warm person compared to most.  Thus I value fast wicking and drying highly.  Not only does this prejudice me towards synthetics, it leads me to only select thinner base layers, and fabric thickness plays a large role in water aborption and drying time.

Take Patagonias Capilene 2 (my favorite for the last 15 years) compared to its Wool 2.  Cap 2 fabric weighs 124 grams per square meter, while Wool 2 weighs 165 grams per square meter.  Cap 3, significantly warmer in my experience than Cap 2, is 167 grams per square meter, essentially identical to Wool 2.  One of the reasons Wool dries slower than synthetics, and why I’ve had a hard time embracing it, seems to be that the structural limitations of ultrafine merino make it difficult to make it into fabric light enough to be a truly year round base layer.  BPL has a line of merino clothing made of 115 grams per meter fabric, which seems promising.  I snagged one of the beanies they made, in a single production run, from this fabric last fall, and find it an extremely versitile hat.  Unfortunately this light merino is proportionally more fragile, enough that the product page carries a disclaimer, and that BPL is currently struggling to find a shop willing to work with the finicky fabric.

 This is Kevin Sawchuk heading up to Pentagon Pass almost exactly 365 days ago during the Parcour de Wild wilderness race.  We both wore light wool base layers (Patagonia Wool 2 for me, Ibex Woolies for him) under lighter synthetic midlayers (Patagonia for both, R1/2 hoody for me, R1 hoody for Kevin).  In the cold, wet conditions we found this system worked very well, keeping us warm even though we were damp most of the time.

In summary, pick your fabric weight carefully, and lean towards the lighter ones, especially for active uses.  Pay attention to weave as well; Cap 2 wicks and dries faster than Cap 1, even though the fabric is marginally heavier, due to the weave.  Open knits with a three dimensional structure are best.

Your base layer shirt will get worn a lot, and the lighter fabrics that get summer usage will often be the only thing on your torso.  They’ll get a lot of abuse, be it from pack straps, slot canyon walls, or mountain bike crashes.  It is in this department that merino comes up drastically short, and why I can’t see myself buying more of it.

This is me riding the then brand new Karate Monkey in Granite Basin during December of 2006.  I’m wearing a long sleeve Capilene 2 crew neck under my thrift store jersey.  I bought that crew neck in 2004.  It’s still in service today, and gets worn at least once a week.  I have two Wool 2 shirts that are 12 and 16 months old.  Both have a few small holes in them.

Beyond selecting a base layer fabric that suits your needs, getting one that fits is vital.  Fit in many respects determines function.  A good wicking layer can’t do its job if it flops away from your skin, and can’t be a comfy part of a clothing system if it forms creases and pressure points under a midlayer.  Keep the big picture in mind when making selections.

The most useful base layer is the long sleeve crew neck.  Rolled up sleeves are only mildly warmer than short sleeves, and with so many blood vessels close to the skin on the inside of the forearms, rolling down sleeves adds a surprising amount of warmth.  I’ve never found turtle neck comfortable, or zip necks especially useful, but others have different experiences.

Base layer undies are vital.   Spending 30 bucks on a pair of synthetic undies is not an exciting way to spend money, but will end up being among the best you’ll ever spend on outdoor gear.  Goodbye swamp ass.  I like boxer briefs for the balance of comfort, good wicking, and chaff prevention.

Long bottoms are useful as well.  I have a pair of Cap 2 long johns I hacked to below knee (knicker) length.  They provide complete coverage when paired with knee high socks, avoid bulky overlap under ski boot cuffs, and the additional thigh and knee coverage adds more warmth than you’d think.

Ariel, Isaac, M, me, and Phillip in the Robbers Roost during November of 2005, with a lot of old canyon anchors.  We camped out in the cold for a few weeks, did a ton of canyons, and celebrated T-day with a bitching dutch oven cook out, beer, and shooting cans with my .45.  A few days before this picture was taken Phillip and I descended an obscure fork of Upper Blue John.  M and I did an unknown, possible first descent of it a few days prior.  Phillip and I had intended to upclimb the publicized east fork into which our fork fed, but our attempt to pack toss and tent pole hook past a 25′ drop didn’t work, and we had to wade the 150 yard long, chest deep pool below.  In near freezing weather, with no sun, and no wetsuits.  I wore Cap 2 knickers and soft shell pants and was cold, but survived.  Phillip wore something similar, but the cold seemed to affect him more.  When we exited the long wade he immediately dropped his pants and shuffled back and forth giving his manhood a vigorous two-handed rewarming.  Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  We climbed a sandy 5th class ramp to escape the slot.  Lesson: know your physiology and buy clothing accordingly.

Last but not least, a good synthetic base layer headband is handy in winter.  It will keep your ears warm, disperse forehead sweat, and let heat vent out the top of your head without soaking a hat.  I made one last winter, with a double layer of Cap 1 and a single layer of Cap 2 in the back.  When the aforementioned thin wool hat would get too wet skinning uphill, but it was too cold to wear no hat at all, this little thing was amazingly useful.

In short, baselayers are important, and a matter of personal need and preference.  While there is no substitute for trial and error, and lot of money and bother can be avoided with a little research and introspection about how and where you’ll be wearing them.  I’m hopeful that a poly/wool blend (like Patagonia’s newest generation of Wool 2) will come into being soon, and will allow the anti-stink, warmth, and coziness of merion to be enjoyed in a ~120 grams per meter fabric that dries fast and is tough enough for real world, four season use.  In the meantime, I’ll keep using the boxes full of baselayers I’ve accumulated over the years, because so many of the quality synthetics just refuse to die.

Project Yellowstone: Concluded (and begun)

In June/July of 2009 M and I did a great trip in Yellowstone. We hiked around, had breakfast at the Old Faithful Inn (the only meal to eat there, dinner is not so good), grilled at a great campground, and went for a backpack. The park was green and blue and vivid and teaming with life.

Why not use the arbitrary project, I thought, of visiting the park at least once a month for 12 in a row to structure my experience? And that is what I did.

Artificial as the idea was, it got the job done. Some of the trips, like the first one in June/July, the Thorofare trip this month, the family visit at Christmas, our backpack into the Bechler area in September, and three days over Thanksgiving, were deliberate and lengthy. They easily left me with a rich memory of that part of the park and that part of the season. The October trip, where we meant to spend three days in the park, got cut short when our timing belt snapped in Butte. But I still saw those otters on the morning we did spend in the park, one of the coolest wildlife sightings of the year. Quite a few of the visits ended up being rushed, school was not kind to this project. But if I hadn’t committed to the project the October bison trip and the February ski tour wouldn’t have happened at all, and those were two of the most memorable.

Looking over the pictures, video clips, and recollections leaves me with feeling of satisfaction and futility. Both are tied up in the same realization: Yellowstone is a big place, much bigger than most realize. The parks high altitude, combined with the geologic-scale snow funnel that is the Upper Snake River valley, shut the park down for so much of the year. Cold and snow are fundamentally hostile to humans, and I spent much of the winter consolidating skills and confidence that leave me no excuse; next winter I must do a big trip into the heart of the park in the heart of winter.

On the whole I’m excited that Yellowstone exists. It’s unique in the lower 48, for reasons that have of late become well troden. It’s size, geological singularity, and since 1995 the full compliment of indigenous charismatic megavertabretes create a unique hold on the human mind. I’m not ready to commit to another Yellowstone project just yet. But if I do a trip will have to spend at least 48 hours away from the frontcountry to count.

Thorofare video report

This was one of the coolest trips I’ve ever done. Still trying to wrap my head around all that I saw and felt. Insofar as this was meant to be an effective coda for both the Yellowstone project and for graduate school, I can say that the mission has been accomplished.

Now, as Eric so helpfully said, I have to find a job. Too bad, as I’m psyched on spring and ready to spend my time biking, backpacking, skiing mountains, and packrafting fat rivers.

All-Pack, finalized

Back in April, I put together a pack almost from scratch, which was to be an all sport and all conditions multi-day and/or technical pack. It still represents my finest design and sewing work to date. Although the larger canvas makes execution a lot easier than with frame packs or clothing.
It’s been on two backpacking trips and a bunch of day training and testing stuff since, and the other week I pulled a few seams apart to make some tweaks.
The beavertail flaps top buckle got moved lower down, and the pocket itself shortened.
The extension collar got shortened.
The lower drawcord where the orange silnylon met the ballistics was done away with.
I removed the internal pad sleeve entirely.
I moved the load lifter attachment down almost two inches.
I took in the back panel seams above the shoulder harness, thus reducing the overall circumference of the top part of the packbag and biasing the weight closer to my shoulders.
All that said, things still just weren’t quite right.
Over the summer I became a devotee of placing a rolled up foam mat inside the pack, letting it unfurl, then stuffing all contents inside it like a burrito. It provides great structure and load control, and another layer of insulation against abrasion (useful in canyoneering and bushwacking). The pad I had been using was a rather stiff, generic bit of 48″ by 21.5″ by 5/8″ foam.
Yesterday I bought a short (48″ by 20″) Ridgerest, and the pack was transformed. The Ridgerest provides the exactly right balance of structure and flexibility. It allows better use of the compression straps, and does a much better job of hugging my back.

It’s very interesting comparing the above with the pictures from the earlier post. I can’t wait to take this thing ski touring. I’m actually hatching a January (pre Camp Lynda, ideally) trip that will fulfill my long time ambition to do the Narrows in the dead of winter, with some flair added.
I’ll get dropped off on Highway 14 a bit above 9000′, ski through the lovely aspens along the east side of Black Mountain, descend down west of Aspen Lake and enter Deep Creek right above O’Neill Gulch. Then take the skis and ski boots off, put the drysuit and neo socks on, and tromp down Deep Creek. Camp somewhere, and finish up down the Narrows, carrying skis to the Temple bus stop.
You’d need touring skis, boots, poles (for both sections), drysuit etc, and likely instep crampons. Should be a hoot.
In any case, I was sufficiently pleased with my design that I went down to the basement this morning and made it all permanent by seam sealing all the major seams and bar tacks. I like the liquidy, REI brand seam sealer for this job. Lends both durability and a bit of waterproofness.
The whole pack, including the removable snack pouch on the belt, weighs 20 oz. on the nose (without the 8.5 oz Ridgerest). Not bad for a pack made of 16 oz/yard fabric, with a double bottom and 3/4″ grommets for draining. I’m quite confident in it’s overkilledness. Its already been hung as a bearbag.
Hydration port, a mandatory feature. As efficient as using bottles and constantly refilling in streams is around here, I like hoses more.
One benefit of the beavertail pocket (pulled, as Eric noted many moons ago, from the Dana Designs packs) is that it makes packing a bike workable. Pull all the straps, put the seat tube in the bottom of the pocket, lay the pocket around the frame and cinch down all the straps. Driveside out, right pedal up and next to the pack, an extra strap holding the fork to the triangle so it’s immobile. Wheels off and strapped on after. I may be putting this feature to a more exhaustive test than I care to contemplate soon.
Gets me thinking about a lighter SS frame for easier carrying.